Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Lesson in Trust and Evangelism: A Sermon on Doubting Thomas

     Years ago, my dad and I were discussing the fact that the Sunday after Easter was one of the worst attended in most congregations--obviously this isn't the case here this morning!  :-)  Most folks show up on Easter and then say, "Well, I'm good for the next six weeks."  But that wasn't good enough for my dad and I, and as we talked dad recognized the fact that every Sunday after Easter, the Gospel lesson is always "Doubting Thomas."  Dad reasoned, "No wonder folks don't want to come to church the next Sunday.  They go from hearing that Jesus is risen from the dead to doubting."   There might be something to be said for that.

   However, the more I have preached on our Gospel lesson in my years of preaching, the more I have come to appreciate this text.  There are so many layers of rich material to probe and learn from.  Like a many faceted, beautiful diamond, this text reveals more and more as you read and look at it.  This morning, I would like to approach this text from the standpoint of evangelism and where any one of us at any given moment might fit given the circumstances.

    First off, the text begins with the disciples huddled in a room for fear of the Jews.  Actually, if we were a little more honest with the Greek, we would probably make the word fear a little stronger.  We would probably use the word, “terrified.”  The disciples were terrified; scared; dazed and confused.  I think it interesting to note a couple of points.  First, they had already discovered the empty tomb at this point.  Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved had been there and seen it.  Secondly, they had heard the report of Mary Magdalene who had seen the resurrected Jesus.  But despite these two things: the empty tomb, and Mary’s report, they were not filled with rejoicing.  They were not filled with hope.  They were not filled with excitement and abundant joy.  They were huddled in fear.  Why?

    Well, if Mary’s report were true, that Jesus was actually alive and resurrected, then their whole view of life would be turned upside down.  It could no longer be business as usual.  They couldn’t just return to their semi-normal lives that they had before encountering Jesus.  They couldn’t go back to being fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, or what have you.  Their entire lives would be changed.  Their response to this was expected: fear. 

    Why do I say the response is expected?  Well, think about how many of our lives function.  Think about how comfortable we tend to get in our lives.  Sure, we may be busy.  We may be stretched thin.  We may feel unfulfilled, dissatisfied, hungry for something more than we are getting now, but we are reluctant to change.  We are reluctant to say no to all the things we are pursuing.  Why?  Why can’t or won’t we change?  We are afraid.  We know that the moment we begin saying no to the pursuits we have engaged in, we will face anger, we will face retribution, we will face the loss of our investments of time and energy and money.  We will face the loss of the small feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment that we currently receive.  And even though these small feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment only leave us wanting more, we dread the thought that even this will be taken away.  And so we fear change.  We fear walking away, even though we too have heard the good news.  We have heard Jesus is alive.  We have heard that when Jesus is the center of our hearts and the pursuit of our lives, we will be at peace; we will be filled.  When Jesus is the end goal of that which we seek, all things will be added.  We have heard this, but we too sit in fear and trembling.  We too sit in terror, not for fear of the Jews, but for fear of having our total world turned upside down.  The thought of taking that risk is simply too unbearable.

    But then Jesus enters.  Into the midst of that locked room; into the midst of that group of terrified people, Jesus arrives.  He stands before them and says, “Peace be with you.”  He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  When the disciples were incapable of overcoming their fears, Jesus came to them.  Jesus instructed them.  Jesus put them at peace.  Can Jesus do the same for you who are terrified?  Can Jesus enter into your life at an unexpected moment and change your heart?  Absolutely.  Do you expect Him to?  That is another question totally, but one worth asking yourself, I think.

    Of course, this encounter changed the disciples.  They went from terrified to peaceful, joyful, and satisfied.  Their lives now had meaning and purpose.  They were to spread the news of Jesus Christ, and who do you think they would first tell?  Who do you think they would first run to with the news of Jesus’ appearance?  Of course, you know, at least by the story–they would go to one of their closest friends; one who saw Jesus’ miracles; one who at one point was willing to die for Jesus: Thomas.  For some reason or another, Thomas wasn’t with the rest of the disciples when Jesus appeared, and I am sure those who saw Jesus believed that Thomas would accept their testimony.  Boy, were they wrong.  Completely and utterly wrong.  Thomas would not accept their witness.  Thomas would not accept what they saw.  He doubted.

    At this point, I want to stop for just a moment and make it clear about what Thomas doubted.  I mean, think about this for just a moment.  Who did Thomas doubt?  Did He doubt Jesus?  Did Thomas doubt the existence of God?  Thomas doubted the resurrection, of course, but he also doubted his friends.  He doubted those whom he had lived with, walked with, talked with, ate with, and bonded with over the years.  He doubted those who were witnessing to him about what happened to Jesus and what they had seen.

    I think this is such an important lesson for those of us who have found ourselves transformed by Christ’s presence in our lives.  I mean, when we have been captured by the grace of God; when we know that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life; when we know that God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it; when these things are held deeply in conviction by us, we share that news.  We want others to know down deep what it means to have Christ as the center of our lives.  We want others to know the inexpressible peace, joy, and satisfaction this brings.  But we too are often met with skepticism. We too are often met with doubt.  And the temptation is to keep hammering and hammering and hammering away.  The temptation is to keep bugging and bugging and bugging others until they either walk away or give into our rambling just to shut us up.  But this does not bring anyone to faith.  It didn’t bring Thomas to faith.  Once again, Jesus steps into the picture.

    Jesus appears to the disciples once again, and rather than chide Thomas from the get go, Jesus goes straight to him.  Jesus tells Thomas, “Hey buddy, look, put your finger here in these nail marks.  Touch my side.”  Jesus comes to Thomas and brings him to faith.  It is only then that Jesus chides Thomas.  It is only then when Jesus says, “Do not doubt.  Believe.”  Of course, we must ask, “Doubt what?”  Is Jesus saying we shouldn’t have doubts about the resurrection?  Is Jesus saying we shouldn’t have doubts about God?  Is Jesus saying we must have absolute conviction in our hearts and that any fleeting thought to the contrary is sinful?  I don’t believe so.

    Remember what Thomas doubted.  Remember who Thomas doubted.  He doubted the testimony of others.  He doubted that they had actually seen Jesus.  He didn’t trust anyone else, and he only relied upon himself.

    In my estimation, there is a two-fold lesson here.  The first lesson has to do with those of us who truly want to engage others with this faith we have received.  We simply cannot bring someone else to faith through argument; through coercion; or bribe.  Faith comes from Christ Himself, and we can only plant the seeds and be patient.  We do not need to be frustrated when our efforts at evangelism fall upon ears that seem deaf.  We must do our work and then wait for Christ to do His.  This is a very, very important lesson.

    The second lesson I think we must learn has to do with trust. “Do not doubt, but believe.”  There is an element of trusting God that is implicit in this statement, but given the circumstances of this story, I think there is also an element of trusting one another.  There is also an element of Jesus saying, “Trust one another’s testimony about how God is working in your life.  Trust one another when you share your stories about how I have worked in your life.”  This sometimes is hard.  This sometimes is extremely difficult because we oftentimes doubt one another.  There is so much in the world these days which purposely seeks to divide us and cause us to distrust each other.  We also know that there is an element of selfishness which drives us.  How can I know that you aren’t trying to take advantage of me?  How do I know you are believable and not just trying to manipulate me?  These are good questions.  Tough questions.  Questions which I think we must wrestle with together.

    And that is where I think I will begin to end this sermon–by asking you what it means to develop trust.  How does a group of people come to trust one another?  How does a group of people let down their guards and become vulnerable enough to listen to one another?  How does a group of people find some sort of common bond so that they can share stories and testimony about how God has worked in each other’s lives?  Have we come to the point in our society where such a thing is forbidden?  Have we come to a point in society where we can keep people at a digital distance so that we never, ever have to truly engage another’s spirit as we communicate?  Why is it now so hard to get a group of people to really sit down and talk after worship?  Why don’t we strive very hard to establish deep, lasting relationships with someone outside of our comfort zone?  Maybe Jesus has a lot of work to do on each and every one of us.  Maybe we all are somewhat huddled in fear for fear of being hurt.  How long before Jesus appears to us to give us peace?

    Well, the good news is that the grave is empty.  Jesus is alive, and His Spirit is present right here and right now.  He does not want you to feel alone and isolated.  He does not want you to sit in fear and doubt.  He has shown His love for you on the cross and has shown you the hope you will experience in the resurrection.  And He has given you a community to connect to.  I don’t care what society says being connected means. True relationships are not built digitally.  They are built upon human flesh and blood. They are built upon trust.  Can you trust each other here this morning?  You may find it difficult, but think of this: Jesus trusts you, doesn’t He?  Jesus trusts you enough to give you His story, trusts you enough to share that story and pass it on to others, and trusts you enough to give you the Holy Spirit as your comfort and guide along the way.  Do not doubt, believe.  Jesus comes to you.  He will come to others.  Just be patient.  This is the lesson of evangelism.  Amen.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Religion Versus Relationship

I haven't gone on the warpath here lately, and perhaps it is time; after all, we Lutherans ascribe to both Law and Gospel.

Let me also preface this with a little anecdote.  For many years, I had no response to folks who said that they worshiped God in nature.  I personally agreed with the assessment for in spending time in God's creation, I found myself in awe of the Creator.  But, there was always a nagging voice within me--a nagging voice that felt the idea of "worship" in such a fashion was lacking.  I was never quite able to give voice to it. 

Of course, there were others who gave voice to it.  I vividly remember folks who would say, "I am sure you can find God in nature, but when's the last time a tree offered you forgiveness?"

Such a saying is all well and good for someone who believes in Jesus Christ and is convicted by the Gospel.  It's not so good when dealing with someone who does not have a deep seeded faith.  How does one convince another that worshiping in nature and worshiping in a congregation are vastly different things?

Then, there is the whole religion versus relationship thing.  "I'm spiritual but not religious."  Yeah, I've heard that one a time or two as well.  Yet, many of the arguments addressing this particular pithy saying are based in a faith which is well grounded.  How do you address someone who is convinced their own faith is well grounded and that they are just as right as you might think you are?

Perhaps I wouldn't even be writing this blog post, but the above picture was actually posted by a fellow clergy.  Of all things, I never thought a fellow clergy would post such an picture with such an asinine message.  I mean, this is what passes for apologetics these days?

Why am I so upset?

Perhaps I shouldn't be.  And, please don't get me wrong.  I am not upset at people who do such a thing.  I'm no better than others who choose to go hunting or fishing on a Sunday morning.  My feet are as full of clay as theirs.  But I have been convinced by Timothy Keller and others who say that unless we confront our false gods and deal with them, we will continue to see the decline of Christianity in our society.

Consider me confronting a particular false god in this post--the false gods of nature worship and self-spirituality.

Let's take the above saying and tweak it just a little bit--changing the characters and the setting.  By doing so, I think you will get my point:

Infidelity is a man sitting at a restaurant with his girlfriend and thinking about fishing.  
A man sitting on a boat fishing and thinking about his girlfriend is relationship.

Is my point made?

Both of these particular instances are problematic.  Both show a complete disregard for true relationship.  Both show self-centered behavior on the part of the man.

Yet, we say that one of these is acceptable behavior toward God?

Face it, the reason most folks say they encounter God in nature is to absolve themselves of the responsibility of worship.   "I can worship God in nature," is simply code for saying, "I'd rather not go to church."

If that is your choice, fine.  Admit it, but don't sugar coat it. 

And, if indeed you are spiritually awakened in nature...
If indeed you have truly found a lasting peace, joy and fulfillment...
If you have found a sense of wholeness...

Don't you then think you have the responsibility of teaching others how to find that peace, fulfillment, and joy?  Don't you think you have the responsibility of sharing what you have discovered?  Do you think such a lasting thing should be kept to one's self?

As an old Hindu proverb says, "It takes both individual bees and the hive to produce honey."

Worship is an intensely relational phenomena--nurturing one's relationship with God and with fellow believers.  It is not practiced individually.  It is practiced corporately.  It is focused not on self, but on the other. 

When Jesus is the object of worship, as within the Christian faith, we gather to hear Him speak to us--through the written Word of Scripture, through the proclaimed Word of sermons, through the sung Word of hymns, through the proclaimed Word of forgiveness--and we gather to touch and hold Him in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  These are not things you find in nature.  Period. 

And while we are turning our attention to Christ during this time, He is also turning His attention toward us--strengthening our faith, renewing our hope, and filling us with peace.  This peace and hope pales in comparison to the peace and hope we find in nature, for that peace fades the more we are removed from it.  That sense of well being diminishes when we get back to the "real world."  The peace Jesus offers doesn't fade.  It is a spring of living water.

Why doesn't Jesus' peace diminish when the other does? 

Because it's a part of a real relationship--religion and all.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Funeral Sermon for Mark Chapman

    Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

    I could spend a lot of time this afternoon extolling Mark’s virtues.  His list of accomplishments are many.  Successful business man.  World traveler.  Philanthropist.  Loyal alum and supporter of his alma mater.  Faithful husband.  Artist.  Thinker.  Poet.  I could fill up this entire sermon talking about such things–easily.  But it is not a pastor’s job to simply lift up the virtues of a man who has died.  It is the job of a pastor to bring a word from God into the midst of human situations–a word which comforts those who grieve and gives insight into how God’s love effects our lives. 

    And now, with that being said, I would like to turn to Mark’s own words to begin that process of perhaps hearing what God would tell us this day as we celebrate Mark’s life.  In his book An Artist Writes, there is an interesting little poem entitled “Dis-satisfaction.”  It reads:

    Take a look–I’ve got it all
    A great wife, health
    Bank account that’s not small
    Yet what is that sporadic, niggling burr
    that nestles underneath my saddle?
    Is it the ebbing of the physical
    or a flaw in my gear box?
    Maybe nature’s perverse trick to ruffle my feathers
    Or one last long squall before the water calms.
    I wrestle with this wisp of unease
    It pins me more than not
    A twinge of craziness asks
    Am I a gerbil on a treadmill?
    A captive in a cosmic joke?
    A malcontent without a cause?
    Is my chain being yanked because I care?
    Maybe it is a plague of self absorption?
    Blind faith would–could–be a lifeline
    But for whatever reason no solace there.
    Is the question unanswerable?
    A maddening changing of the guard
    Truth unacceptable
    An accelerating slide down a slope
    To a place I don’t want to go.

    It’s a challenging poem because I think it raises one of those items of truth that hits many of us where we live.  We may seem to have it all, according to worldly standards, but within there is still discontent.  There is still something that makes us uneasy.  There is something which makes us dissatisfied with life and the way things are going.  Mark felt it, and he was seeking an answer to the problem.  Blind faith could have given him consolation, but it wasn’t enough.  There was no turning off his brain and simply accepting things.  Mark had to question.  He had to ask.  He had to delve deep.

    And he roped me into this quest–and for that, I will be forever grateful.

    Several years ago, Mark handed me a book at church.  It was entitled, A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions.  Mark struggled with the book.  He wanted to talk about many of the things written in its pages.  Little did he know, he was contributing to his pastor’s conversion.

    Yes, you heard that correctly.  Mark’s gesture of seeking started me on a journey of conversion, and it is not too often that a pastor can stand before a congregation and say such a thing.  But never-the-less, I can assure you, it is true.  For the book Mark handed me caused me to delve deep, deep within the Christian faith.  It caused me to examine myself–my core beliefs and convictions.  It confronted me with the truth.  Far from a blind faith, it helped me see something tremendously important; something I had managed to give consent to with my head but fail to grasp within the depths of my being.  You may be having two thoughts at this moment: #1. What was that thing?  And #2.  Isn’t this gathering supposed to focused on Mark?

    The answer to number one is forthcoming.  The answer to number two is, of course, and I’m coming right back there.  Because that thing is an answer to some of the things Mark was wrestling with deeply–not only in his poem “Dis-satisfaction” but another poem which I would like to read to you now.  This one is entitled “Guilt for Less”:

Once I threw a Canadian coin
into a Salvation Army bucket–clunk
Another time I fell far short of loving my neighbor as myself
After each incident I felt bad
A moral misfit
That I might be the guest at a very hot bar-b-que
No question of immutable truths when I was young–
My brain washed
The conscience, gate keeper, or party pooper
let me know when I’d been bad
Numerous immutable pitfalls await.
The moral electric fence restraining our base instincts
Occasionally we slip under the wire
only to be Tasered by guilt
we come scuttling back seeking forgiveness
How do we escape this scourge?
Heaven’s answer, at least on Sunday morning
Bountiful succor if you prostrate yourself
give up sin forever or at least until next time
a nagging conscience demands that promise
A bar so high, failure foregone
Humanness guarantees a repeat performance
Has this niggling failure diminished us?
Deflated egos: unquestioning sinners in waiting
No one escapes the wide net
Even the sanctimonious one in the front row
You’re guilty of–pride
Wretches all–give it up
The drill: sin–seek forgiveness–absolution–repeat
Seamless–better than a six pack
Strangely, I feel guilty for writing this

    How do we escape this scourge?  How do we escape guilt?  How do we escape this cycle of sin, seek forgiveness, receive absolution, and repeat?  This poem reminded me of another author who once wrote about the same sort of thing.  St. Paul lifted up this in the letter of Romans so long ago.  Addressing the human condition, Paul said much the same thing as Mark–just using different words:

    18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  (Romans 7:18-24)

    Hear Paul’s final question again.  Notice the words Paul uses.  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Who will rescue me from this cycle of sin?  He does not use the word what.  It’s not what will save me?  It’s who will save me.  Mark hit upon how we normally address things in the church.  We focus on the what: attend church; ask for forgiveness; try not to sin; fail; repeat.  That’s the what.  But the what doesn’t save us.  It’s the who that does.

    “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul exclaims.  Thanks be to Jesus, for it is He who offers us the answer.

    It took me a while, but the process that Mark started with giving me that book found its endpoint in Jesus.  It found its endpoint in the heart-felt realization that it is Christ alone who saves.  Christ alone.  Not our effort.  Not our actions.  Not our coming to church.  Not our asking for forgiveness.  Sin is a given.  I am a failure, but Jesus died for me anyway.  Jesus loved me anyway.  Jesus redeems me anyway.  Just as Jesus died for you, loves you, and redeems you.  Just as Jesus died for Mark, loves Mark, and redeems Mark.  If we can pull off our own salvation, we have a reason to feel haughty.  We have a reason to feel superior.  We have a reason to feel guilty because we should be capable of doing and being better.  But, if salvation is only from Jesus–if salvation is only by the grace of God, we are humbled knowing that we are no better than anyone else.  We are humbled knowing that despite our sinfulness God loves us tremendously.  And we don’t have to feel dissatisfied any longer.  There is nothing we have to accomplish to prove our worth.  There is nothing we have to accomplish to make ourselves better in the eyes of the world.  Christ has done all for us, and He becomes our All in All.

    This realization; this conversion within me has deeply affected my teaching and preaching.  It has deeply affected the way I view my role as a pastor.  And a few have noticed.  Mark noticed.  The week before he suffered his first stroke, Mark said the following as I took prayer requests from the congregation, “I pray that we come to understand the theology you are preaching.”

    I pray that prayer often.  That we may understand our salvation is from the Lord.  For that is the most important thing.  Mark is experiencing that salvation right now.  He is with God basking in eternal glory.  The promised hope of the resurrection is fulfilled.  That hope is also extended to you and to me–not only for when we die, but for our lives right here and now.  When Christ becomes the center of our lives and orients our hearts toward Him, we live in that hope daily.  We know our worth comes from God and that we will go to God.  We know peace of heart and mind.  And on days like these, we know there is no saying “Goodby.”  There is an acknowledgment that death is not a period.  It is a comma, and one day we will join Mark at God’s side.  Amen.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Come and Die: Easter Sermon

    This morning, I would like to invite you to come and die.

    I realize this isn’t the typical way most pastors begin their Easter sermons, and you might be a little miffed at me for saying such a thing.  I mean, you might be thinking, “You know, pastor, here it is, Easter Sunday.  The church is full of people.  We have quite a few visitors.  They are coming to celebrate Easter with their families and enjoy the holiday.  You also know, pastor that our community has been hit hard by the deaths of some well known folks.  Don’t you respect their families?  Don’t you care that they are hurting?  You should start your sermon off with a story that is funny and sets us at ease.  Then you should tell us about the resurrection of Jesus and conclude with how the resurrection is going to make our lives all better so that we leave feeling happy and joyful.  How dare you start your sermon inviting us to come and die.”

    You know, maybe you are correct in how I should preach.  I mean, there are more than a few pastors who will indeed follow the outline I just suggested, and if you really, really want to hear such a sermon, I am sure there will be re-runs showcasing the guy just down the road from here.  I am sure his sermon will follow along those lines exactly.  But I am not here this morning to sell you Christianity-lite.  I’m not here this morning to tell you that if you just believe in Jesus’ resurrection and have enough faith that your life will turn out fabulous.  Just ask the those families of those who have died about those things.  See if they agree with that sort of theology.  I don’t care what certain preachers say about having health, and wealth, and status and friends, and what have you.  Just because you believe in Jesus doesn’t mean you will have these things, and if you are desiring these things above all else, then believing in Jesus is just a means to an end.  Jesus doesn’t want to be a means to an end.  He wants to be the end Himself, but in order for Jesus to be the end in our lives, we have to die.  We have to die to our fear of death.  We have to die to our desires for wealth and privilege.  We have to die to our own thoughts about what will make us happy and satisfied.  It may not be the most satisfying thing to hear on Easter morning, but I am not asking on my behalf.  The invitation does not come from me.

    You see, Jesus once famously said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me; for whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but who ever loses it for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.”

    At first glance, you may believe this has absolutely nothing to do with Easter.    You may be thinking that Jesus’ call has nothing to do with His resurrection.  You may be thinking that I have gone off the deep end to bring it up, and maybe you are right.  But I ask for a few moments to explain–to explain what I see taking place in many, many peoples’ lives and what has happened in my own life.

    As I look around our society today and as I interact with people, I hear the same story over and over again.  I hear people saying they are running all over the place.  I hear them saying they are burned out, stressed out, and stretched thin.  I hear people who retire tell me they are busier now than when they were actually working.  I hear people who are working tell me they feel tired and worn out–that they have absolutely no energy to do anything after a long week.  I hear people telling me they work hard and play hard, and that their life is crazy.  I sense that people feel like they are on a treadmill that keeps spinning and spinning and spinning and they have no idea how to get off of it.  No one seems to have a sense of peace.  No one seems to have a sense of joy.  No one seems to have a sense of fulfillment.  People seem to be chasing and running after something but never finding it. 

    I know what I was chasing, and I know what it did to me.  You see, some folks think that we pastors are above such matters.  Some folks say, “You pastors believe church is so important and that life should revolve around the church, but you don’t understand what the rest of us are going through.”  And you are right, to an extent.  You see, for many of us pastors, our lives do revolve around the church.  The church becomes our god–our master.  Jesus doesn’t govern our lives, the church does.

    This was rammed home to me when I was watching one of my favorite authors and pastors on Youtube.  Timothy Keller was giving a presentation on doing evangelism in this postmodern world, and he talked about the need for once again being captured by the gospel and capturing the gospel.  And when Keller talks about the gospel, he is speaking about what God has done to save us and not our saving ourselves through our actions.  And he puts a target on those of us who are clergy.  He says, “I don’t know exactly what extent it is for you, but just about every clergy person’s self-worth is tied to their ministry.  When worship attendance goes up, we feel great about ourselves, but when it goes down, we feel miserable.”  And Keller is right.  When the church is doing great; when worship attendance is up; when offerings are strong; when visitors are coming; when programs are well attended; we feel fantastic about what we are doing.  But when the opposite is happening, we feel miserable.  Why?  Why do clergy feel this way?  Why did I feel this way?

    Because I was getting my self-worth from the actions of my congregation.  I will make a confession to you this morning.  It’s a confession many of us who are clergy could make.  I had dreams and aspirations.  I wanted to come in and make a congregation grow–not just a little bit–a lot.  I wanted a congregation to explode and have thousands of members and thousands worshiping on a Sunday morning.  I wanted a congregation to do the exact opposite of what is happening to many mainline congregations these days.  And I wanted the notoriety for having led such a congregation.  I wanted folks to come up to me and ask me, “How did you do it?”  I wanted people to come to me for advice on how to grow their congregations.  I wanted to be important in the life of the national church.  I wanted people to invite me to speak at their congregations and conferences.  And I needed a congregation to help me get there.  So I threw myself into the life of the congregation.  I worked my tail end off to make things happen.  I tried all sorts of things hoping to spur rapid growth.  And if something popped up to threaten the health of the congregation, I became defensive.  I tried to keep everyone together and focused.  I read about all the techniques one was supposed to use to make a church grow.

    And where did it get me?  Tired.  Worn out.  Burned out.  Spinning my wheels.  No sense of fulfillment.  No sense of peace.  No sense of joy.  When I heard Keller speak those words about clergy many months ago, I stood convicted by them.  I was a broken pastor who was trying to find fulfillment in the wrong place.  Jesus was a means to an end and not the end Himself.  And the bad part was, I didn’t know how to make Him the center.

    Then, there was something that happened to me this past Thanksgiving.  My family and I traveled to have the holiday with my 94 year old grandfather who is a retired pastor.  We talked many hours, and my grandfather shared with me many stories about his time serving as a preacher.  And then in the midst of the conversation, he said this, “You know, Kevin, I didn’t accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms.”  I hurriedly wrote that down because it brought me to tears.  First, it convicted me because I longed to accomplish much in the eyes of the world.  I longed to be important, and I wasn’t making too much headway.  But then the statement gave me a massive amount of comfort and peace because it directed me to what was truly important.  “The Lord and I are on very good terms.” 

    None of that other stuff really and truly matters in the big scheme of things.  What really matters is knowing one’s Creator and having Him at the center of one’s life, and that doesn’t come by anything that we do.  It doesn’t come by our perseverance.  It doesn’t come by our willing it to happen.  It doesn’t come by doing as many good things as we possibly can.  How do we get on good terms with the Lord?

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

    The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.  The Word became flesh and died to reconcile us unto God.  The Word became flesh to bear our sin, our guilt, and our shame so that we might have abundant life.  But that abundant life comes with a cost.  Jesus had to die.  He had to go to the cross, and He now asks us to follow Him to that cross as well.  He also asks us to die.  And that is hard.  Very hard.

    You see, I didn’t want to die to my dreams of being a famous and important pastor.  I didn’t want to die to being the pastor of an absolutely huge congregation.  I didn’t want to die to thinking that I had Christianity all figured out and that I had all the techniques to make congregations grow.  I didn’t want to die to the idea that if I just worked hard enough, everything would work itself out.  I wanted to have control.  I wanted to call the shots.  I wanted to have my cake and to eat it too.  It hurt to let it go.  It hurt like hell.  I hated dying.

    And it seems like such a ridiculous request.  It seems like such a ridiculous command.  “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me.  For if anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, you will find it.”  How can dying lead to such a thing?  How can I be confident there is something on the other side of death?

    That’s why there is resurrection.

    That’s why we gather here today.

            The tomb is empty.  On the other side of death, there is life.  It is not a story just for when our time on earth is done.  It is a story for how we live.

    You see, many of us have a common saying.  We say, “You know, if only (fill in the blank) if I had more money, if I had a better job, if my kids were better behaved, if I were more outgoing, if I didn’t make as many mistakes, if I had a nicer car, if the Texans would win the Super Bowl...then my life would be perfect.”  Each and every one of us says such a thing at one point and time, but the reality is, even if we were to get such a thing, we wouldn’t be satisfied.  We wouldn’t be fulfilled.  We wouldn’t be at peace.  These pursuits become our gods.  They take our time, our energy, and our focus.  Oftentimes, they consume our very being.  And waiting at the end of it all is our fear of death.  It is the one thing none of us can ever escape.  Sometimes, we use all sorts of worldly pursuits in trying to stave off what is immanent.  We stress ourselves out trying to escape the reality that we will eventually die.

    But what is death to one who has already died to self?  What is fear to one who knows that there will be eternal life?  Why does one need to run all over the place trying to take one’s mind off of the inevitable if you have already looked death in the eye and know what is on the other side?  This morning, I invite you to die.  I invite you to die to these things.  I invite you to die to the running and stress and anxiety.  I invite you to die to the way the world tells you to operate.  I invite you to die to the way the world tells you you will find all your desires fulfilled.  I invite you to die to your fear of death.  For death has been swallowed up in victory.  Oh death, where is thy victory?  O death where is thy sting?  It is gone.  The tomb is empty.  There is life, abundant life.  Jesus has risen and He now lives.  Let your heart become His home.  Let Him be at the center of your life.  And you will know the peace that passes all understanding.  You will know true fulfillment.  You will know inexpressible joy.  Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Loving Like Jesus: Maundy Thursday Sermon

    I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say, “If we could just love one another, everything would be great.”

    It’s a great thought.  It’s a happy thought.  But let’s think about this for just a minute.  Let’s think about why we love another person.  Let’s think about why we love something in general.

    If I were to ask most folks, “Why do you love your spouse?”, how do you think they would respond? 

    At first, you might hear some qualities they appreciate in their spouse.  You might hear about how the person is trustworthy, honest, compassionate, caring, and so on and so forth.  But as the conversation progresses, you will also hear a few more things.  “I love how I feel when I am with my spouse.”  “I love how my spouse takes care of me.”  “I love how my spouse is always there for me.”  “I love how my spouse seems to complete me.”  Stop and think about those responses for just a moment as we turn to our reasons for loving certain activities.

    Why do you love watching sports?  Why do you love hunting and fishing?  Why do you love driving fast in your car?  Why do you love taking care of animals?  Why do you love traveling and going on vacation?  “Because I like how I feel when I am doing these things.  I like how I can get away from everything.  I like how I feel in control and in charge.  I like how an animal responds when I care for it.  I like the endorphin rush I get when I buy something.  I like to savor the thrill of victory.  I like how I feel when I help someone out.  Stop and think about those responses as well.

    Do you notice what they all have in common?  Do you notice what is striking about many of the reasons we give for loving a person or engaging in an activity?  Because of how things make “ME” feel.  I love someone because of how they make “ME” feel.  Who is really the object of love here?  Who is really the one who is getting something out of the relationship?  Me.  I am. 

    If we could just love each other, everything would be great.  Right.  How can this be possible when the reality of love is that we generally love only when we are getting something out of the relationship?  The reality of love is that we generally only love another person or another thing when we feel good about it–when we feel like we are being made happy by another person or an activity we engage in.  If we could just love each other, everything would be great.  Sure, I agree with you, but how will you love someone when that other person is acting unlovable?  How will you love another person when that other person keeps taking and taking and taking but never gives anything in return?  How will you love when someone looks at you and says, “I hate you!” even though that person knows absolutely nothing about you.  Can you really, truly love everybody?  Can you?  And if you can’t what makes you think that “All the world needs now is love sweet love?” to quote that song sung long ago?  What makes you or anyone else say, “If we could just love everyone, everything would be o.k.”  Maybe, just maybe, if we were being honest with ourselves, we would change what we said.  Maybe, just maybe, if we were truly dealing with the reality of this world, we would say, “If everyone was just like me and loved me, then everything would be o.k.”

    But everyone isn’t just like us.  Everyone doesn’t love us.  This world is made up of people of all shapes and sizes and beliefs.  This world is made up of people who hold conflicting beliefs and act according to those beliefs.  How is it possible to love someone who is different than you; who believes differently than you; who acts differently from you; and who holds you in contempt for the way you believe and act?

    In the night He was betrayed, Jesus stood up in front of His disciples.  He took off His outer robe and He knelt before them.  He took a basin of water, and He began washing their feet.  He washed the feet of James and John who asked if they could sit at Jesus’ right and left hand.  These two wanted to be in the positions of power in Jesus’ kingdom over and above the rest of the disciples in that room.  Do you think that made them popular?  Not at all.  Jesus knelt before Matthew, a tax collector, a person of wealth and means who in all probability got that way by cheating others.  Jesus washed his feet despite Matthew’s past.  Jesus knelt at the feet of Peter.  Dear Peter who Jesus once had to say, “Get behind me Satan.”  Dear Peter who even at the moment said, “You will never wash my feet.”  Dear Peter who had a big head who denied that he would deny Jesus but went ahead and did so anyway.  Jesus washed Peter’s feet.  To each and every disciple with each and every personality trait and flaw. Doubting Thomas was washed.  Andrew was washed.  Nathaniel who remarked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was washed.  And then Jesus knelt at the feet of Judas–the same Judas who would betray Him for 30 pieces of silver.  And Jesus washed his feet as well.  All of these flawed men, Jesus washed.  All of these flawed men were embraced by Jesus’ act of humility. 

    “Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus said.  “13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

    Jesus wasn’t done with the instruction.  Jesus pushed it even further.  “34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

    But how?!  How Jesus?!  Sure, you can kneel in front of a tax collector, a denier, a betrayer, those who want power and prestige, you can wash their feet, but how can I do such a thing?  How can I love with this kind of love?  How can I love someone who does such a thing to me?  How can I love someone who doesn’t love me in the same way?  How can I love someone who is unlovable?

    I can’t.

    I just can’t.

    It’s too hard.  It’s too difficult.  If we could just love one another...but we can’t.

    But then Jesus says, “I can.  I can love them.  I can love you.  And here is how I will change your heart.  Here is how I will change your mind.  Here is where I will change you so that you can love with the love that I have.”

    And Jesus stretched out His arms and died loving the unlovable you and the unlovable me and forgiving us for not being able to love one another.

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

    And God said, “Your salvation doesn’t hinge on your being able to love everyone, but on Jesus’ ability to love everyone.  Your salvation doesn’t hinge on your being able to serve everyone, but on Jesus being able to serve everyone.  The way I love you does not depend upon your being able to love everyone around you, but it depends upon the way Jesus loves you.  You can’t attain your own salvation.  You can’t be righteous enough, but Jesus can.”

    And it is Jesus act of wondrous love that penetrates us to our very core.  Knowing He died for us when we were unforgiving, uncaring, unloving, and full of ourselves, changes us.  It humbles us.  It helps me know that I am not the center.  Jesus is.  And when Jesus is the center, a well of love springs forth from deep within.  When Jesus is the center a well of love gushes over and oozes out of our every pore.  When Jesus is the center of our hearts and our lives, we look at others differently.  We see them as fellow children of God; not as enemies; not as people we can get something from, but as people who God loves just as much as He loves us.  They are our brothers–our sisters.  The wondrous love of grace changes us and helps us love as Jesus loved.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

There is no Sugar Coating Life

There just isn't.

Plain and simple.

There is no doubt in my mind that life is good...at times.

And there is no doubt in my mind that life is really rotten...at times.

What astounds me is how oftentimes, folks stay at either end of the pendulum without naming life for what it is.

Martin Luther once remarked, "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is."

This past week has been rough for the community I serve (and for me as well).  A well liked church member suffered a massive stroke, and the prognosis isn't good.  He is on hospice and will meet his eternal glory soon.

Another church member and fellow musician in our church band expedited his meeting with Christ by committing suicide last week Wednesday.  A life-long struggle with depression finally ended, but the shock and grief hit a whole lot of people.

It was quite the double whammy for many, and there is no sugar coating it.  You can't put a good spin on things and say, "Oh, everything is just peachy-keen.  God is in control and is orchestrating all of this stuff to bring on bigger and better blessings!  Just have enough faith and everything will work out fine!"

You can take this train of thought and shove it where the sun doesn't shine.

As I have written before, I do not believe God orchestrates such events.  These events take place because of the brokenness of our world--they are a direct consequence of Sin--separation from God--not because of God.  It is during and after these events that God really and truly rolls up His sleeves and goes to work.  It is during and after these events that God works to bring good from evil; peace from turmoil; healing from suffering.

It is hard for me to fathom that many folks still cling to the idea that if one commits suicide, one is eternally destined for hell.  It is hard for me to fathom that some still cling to the idea that we are struck down with illness, disease, stroke, or cancer as some sort of punishment for the wrongs we have committed.  This works-righteousness theology sometimes runs very deep.

But God is a God of grace.  Christ revealed that unequivocally through the cross and resurrection.  St. Paul expounded on it through his letters.  For those who believe in Christ, we are not judged by what we do.  We are not judged by our actions for our righteousness does not depend upon our righteousness, but on Christ's righteousness.  We are not saved because of what we do, but because of what Christ has done.

As I remarked in conversation yesterday:

You know, if we were judged based upon what we do, we would all go to hell.  Jamie committed suicide.  He killed himself, but if I get angry with someone, according to Jesus, I am committing murder.  I am doomed if I am judged by my actions.  But I am not.  Jamie was not.  We are judged according to Christ's actions.  Period.

This doesn't sugar coat life.  It allows us to be frank about life.  It allows us to name all the pink elephants in the room.  It allows us to be honest about the circumstances of life and death.  It allows us to name the brokenness of life--call darkness for what it is--call pain for what it is--cry and wail and weep in the midst of that pain.

But it also allows us to live without despair.  For the theology of the cross leads straight to the resurrection.  Despair turns to hope.  Death turns to life.  Darkness turns to light.

In the midst of the messyness of life, I have come to realize I have a powerful, humbling privilege: to proclaim the gospel--to remind people that God is working to transform their brokenness into wholeness; to turn mourning into dancing.  I have the privilege of telling people that though Jesus died, He now lives, and because He lives we shall live also.  And neither life, nor death, nor things present, nor things to come--nothing in all creation--can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

There's no sugar coating life.

But in the end, there is transformation.  There is resurrection, and that, my readers, is sweet.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Behold Your King! Palm Sunday Sermon

    I remember vividly back in 2008 when Barak Obama was elected president of the United States of America.  I know this was not a popular choice here in Texas or in Austin County, but in the scope of the nation, at the time, this was a minority position.  The newly elected president had somewhere around a 71% approval rating even before his first act in office.  The senator from Illinois had burst on the scene with outstanding rhetoric and capitalized on the extreme unpopularity of President Bush.  He cruised to victory in the presidential election, and his victory party was a sight to behold.  So was the inauguration.  The president drew thousands upon thousands of people.  Shortly after entering office, he drew thousands to a speech in Germany.  He won the Nobel Peace prize.  Millions of people around the world celebrated Barak Obama’s ascension to the highest office of leadership in the United States–arguably the most powerful seat of authority in the world.

    Most new regimes are welcomed in such a fashion.  If you study history, you know this well.  For whatever reason, people usually grow tired of the old leaders.  Countries and nations become stuck in a rut.  They hear the same tired old speeches.  Their lots in life never seem to change.  Corruption enters the picture.  Friends of those in power get rewarded.  The rich get richer.  The poor get poorer.  Those in power enjoy the perks of the office, and there often is a growing perception that those leaders are out of touch with the reality of common folk.  Before you know it, people are clamoring for change.  People are clamoring for new leadership.  And when it comes, they welcome it.

    Case in point, let’s look at a snippet from Jewish history.  Long ago, the Greek armies under the Selucid empire invaded Israel.  They overran the country side, but as the Greek empire became stretched thin, some rebellions became successful.  The Jewish Hasmoneans rebelled against this empire and briefly issued in a time of independence for Israel.  Briefly.  Please know I am painting in large brush strokes here.  The details are much too intricate to get into in this sermon.  The Jews were all to happy to rid themselves of foreign rule; however there was also dissension.  As time passed, the people became less and less appreciative of the Hasmoneans.  They became disenchanted with their corruption, and supposedly, when the Roman empire began asserting itself in Israel, instead of offering resistence, the people of Jerusalem opened the gates of the city to welcome the Roman armies in.  Interesting historical note there, isn’t it.

    Of course, the Jewish folks then resented the Romans who governed them.  All to happy to welcome them to begin with, they were more than ready to overthrow them and become independent once again.  They were all to ready to have new leadership and new governance.  The seeds of rebellion were indeed planted, and all they needed was some energy to begin germination. 

    This is one of the reasons for the crowd’s enthusiasm on that day when Jesus made his way into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey.  This is one of the reasons the crowd placed palm branches and cloaks in His path.  They had all heard about Jesus.  They had heard about His deeds of wonder and power.  They had heard about Him healing the sick, making the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk.  They had heard of His feeding of the multitude.  They had heard of Him calming the storm.  They had heard about Him raising the dead.  They knew He claimed a special relationship with God–the Son of God; the Son of Man.  Here was, they felt, the one who would now lead them; who would defeat the Romans; who would usher in a new Jewish dynasty.  And he was riding on a donkey to prove it!

    This act of Jesus was intentional.  It was no act of humility.  The people knew that the prophet Zechariah had foretold in a vision long ago that the king would come to them in such a fashion.  You can read the prophesy yourself in Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Jesus knew that prophesy.  The people knew that prophesy.  The King was coming!  Regime change was on the way.  Celebration ensued! 

    But, you know, there is something that must be said about Kings.  There is something that must be said about political and religious leaders who rule over others.  These folks demand obedience.  These folks place demands upon their followers.  There is no king, no ruler, no prince, no president, no despot, no monarch, who does not give their subjects complete and total freedom.  None of them.  Zip.  Nada.  Zilch.  All of them, yes, all of them expect something out of their subjects.  This is probably one of the reasons people long for regime change after so many years.  They begin to reject the rules imposed by their king or leader.  They begin to rebel against the things that they perceive to be an imposition upon their lives.  Subjects begin to want to do what they want to do–even if they know the King is looking out for their best interest.

    It didn’t take long for people to rebel against Jesus.  For Jesus made demands, and He still makes demands of His subjects.  His teachings are clear, and He continued to make those demands after He entered Jerusalem on that day long ago.

    “Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you.”

    Jesus, do you mean I have to pray for those Roman soldiers up there?  Do you mean I have to ask God to bless them?  Yes.

    “Your neighbor is the person who is in need.  Even an infidel who acts in kindness is doing the will of God–if your enemy is neighborly, He is fulfilling the command of God.”

    Jesus, do you mean that God approves of and loves those outside of the Jewish faith? Does God look down upon them with kindness?  Yes.

    “If anyone wants to become my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me.  For you cannot be my disciple unless you give up all of your possessions.”

    Jesus, do you mean I have to give up everything to follow you?  Do you mean that I have to die to follow you?  Yes.

    “Give to anyone who begs.”

    Jesus, do you mean anyone?  Really anyone?  What if you know they are taking advantage of you?  What if you know they have plenty and are using you?  You still want us to give?  Yes.

    Is it any wonder why people rebelled against Jesus?

    Is it any wonder why we rebel against Jesus today?

    The obedience He asks for is simply too much.  It is an unobtainable reality.  We simply value our freedom too much.  We value our time too much.  We value our money too much.  You want everything from me, Jesus?  It’s too much to ask.  I can’t give it.

    Is it any wonder that the very crowd crying “Hosanna!” began yelling “Crucify!”?

    And here is a most interesting twist–a most interesting twist indeed.  For usually, when people rebel against their rulers, their rulers react swiftly and harshly.  Violence is usually the order of the day.  Imprisonment is certainly an option.  Fear of arrest, of marginalization, of being audited by the IRS, and a host of other such methods is usually the rule of thumb to keep people in line.  Kings throughout the ages have come up with nasty ways of keeping populations in line and in control.  Gas chambers, bombs, tanks, tear gas, you name it.

    But what was Jesus response?  How did this King handle our rebellion?

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

    Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested.  He allowed Himself to be beaten.  He allowed Himself to be condemned, and He willingly stretched out His arms and died.  He died for His rebellious subjects so that they may see His great love for them and then moved by His love, they may strive toward obedience–not out of fear, but out of love for their King.  A King who willingly dies that His subjects may have life; abundant life; eternal life.

    Behold, this is your King!  Amen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

You are Working Too Hard

It's never happened in my 14 years of serving as a pastor.

It broke the mold, and I am very thankful for it.

After worship this past Sunday, a congregation member caught me as I was tuning my guitar in preparation for Sunday School opening.  The following conversation is not verbatim, but I think it is a very close reconstruction:

"Pastor," the member said, "I am doing all of the things you said in your sermon.  Why don't I have it (peace and fulfillment)?  What is wrong with me?"

I stopped to ponder that question for a moment.  This was shaky ground.  Too far to one side, and you've crossed into that territory where you blame someone and their lack of faith in that they haven't found peace.  Too far to the other side, and you come across as self-righteous--with an "I've got something you don't have" attitude.  Too often, because of our weakness, this happens--even to the best of those who seek to help others grow spiritually.

"I don't know," I replied.  "Let's think about it for a minute."

"I've quit my job.  I spend a lot of time sitting and reflecting, and I still don't have peace.  I still am hurting.  I still am empty."

I paused once again.  Everyone's spiritual path is a little different, but there are still some similarities.  If there were none, the saints' experiences of old would have no meaning for us today.  As someone who has recently been converted by the gospel and been given a sense of that peace, I began working with this congregation member with mine.

Me: I know you read my blog.  I know you know all about my ordeal with burn out.  I know you heard the story of my grandfather's words to me.  "I haven't accomplished much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."  That statement hit me down deep and helped bring about transformation because it set things in perspective.

Congregation Member (CM): I understand that, and I understand that quote.  But it's still not there.

Me: And, something happened to me when I went away to my property out in Rocksprings.  I don't know exactly what it was.  I was away from everything; from television, internet, cell phones and technology.  I was completely reliant upon others when my truck broke down.  I came back different.

CM: I see that, and I'm doing a lot of the same things.

(light bulb!)

Me: Wait a minute.  You are doing?

CM: Yes.

Me: Think about that a moment.  You are doing all this stuff to achieve peace and healing.  You know, I once thought I had to do an awful lot to make this congregation grow. I thought it was my job to motivate people, to save the church, to get people to come here.  I thought it was all up to me.  Don't get me wrong.  I mean, I said all along that God's Spirit had to bring people to faith and bring them to worship and change their hearts and motivate them.  I said all the right things about grace and salvation and growing into discipleship, but down deep in my heart, it wasn't there.  I had it in my head, but it wasn't down in my heart.  I had to let all that stuff go.  Last Sunday, when I quoted the words of Amazing Grace, I almost didn't make it through the song.  I have always believed the words of that song, but it became really real, if you know what I mean.

CM: Trust me, as I left last week, I was bawling my eyes out.

Me: Maybe, the problem is that you are trying to get this peace and healing on your own efforts.  You are trying to do all the right things, but it isn't about that.  It's about God's grace healing you.

CM: Maybe that's the case.

This member began shedding tears once again.  My own lips trembled.  (Hey, I had to hold it together.  Sunday School was about to start!)  We embraced.

Later in the afternoon, I checked Facebook.  One of the status updates was a group I had liked--a group following C.S. Lewis quotes.  The quote read, "Your real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it.  It will come when you are looking for Him."

I quickly texted this quote to my congregation member.

I thought about what C.S. Lewis said.
I thought about my conversation with my congregant.
I thought about my own journey and sense of peace within.

And I said, "Amen."

Whenever a sense of self-peace, self-fulfillment, self-contentment, and self-joy is our goal, we are still being self-centered.  We are still at the center of our own universe and pursuing a false god.  It is not pursuit of God.  It is not pursuit of Christ.

Pause: Before anyone jumps me for not being theologically correct from a Lutheran standpoint, I understand deeply and appreciatively that I cannot "find Jesus" or "find God" through my own efforts and strength.  Christ coming to us is a tremendous gift which comes sometimes despite our best efforts often to avoid it and rely upon ourselves.  Yet, if our goal is seeking self-satisfaction, it clouds our relationship with Christ and ultimately does not allow Him to do His work.

When Christ becomes the center; when the understanding of grace takes root--that salvation comes from the Lord; when my own ego is shattered and self-righteousness is beaten back (but not fully conquered); when I realize Christ loves me despite my flaws and does not forcibly try to change those flaws and that I am called to extend that same courtesy to others; then the by-product is peace, joy, fulfillment and understanding.  I do not get those things without Christ being center.

Are you working too hard to find peace, fulfillment and contentment?  Are these things the end goals in and of themselves?

I think that if they are, you will not find them.  They must be cast off as false pursuits.

Pursue Christ; seek first His kingdom, then all these things will be added as well.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Happy Birthday, Boy!

"It will take a miracle."

I remember the words vividly as the reproductive endocrinologist spoke them to my wife and I many years ago.

Dawna had just undergone multiple tests in regards to infertility.  The results were conclusive.  There are many reasons couples are infertile.  Ours had a particular name: polycystic ovarian syndrome.  Basically, my wife has a major chemical imbalance in her body which prevents it from releasing an egg during ovulation.  Instead, the egg becomes stuck and forms a mini-cyst on her ovary: hence poly (many) cystic (cysts) ovarian syndrome.

"Your testosterone levels are among the highest I've ever seen.  You can try injections, but there is no guarantee."

I am a pastor.  I am not made of money, and spending close to $10,000 (at the time) was beyond my financial capability for a chance.  Insurance didn't cover the procedures.  We made the choice shortly after to adopt.

It took several years after that point, but we did adopt two wonderful little girls.  We were happy.  We were content.  We were satisfied as a family of four.

Then, something happened.

"I'm having to go to the restroom all the time, and parts of my body are swelling that haven't swelled since puberty.  I've done some research, and either I have cancer or I'm pregnant."

"Well," I replied, "Either way, you have to go to the doctor, so we might as well check on one."

Pregnancy test: positive.

"It will take a miracle."  So be it, and it came to pass.  Today, that miracle brings all sorts of joy, frustration, laughter, and amazement to our lives.

I do not know why we experienced this little bundle of joy.  I will gladly say that it wasn't because my wife and I did anything extraordinary.  We are not extraordinary or super Christians.  We don't have a special kind of faith.  We weren't doing the right things, saying the right prayers, or having hundreds upon hundreds of people praying for us.  It wasn't anything we did or were doing.  In fact, we had given up.  There was a glimmer of hope that maybe, possibly something could happen, but we surely didn't expect it.

One could say, "Well, that's the key then, just don't expect a miracle, and then it will happen."  No.  I don't think that works either.  It's not about what works.  It's about God's action and not our own.

Sure.  I know that may make some folks uncomfortable because then all those uncomfortable questions arise: Why does God do something here and not over here?  Why does God act for this person and not that one?  Does God go so far as give people prime parking at grocery stores when they ask for it?  O.K. maybe that last one isn't too uncomfortable, but I've heard non-believers ridicule believers over that one.

The uncomfortableness can easily be solved by saying that there is no supernatural intervention in this world.  There is a definite scientific explanation for all events.  In my case, a egg just happend to break loose, and my wife and I just happened to time things just right that the egg became fertilized.  (For those who know anything about polycystic ovarian syndrome, you already know there is no such thing as timing on these things.  There is no such thing as a regular cycle.  You literally are shooting in the dark and hoping to hit a moving target.  Try that sometime and see how "lucky" you are.)  One big cosmic accident?  Sure.  You could think that.  It solves the uncomfortable God question, but puts you at odds with simple mathematics and probability.

I come back to the scientifically trained, highly specialized person who told us, "It will take a miracle."

It did.  I'll live with the uncomfortable questions.  I don't have good answers to them at all.  I'm o.k. with that.  I don't mind ambiguity.

Joy overshadows it.

Every day when I look at my son.

And especially today.

His birthday.

Happy birthday, Kevin, Jr! 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Set Free from Our Modern Masters

    I know we cherish the thought that we are free.  I phrased that sentence very carefully.  Listen to it again.  I know we cherish the thought that we are free.  I mean, no one wants to be told or to think that one is shackled.  No one wants to be told or think that one is a prisoner.  No one wants to be told or think that one isn’t in control of his or her own life or destiny.  “I govern my own thoughts and my own life and no one tells me what to do!  I AM FREE!”  Or so we like to think.

    But are we really free?

    A couple of chapters before this story, Jesus confronts a group of Pharisees, and he tells them, “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’

    Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

    Now, you may say to me, “Well, pastor, I know that I sin, but I’m hardly a slave to it.  It doesn’t control me.  I ask God for forgiveness, and I continue on in doing the things that make me happy.”

    And so I ask you, “Are you then a slave to happiness?  By your own words are you not a slave to your desires?”  I do the things that make me happy.

    And I am sure you are happy–for a time.  But do you have joy?  Do you have peace?  Do you have a sense of fulfillment about you?  If you do, then congratulations, but do you think this is what I hear most people say about their lives?  Do you think when I ask people about how their lives are going, they say they are at peace and have contentment?  Not a chance.  In fact, I cannot think of anyone who has ever answered me that they are at peace.  Of course, everyone first says that they are doing fine, but in a matter of moments, if you really engage them in conversation, they begin telling you how busy they are.  They begin telling you how they are chasing after their kids, or their commitments, or after volunteer opportunities, or at work or what have you.  Our conversations constantly revolve around all the stuff we have to do or get done, and time and again I hear the stress and the strain.  “I’m tired.”  “I’m stressed.”  “I don’t want to deal with all of this stuff anymore.”

    And if I got up here this morning and said, “Just walk away from it then,” what would you tell me?  Many would say, “I can’t.”  Others might say, “Well, I’ll just stop coming to church because that’s a place where I can cut some time.”  Let me offer you this.  First, if you say you can’t stop doing the things you are doing, then I submit to you, you are not free.  You are a prisoner.  Second, I submit to you that if you decide to cut out going to church and coming into contact with the living God, then you are actually leaving the one place where you can be assured to encounter the one who can make you free.

    Let’s turn to our gospel lesson this morning from the 11th chapter of the book of John.  It’s the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus.  We see how Jesus is made aware early on that Lazarus is very ill.  Jesus purposely procrastinates in going to his friend’s side knowing full well Lazarus will die.  When Jesus does finally head to Bethany, He is confronted with the human condition–our bondage to sin and death.

    Upon His arrival, Martha runs out to meet him.  Martha tells Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Interestingly enough, this is not the first time we will hear this statement.  It will be spoken again later.  “Lord, if only you had been here...but nevertheless, I know that God will grant you what you ask.” 

    Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise again.”

    Martha says, “Of course he will at the resurrection.”

    And Jesus snaps back, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

    Do you believe this?  Jesus confronts Martha with the Truth.  In the midst of our struggles and stresses and anxieties, we usually become so overwhelmed that we leave the Truth behind.  We focus on all the stuff of the world, but neglect the source of our strength and hope.  We neglect the source of true freedom.  “I am the resurrection and the life!” Jesus says, “Do you believe this?”

    Martha says, “Yes.  I believe you are the Messiah.”  Are we so bold as to say the same thing?

    It’s interesting that the story doesn’t progress from here straight to Lazarus’ tomb.  There is more, and this time, Martha’s sister Mary is involved.  Mary now comes to Jesus, and she says the exact same phrase Martha said earlier.  “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

    But this time, Jesus’ response is vastly different.  This time, instead of appealing to the Truth, Jesus responds with tears.  Seeing Mary’s grief and the grief of those surrounding her, Jesus is troubled deeply.  Actually, that’s not the proper term.  The proper term is brought to a place of roiling anger.  It’s an anger that causes Jesus to weep.  Why?  Why does Jesus weep?

    Let’s take in three more sentences of the text.  36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’  Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed (billowing with anger!), came to the tomb.

    Remember when I said Jesus was confronted with the human condition?  Jesus is confronted with the reality of death, and His first encounter is with Martha who says, “Lord if only you had been here, this stuff wouldn’t have happened.”  There is both a statement of trust and condemnation in that statement.  Martha trusts that Jesus would have healed Lazarus, but she also has a hint of chastisement, I think.  Not just if you would have been here, you should have been here.  How often do we think the same things of God–you should make my life better.  You should take away my problems.  You should take away my anxiety, my fear, my guilt, my shame–if only you were here! 

    Mary offers another aspect of the human condition to Jesus.  She falls on her feet in front of Jesus and with tears says, “Lord if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  She is consumed with grief; with pain; with frustration; with agony.  Jesus sees this pain–pain brought on by death and suffering.  And He gets angry about it.

    Finally, Jesus knows the hearts of those who are saying, “Well, He opened the eyes of the guy born blind.  Surely taking care of a cold would have been pretty easy.”  They are doubting Jesus.  They are doubting that He is the Messiah.  Confronted with death, grief, illness, and suffering, they doubt that Jesus is who He says He is.  And Jesus gets angry once again.

    What is He angry at?  Is He angry at Martha and Mary?  No.  I don’t think so.  Is He angry at those who were expressing doubt?  No.  I don’t think so again. He was getting angry before their statement.  Is He angry with Himself for not getting there?  No.  He engineered this situation from the get-go.  If He’s not angry with any of the players in the play, then who or what is Jesus angry at?

    The human condition.  He’s angry at the whole situation of brokenness that we face when it comes to facing death.  And where did that brokenness come from?  Where did it all start? 

    Long ago, in the garden when man and woman chose to be like God instead of depending on God.  The sin of Adam once again rears its head.  Selfish desire strikes out showing just how we are trapped.  We are in chains.  Death holds sway, and many of our pursuits of life are efforts to deal with the fact or to avoid the fact that we will die.  We rush and hurry and scurry to get as much in as we can because we are going to die.  We enslave ourselves to our jobs and our possessions and our plans and our desires so that we can die having done and seen as much as we possibly can.  We end up stressed out burning the candles at both ends with no peace and no joy because we are afraid of death.  And Jesus sees this.  He’s angry about it.  Deeply and passionately angry about it because He knows, He knows this is not the way it is supposed to be.

    He knows that we are meant to have peace.

    He knows we are meant to have fulfillment.

    He knows we are meant to have joy.

    But we will not find them pursuing all the stuff we think will give it to us.  We will only find such things in Jesus.  He knows He must show us, and in the raising of Lazarus, we get a foreshadowing of why Jesus came into the world.

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

            “Show me where you buried him!”  Jesus exclaims.  “Roll the stone away!”

    Lazarus is raised from the dead to the astonishment of all.  Jesus shows that He has power over death.  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Abundant life.  Fulfilled life.

    And Jesus’ last words in our lesson today are, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

    Unbind him, and let him go.  On Calvary, Jesus stretched out His arms and died to reconcile the world unto God.  Three days later, another stone was rolled away and another tomb became empty, and the freedom released wasn’t just for one man.  It was for the world.  It was for you.  It was for me.  By grace, you have been set free, and it was and is through Christ alone.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Frozen" in Fear

Maybe I'm the last parent in the U.S. whose seen "Frozen."  Maybe.

My wife took the kids to see the movie long ago, and everyone loved it.  Can't remember what yours truly was engaged in at the time.  Probably work related.

Of course, the movie came out on DVD and BluRay a week or so ago.  The kids haven't stopped begging me to buy it.  (Before anyone gets the bright idea I'm a stingy old coot about buying the movie, please realize two of my children have birthdays this month.  Guess what at least one of them is getting.  Thank you.)  The kids found out my secretary owns the movie, and they conned her into loaning it to us.

Family movie night was Sunday evening.  Everyone was actually hoping I would be surprised by a couple of plot twists.  (I wasn't.)  And they were a little miffed that I figured out the act of true love that melted a frozen heart--before that act was actually revealed.  All that aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

Being the pastor and (ahem) theologian that I am, I cannot help but make all sorts of connections between faith, ethics and such movies.  "Frozen" offered a very, very good one in my estimation.

If anyone hasn't seen the movie, stop reading.  Spoilers ahead!

Elsa is blessed/cursed with magical abilities to bring about a perpetual winter.  If she can't control things, she freezes someone.  She hits her sister, Anna, in the head early in the movie (in the heart later).  Elsa's parents rush Anna to the trolls for healing.  Fortunately, the fix is quite easy, but the king  troll offers an ominous warning, "You must learn to control it.  Fear will be your enemy."   As a result of the accident and this warning Elsa's parents decide that she must be kept away from everyone, including her sister. 

What they don't realize is that they have just helped Elsa and fear become constant companions.  "Don't let them in, don't let them see, Be the good girl you always have to be. Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know." becomes Elsa's mantra.  It's a mantra of fear, and this fear literally keeps Elsa frozen--frozen in loneliness, frozen in relationships, frozen in emotion, frozen in stoicism.  How can she escape this prison?

She tries running away, but her problems follow her.  And not only do they follow her, they get worse and worse and worse.  Soon, Elsa's life is in danger, Anna's life is in danger, the kingdom's life is in danger.  Who or what can break them free from this bondage to fear?

The troll actually offers us the answer.  "An act of true love can melt a frozen heart."

Anna eventually provides that act of true love as she sacrifices herself for her sister.  (Don't worry, there is a happy ending.  It's Disney after all.)

Through her sister's self-sacrificial act--a willingness to become frozen herself for her sister--Elsa's own heart is set free.  She realizes that love drives out fear, and for the first time, she is no longer afraid of her power.  She embraces it, learns to control it--not out of fear, but with love.  She is no longer frozen.  She let's go of her fear.  (Yeah, now go listen to that song again and realize why it should have been sung at the END of the movie!)

I know fear.

I felt it deeply.

My fear was wrapped up in how my congregation grew or didn't grow.  It was wrapped up in how many people were in worship.  It was wrapped up in proving that I had the right way of doing things as a pastor.  It was wrapped up in proving that Christianity was true.  It was wrapped up in thinking that I was completely and totally responsible for making my congregation grow and stick together and thrive.  If anything threatened any of those things I just listed, I became anxious, fearful, worried, distressed, angry--you name it.

"An act of true love can melt a frozen heart."

When I realized I couldn't make this congregation grow, I became even more depressed and anxious.  I wanted to make my mark on the world.  I wanted to make a difference and receive the adulation and praise that came with making that difference.  Call me selfish.  I deserve it.  I was and maybe still am to an extent.  But something's happened.

"An act of true love can melt a frozen heart."

I told the story of the encounter with my grandfather this Thanksgiving.  Just a reminder.  His words still haunt and empower me to this day.  "I may not have accomplished much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."

That only happens by grace.  That only happens by the death and resurrection of Jesus--an act of true love.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Twas blind but now I see.

I spoke those words in my sermon this past Sunday, and I almost didn't make it through them.  My voice trembled.  Tears began welling in my eyes.  I'm not sure too many people saw or heard.  I don't know.  What I do know is the true impact in my heart.  Freedom.

Free from fear.
Free from anxiety.
Free from feeling like I had to do it all to make a church grow.
Free from thinking everything rested on my shoulders.

It doesn't. 
No longer frozen in the way things always were.

I can say at this point that this freedom has now allowed me to love the people of this congregation more deeply.  I don't know if they know that.

I can say at this point that this freedom has now allowed me to be more at peace within myself and with others unlike at any other point in my life.  I don't know if folks see that.

I can say at this point that this freedom has now given me a deeper passion to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ because I know, I know that which almost cannot be conveyed by words.  I don't know if folks can sense that.

But in many ways it doesn't matter what folks can or cannot see or sense.  I can't change them or make them come around.  Only the Gospel can do that.  Only an act of true love can do that.  Only Christ can do that.

When you encounter Him, you will know.  You will know peace.  You will know love.  You will know joy.  You will not be frozen in fear.  You will be able to let go of everything that once held you captive and kept you frozen.  Let it go.