Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Since I first watched Spiderman (the one with Tobey Maguire), it has ranked at the top of my list of movies.  In particular, I fell head over heels when Peter Parker's Uncle spoke the line, "With great power comes great responsibility."

If there was ever a line which connected directly with part of my understanding of the Christian faith, this was it.  I was inspired, and I have written a series of sermons using that line to ram home the responsibility of Christians to not only speak about their faith but to act on it as well.

When I came to Cat Spring, I was introduced to the congregation's tradition on Halloween to have a hayride taking kids from house to house to trick-or-treat.  Of course, I dressed up:

For three years, this was my costume--until it started becoming a bit threadbare.  So, I changed costumes donning a rather frightening one for the two years we put together a haunted house and then dressing up as Thor last year:

This year, I had intended to dress up as Captain America.  I really liked the movie and loved "The Avengers."  But then I went to see that other superhero blockbuster of this summer: "The Dark Knight Rises."

After viewing, I called my wife, "I think Spiderman might just have been replaced as my favorite superhero movie.  And I also think this was better than The Avengers."

I was frankly blown away by several aspects of "The Dark Knight Rises."  There is the classic battle between good and evil, of course.  There is the political struggle of humanity showing the evils of decadence with disregard for the poor, and the mayhem and chaos of complete revolution (think the French Revolution).  There is a resurrection motif.  And, most importantly in my estimation, there is the push to be truthful.

My favorite scene (and I will probably not get all the quotes correct since the DVD isn't out yet and I'm working on a couple months of trying to recall it) is when Bruce Wayne is confronted by Alfred before Wayne/Batman tries to tackle Bane (the villain) for the first time.

Alfred tries to prevent Wayne from becoming the Dark Knight and instead allowing the police and other authorities to handle the problem.  The conversation is quite fantastic and in the midst of it, Alfred says, "Perhaps it is time we stop trying to cover up the truth and allow it to have its say."

Oh how wonderful a statement!  Oh what a timely statement in the midst of the milieu we live in this day!  I couldn't believe I was actually hearing such a thing coming out of Hollywood which has gone to great pains to de-emphasize truth and make it relative.  Finally, a movie suggesting that the truth should triumph!

But at a cost.

Alfred lays out what he expects his telling of the truth to cost him.  I expect you to hate me, Alfred essentially says.  I expect our relationship to be broken.  I expect this to be the end of my caring for the Wayne family.  "But if it saves your life, I consider it worth it."


Very powerful.

The truth can and does hurt, but eventually, it did and does lead to reconciliation.  "The Dark Knight Rises" powerfully portrays this, and once again, I fell head over heels for a movie.

And so, this Halloween:

The Dark Knight Rises once again!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

They Forgot Something

Just read this article on Yahoo! Finance which talks about the fact that there are many more folks in the U.S. who could have applied for unemployment benefits yet didn't for a variety of reasons.

The following quote was of note to me:
There are a variety of reasons why people might not claim their benefits, including anxiety over state investigations into how they lost their jobs or changes in the application process that pose hurdles, said Claire McKenna, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.
I have no doubt that Ms. McKenna's reasons are indeed a part of why some do not apply for unemployment benefits, but I think she misses out on a very, very important one: pride.  And I'm not talking about some sort of hubris in folks thinking they are too good to apply for unemployment benefits.  I'm talking about people who have been taught to work for what they receive.

I've come across more than a few of these folks in my current position as a pastor.  One of the privileges of my office is getting invited into the private lives of many individuals.  Most of my congregation members trust me with what they are going through in life--especially the hard times.  More than a hand-full of my congregation members in over 12 years of ordained ministry have fallen upon hard times for a short amount to a long amout of time.  In every circumstance, I have offered the church's assistance.  More than a few times, I have been turned down.  Flatly.

Everyone has appreciated the offer, don't get me wrong, but every person had a sense of pride about them. Every person wanted to work his/her way out of the situation.  They didn't want to take something for nothing. 

I understand their stance.

Growing up, I was taught the value of work.  I spent hours behind a cotton hoe and with a backpack sprayer running through fields of milo and cotton.  I learned to appreciate the paycheck I received for those hours.  I learned not to game the system and to work at whatever job came my way to make ends meet.  I've worked fast food (never want to do that again), with mentally retarded adults, and with kids during my seminary years.  And, I've been blessed to be paid now for ministering to God's people and preaching His Word.

But, along the way, I received help too.  I am still thankful for my home congregation (St. John Lutheran Church of Robstown) for picking up the cost of my seminary tuition.  I am thankful for those little gifts of kindness and monetary gifts to my family as we were getting established--they really, really helped us out.  I am thankful for those who stepped in and helped my wife and I when we adopted our children.  In every case, we received something without technically working for it.

There is a time and a place for accepting such gifts.  If there really and truly is a need there, take what is offered.  Do not let your pride be foolish pride.  However, such pride, in my estimation, is a great form of preventing abuse.  It's a great way of people having an internal morality which asks, "Do I really need this?"  I am heartened by this article's suggestion that many people have this sense of pride, and it gives me hope for the future.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Death and Life

It may surprise you to hear what I am going to say in a moment especially because of the nature of today. Today, for all practical purposes, is a day of celebration and commemoration. We celebrate the 85th anniversary of our congregation. It is no small feat to have been proclaiming God’s Word and reaching out into this community for that length of time. Marking such milestones is an occasion for joy. We also commemorate Reformation Sunday. This Sunday is set aside in the church year, specifically for Lutherans, so that we can remember the event that marked the beginning of the Reformation–it’s the day Martin Luther nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther intended his thesis to be items for debate in reforming the abuses of the Church of Rome. However, the debate turned into much, much more including the beginning of the denomination which would bear Luther’s name: the Lutheran Church. We are a part of that Church, and we commemorate this day to remember our identity and the foundational principles which led us to take a stand against abuses within the Church catholic. Yes, indeed it is a day for celebration and commemoration.

Yet, even in knowing this; even in knowing it is such a day, there is a part of me which is touched by sadness. There is a part of me which has some grief on this day.

"How could this be possible?" you might ask. "How can you feel grief on such a day of celebration and commemoration? Can that even be possible?"

My answer to you is, "Yes, it can." And if you will give me a few moments, I will try to explain.

Let’s begin with the Reformation. Yes, the Reformation and the events surrounding Martin Luther gave us our start as a denomination. It forged our identity, but it came at a great cost. It came with a death. Up until the Reformation, Christianity was relatively united. There were only two denominations: the Church of Rome which has become known today as the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church which had its leadership stationed in Constantinople. These two churches were the only ones, and even though they didn’t quite get along well, at least people didn’t get confused regarding what it meant to be a Christian. Folks could speak about the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church without seeing much of a division.
After the Reformation, this was not to be the case. Quite frankly, because of Luther, Christ’s Church was fragmented into thousands of little pieces. No longer do we have just two denominations, but we literally have thousands. Sure, there are several main ones, but we must face the truth: the Church is a broken body. And it continues to break. Even the Lutheran Church is not of one full accord: we have the ELCA, the Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Synod, the NALC, the LCMC, and several other smaller bodies just here in the U.S.A. Jesus prayed that all of His followers may be one, and on one level, we are certainly united in His name, but as a Church, we are broken. The Reformation started that, and it is partly and occasion to grieve this death.

And let me speak a little to this congregation’s history, if I may. Our congregation’s roots go much farther than 1927. In fact, our roots dig into what used to be the St. Nicolai congregation which was located where our current cemetery now sits. This congregation was affiliated with the Missouri Synod, and it worshiped and proclaimed God’s Word from 1878 until 1925 or so. In 1925, the pastor who was serving St. Nicolai said that he could no longer serve the congregation and needed to devote his full energies to his congregation in Sealy, therefore for two years the church struggled to find a pastor.

I quote Ora Dell Hartmann’s history of St. John compiled at it’s 40th anniversary celebration and retold by Sydell Swearingen in this printed copy, "For two years the men wrestled with the problem, and then an idea struck. Why not organize a new church and become affiliated with the First Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Texas? Perhaps then they could interest Rev. J.K. Poch in supplying service for them." Eventually, this is exactly what happened. In a very real way, the death of the St. Nicolai congregation resulted in the beginning of St. John. With death, one must grieve.

But this is all in the past, you might say. Why grieve over it? Why feel sadness? Well, because I think St. John has experienced a form of death over the past eight years that I have served it as well.

Now, that might sound very, very strange to many of you here this morning, but again, hear me out. When I first arrived here eight years ago, I entered into a congregation where everyone knew everyone else. You were a tight knit group who genuinely loved and cared for one another. On Sunday morning, you could count on certain people being there who you could talk to and be with. There was little to no mystery about who would be in church. But now, things have changed. Things are very different. We now have two services, and for some this seems like two congregations. We now have many more members, and if I were to ask you whether or not you knew everyone here today, you’d probably say, "No." In fact, I hear from time to time someone say, "Whenever I go to church, I don’t recognize half the people." Because we have grown; because we have added so many new folks, we are no longer that tight knit, everyone-knows-everyone congregation. That congregation no longer exists: in a way, it is dead, and with death there comes grief. So, yes, my brothers and sisters, even though today is a day of celebration and commemoration, I do have a touch of sadness. I do have a touch of grief because in all of the events we remember today, there has been death.

But Jesus tells us something very important today. He says, "If you continue in my Word, you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." And one of the greatest truths about Christianity is that death is not the end. With death comes resurrection. With death comes a new life and a new way of living.

Yes, in the Reformation, the united Church died and has become splintered, but as a result of the Reformation, you and I now have access to the Holy Word of God. We now have access to the Bible written and translated into our own language. No longer are we bound to have someone else tell us the story, we can read it for ourselves. No longer do we have to have someone mediate it for us, we can see the words plainly. I personally wouldn’t trade this for the world. Billions of people can now read the story of God’s great acts of the world for themselves, and this is no small matter. It is good and worth commemorating.

Yes, St. Nicolai died as a congregation, but it provided the foundation for St. John. The Nicolai congregation passed on to you its desire for generosity and being involved in the community. The mantle was passed onto you, and now you continue that streak of generousness as you involve yourself in helping those with large medical bills; those who cannot pay their monthly expenses; those who live in the Central African Republic; those who need housing; and those whose homes were damaged by fire. You continue to preach and teach God’s Word in this community and engage those who are seeking to find God in this area. Out of death came a new life that has been going strong for 85 years, and it is worth celebrating.

And, now, what new life are we experiencing as a congregation? Where will the next several years lead us? Sometimes, a congregation grows to a certain point and levels out. It fails to deal with the grief it experiences as one form of church dies and another begins. Sometimes, those congregations then begin to decline until they are once again the church where everyone knows everyone else. Other churches; however, realize this is actually a form of death as well. They realize a church cannot survive if it declines. Some congregations make decisions to move forward and continue to reach out. Last Sunday, as a congregation, I believe you made such a decision when you decided to press forward and hire a part time youth director–a person who would seek to help parents pass down their faith to their children. Rather than try to step back to that congregation where everyone knew everyone, you risked to continue to try and reach out–to continue to try and ask others to be a part of our mission and ministry here–to continue to spread God’s Word not only among yourselves but among those who still have not heard the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, there was death, but there is new life, abundant life, a different kind of life, but one which has the possibility of bringing hope and joy to many.

Within life, there is death, and death causes grief, yet today we are reminded about the truth–the truth of resurrection. This is not some hypothetical construct, but it is something we have experienced as a church and a congregation–through the Reformation, through our history as a congregation, and in our current mission as a congregation right here and right now. Therefore, let us celebrate that resurrection with joy and gladness. Amen.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Food for Thought

Came across this on a list serv I belong to with sermon illustrations:
I Hate To Leave This Church
A Methodist pastor once wrote about power and politics in his denomination. Methodist preachers, he notes, are under the care of a bishop. Bishops, in turn, are Methodist preachers who are elected by fellow Methodist preachers after an extensive campaign for the office in which the candidate tries not to be caught campaigning. As he observes, It is a long-standing Methodist tradition that bishops must not appear to have sought their office and, once elected, the new bishop must make a public declaration that "I didn't seek this office and I didn't want it but, once the Lord calls" ... Methodist preachers take all of this with a grain of salt, the same way Baptist congregations have learned to be somewhat skeptical when one of their preachers moves on to a better church claiming, "I hate to leave this church and I would rather stay here, but the Lord calls." Baptists note that the Lord rarely calls someone out of one church into another church unless that church has a higher salary. Methodists have likewise noted that there have been few preachers who, once they are elected bishop, turn the job down.

"Teacher, we want you to put us on your right and on your left. But keep it quiet. Don't make it too obvious. Others may become offended that we asked first." By telling us this story, Mark knows what you and I know: we are prone to the same desire for privilege and protected status. We want a Jesus who will give us what we want, a Lord who can shower a little power on us, a Savior who can make us better than we are.

William G. Carter, No Box Seats in the Kingdom, CSS Publishing.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

I'm Glad I'm not the Only One...

...who sees this technological revolution in communication as somewhat lacking.

I've blogged about it before, and I am quite aware of the irony of doing such.  Yet, it is nice to see confirmation of what I feel deep down in my gut being written about by someone who is reaching a much broader audience.

From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning:
In general there has been a substitution of mediated relationships--through mobile phones, social networking sites, virtual reality, chat rooms, Second Life and the like--instead of face-to-face encounters.  But it is only in face-to-face encounters that we engage in empathetic relationship, much of which has to do with personal presence, body language, facial gestures, touching and so on.  Second Life is not real life.  Virtual communities are not real communities.  You can substitute electronic objects like e-books for their physical counterparts, but you cannot substitute e-people for living, breathing, family and friends.  (Kindle location 3158)
Much is being said in the church about getting on board with the electronic revolution and being engaged with reaching people through social networking.  Bless those who work in this endeavor.  It is important for the church to have a presence in such matters.  We need to add our voice to this massive milieu that is out there.  Who knows, we might actually engage a few souls and the Spirit might work through such things electronically to bring people to faith.

Yet, I am still struck by statistics I heard just a few years ago: 90% of people join a congregation, not because of a web site, or an add in the paper, or an add in the telephone book, but because they were invited by a family member or friend to attend.  Real.  Personal.  Invitational.  Not virtual.

I personally still prefer such face to face meetings instead of texts, emails, phone calls, and notifications on Facebook--even though I participate in all these different things.  In fact, such personal encounters actually give me much more a sense of satisfaction and "warm fuzzies" than chatting with a friend over some sort of messenger system. 

Such systems do allow us to check in more regularly with friends and family we haven't seen for some time.  It's been a blessing to connect to many high school friends who I would have absolutely no contact with had it not been for Facebook; yet, such connections are very poor indeed compared to face to face meetings.

In my estimation, the church should focus much more attention on the latter.  Rabbi Sacks, thanks for the backup from another faith tradition.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bless You!

It was totally unscripted--a very spontaneous moment in worship.

I was reading the Gospel lesson from behind the pulpit, and as I approached the end of the text, I felt a sneeze coming on.  I tried to speed up a little so that I could finish the text before it hit, but it wasn't happening.  Just before I was about to start the last sentence of the text: ACHOOOOO!!!!

Without a moment of hesitation, 90% of those in attendance said, "Bless you!"

"Thank you!" I responded.  "That was pretty good."

More than a few chuckles happened, and I paused.  

"I'm sorry," I said.  "This event just reminded me of a story about an old timey comedienne.  I wish I could remember his name.  Red.... (It was Skelton, but my brain wasn't quite there.)  Oh well.  Anyway, the guy said he had a dream that he went to heaven and was standing before God.  God sneezed, and the comedienne said, 'I didn't know what to say.'"

[Insert 5 second pause.]

Raucous laughter!!!

Me: Thank you for knowing what to say.

With that, I finished the last sentence of the Gospel lesson.  Humor. Blessings.  Lightheartedness.  And in my estimation: holiness.

May God bless you.!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Making a Religious Statement

I read with interest this article on Fox News about some LSU officials who air brushed out crosses some students had painted on their bodies as they cheered for the Tiger's football team.

Now, in some respects, this might not be that big of a story.  The school spokesman said only one student complained.  The article, however, said the student group was upset.  Who to believe?  Eh, in this age of lying without consequences---who knows.

What I do know is the following statement, and it is toward it that I wish to turn my attention:

"We don't want to imply we are making any religious or political statements, so we air-brushed it out," the school said in a statement.

I wonder if they actually realize the hypocrisy of their statement?  For in air brushing out the crosses and altering the appearance of the students, they removed the students' expressions of their faith. 

I am reminded of Mary Poplin's lecture reprinted in A Place for Truth when she quoted Todd Lake's chapter in the book Finding God at Harvard:

I remember Mother Teresa's speech on the steps of Memorial Church at the Class Day exercise in 1982, where she talked of Jesus incessantly--I mean incessantly--and even quoted that verse, John 3:16 (already well known to most of us, thanks to signs in the end-zone bleachers).  But in a triumph of brilliant editing, Harvard Magazine's account managed to report almost the entire Mother Teresa speech without once hinting that she might have even mentioned Jesus.  We all sensed he could be trouble, and we wanted to make sure he never again became a live issue.

Do you see the relationship?  Do you see that editing out someone's religious beliefs is essentially making a religious statement?  Do you see how it demeans the character of that person and lessens that person's identity? 

The folks at LSU probably had the best of intentions. They didn't want to offend anyone, but their actions did exactly that!  They covered up individuals' free expression of their faith.  They tried to make their magazine look completely secular, and in doing so, they removed religion.  By removing religion, they made a religious statement.  I'm personally glad they got caught.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Why I Don't Tell You What to Do

"You can’t tell me what to do!"

I think that’ phrase is universal. I think at one point and time, every person that I know has probably uttered that phrase to someone who they deem is taking freedom away from them.

Tell your teenager they can’t go out at a particular time: You can’t tell me what to do!

Have the government pass an unpopular law: You can’t tell me what to do!

Tell a child who is not your own to follow the rules of a playground or to act in a certain manner: You can’t tell me what to do!

At some point and time, most of us feel exactly that way. Most of us do not like it when we feel like we are forced to do something. There is something within us that rebels against authority. We want to make our own decisions; pave our own way; make our own paths, and we really don’t want anyone else telling us what direction we have to take or what decision to make. We want to make that choice ourselves.

Unfortunately, this can get us into trouble. Big trouble. Back in the Garden of Eden, it led to the fall of humankind. Do you remember the story? Man and woman were created as the pinnacle of creation. God was most proud of the creature He had made in His likeness. God gave man and woman almost complete freedom–almost. There was one rule. There was one place where God exercised authority and placed a boundary, "You shall not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil for on the day you eat of it, you shall die." That was it. It should have been easy enough. There was plenty of other food; plenty of other fruit.
Man and woman could live forever eating all the other stuff, but there is something within us that rebels
against the rules. There is something within us that says, "You can’t tell me what to do."

And that something was given a nudge by the serpent. Warping God’s words just enough to suit its purpose and get man and woman to cross that boundary, the serpent said, "Don’t worry. If you eat of that fruit, you will not die. However, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing the difference between good and evil."

That little nudge; that little push, was just enough to do it. Woman ate. Man ate, and the rest is history. A covenant was broken. A boundary was crossed, and there are consequences to crossing boundaries. There are always consequences. In this circumstance, the consequence was paradise lost. The Garden of Eden was closed off. Humankind could no longer eat from the tree of life. They would die.

But there were even more consequences. God didn’t want to see His creation come to a total end. He loved what He created, so He began to work with humankind to help them out. He began to try and help them understand what it meant to get along with Him and with one another. He began to try to teach them exactly how to do this, and so began a love/hate relationship with the Almighty.

That might sound strange to say that, but if you read scripture, you will find it’s true. Humankind has generally had a love/hate relationship with God. Of course, God’s love has been consistent. He’s been angry enough to want to destroy the people of Israel from time to time, but He never did. He kept His end of the bargain. It’s us who has the problem. We love it when God provides for us. We love it when we receive His blessings. We love it when He rains down goodness upon us. But we’re not so happy when He asks us to follow the rules. We’re not so happy when He limits what we should and shouldn’t do. We’re not so happy when He indicates that we should keep certain feelings and actions in check because they are not helpful in loving Him and loving one another. At these times, we rebel and say, "You can’t tell me what to do!"

Well, first off, yes, He can. He’s God after all. And second, we can reject His instructions. We have the free will to do so, but we must be aware that there are consequences to our actions. In the Old Testament, those consequences were quite severe at times. For you see, in the Older Testament, God had a way of disciplining His people Himself. After fleeing Egypt, the Israelites oftentimes complained against God and rebelled against Him. One time, God had the earth open up and swallow thousands. Another time, God sent poisonous snakes to bite the people. Another time, He forced them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until a generation had passed away. Later, as the people entered the Promised Land, He would allow other tribes to conquer the Israelites if they worshiped other gods. When Israel became a kingdom and had a king, God allowed foreign armies to conquer them because the people had sinned. A predictable pattern arose time and again: the people would disobey God; God would punish; the people would repent, and then it would start all over again.

Now, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. God saw this endless cycle. God saw the futility of keeping it going throughout eternity–or at least until He returned to restore the world to its full goodness. Knowing that we as humankind could not change in what we did; God changed His tact. God acted differently, and it focused on Jesus.

We see in our Gospel lesson this morning one of those ways God began operating differently. We see that God wanted to teach us a different way of exercising authority and power and honor.

James and John approached Jesus and said, "Teacher, give us what we ask."

Some might claim that this is pure hubris on their parts–they have the audacity to ask Jesus for whatever they want. Perhaps there is a bit of hubris involved, but remember in the Gospel of John, Jesus clearly states to his disciples that they can ask for anything in His name, and it will be granted. James and John might very well know this, so they are being very, very bold.

They ask to sit one on Jesus’ right and the other on Jesus’ left when Jesus arrives in glory. Their request is a request for power and honor and status. Those who sat on the right and left of the ruling authority were thought to have the second and third most power in that kingdom. James and John wanted it, and they were bold to ask for it. Jesus tells them it is not within His power to grant this request. And then the conflict starts.

The rest of the disciples get angry at James and John for making this request. Of course, it’s motivated by their own desires for power. Each of them would like to sit at Jesus’ right and left. Each of them would like to be seen as having that power and prestige and honor.

But Jesus stops them in their tracks. In the Kingdom of God, status and power and honor come in a different fashion. In the Kingdom of God, authority comes not in sitting in certain seats, but in service to one another. Jesus puts it this way, " ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

Jesus is clear. Authority comes in service instead of through power. God is acting differently. Instead of pontificating and punishing when orders are not followed; God, in the flesh of Jesus, is serving and dying for humanity so that, when humanity sees God’s great love, they are motivated to follow Him in willing obedience instead of in threat of punishment.

This is why I don’t try to tell you what to do. As a pastor, it is my job to point the way to Jesus and how He calls us to be. It is my job to be an imitator of Him as poor of a job as I do at that. It is not my job to pontificate up here and tell you what you do and don’t have to do as a church or as people. Instead, it is my job to be a servant–to proclaim His Word and allow that Word to lead and guide you as individuals and as a congregation. In a few short moments, we will be having our congregational meeting on the budget and making a major decision regarding staffing in our congregation. You might wonder what I think you should do. I will be quiet. It’s not my job to tell you what to do. It is my job to say, "What do you think Jesus would have us do?" Let those words guide you. Amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Literalism

I ran across it again.

The condemnation of those who take the Bible literally.

It's getting quite old, you know.

For whatever reason, it seems like those who have a more "liberal" view of the interpretation of scripture love to bash those who have a more "conservative" view of the interpretation of scripture by referring to them as biblical literalists.

It's a bit hypocritical.

The fact of the matter is, no Christian takes the teachings of the Bible literally in a complete fashion.  If that were the case, no Christian would own property (Luke 14:33).  Many Christians would be walking around without feet, eyes, and hands (Mark 9:43-47).  Women would be coming to church with heads covered (1 Corinthians 11:5).  And a whole host of other such things which the majority of Christians simply do not do.

Yet, no Christian interprets the Bible on a completely figurative basis either.  Have you ever heard of a Christian who says, "I don't try to love my neighbor as I love myself because you aren't supposed to take the Bible literally."?  Jesus meant what He said here.  Further, when Jesus instructed His disciples that they should care for the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, and sick because they were taking care of Him, He meant that too.  Those who deride "conservatives" for their literal biblical interpretation latch onto this teaching of Jesus as if there is no wiggle room at all.  And, of course, I would be remiss in pointing out that it is quite absurd to condemn literalists with the literal interpretation of "judge not lest you be judged."  (Matthew 7:1)

It is quite obvious that there are many instances in scripture where a literal interpretation is not only justified but warranted.  And it it quite obvious there are many instances in scripture where a literal interpretation is quite asinine.  There are times when the Bible uses metaphor to make a point, and it forces us to engage our imaginations and our minds.  There are times when the Bible is straight forward and little to no interpretation is needed.

I personally get frustrated when people pull the "literalism" card whenever they are confronted with a text which makes them uncomfortable.  The Bible should make us uncomfortable at times.  If we were not made uncomfortable, we would think we are following Christ perfectly.  There would be no need for grace.  There would be no need for the cross.  The Bible reveals to us our sin, and instead of explaining it away with cries of literalism, perhaps we should take time to allow it to drive us to the Gospel.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On Pond Scum

This past weekend, I took my kids to the Houston Museum of Natural History.  It was kind of a spur of the moment trip, and it was quite fortuitous that we took the journey.  We actually had planned to go to the zoo, but the Houston Zoo was having Zoo Boo and was packed to the gills.  Not wanting to fight crowds and spar for parking, we drove to the museum, parked in the parking garage, and enjoyed a much more serene day.

It was also an educational one for the kids and their parents.  The museum was having an earth science's day.  They had stations set up throughout the museum to teach kids about geology, chemistry, electricity, energy, and paleontology.  It was at the paleontology exhibit where I had a moment which made me go "hmmm."

The museum was offering guided tours of its paleontology exhibit given by paleontologists, and it was great learning about dinosaurs and geologic time from actual dinosaur diggers and experts.  Some of the lessons learned will not be forgotten.  Especially the presentation on "deep time" and pond scum.

As the tour began, we received a lesson on deep time and the history of the formation of life on this planet.  In the blink of an eye, we traversed five billion years of history--from the beginnings of our solar system to modern day.  What was most intriguing was the development of life.

The paleontologist spoke of how the earth formed and how for a couple of billion years nothing living existed.  Then, he explained how the first living organism was bacteria which formed in the water.  Essentially it was pond scum, and pond scum was the only form of life that existed on this planet for nearly two billion years.  That might be a rather hard figure to comprehend, but it's important.  For the vast majority of time on this planet, the only thing living was pond scum. 

Then something happened.  Something quite amazing, in my estimation.  Life took off.  In a relatively short amount of time--700 million years, we went from pond scum to human beings.  It was hard for me to fathom the rapid evolution of animals and the extinction of the dinosaurs and other creatures to lead up to the present where humankind can thrive.  After two billion years of hardly any evolution at all, what precipitated the change?  How did life go from being almost static to changing so rapidly that animals with brains large enough to comprehend themselves and contemplate the future came to exist? 

In my estimation, it should not have happened so fast.  It should have taken much, much longer. 

But it didn't.


(Actually, I've got a pretty good idea, and it doesn't rely upon chance.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Opposite of Love is...

O.K., I've heard it and seen it posted too many times for my pleasure.   Now, I've just got to address it.

The opposite of love is not indifference or apathy.

It's not.  Not in the least.  I really don't care what Elie Wiesel says.  Here's his quote, by the way:

"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."
  (Oct. 1986)

It was Leo Buscaglia who said:

I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate — it's apathy. It's not giving a damn.

At least he got the definition of apathy correct. 

Indifference = apathy = not giving a damn = not caring.

Aha!  You might say, love is to care.  Love is indeed the opposite of apathy or indifference.

Hold on a minute.  To hate is to care as well just in a very different way.

For you see, love is a particular type of caring.  Love hopes for the best for another person or object or institution.  St. Paul articulates this clearly in the great love chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.

And the opposite of this kind of caring is not "not caring."  Far from it.  The opposite of this kind of caring (love) is to desire the worst possible outcome for another person, object, or institution.  Peope who hate hope for just sort of a thing.

I've got a lot of respect for Elie Wiesel, but he's wrong in trying to redefine the opposite of love as indifference.  Stick with your Thesaurus.  It's right.  The opposite of love, is hate.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Do You Really Think You Can Live by the Law?

Jesus loved the rich young man. He really did. We are told so blatantly, but there was still something lacking in the young guy. There was still something that was holding the guy back. By all appearances, the young man was honest, upright, and tried to live by the rules. He was living the life of a God-fearing Jew, keeping the commandments from an early age.

As I thought about this, I began wondering why he went up to Jesus to ask the Lord what he had to do to inherit eternal life. I mean, think about it. He was wealthy which by the standards of his day meant that everyone believed that God had blessed him. He obeyed the commandments; the religious laws of his day.
When Jesus responded to this young man that keeping the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother; was key, the man responded, "I’ve done all of this from my youth." By all accounts, this guy had it. He was following the rules. He was making his way. Yet, he still was wondering about his eternal salvation. Why is it that he didn’t think he was doing enough? What gave him the idea he was still lacking something? Why did he think there was still something more when by every standard of his day, he was on the fast track?

Something obviously was bugging him, and so he came to Jesus to find out what that something was. And Jesus loved the guy. It says so right there in the text. Jesus had no malice, no anger, no frustration or any other sort of negativity toward this rich, young man. But Jesus did have a challenge for him: a very tough challenge, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

This was not news the young man wanted to hear. He didn’t want to give up his wealth. He didn’t want to give up his comfort. He didn’t want to walk away from the things that had made him successful. He wanted to have eternal life, but he also wanted a good life here and now. And the comfort of the here and now beckoned much more strongly than eternal life. We are told, the young man was shocked and went away grieving because he had many possessions.

Jesus then launches into a teaching that astounds the disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
A couple of things must be expounded on here. First, why was this teaching so perplexing and astounding? Remember the context into which Jesus is speaking. Remember that in Jesus day, if you were wealthy, it was a sign that God had blessed you. If you were wealthy, most believed it was because God had shined His grace and light down upon you. Wealth was just a manifestation of how much faith you had and how much God loved you. This understanding is very much akin to those preachers around today who say, "If you believe in Jesus, you will have wealth, health, and abundance." Those who say, "If you just have enough faith, everything in your life will work smoothly because God wants you to be healthy, happy, and wealthy."
The disciples were astounded because Jesus’ teaching turns this particular theology upside down. It is contrary to what they have been taught. It’s the exact opposite of the popular theology of the day, and it’s rocking their world view.

Perhaps this teaching rocks our world view today as well, but for a different reason. This is the second thing which must be expounded upon. For this text is troubling for those of us who are rich. Notice I used the word "us" there. There is quite a debate in our nation regarding the definition of wealthy or rich. Politicians love to throw around numbers like $250,000 or a million dollars, but when we as Christians read these texts, we need to do so in a global context. And when we look at the global context, we see very clearly that if a person has a home, a car, food on the table every night, a cell phone, and a little bit of money in the bank, then that person is rich–very rich. If you take a trip into the poorer countries of the world, you will see that our poor here in the U.S. would be considered middle class to rich in third world countries. This is the reality. So, if any of us find ourselves with the luxuries I spoke of a few moments ago, then we must consider ourselves rich, and Jesus’ teaching isn’t flattering. In fact, it’s quite bothersome, for He says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.

Why? Why is it so hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God? Let’s keep this question in mind for the time being. Because as I continue to read through this text, I don’t think it’s just rich people who have a hard time entering the Kingdom of God. As I read Jesus’ next words, it sounds like anyone and everyone will have a hard time entering the Kingdom of God.

After all, the disciples asked, "Then who can be saved?"

Jesus’ response is very, very important, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

Why does Jesus say such a thing? Why does He stress that salvation is impossible for mortals? Why does He say salvation rests in the hands of God and God alone?

Because of what Jesus demanded of the rich, young man and of what Jesus demands from you and me. And what does Jesus demand?

One word: everything.

The rich young man was willing to offer Jesus his morality–his willingness to follow God’s commandments, but he wasn’t willing to offer his wealth to the poor or to dedicate his life to following Christ. Jesus wanted it all. And it was impossible for the rich young man to give it up. It was too much to ask.

We will find out later in the gospel stories that even though the disciples were willing to walk away from their jobs and their families, they were not able to give everything to Jesus. When they came to arrest Jesus to take Him before trial, the disciples ran. They scattered. They were not ready to give up their lives for their Lord. Jesus demanded everything, and it was impossible for the disciples to give it.

And were someone to give up all property, all wealth, all their time and devote it to loving God and serving the poor, there is the problem of devoting one’s entire mind and spirit toward God as well. There is the problem of sin to overcome. Jesus clearly instructs His followers in Matthew chapter 5 verse 48 to "Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect." Jesus demands perfection. Nothing less is required to attain eternal life. If you want to inherit eternal life, you must be perfect. The rich young man wasn’t perfect. Neither are we. And if you want to live by the law, you must be perfect. Do you really want to live by the law? If achieving eternal life is impossible for mortals, do you really want to live by the law in striving to attain salvation?

Or do you wish to live by grace? Do you want to fall before Jesus and admit your shortcomings? Do you want to fall before Jesus and say, "Lord, you demand everything, but I am unable to give it. I am not worthy to be counted among your disciples. I do not wish to give up my possessions. I cannot be perfect. I have tried and failed so many times. Is there hope for one as imperfect as me?"

And if you say so, please now hear Jesus respond, "For mortals, it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible. God forgives you. I forgive you. I died so that you might live. Enter into the Kingdom of God because of my grace and not because of anything that you did, but now, go, and strive to show that grace to others." Amen.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Funeral Sermon for Anita Wolchik

I remember very well the day I first met Anita. It was shortly after I arrived to begin serving as pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Cat Spring, and if I remember correctly, it was my first hospital call. I had received word that Earl had been taken in for emergency heart surgery at Memorial City Hospital. I rushed down there and found the waiting room with hardly a soul there. I asked around and found that Anita and those with her had gone to get something to eat. I sat down and waited. After a little while, Anita came walking in with her entourage. She saw me, and with a look of great surprise and thankfulness, broke into a giant smile. She was very happy to see her pastor there to sit with her as Earl went through this surprising surgery. I sat there with her until the doctor came out and told us Earl was fine. I said a prayer with everyone and left.

A few days later, I was back at the hospital to see Earl and check on his status. He was still in ICU, but he wasn’t alone. Anita was in the room with him. Earl was determined to get out of bed that day and at least stand on his own two feet. As he stood, Anita held onto him; steadied him; and made sure he didn’t fall. She then helped him take a couple of small steps putting one foot in front of the other. Those two were a sight to see at that moment as they looked at each other in the midst of Earl’s illness. You could tell the love and compassion they had for one another. I knew they weren’t married at the time, but it wasn’t long until they decided to tie the knot.

I was privileged to conduct that ceremony. Earl and Anita were decidedly low thrills when it came to their wedding. There wasn’t a big to-do. There was no huge decorating of the church. There wasn’t a giant wedding party. There were only a few folks who witnessed the wedding that day. Heck, there wasn’t even a rehearsal. That’s an important detail in light of the following little story.

Right before the ceremony, I was talking with Earl and Anita and walking them through the ceremony and what would take place. Suddenly, Anita, in a somewhat concerned voice asked, "Pastor, how do I walk up the aisle?"

I put my arm around her, smiled and said, "Generally, you put one foot in front of the other."

That brought the house down! Everyone cracked up as we headed down to the sanctuary to conduct the ceremony. Anita walked down the aisle just as I had instructed her. She put one foot in front of the other, and she was beaming. She knew what was going to happen at the end of the aisle. She knew she would be marrying a man who dearly loved her, and she him. They were like two teenagers at that moment. I think if you would have tried to put any obstacle in Anita’s path that day, she would have busted through it. There was happiness. There was joy. There was hope waiting at the end of the aisle that morning in the church, and she walked toward it, one foot in front of the other.

And that hope did not disappoint. I’ve done a lot of weddings. I’ve done a few weddings for folks who have a bit of wear and tear on their tires, but let me say, there has rarely been a wedding that I have done where two people were as giddy as Earl and Anita. You would have sworn the two of them were teenagers the way they were acting in front of everyone who was there. The joy that the two of them had was amazing. They were genuinely happy to be together, and they had some wonderful times together.

Those times ranged from traveling across the U.S. even going snow mobile riding on one such venture to simply sitting at the back of their house watching cattle, deer, and the world go by. And, of course, Earl and Anita danced. They loved dancing. Anita even learned as much as possible how to square dance because they enjoyed this sport so much. Sometimes, they’d go to three dances on a weekend, and they’d almost float across the floor putting one foot in front of the other.

There were some very, very happy years together. But these years were not without some trial and tribulation. Anita wrestled with some major health problems. She had a defective heart valve which gave her fits. She had a pacemaker which helped with the issue, but there were many times when her medications needed to be adjusted to help her feel better. More than a few times when she was walking out of church, I’d ask her, "Are you feeling any better?" Sometimes, she’d happily say yes, but there were more than a few times when she’d just shake her head. But she’d keep going, one foot in front of the other. There were still many happy times to be had with Earl. There was still hope that things would get better.

But July a year ago, things didn’t get better. In fact, they got really, really bad for Anita. Part of an infection on that defective heart valve broke off and lodged in her brain. She suffered a major stroke that literally damaged ½ of her brain. The only thing that kept her alive was her pacemaker. She was rushed to the medical center downtown where even more trials and tribulations awaited her. First a battle broke out amongst doctors: one who wanted to let her brain recover from the trauma and one who wanted to fix her heart valve immediately. During this time Anita started to recover, but she was unable to talk and communicate. She could perhaps utter a word, maybe two, but she could not form sentences, and you could tell she was frustrated.

After a couple of weeks, the doctors finally performed surgery to clean the infection off her heart valve, but sadly, because of insurance, they had to move her–too quickly in my estimation–to a rehab hospital. That was not a good experience. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the day Anita, for one reason or another, tried to get out of bed and fell. It wasn’t pleasant what happened to her. More trials and tribulations.

St. Paul addresses us about such trials and tribulations in the book of Romans when he tells us "that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." Suffering eventually leads to hope, and if you watched Anita fight through this process, you would believe that she must have had some sort of hope she was hanging onto. There had to be something driving her. She never gave up. She kept struggling, fighting to get better–putting one foot in front of the other.

It was quite a roller coaster ride in the end. Eventually, Anita was able to go home to be with Earl, but only for a time. She became weak again and hospitalized again. Congestive heart failure caught up with her, and she had to be admitted into the nursing home again. Unfortunately, she never regained her strength. She was not able to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Too much illness. Too much strain. Too much fatigue caught up to her, and her body gave out this past Monday. Anita experienced the one thing we will all experience at one point or another: death.

And it would be a sad sort of affairs if that were the end of the journey. After putting one foot in front of the other for so long, it would be the most depressing reality of all if it were simply over. But just as Anita put one foot in front of the other walking down this church aisle toward the joy and hope of being married to Earl, our journeys lead to a similar place. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. What is the hope?

Just this: Jesus offers the ultimate promise to His followers in the gospel of John chapter 14. "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going." Yes, Jesus we know the place you are going: you are going to heaven. To be with your Father, and you promised to take us to be with you.

This is where Anita’s journey took her, and now she is experiencing a tremendous hope. A hope without end. A hope that does not disappoint. And, now as we grieve, we must be reminded that we do not grieve in vain, but we grieve in hope. For one day we will be reunited with Anita and all who have gone before as we too are welcomed into that home Jesus has prepared for us. And so we face this world, it’s trials and tribulations; it’s suffering and pain just as Anita did. We know we are in a journey toward God, and we press on one foot in front of the other. Amen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Liberation Theology: A Critique

I've published a short treatise in the Amazon Kindle Store: Liberation Theology: A Critique.

Here's an excerpt:

Much of traditional theology is individual focused. It is concerned with an individual’s relationship with the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It focuses on strengthening this relationship so that a person’s life is transformed and he or she becomes more Christ-like. Most Christian theology recognizes the inability of a Christian to become fully perfect before death, but it also recognizes the responsibility to strive for perfection and to live out the teachings of Jesus.

Sometimes, traditional theology neglects to deal with the sinfulness of the structures in which we live.
Corporate responsibility is shoved to the back-burner and dealt with in secondary fashion if at all.

Liberation theology offers a very strong corrective to this as it tends to focus more on corporate responsibility and corporate sin. It challenges the ways and means in which we order ourselves as human beings. It points out the sinfulness and injustice created by economic systems and governments. It challenges the Church to speak and act in a manner consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the prophets to confront the sin perpetrated by governments and economic systems in the world.

Liberation theology has offered some important challenges to traditional theology, and in all three cases outlined above, it has offered some positive contributions to Christianity. Yet, the movement is not above reproach. There are some very real concerns I have with liberation theology, and since I have not come across too many meaningful critiques, I offer the following.
Chapter 1: The Danger of Starting with Human Experience

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Turning On a Dime

Yesterday, I received word that one of my members was not expected to live through the day.  The family asked if I could get down to the hospital in Bellville to be with them for a while.  I told them I would get down there after a morning appointment I had scheduled.

I had seen this member the previous day in the nursing home, and she wasn't doing well.  For those who read this blog regularly, this was the woman who suffered the massive stroke in July 2011.  I've blogged about many of the miraculous things that had happened in her recovery, but now, she was in rapidly failing health.  Her color was terrible.  She hadn't eaten in the last three days.  She was hardly able to open her eyes or raise her hand.  I talked with her husband some, and we prayed there beside her bed.

Yesterday morning, she bottomed out.  The nursing home rushed her to the hospital just a couple of blocks up the road.  The only thing that had kept her alive up to this point was her pacemaker.  Without it, she would have been gone.  In the emergency room, they started an IV.  They gave her some anti-biotics for a kidney infection diagnosed in her bloodwork.  As the medicine and fluids started entering her body, she perked up.

By the time I arrived, she was responsive. She was looking around at everyone.  She would answer "yes" and "no" to questions.  She could acknowledge that she was in pain.  She did not look like someone who was about to die.  In fact, I made no bones about telling the family what I thought.

You see, I have walked with people through the end of life process a lot.  I know the cycle of death.  I've watched people's bodies shut down.  They slip into a coma.  Their breathing slowly declines until it stops.  This woman wasn't in a coma.  Her breathing wasn't slowing down.  Instead of looking like she was getting weaker, it looked like she was getting stronger.  It didn't seem possible she was dying at this moment.  I thought she was dehydrated (confirmed by the fact they had to put the IV in her leg), and that the fluids would make a major difference. 

Confident that she would be around for a while, I decided to get some lunch with my wife and son who had just finished dayschool.  I told the family I would be back, and I added, "I just don't think she's dying.  She doesn't look like it.  That doesn't mean things couldn't turn on a dime, but she isn't acting like anyone I've seen go through the process of death."

I enjoyed pizza with my wife and son.  They headed home.  I headed back to the hospital.

I was greeted by a sobbing family.  My member had died not a minute before I walked into the room.  The nurse was checking her heart as I walked in.

It was quite shocking....for many of us.  Unfortunately, my words had been a harbinger.  Things had turned on a dime.

It had been a while since I was in the room as someone had died and I had to deal with the initial stages of grief.  One generally does not do much speaking.  One generally is just there--getting items for the family members: kleenex, water, whatever.  One will try to help make things more accessible in the room; for instance, I helped by lowering the bed rail so her husband could hug on her and hold her one last time.  Circulating around, one touches shoulders, offers hugs, and says silent prayers for God's peace in the midst of grief.

It is an extremely emotional time.  Your heart is touched as you see spouses and children and grandchildren mourn.  Hearing a spouse say, "Please don't leave me alone," wrenches your insides like few things can.  But you know you have a job.  You represent God's presence to these folks.  You represent the promise of the resurrection because of the office you hold. 

When the initial surge of grief passes, then the words begin.  Then the processing begins.  Then the planning begins.  When things are tentatively set and folks know the next step, it's time to graciously leave and allow the family time together. 

One final prayer, and this was accomplished.  Funeral preparations have begun.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: What Would You Expect Jesus to Say?

What would you expect Jesus to say? I mean, really. Think about it a minute as you read our gospel lesson from the 10th Chapter of the Book of Mark. Yeah, as your pastor who is called to preach God’s Word week in and week out, it would be easy to skip through those first few verses and focus on verses 13 through 16. Who doesn’t like talking about children and how important they are in the Kingdom of God? Shoot, after all, this might be the perfect opportunity for me to outline to you the reasons the congregation council proposed putting a youth director position into our budget for next year. That would be fun, and it would get me out of having to deal with a pretty sticky subject: divorce.

Why is it so sticky? Well, because of what Jesus says versus the state of marriage in the U.S. today. And what is that state? Roughly ½ of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Odds are you yourself have been affected by divorce either having a marriage that ended or you know someone whose marriage has ended by divorce. You either know or have seen the turmoil that divorce causes. You know how it affects the emotions deep down within the soul. You know how a bad marriage and its end affects your other relationships with members of the opposite sex. You know how certain words or phrases trigger an emotional response within you–even if the person who says it is far, far removed from your ex-spouse. You know the pain and trauma it has caused your children if there were any in the marriage. You know it affects them, and you wish you could do something about it–to change it and make the hurt they experienced go away. You know the financial burdens divorce places upon your family and other families that went through it. Generally, there are not a lot of good things that come out of divorce.

Now, that isn’t to say that divorce might be an appropriate option in some circumstances. I, unfortunately, have counseled a couple of folks to pursue that avenue because they were in abusive situations. It is not God’s will that a person continually endure physical or emotional abuse in a marriage. That is not God’s intent at all. But neither is it God’s intent for marriages to end easily and quickly for self-satisfaction and gratification. One of the main reasons people get divorced today is because they believe they are not getting personal fulfillment being in a particular marriage. There is no abuse. There might not even be infidelity. They just don’t feel fulfilled being where they are at, and so they decide to move on, even though they go through many of the things I spoke of earlier.

Into all of this, Jesus offers His thoughts on divorce, "6But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female." 7"For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh." So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’"

Some of you here this morning may think this sounds harsh. Others who are divorced and remarried might be scratching your head wondering if you are in good standing with the Almighty. But, again, I ask you: what would you expect Jesus to say? Would you expect Him to say that it was o.k. to get married and then get divorced without any consequences? Would you expect Jesus to say to a couple planning a wedding, "Just tie the knot and don’t worry about anything. If you find that you are not being fulfilled or if you argue and fuss or if you hit a few rough spots, just find a good lawyer, pay the divorce fees, and walk away as if nothing happened."? Do you really think God’s Son would come down to earth and say such a thing?

Not a chance. Here’s part of the reason why. In our first lesson this morning, we have the story of God’s creation of woman. God realizes it’s not good for the man to be alone, so God seeks to make him a helper. He brings all the animals to Adam, and Adam names them. Yet, there is not found a suitable helper for the man. Therefore, God causes the man to fall into a deep sleep. God takes a rib from the man and creates woman. This is a very important detail to keep in mind in this whole process. Why?

In ancient Judaism, folks believed in a concept called wholeness. They believed God was perfect, whole in every way: complete. They believed humankind was to be as much like God as possible–including being as complete as possible. Man was now short a rib. He was incomplete. He was not whole. And how could he be made whole? How could he get his rib back, so to speak? In a relationship with woman. This is why both the book of Genesis and Jesus himself say, "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." It is through the relationship of marriage that man and woman become whole once more. It is through the relationship of marriage that man and woman become complete–as God is complete. How this happens is anyone’s guess. It’s a mystery. I’ve preached on this text before, and I stated because of this mystery, the Roman Catholic Church holds marriage in such a high regard they call it a sacrament! Indeed, it is very, very sacred ground!

Knowing now that this was and is Jesus’ understanding of marriage, what would you expect Him to say? Knowing that Jesus believed that when a man and a woman were joined in marriage they were made complete, whole, as God is complete and whole: what would you expect Him to say to those who asked if it was o.k. to break such a thing up? Would you expect Him to make it easy? Would you expect Him to say there are no consequences? Would you expect Him to say such a thing wasn’t sinful and didn’t lead to sin? Would you expect Him to excuse divorce and shrug His shoulders as if it were no big deal? Hardly. Jesus meant what He said, even if that makes us uncomfortable and makes us squirm.

But what if divorce has touched our lives? What does Jesus’ teachings have to say to us? Do we stand condemned if we are divorced or support one of our family members or friends who has remarried and is truly happy in their relationship?

Take a deep breath and remember what it means to be a part of the Lutheran Church. Take a deep breath and remember what it means to live in the law/Gospel dynamic. Take a deep breath and remember, "You are saved by grace through faith."

The Law, which Jesus’ teaching is, condemns us. It is a giant stick which drives us to the Gospel. It is also a mirror which reveals to us our brokenness. It shows us just how short we have fallen from following God’s will. In both of these manners, it leads us to repentance. It leads us to humbly bow before God acknowledging our shortcomings. It leads us to ask for His mercy, and the good news for you and me and for anyone who is divorced and remarried is: God has mercy on you. God loves you. God realizes your brokenness and the brokenness that sometimes happens in marriage. He isn’t happy when a marriage fails and ends in divorce, but He is not going to remove His love from us if it happens. After all, God is a God of love, Jesus showed that beyond the shadow of a doubt, and what would you expect from Jesus? Amen.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

It's Debatable

Last night, I watched 90% of the presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.  In my estimation, Romney was the clear winner by a large margin.  Most of the spin reading I've done this morning confirms my observations, but observations are just that: observations.  Sometimes observations are not reality because we miss the big picture and see only a small part.  It is to that bigger picture that I wish to turn now as I reflect upon why it seemed Romney did so well and President Obama so poorly.

Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War:

Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy's plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

Four years ago, then Senator Obama had the opportunity to attack John McCain in the field.  McCain was seen as a Washington D.C. insider who was part of a corrupt system that had led to the great recession of 2008-2009.  People were crushed by high gas prices, a declining housing industry, and a skyrocketing unemployment rate.  They were also frustrated by ongoing wars and a lot of negativity flowing between a Republican President and a Democrat Congress.  Folks were looking for change.  They were looking for a positive boost in the midst of a lot of darkness and negativity.  Senator Obama's rhetoric offered both.  The situation made it very easy for him to attack and attack and attack.  In not so many words he also said, "Elect me, and things will be different!"  It was almost too easy.

Now, things are the same, but different.  The economy is rolling very slowly.  Few people have really seen anything change.  Most are still concerned about their jobs.  Income has declined.  Gas prices are high.  The negativity in Washington D.C. hasn't decreased.  Both sides continually snipe at each other and cast blame.  Several pieces of legislation have been passed in the President's four years, and while some contain some much needed reforms and laws, there's plenty of negative stuff that's been included in those laws as well.  Folks are still looking for hope.  They are still looking for change, but now President Obama isn't in the field attacking.  Circumstances have changed for him in that he is now the insider and must defend what he has and hasn't done in the past four years.  In a figurative, but very real way, he is besieged in a walled city.  In the debate last night, he was very much on the defensive.  And unless you are facing a very superior opponent, it is much better to attack than defend.

In my opinion, that's exactly what happened last night in the debate.  Romney was on the attack this time, and the President had a tough time trying to defend.  This is why, as many pundits either decried or reveled in, he seemed detached, bored, smirky, and fidgety.  This is why, I believe he lost.  I'm not sure he realized his best defense is a good offense--at least in this case.

Now for some "churchy" stuff.  I would contend that there are many who work to put the Church on the defensive.  They are quick to point out all the faults and failings of the Church and its failures to live up to its promises and the things the Lord calls it to do and be.  They are quick to dismiss faith as irrelevant compared to science and reason.  They are quick to point out the extremists in the Church and link all Christians to the few.

And very few Christians today are able to defend, weather, and deal with such attacks.  Too many have left behind or haven't been exposed to authors like C.S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, Dallas Willard, Richard John Neuhaus, et. al.  They do not have good answers to critiques and criticisms.

Neither do they have a good "offense" or "attack" strategy.  It almost seems wrong to say such a thing given Jesus' teachings of turn the other cheek, praying for one's enemies and blessing those who persecute you; yet, I stand by the comment.  I believe we must factor in strategy and debate into our commission to "make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I (Jesus) have commanded you."  (Matthew 28)  Our calling is a calling of engagement, not to sit behind wall cities (or behind the four walls of our church buildings).  Yet, our engagement is not one of "attack" to conquer.  Our "attack" is through service, humility, and conviction that we have the Truth--Truth centered in a man who was willing to die for even His enemies.  And when we remember this, perhaps were not really attacking but standing firm on the promises of God.

Does such a thing work?  It has in the past.

Will it work today?

It's debatable.  But I'm prepared to go at it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Through Burnout and Back: Another Source of Energy

I remember clearly being taught in seminary the importance of doing things outside of one's congregation to keep one's energy level up.  There is something about being involved in activities and volunteer opportunities outside one's daily grind which help boost enthusiasm and passion for doing the Lord's work.  These can be as simple as volunteering to read at a local elementary school to working at a food pantry or other such institution.

I've done this at selected points in my time as an ordained pastor, and I have benefited from it.  I've mentored at school, worked at a computer lab for poor folks, served on a food pantry board, and worked a few times at said pantry.  As my congregation in Cat Spring grew, I cut back on such venues.  Looking back from where I sit now, this was probably unwise.

Since I began writing about my experience with burnout, I've come a long way in the healing process.  Things are setting much better with me emotionally, physically, and spiritually right now, and there are many, many more good days than bad.  One of the things I believe that has helped in this process is a return to engaging in activities outside my congregation but still very much related to my job.

My son attends a dayschool run by St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Bellville.  They have a new head of school there and are currently without a Rector (Pastor).  Every week, they hold chapel services for the school, and I was asked if I might be willing to lead said service at least once a month.  I readily agreed.

This morning was my appointed time, and after all was said and done, I was amazed at the sense of peace, calm, energy, and excitement I had after leading the kids in worship. 

I always have fun working with kids, and it's been fun watching these kids progress as I've led chapel with them.  I bring my guitar each chapel service and teach the kids songs.  We sing together, and it's been a joy watching them learn it's o.k. to move and dance and do all the hand motions associated with the songs we're doing.  It's been a blast having them interact with me as I tell them the Bible stories.  Their enthusiasm and excitement is contagious and truly brings a deep down joy to my heart.

Now, this isn't to say I don't get a charge out of leading worship at my congregation.  I truly do.  This Sunday was one of those times.  We had great worship attendance.  We conducted our Gospel service and introduced a couple of new, fast paced, songs to the congregation.  Folks were toe tapping, and they even clapped for our special music.  They had fun while worshiping and were touched by the service.  When you see such things as a pastor, see your people engaged with worship, and appreciative of the effort you put out, it truly makes a difference.

Leading chapel at St. Mary's gives me such a response every time.  The kids have been great as they smile and laugh and sing and answer questions during story time.  The teachers and school administrator have been thankful and appreciative at every turn.  Such things might seem little, but they are actually huge for me.  I can see the effects of my work, and sometimes when you are engaged in the daily routine, you miss such things.

As I reflect upon this morning's experience, I hope to keep myself engaged in such activities.  Once St. Mary's gets a rector, I might not be able to conduct services there, so I will have to find some other avenue.  It helps tremendously.  It's a great source of energy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Teaching Responsibility While Helping (I Hope)

Two weeks ago, we had a woman seek assistance from our community care fund.  Generally, we help out on the first request, no questions asked.  This was a first time request from someone needing help paying her electric bill.  The bill was not large in comparison with what I have seen--just over $150.  My council authorized me to approve such requests up to $400, especially since we are usually dealing with time sensitive bills.

The woman's bill was no exception to this rule.  Unfortunately, she came into our office the day before it was due.  My secretary explained to her the procedure in our congregation to cut checks:

1. We sent a check request to our CPA with documentation.
2. The CPA cuts the check and drops it off in the office overnight.
3. Two council members then are required to sign the check.
4. We, as a congregation, mail the check to the vendor.  We will not give out cash or write checks to those asking for assistance.

I approved payment of the electric bill, and we began the process--on Thursday afternoon.  (That's an important detail to this puzzle.)

Friday is my day off.  The church office is also closed.  No one was here to pick up the check or see if our CPA office had dropped it off.  This detail is important as well, because the "fun" started shortly afterward.

My wife and I had made a spur of the moment trip up to Washington on the Brazos State Park that Friday morning, and we were headed back to Bellville to pick my son up from Dayschool.  My phone rang.  It was a secretary in the county judge's office.  She informed me that the woman who made the community care fund request was in her office complaining that her lights were cut off. 

"Betty"  (not her real name) asked me if we could fax something to the city electric office to tell them we would be paying the bill.  I told Betty I was out of the office that day, our office was closed, and we couldn't do that. 

Silence.  Don't think she'd ever had a pastor or church tell her no on such a matter. 

I continued, "Betty, the problem is, the woman came in the day before her bill was due.  We have a process to get checks cut in the church, and her check is now in process.  It will probably be Monday before we can get it in the mail."

Betty asked, "So it's in process?"

I replied, "Yes.  It will be taken care of."

I thought that was the end of it, but I was mistaken.

Monday morning, the church office phone rings.  The woman who we were helping called my secretary.  My secretary explained to her very nicely (I can vouch because I overheard) that she had come in late and that the checks were in process.  We would mail the check to the city of Bellville that afternoon.  My secretary said, "I'm sorry your lights got cut off, but we're working as quickly as we can." 

End of story? 


That afternoon, I received a phone call from the woman.  My response to her, "Didn't you talk to my secretary this morning?"


"Then you know we have a process to get our checks cut.  Your check has been cut and put in the mail.  It will arrive later this week."

End of story?


The next morning, Betty calls our office inquiring about the check.  Once again, the woman had gone to the judge's office to complain about her lights being out.  And, once again, my secretary was very nice in handling the matter.  She explained the entire process once again, and informed Betty we were paying the bill.  She also reiterated the fact that the woman came in the day before the bill was due.

Afterward, my secretary, exasperated, asked if we were doing the right thing.

I responded, "The woman is trying to make her problem our problem.  Betty is trying to do the same thing.  This isn't our problem.  We are kindly taking care of her light bill.  It is not our fault she came in late.  It is her responsibility to take care of her payments, and if she has to suffer a few days without electricity, then perhaps she will learn her lesson and be more responsible next time."

Perhaps I am cold and callous by such a response, but I am well aware of a tenet of life expressed by my Bowen Family Systems teacher: "If you are always helping someone, they will become dependent upon you and fail to take responsibility for themselves."

Too often, I believe in our society, we see people taking advantage of those who are willing to help.  They will gladly take whatever you can give, almost never offer a "thank you", and come back repeatedly to see how many times they can get something out of you.  When something happens that causes the least bit of discomfort, they are oftentimes willing to complain and try to get others to make them more comfortable.  And since there are many, like myself, who do not like to see others uncomfortable, they work diligently to ease the worry and discomfort. 

But what is learned by those who fail to take responsibility? 


In the above case, I believe we as a congregation were compassionate in helping the woman out, but I also think we helped to teach her a lesson in responsibility.  If her lights hadn't been cut out and she hadn't had to endure that discomfort, she would more than likely repeat the same thing over and over again.  Perhaps her discomfort will motivate her to, at the very least, seek assistance earlier. 

A hard lesson to learn? 

Sure, but sometimes necessary.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Ministry is Not Done By One

Moses was finally tired of it all. He was ready to give up. Perhaps he knew this was coming those many months ago when he knelt in front of that burning bush and begged God to find someone else to send to free the Israelites from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. "Please, Lord, send somebody else," was Moses’ last plea; a plea that was ignored by God saying, "Go!"

Since that time, the miraculous had occurred. God showed many acts of power to the Egyptians and to the Israelites. God sent the 10 plagues. He led them by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. At the Red Sea, God’s hand opened the waters and provided a dry path to escape Pharaoh’s army. And when Pharaoh’s army followed, God closed the waters and ensured the Israelites wouldn’t be chased again.
But God was not finished. God continued to provide for the Israelites and show them great deeds of power and of mercy. When hunger threatened, God rained down bread from heaven. When the people needed meat, God sent quail. When they were thirsty, God always provided water. At every point, God provided for His people as they experienced the first tastes of freedom. But it was never enough. No matter how much God provided, the people still found reason to complain, and most of the time, they directed their complaints at Moses.

And Moses had finally had enough of the complaining. He finally had enough of the moaning and groaning. He didn’t want to deal with it anymore. He had been completely faithful to God, and what was he getting from it? Grief and a bunch of head aches. And so Moses lifts up his own prayer to God, ""Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors’? 13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once–if I have found favor in your sight–and do not let me see my misery."

What a prayer. Moses asks to die. He is fed up. He is tired. He wants to leave it all behind and be released from this burden.

But God is not done with Moses’ leadership. God still has a purpose for this man who carried into the peoples’ midst the 10 Commandments, and it is an intriguing thing God does. He doesn’t quiet the peoples’ complaints. He doesn’t give Moses any special powers or prowess. He doesn’t give Moses any extra energy or portion of His Spirit.  He doesn't even send Moses to therapy!

God tells Moses to gather seventy elders–elders who were leaders among the Israelites. Moses gathered this group and brought them before the tent of meeting. When they arrived, God took part of His Spirit off of Moses and gave it to the 70 who were gathered there. They were now commissioned to share in carrying the burden of the people. And interestingly enough, the sharing of the Spirit didn’t stop there. Two others who were in camp–who could have been in the original 70--began to prophesy as well. Someone wanted to stop this from happening. After all, they didn’t report to the tent like the rest of them, but Moses says something quite profound, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!"

Moses was longing for a day when all of God’s people would have God’s Spirit–all of God’s people would hear His voice–all of God’s people would be inspired to proclaim God’s Word through their own words and their own actions. Moses was longing for a day when God’s people would not be focused on any one person who was supposed to speak for God, but instead would take responsibility for doing God’s work themselves without having to rely on someone to tell them what to do. "Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!"

Ah, but what if indeed God has put His Spirit on God’s people? What if Moses’ request has actually become a reality? What would that mean?

First, let’s tackle the first question. What if God has put His Spirit on all of God’s people. Take a listen to these Bible verses from 1 Corinthians chapter 12 verses 1 through 7:

1Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit. 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Did you catch the gist of these verses. First of all, you cannot say that Jesus is Lord unless God’s Spirit has led you to do so. That means, if you believe Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit has come upon you. "Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!" He has! You have the Lord’s Spirit upon you! Whether you like it or not, by the way.

Further, the text from Corinthians goes on, "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." The Spirit of God has fallen on you, not for you to be selfish with, not for you to revel in, not for your own benefit, but for the benefit of all of God’s people! St. Paul continues in Chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians with these words:

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

If it is not yet obvious, I will hopefully make it so. When it comes to doing ministry, it is not done by one. The ministry of God’s Church is done by all who have had God’s Spirit fall upon them. In a word, each and every one of you are an important part of doing God’s work on this earth, in the global community that is called the Church, and in this congregation called St. John Lutheran Church of Cat Spring. Each and every one of you have had God’s Spirit fall upon you and give you certain gifts and qualities and traits which are important to the building up of this congregation and community. Each of us is different, no doubt. Each of us functions differently, no doubt, but we are a team in this process. And there is no "I" in team.

Today, God is reminding us that we are important to His plan of spreading His Word in this world. We cannot sit back and think that ministry is done by one. It is a shared responsibility by all who call upon Jesus as Lord and Savior. Amen.