Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why Worship...In Church?

For many years, I have struggled to answer this question.  In many ways, even some of the answers I have posted on this blog have left me unsatisfied.

I mean, I know what has been passed onto me:
  • Worship is central to the life of a Christian.
  • Worship is the place we encounter Jesus in the Word and Sacrament.
  • Worship is where we meet fellow Christians who share our joys and sorrows.
  • Worship is where heaven and earth intersect for precious moments helping us and equipping us to endure the grind of daily life.
  • Worship is where we are instructed and equipped for living the Christian life.
  • Worship is where we hear the Gospel.
All of these things (and a few more), I know deep within the depths of my being, but they are sorely inadequate in persuading people to attend worship on Sunday mornings.   Such points do not cut through the fortified walls people have erected in their lives--the walls of reasoning and thought excusing them from regular worship:
  • I am spiritual, but not religious.  
  • I can worship God anywhere.  I do not need to be in church to do so.
  • I do not find anything compelling when I attend worship.
  • This person hurt me, and I do not want to run into them at worship.
  • I do not like the decision the church made, and I will not worship.
  • I do not like the way the pastor preaches. 
  • I do not like the music.
  • I want more organ music.
  • I want more contemporary music.
  • I like being anonymous when I go to church and do not like small crowds.
  • I like being welcomed and part of an intimate group and do not like large worship services.
And the list could go on.  Instead of picking at each of these points and arguing their merits or lack of merits, I would like to approach things from a little different manner.

First, a lengthy quote from Timothy Keller's book The Reason for God:
If you don't trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God?  In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you.  For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won't have an intimate relationship.  Remember the (two!) movies The Stepford Wives?  The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands.  A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate or personal.

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will?  If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you?  You won't!  You'll have a Stepford God!  A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.  Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten a hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.  (Kindle Location 1901-1907)
Can you connect the dots between worship and this quote?  I am sure many of you probably can, but if you are struggling, let me try and clarify.

At my congregation's last council meeting, one of the members brought up an interesting statistic: there are 8760 hours in a year.  If you worshiped every Sunday (at an average of one hour per worship service), you would only spend 52 of those hours in a place devoted to God--that's less than 1/2 of one percentage point of your time!!!

But let's also put a little more perspective on this.  During those other hours, everything else in the world is striving to garner your devotion.  Yes, I said that purposefully.  Everything else is trying to gain your worship and adoration--from your job to your family to your children to your leisure time  to television advertizements to your possessions to even your self!!  Each of these things is trying to draw your heart toward it, and they are obsessed with owning you and your time.  Don't believe me?  Try giving any one of them less attention than you do now.  See what happens.  Not only may you get a visceral reaction from one of these things, you will also feel torn, like you are letting it down.  You will feel guilty for not obeying one of your masters.  That may sound harsh, but it is assuredly true.  False gods do not let go of you easily--and it is not easy to give them up.  They have a special place in all of our hearts.

And there is no way to totally get rid of the heart's desire to worship.  There is no way to get rid of the heart's desire to grasp onto an object greater than itself.  Consider what atheist author David Foster Wallace said during a commencement address at  Kenyon College,
Everybody worships.  The only choice we get is what to worship, and the compelling reason to maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.  If you choose to worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.  Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age starts showing you will die a thousand million deaths before they finally grieve you.  Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect being seen as smart and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is they are unconscious.  They are default settings.

Now, you may argue that there is nothing necessarily wrong with the "default settings" our hearts want to worship.  I mean, we do need money to survive in the world.  Taking care of our health and bodies are important.  Positive use of power makes a difference to people in the world--especially to those with no power.  Reading and studying to increase one's knowledge is generally a good thing.  I won't disagree with these statements, but that is not Foster's point.  Foster's point is that when these good things are turned into ultimate things, they will destroy you.  Each desire--while good in moderation--becomes destructive when it turns into an object of worship--a false god.  The reality is: there is no object of worship that does not lead to guilt, self-righteousness, pain, hunger, depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, except God.  Unless Jesus is the heart's desire, one will remain unsatisfied and without peace.

Which leads right back to the worship of Jesus in church during the week.  Why?  Because we must answer the question: how do we put Jesus at the center of worship?  For a heart will not willingly give up its objects of worship.  It will simply turn from one to another.  Again, consider this quote
from Thomas Chalmers in his sermon "The Expulsive Powers of a New Affection":

It is seldom that any of our bad habits or flaws disappear by a mere process of natural extinction.  At least this is done very seldom through the instrumentality of reasoning or by the force of mental determination.  What cannot be destroyed; however, may be dispossessed.  One taste may be made to give way to another and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind.  A youth may cease to idolize central pleasure but it's because the idol of wealth--the desire to make money--has got the ascendency; so he becomes disciplined.  But the love of money might actually cease to have mastery over his heart if it is drawn to ideology and politics.  Now he is lorded over by a love of power and of moral superiority instead of wealth.  But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object.  The human heart's desire for one particular object is conquered, but it's desire to have some ultimate object of adoration is unconquerable.  The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is to replace it with the expulsive power of a new one.  Thus it is not enough to hold out to the world the mirror of its own imperfections; it is not enough to come forth with a demonstration of its evanessive character of their enjoyment; it's not enough to simply speak to the conscience--to speak of its follies; rather, you must seek as a preacher every legitimate method of finding access to the heart for the love of Him who is greater than the world. (As quoted by Timothy Keller here.)   
What Chalmer's argues is that our hearts move from object of worship to object of worship to object of worship, and this only happens when one object gets displaced by another.  We do not give those objects up freely or rationally.  Only when one object is substituted for another does our heart let go.  Tie that to what Foster said previous, and one must ask himself or herself: to what am I giving my worship, and is that worship leading me towards abundant life here and in the world to come?

If Foster is right, and I think he is, then the only worship which will lead to abundant life and not devour you is the worship of God--particularly the worship of Jesus Christ.  And, it is only at worship apart from the rest of the world and false gods, where the Gospel is proclaimed--the action God took to save you, redeem you, and give you value and worth.  It is only in worship where you hold the body and blood of Jesus and take them into yourself that He may transform you from within.  It is only in worship where you shut out all the other false gods which demand your time, effort and energy and turn your attention to the One True God.  It is only by hearing that you are broken yet forgiven by no action of your own that the false gods begin to lose their grip and be displaced by Jesus.

For He is the center of all Christian worship.  Not the music we play.  Not who may or may not be at church.  Not the size of the church.  Or whether or not I feel welcomed.  Or I find anything compelling (unless you are only receiving the Law and being told what to do over and over and over.  That is not hearing the Gospel, that is for certain.)

And you cannot hear the Gospel sitting by yourself in a deer stand, or on the beach, or while fishing.  You may see God's handiwork, but you do not meet Jesus--sorry, you just don't.  The Word takes root in proclamation not in doing.

I know this post makes a very big assumption--that people actually want to be transformed into something different.  It assumes people want to know peace and joy.  It assumes they want to have an abundant life--much more abundant than running around from activity to activity feeling tired and stressed and overworked and the like.  It assumes people are dissatisfied with the way things are playing out deep within themselves and they would like to find a place of peace.

If that fits you, I invite you to worship.  Regularly.  Not once a month.  Not twice a month.  As much as you can.  No excuses.  Come meet Jesus.  As your heart is moved toward Him, you will notice the difference.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Being Yes, Yes People

    Today’s Gospel lesson is very deep.  There are so many connections and nuances that it almost makes the head spin.  I know that some of you may question me about that.  I mean, on the surface, this text looks absolutely straight forward; it looks like Jesus is telling us to be like the first son in the parable He told.  Change your mind and do the work seems to be the main point, but if you connect the dots, I think you will see it is much, much more.  I think you will see Jesus is calling us to something much, much deeper than simply doing the “will of the Father.”  Jesus is calling for the complete transformation of our hearts.  How so?  Let me try and explain.

    The text begins with the chief priests and elders coming to Jesus and asking Him a rather straight forward question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  This question is an important question because of two events that preceded this conversation.  First, it was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey.  Jesus entered Jerusalem in such a fashion to fulfill what the prophet Zechariah said long ago, “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.”  Anyone with any background in scripture knew the significance of Jesus riding in like this, and the chief priests and elders certainly knew their scripture.  The second event followed: Jesus’ cleansing of the temple–casting out the money changers and overturning tables right and left shouting, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a den of robbers.”  Again, you would be hard pressed to miss the significance of this act.  These are all actions of one who claims power and authority over earthly things and heavenly things.  These are the actions of one claiming to be the Messiah.  The chief priests and the elders want Jesus to come straight out and say this himself–probably so that they can trap him and arrest him.

    But Jesus doesn’t fall into this trap.  He doesn’t want to make things too easy for these folks.  He wants them to face the facts.  He wants them to face their own hearts–because, in the long run, he wants them to have a change of heart.  I’ll get to the details of this in a minute, but please trust me for the moment.  Therefore, Jesus responds to their question with a question of his own.  “The baptism of John–[or the ministry of John the Baptist]–was it of divine origin or human origin?”  This question is quite deeper than what it seems on the surface.  Sure, the chief priests and elders give one facet: they say, “If we say of divine origin, he will say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ but if we say of human origin, we risk angering the crowd because they believe John was a prophet.”  This is the line of reasoning given, but Jesus is going deeper–much, much deeper.  Why do I say that?

    Let’s turn for a moment to Matthew chapter 3.  This is the account of John the Baptist’s ministry, and we find some very significant things going on here.  For brevity’s sake, I will not read the entire account which is found in verses 1 through 11.  I will, however, hit the highlights for, you see, John’s proclamation was not simply repent and get your stuff together because the kingdom of heaven has come near.  John’s proclamation was not simply start living your lives in a manner worthy of God.  John’s proclamation was not simply repent or else.   John pointed to the Messiah.  11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

    And, of course, we know John was referring to Jesus.  For in the next passage we have the baptism of Jesus where John flat it says, “14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  John was pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus knew this.  The chief priests and the elders knew it too, but they didn’t want to acknowledge it.  They didn’t want to acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah, and if they acknowledged John’s ministry as having divine origin–that meant they would have to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus was effectively answering their question, and they didn’t like it.  Not one bit.  So they weaseled out of it.

    “We don’t know,” they said.

    And it’s not that they didn’t know.  They knew, but they didn’t want it to be true.  They didn’t want Jesus to be the Messiah because it would change their entire way of thinking and worshiping and acting.  They didn’t want Jesus to be the Messiah because it would involve them losing power and control.  They believed they were especially blessed and chosen by God to be in the positions they held.  If John’s claims were true, then, they were in trouble.  And they didn’t want to be in trouble.  Deep down, they knew this, but they were comfortable where they were.  They didn’t want to change.  What do I mean by that?

    Well, let’s continue on with what happens next and how Jesus continues to confront them.  Jesus says, “Well, then if you won’t answer my question, then I won’t answer yours, but what do you think about this...A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, “The first.”

    Let’s stop right here a moment.  Because I want you to have a very critical eye as you look at how the chief priests and the elders responded.  I also want you to have a critical eye in how Jesus responds to their answer.  Let me ask you this...does Jesus say they were correct?  Read carefully. 

    Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

    Does Jesus say they are right?  No.  No, he doesn’t.  In fact, the reality is, both sons did not do the will of the father.  In Matthew chapter five, during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught very clearly, “Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No.  Anything else comes from the evil one.”  In the first case, the word was No, Yes.  In the second case, the word was Yes, No.  Neither one is the will of the Father.  The will of the Father is Yes, Yes.  Yes, I will do your bidding.  Yes, I do your bidding.  This is what every parent dreams of his or her child.  It is the same dream God has for us. 

    You see, when John the Baptist proclaimed the message that the kingdom of heaven was near and the Messiah was soon to arrive, this hit the tax collectors and prostitutes where they lived.  They knew they were sinful.  They knew they were broken.  They knew their lives were not in accordance to the will of God, and they were remorseful.  This is perhaps a better way to translate the Greek for “changed one’s mind.”  The Greek gives the nuance of remorseful to the point of changing one’s heart.  The tax collectors and the prostitutes knew they were broken and knew they needed to change.  Jesus says, in effect, that this knowledge gives them the inside track to entrance into the kingdom.

    But the chief priests and the scribes have no such remorse.  They have no such change of heart.  Why?  Well, they don’t believe they need a savior.  They don’t believe they need a Messiah.  Yes, it would be nice if such a person came and threw off the Roman empire, but as far as their relationship with God was concerned, the chief priests and elders thought they were just fine–thank you.  They believed they were sitting pretty and were on God’s good side.  They believed God was pleased with them and their work and their position.  They had no clue of their own brokenness.  They had no clue of their own separation from God.  They thought they were doing God’s will, and they had no remorse for anything.  Their hearts were hardened.  Why?

    Well, think about it for a moment: if you think you are accomplishing all of God’s works–if you think you are living the right life–if you think you are moral and upright–why in the world do you even need God?  Why even worship God?  Why even kneel before Him in humility if you can carry out His every command?  If I can carry out all of God’s commands, well then, I must be a pretty good person.  I must be favored by God.  I must have status and worth, and if anyone else doesn’t follow those commands, then I am better than them.  They are beneath me.  Do you see the train of thought?  Do you see how this develops?  And if those people are beneath me, God must not like them very much.  They aren’t worthy of God’s attention, so they aren’t worthy of my attention either.  I don’t have to care for them.  I don’t have to love them.  I don’t have to have any sympathy or compassion for them.  And now, do you see how we have progressed to the point where the chief priests and the scribes have now become Yes/No children?  By thinking they follow God’s laws perfectly, they actually begin to break them.  And they don’t even realize they are doing it.  Hence Jesus says, “Even the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven before you because they heard John’s message and they had a change of heart.  Your heart’s stay the same and are unchanged.  They are not remorseful, and if you knew the Messiah was coming and was now here–if you believed and trusted John’s message–they would be.”

    Do you now see how layered and nuanced this passage is?  Do you now see how the webs are interwoven?  And can you begin to see the application for our own lives?   I mean, of course, we need to be people who are yes/yes people.  We need to be people who tell God, “Yes!” when He calls us as well as be “Yes” people in our doing.  There’s no doubt about that!  But how often do we do such things?  How often are we Yes/Yes people or even No/No people?  How often do we accept God’s direction and then carry it out or be courageous enough to say No/No?  Be honest with yourself and with me this morning.  Be brutally honest.

    The reality is we tend to be like either one of those two sons.  We tend to fall short of what we know we should do.  Most of us know we should be kind to each other, but we fail to do so.  Most of us know we should hold our tongues when it comes to talking about the actions of another person–yet we talk about them anyway.  Most of us know we should attend church more regularly and put God ahead of our recreational activities, but we don’t.  Most of us know we could and should be more generous, but we aren’t.  And the list goes on.  We tend to be yes/no or no/yes people who are driven by fear and guilt and anxiety.  We know we don’t get it right.

    Ah, but there was one who did get it right.  There was one who did answer Yes and then follow through.  There was one who understood the will of the Father, and by His wounds, we are healed.

    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 so that the world might be saved through Him.

    Yes, it’s all about Jesus here.  It’s all about the Son who completely did the Father’s will.  Who took on the mission of reconciling the world unto God; who faced temptation; who faced trial and tribulation; who faced suffering and death; who faced God’s wrath and abandonment; so that we wouldn’t have to.  Who took the payment we deserved and gave us the payment He deserved.  Who clothed us with His righteousness as He took our sinfulness upon Himself.  Who did so when we did not deserve it.

    And when we hear what Jesus has done for us, what does it do?  When we trust in what Jesus did for us on that cross reconciling us to God–what does that do to our hearts and minds?   It changes them.  It helps us break free of arrogance.  It helps us break out of self-pity.  It allows us to be remorseful for what we have done and continue to do while being secure that God’s love does not leave us.  And to the extent we trust what God has done, it begins to change our lives.  As our hearts become more and more trusting of His grace and mercy, we find ourselves saying Yes and then following through as we truly do the will of God.  Amen.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

No Expiration Date

I almost lost my grandmother earlier this week. 

She was admitted to the hospital this weekend with a pretty severe case of pneumonia.  She grew weaker and weaker.  I talked to her on Monday, and she sounded terrible.

Then Tuesday about 3:45 p.m. I received a phone call from my dad, "If you want to see your grandma before she dies, you'd better get down here."  Dad was crying.  I knew it was bad.  Dad never cries.

I told my wife I needed to go.  Thankfully she handled the kids' homework and dinner.  It was a three and a half hour trip to Corpus.  There was plenty of time to think.

As I drove, my thoughts centered on my grandmother--this often happens when a loved one is near death.  We think about all our interactions with them.  We think of specific times and instances which shaped our relationship.  We think of particular quirks, sayings, habits, and the like.  Sometimes, we are overwhelmed by all the memories to the point where we have trouble recalling all of them.  In those moments of blankness, you sometimes think--how is it that I've known this person for so long but cannot think of a single thing right now? 

And so you think of other things for a moment.

One of those other things did not settle well with me.  The terminology I have heard used in hospitals recently regarding death.  I dreaded hearing, should my grandmother die, the words, "The patient has expired."

Oh, I know the term is an archaic usage which means death.  I am also aware it means to come to an end or to the exhaling one's breath (of which a final expiration is a sign of death).  

But what is so hard about saying someone has died?

Is it more sensitive to say that someone has expired?

I mean, really, when I hear the word expire, I immediately think about the stores of food I have in my pantry.  What's the expiration date?  When is that moment when something becomes unusable?  Worthless?  Unsafe to digest our use because it might bring harm?

Maybe expiration date wasn't the best of choices of words to use when talking about food items because this is now the main usage of the word, I believe.  It's certainly how I use the word most often, and I don't like talking about death in terms of expiration.

I mean, if my grandmother "expires" does she suddenly become worthless?
Is she suddenly "unusable" as if we humans were meant to be used for something?
Is she suddenly "unsafe" or a threat to harm someone in some fashion?

No.  She would simply be dead--a state all of us will eventually enter into.

And I know my visceral reaction to this term when applied to death comes from my adherence to the Christian faith.  Death is not an expiration date.  It's a transition.  It's a threshold.

"For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain."  So said St. Paul in Philippians chapter 1.  For Paul, death meant a reunion with Christ--a joyous occasion when the temporal became eternal.  For Paul, death was a transition, not an end--not a termination--not an expiration.

Christians believe we do not have an expiration date.  The body may die, but we will be raised again to a new life.  And because of the eternal nature of the self, Christians believe we all have value--we are not simply useful creatures; we are not simply here for another person's pleasure or the pleasure of the state, capitalism, our family, or what have you.  We are here, made in the image of God, as creatures of immense worth--even in our brokenness.

In my opinion, using the term expired--particularly in the context of our culture and society today--cheapens the value of human life.  And as a Christian, the term is simply not true at all.  :-)

Monday, September 22, 2014

It's Not About Your Work

(Youtube sermon varies quite a bit from written sermon below.)

    A bit of a poll to begin today’s sermon.  Three quick questions:

    #1. How many of you think we would be better off if schools taught Christian values?

    #2.  How many of you like it when schools give ribbons and awards to everyone who participates no matter how well they did?

    #3.  In light of answering number one and number two, think about what I read just a few short minutes ago in our Gospel lesson, and let me now ask you if you want me to continue my sermon or just stop right here?

    You may have voted for me to stop, but let’s chase this rabbit for a little while, shall we?

    Why is it most of us say we want Christian values taught, but when confronted with the reality of the Christian faith, we run from those values?  Why is it we say we need to teach Christian values in schools, but then recoil when everyone gets an award so that no one gets hurt? 


    Well, speaking as a parent, I don’t want schools to hand out awards for just participation because the world doesn’t operate that way, does it?  The world of business; the world of commerce; the world of dog eat dog, rat race, what have you done for me lately does not reward you for just showing up.  It doesn’t give you a pat on the back and a six figure salary for just walking in a door.  The world judges you based upon your performance–not your being.  And if you do not contribute–if the world sees that you are not doing what it expects you, it punishes you; it shames you; it only gives you what it thinks you deserve. 

    And I would like to submit to you this morning, that we actually want it that way.  Yes, we do.  In a very real way, we want the world to operate this way.  Why?  Because we want our work to matter.  We want what we do to count.  We want our actions to affect our outcomes because then we have control over our lives and how the world treats us.  What do I mean by that?

    Well, think about it.  If your work matters, it is valuable.  And we want to be valuable.  We want to believe we are important and that our work is meaningful.  And if my work is valuable and meaningful, then I can expect to be rewarded for my work.  I can expect people to care about what I do.  If I choose to work hard, the world owes me something.  If I put in the hard work of studying and getting the right answers at school, then the school owes me an A plus.  If I bust my tail end and invent something, I can demand payment for its usage.  If I study and learn something, I can demand people cite me and see me as an expert in what I have learned.  Do you see how I have control?  Do you see how I have a say in my life and how it plays out?  And who of us really wants to give that up?  Who of us wants to cede any form of control and put ourselves at the whim of others?  None of us really.  We like control.  We like to think we are owed for what we do.

    Which is why I think, deep down, many of us don’t like it when everyone gets rewarded no matter what kind of work they do.  Most of us don’t like everyone getting a ribbon in a race with no first place, second place, third place, or what have you–it doesn’t give anyone an incentive to strive for excellence–to be the top dog–to reach for the winner’s circle. 

    And yet, look at how Jesus describes the kingdom of God in our Gospel lesson.  Christian values.  A land owner goes to the marketplace to hire workers.  At the break of dawn, he finds several guys in the marketplace, and he hires them for a day’s wage.  They trudge off to work.  The land owner goes back to the market at about 9 a.m.  He sees others standing idle.  He hires them promising to pay what is right.  At noon, the landowner does the same thing.  Then at three.  Then at five. “Why aren’t you working?” he asks the last group.

    “Because no one has hired us,” they reply.

    “Go to work,” the landowner says.  And they go.

    Here’s where things get testy.  At the end of the day, the landowner brings everyone together for payment.  For some reason, he starts with the guys he hired last.  He could have saved quite a bit of grumbling if he would have started with the guys he hired first.  Then, maybe, no one would have been the wiser.  But, that’s not what happened.  The landowner calls in the guys he hired at five o’clock.  And he pays them a full-day’s wage.  They only worked a couple of hours, and they got a full-day’s wage!!!

    And so does everyone else.  From those who worked two hours to those who worked twelve, all of them get one day’s wage.  They are all paid equally for completely unequal work.

    Of course, as you imagine, those who worked the most are outraged!!!  This isn’t the way the world works!!!  If you work more and longer, you should get paid more!!!  If you bear the heat of the day, you should be compensated more than those who worked only in the cool of the evening!!!  It isn’t fair!!!

    And if this story were all about you, you would be right.  If this parable were all about your work, you would be correct.  It isn’t fair.  It isn’t just.  It isn’t right.  It’s not the way the world works.  However, this parable isn’t about you.  It isn’t about your work.  It isn’t about the way the world works.  It’s about the landowner. 

    “Are you envious because I am generous?”

    Short answer in response, “Yes, we are envious, but we are also terrified.”  What do I mean by that?  Why would I add terrified to the end of that question?

            Timothy Keller tells a short story about a woman he was once trying to convert to Christianity.  He was sharing the Gospel with her, and she responded, “You know, this grace stuff is pretty scary.  I’m not sure I like it.”

    Keller pressed her, “Why?”

    She responded, “Because if salvation is based upon my works, then I have some control of my life and my salvation.  But if salvation is based upon grace and what God has done, then there is nothing He cannot ask of me.”

    Keller explains that this woman understood the Gospel more than many Christians.  She understood that if her salvation was based upon what she did, then she has rights.  If you pay into Social Security, then you are owed the benefits promised by Social Security.  If you pay your taxes, you are owed certain government services.  If you pay for your car to be repaired, it must be repaired correctly.  If you follow the rules, you should not be detained.  You have rights.  You can make claims.  However, if you do nothing and still receive the benefits...what happens then?

    Let’s take Jesus’ parable to the next level, shall we.  Remember, this parable isn’t about the workers; it’s not about their work; it’s about the landowner.  It’s about his generosity.  It’s about his willingness to do what he chooses with what he has.  Jesus is obviously pointing toward God the Father.  He is obviously telling us something about the nature of God.  And what is it?

    Just this: it’s not about our labor.  It’s not about the work that we do which earns you payment from God.  It’s not about us doing all the right things so that we will reap the great rewards.  It’s not about us just having enough faith and God rewarding us with health and wealth and perfect relationships.  No.  Not at all.  It’s about the payment already given, and it’s much, much more than a day’s wage.

    “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.”

    You see, were it not for Jesus and the payment He gave for our sin, we would be in a world of hurt.  “For the wages of sin is death,” St. Paul writes.  And none of us, I mean none of us, can labor enough to get out of our sin.  None of us can escape the reality of this world.  We want to have control.  We want to call our own shots.  We want to have our cake and eat it too.  We are genuinely selfish and self-centered–just like those workers in the parable.  They were angry because they were focusing on themselves and not on the generosity of the landowner.  And the reasons we get angry and frustrated and upset generally have to do with the fact that things are happing that we think shouldn’t happen.  The world is not doing what we think it should.  It’s not functioning according to our will.  We want to be at the center of things calling the shots, and in this scenario, who do we really want to be god?  Yeah, ourselves.  And the more we try to make things about ourselves, the more angry; the more frustrated; the more unsatisfied we become.  The more we try to take control–the more it slips through our fingers.

    And so Jesus says, “Let me show you another way.  Don’t focus on what you do.  Don’t focus on trying to earn your way.  Don’t try to justify your existence with your work and your toil and your labor.  These things don’t justify you.  These things don’t save you.  These things don’t give you worth and value.  I do.  I have already justified you.  I have already saved you.  I have given you all by dying for you.  I paid the price for you.  When you should have received the wages of death, I took those wages.  When you should have received the wages of the wrath of God, I took that for you.  And I replaced it with the wages I should have received.  I replaced it with eternal life.  I replaced it with my righteousness and clothed you with myself.  Not because of what you did but because of what I did.  Not because of who you are but because of who I am.  Are you still envious because I am so generous?”

    At this point, what can we say?  I mean, really, what can we say?  If this is what Jesus has done; if this is the generosity of the landowner; if this is the wage we receive not based upon our work but upon God’s work, how in the world should we respond?  Should we get angry at God’s generosity, or should we rejoice?  Should we rejoice that we who deserved to be last are now first?  Should we rejoice that others who were once in the same boat as us are now accepted and loved just as we are accepted and loved?

     So, when Jesus asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?”, let us replay, “No.  Not at all.  In fact, I am extremely thankful you are generous, for without your generosity, I would perish.  Thank you Jesus, for being so generous and paying me what I didn’t deserve.”  Amen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Peter's Declaration About Jesus: Head of the Church or Discipleship?

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time have probably read through the comments section of several postings and been introduced to Kathy.  Kathy has repeatedly offered the Roman Catholic position on many teachings of Christianity, and, of course, we have butted heads repeatedly because of some very different, basic assumptions.

One particular passage she harped on me about was Matthew 16:13-20 or Peter's declaration that Jesus is the Messiah.  This passage is used to justify the primacy of Peter as the head of the Church and then subsequent passing on of that lineage to each Pope (head of the Church) throughout the centuries.  Of course, Protestants do not read the passage in this fashion.

Recently, I preached a sermon on the text immediately following Matthew 16:13-20, and as I read through that text, I marveled at how this chapter tends to be divided up and separated instead of read as a coherent whole.  And, I submit, if taken as a coherent whole, these passages are much less about who is head of the Church and instead focuses on the nature of discipleship and on the nature of human sinfulness.

First, let's put everything together:

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. 21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’  24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’   (New Revised Standard Version)
 I found it extremely helpful to put the events of this snippet into a parallel format:

There are more than a few interesting things of note when you put these passages side by side.

In the first exchange between Peter and Jesus right after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus points out this knowledge did not come from Peter himself.  Peter did not acquire it on his own.  Peter did not work for it.  "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you," Jesus says, "but my Father in heaven."

Much like salvation, the knowledge that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, is not something a human can work his or her way up to.  God is involved in the process bringing a person to this knowledge.  Belief--or in the Greek: ultimate trust--is something given by God.  I think this is an extremely important part of this conversation.

Which moves us into the next piece by Jesus, and this is where much of the problem of interpretation lies.  Jesus says, "I tell you, you are Peter (Greek: Petros) and upon this rock (Greek: petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."  The linking between Peter's name meaning rock and the rock upon which the church is built becomes the proof many Roman Catholics use to say the Church is founded upon the apostle Peter.  However, the Greek is a little more ambiguous--especially since every ancient manuscript we have comes without any sort of punctuation.  The Greek could be pointing toward Peter's declaration about Jesus--that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God as the "rock" upon which the Church is founded. 

Fortunately, there is help in working through this issue, and that help comes in the parallel passage surrounding Peter.  For whereas in the first passage, tons of praise is heaped towards Peter when Peter announces what God has revealed to him; in the second, Peter receives quite the opposite.

For after Jesus and Peter have their first exchange, Jesus announces that He will head to Jerusalem to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, killed and to rise again.

This was not in the Messianic narrative.  No Jew of that time believed the Messiah would undergo such a trial.  What Jesus announced about His future did not gel with what every good Jew knew the Messiah would do.  Enter another encounter with Peter.

Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him.  As I wrote my sermon not too long ago, the Greek verb translated "rebuke" actually means to assign the proper value given a particular situation.  The situation is that Jesus is the Messiah, and Peter has to give Jesus the proper value.

Jesus reacts quite harshly because Peter's words hearken back to the temptation Jesus faced from Satan in chapter four verses 1-11 in the book of Matthew.  "Get behind me Satan," Jesus retorts.  "For you are a (Greek: skandalon) stumbling-block..."

Interestingly enough, these parallel meetings, Jesus invokes spiritual powers in regards to Peter's words.  "My heavenly Father revealed this to you."  "Get behind me Satan."

Continuing the intriguing links, in these parallel meetings Jesus invokes the imagery of rocks.  "On this rock, I will build my church..."  "You are a stumbling-block..."

Did you notice the subtle, but important shift in Jesus' speaking?  Did you notice how in the first meeting, Jesus says, "Upon this rock..."  Jesus did not say, "Upon you, I will build my church..."  Yet, in the second and parallel meeting, Jesus is absolutely specific.  "You (Peter) are a stumbling-block..."

I believe the shift in the language is not an accident.  I believe Jesus is not specific in the first encounter because Jesus is referring to the ultimate foundation of the Church--the fact that He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  The gates of Hades most certainly cannot prevail against this statement.  If we need any further evidence that Jesus isn't referring to Peter, it comes just a few short verses later when the gates of Hades--Satan--has prevailed in Peter's own heart and mind.  Jesus doesn't mince words, "Get behind me Satan.  You are a stumbling block."

Jesus turns His back on Peter at this point, and He reveals the true essence of discipleship--taking up the cross and following Him.  Suffering, death, and resurrection are central to discipleship--and trusting the one who upon the cross brought reconciliation to the world.

Peter in these parallel encounters provides us with a fantastic glimpse into our own lives as those who follow Jesus.  At one moment, we are praised because we get it.  We know Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  We did not acquire this knowledge on our own, but it came to us and was implanted in our hearts by God the Father through the working of the Holy Spirit.  But we too are quick to turn around and tell Jesus what we think He should do for us--following our own path and not His.  We too become stumbling-blocks.

And Jesus calls us back to the cross.  Jesus leads us to the place where He won our salvation and our reconciliation to God.  These two interchanges between Peter and Jesus lead us straight to the Gospel--what God has done for us.

For certain, Roman Catholics will disagree vehemently with this interpretation.  They have for centuries, and I have no issue with them doing so.  Nothing will change on that note; however, I think putting these two encounters in parallel allows one to get a better grasp of what is going on here.  It isn't about who gets to be head of the Church--it's about discipleship and how we both accomplish it and fail at the same time.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Aw, Hell

I remember vividly sitting in my Introduction to Theology class at Texas Lutheran.  One of my classmates made a comment to the professor about the devil.

My professor replied, "I don't know what you are talking about."

The student said, "Satan.  The devil.  The guy talked about in the Bible."

The professor responded, "I don't believe in the devil, so I don't know what you are talking about."

A bit of hyperbole on my professor's part, but his point was made abundantly clear.  He didn't believe in the devil.  None of us in the class were willing to challenge him on this assertion.  It's little doubt why.  Our grades hung in the balance.

Yet, it was a bewildering thought to me how a professor of theology who was an ordained pastor and practicing Christian could blatantly admit no belief in the devil--especially in light of what Jesus revealed to us in Scripture.  Yet, as time progressed, and I learned more, I began to understand.

I also found out, my college professor was not alone.  More and more folks in the "progressive" strain of Christianity do not believe in the devil, Satan, or even hell.  And as I perused the Living Lutheran website the other day, I found one more--the head of an ELCA seminary.

Dr. David Lose published an article titled, "Do We Miss Hell?"

You can read the following in context, but I will delve into a few things in succession:

For the last few decades at least, you see, “hell” has stopped being a particularly lively or compelling topic in mainline preaching and conversation. Given it’s relatively scant place in Scripture, that may be a far more faithful treatment of the topic than many on the far right of the religious spectrum would guess. But while many of us have a harder and harder time imagining the God we know in Jesus consigning someone to a place of eternal torment and therefore applaud this development, I have wondered from time to time if we’ve figured out exactly what is a good substitute for hell.
There are a few assumptions here.  First off, the idea that a "scant" amount of discussion in scripture equals a sense of unimportance.  I mean, geez, the idea of hell was only conveyed by Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate as He taught his followers and others.  Sure, it only seems to be relegated to the New Testament to the friggin' teachings of Jesus, but it's scant.  O.K.  Am I the only one who kind of sees this as a fishy assumption?  What else did Jesus say that we can simply ignore because it is "scant?"  Anyone?  Anyone?  Let's not play this little game here.  Jesus made reference to hell numerous times, and unless you want to say the NT writers were not credible--which there are more than a few who do--then you've got to deal with what Jesus said.  And if you decide to go down the road of simply dismissing such sayings as "Matthew's Jesus," then I am equally able to dismiss any other saying of Jesus in the same attributive fashion.

Second point--the God we know in Jesus doesn't consign someone to hell.  Dr. Lose should know better.  We consign ourselves to hell.  Read Dante's inferno.  Dr. Lose seems to be heavily influenced by the "far right of the religious spectrum" instead of the orthodox understanding of what hell really is--separation from God.  The fact of the matter is: God loves us enough to allow us to chase our deepest heart's desire for eternity; and if that desire is not God, then we will chase that other desire forever and never, ever be satisfied--hell. 

I must move on to more of Lose's article to continue the points:

What, that is, is the motivation for our gathering, our giving, our serving and volunteering? At least things were pretty clear when you had heaven as the carrot and hellfire as the stick. But what now? Even heaven seems increasingly difficult to talk about, as we perhaps too narrowly defined it as, well, the opposite of hell. So if we don’t have the mother-of-all reward-and-punishment schemes to fall back on, have we figured out exactly what we’re offering people. Community? Perhaps, though a little vague. Justice, certainly, though harder to attain (especially, some might argue, absent the threat of hell). Abundant life? This one appeals greatly to me but has been at times co-opted by the prosperity-gospel folks on the one side and Madison Avenue on the other.
*Sigh.*  The mother of all reward and punishment schemes.  Really?  I am starting to hope this article is tongue and cheek.  I really am hoping so.  With Luther's explanation to the eighth commandment ringing in my ears, I am desperately hoping Dr. Lose is being blatantly humorous here.   What is the motivation for our gathering, our grieving, our serving, and our volunteering?

Nothing less than what God has done for us.  But before I get to that, one more paragraph:

I think if the mainline traditions are going to have a future, we need to be far clearer about why we gather and what we imagine participation in our communities yields. I’m not advocating for a return to hell, mind you, just recognizing that we need to recognize that in a world of many faiths, many narratives, and many, many ways to make sense of our lives, we need to get straight what we think is the heart of the Christian faith and offer that in as winsome and compelling a way as possible. I don’t miss hell, but I’m not sure we’ve quite figured out what to do without. And that needs to change.
Yes, we live in a world of many faiths, many narratives, and many, many ways to make sense of our lives; however not all of these faiths, narratives, and ways are equal or truthful.  There is such a thing as objective Truth--even if we cannot know it objectively.  And Christianity stakes its claim on the God who became flesh and lived among us--the God who knew we were making a mess out of our relationships and our world--the God who loved us so much, He could not stand to see our destructive behavior toward Him and toward one another and after numerous times of trying to get us to change our ways through punishment and obedience to the Law, sent His Son to perfectly fulfill the Law, to pay for our sin, and to clothe us with His righteousness.  And on the third day to rise again to point us toward the hope to which we are guaranteed--a new heaven and a new earth with no separation from God.

Oh, I know.  I know.  The most difficult thing for most folks outside the Christian narrative to accept is their sinfulness or how that sinfulness has separated them from God.  I know the idea of original sin is passe in some circles.  I know many folks in the mainline and emergent church tend to talk about sin in terms of corporate structures.  I get that.  But the Gospel is meant for individuals to begin with.  "Truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above."  (John 3:3).  And if one is truly honest with one's self, one knows one is sinful.  Evidence abounds for this.  The desire to be our own god and rule our own little worlds reigns supreme in damn near everyone.  ("If everyone would just do what I say, then everything would work out fine," said everyone at some particular point and time in their lives.)

And yet, when the Gospel takes hold, a corporate structure begins to take shape:

Worship becomes the place where we gather in thanksgiving for what God has done through Jesus--to place Jesus at the center of our hearts and lives as we strive to combat all the other false gods which diligently sink their claws into us to pull us away from the One, True God.  Worship becomes the place where the Good News--the Gospel--is announced over and over and over again:  God, through Jesus has accomplished salvation for you!  Live into that freedom!  This Gospel cannot be lived out.  You cannot accomplish what Jesus accomplished.  It is already done.  Period.  It is no "mother of all reward and punishment schemes."  Every other world religion and philosophy operates in that fashion.  Those are all the ones which say "do this, and you will be rewarded."  Christianity says, "You are rewarded (accepted), now do this."  It stands alone in that category and is blatantly contrary to the way the world operates.

And when you know you are accepted...
When you know you are justified...
When you know that even in the midst of your failure, you are loved...
When you know the cost God paid to claim you...

You can't help but want to worship Him and lift your voice.  For in Him is life--abundant life right here and now.  A life, not full of wealth and riches (although some are lucky to acquire them), but a life full of peace and joy knowing one does not have to work to justify one's self.  One can freely engage in love without fear and anger. 

And if fear and anger take root in you...
If you feel like you constantly have to justify yourself...
If you think wealth, or health, or sex, or property, or what have you will satisfy...

You already have hell grasping at you.

But, aw, hell, what do I know?
For the last few decades at least, you see, “hell” has stopped being a particularly lively or compelling topic in mainline preaching and conversation. Given its relatively scant place in Scripture, that may be a far more faithful treatment of the topic than many on the far right of the religious spectrum would guess. But while many of us have a harder and harder time imagining the God we know in Jesus consigning someone to a place of eternal torment and therefore applaud this development, I have wondered from time to time if we’ve figured out exactly what is a good substitute for hell. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2014/09/140911-Do-we-miss-hell#sthash.eO9H4oBt.dpuf
For the last few decades at least, you see, “hell” has stopped being a particularly lively or compelling topic in mainline preaching and conversation. Given its relatively scant place in Scripture, that may be a far more faithful treatment of the topic than many on the far right of the religious spectrum would guess. But while many of us have a harder and harder time imagining the God we know in Jesus consigning someone to a place of eternal torment and therefore applaud this development, I have wondered from time to time if we’ve figured out exactly what is a good substitute for hell. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2014/09/140911-Do-we-miss-hell#sthash.eO9H4oBt.dpuf

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Gospel (Good News)

    I would like for you to consider this one tidbit of thought this morning as I begin my sermon.  Just about every major philosophy and religion in this world operates with the same basic premise.  Do you know what that basic premise is?  I will tell you.  The basic premise is: if you do certain things, then you will receive the rewards.  For instance, if you go to school and get good grades, then you will get a good education and have a better shot at getting a good paying job.  If you adhere to the eight fold path in Buddhism, then you will experience enlightenment.  If you follow the teachings of the Hindu Scriptures, then you will escape the endless cycle of reincarnation.  If you follow the Laws of the Koran, Allah will bless you.  If you work hard at your job, the company will reward you with adequate compensation and benefits.  I could continue ad nauseam with these examples.  They are very easy to come by because this is exactly the way the world works.  It’s exactly the way the world operates.  Do the right things, and you are rewarded.  Do the wrong things, and you are toast.

    We see this in operation day after day after day.  I was particularly struck by the story this week which has hit the National Football League–the story surrounding Ray Rice’s physical assault of his then girlfriend Janay Rice.  After the video of him punching her in the elevator became public, there was all sorts of uproar.  To an extent, it is justified.  The public disdains seeing someone who is physically superior to another bully and beat a smaller, weaker person.  Ray Rice was actually prosecuted for this event; although many are quick to point out his legal punishment doesn’t seem to fit what happened in that elevator.

    But now take a look at the extra-legal punishment doled out to Ray Rice.  At first, he was suspended for two games.  After the video, he was released from the team; he was barred indefinitely from being in the NFL; his family was dragged into the spotlight–even as he admitted wrongdoing and the fact that he and his wife have sought counseling.  Ah, but for some justice still has not been satisfied.  Keith Olberman went so far as to call for the resignation of Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, the assistant NFL Commissioner, the NFL’s legal counsel, the president of the Raven’s organization, and the Raven’s general manager.  Olberman also condemned anyone who would watch the Ravens on television or attend a game until such time all of these guilty parties were forced into resignation. 

    There are a couple of things to note here: as long as Ray Rice toed the line and did what he was supposed to do, then he was rewarded and handsomely.  He was making millions of dollars a year.  However, make one mistake–even an egregious mistake, and your entire life and the lives of others are demanded as payment.  This is the way the world works. 

    And we spend tons of time and energy living out our lives in this world.  We spend tons of time and energy justifying ourselves in our jobs; in our families; in our schools; and in our private lives with friends.  I used the term justifying ourselves purposely–for that is exactly what we are trying to do.  We are trying to appease others over and over and over.  We are trying to satisfy the wishes of others over and over and over.  We are trying to satisfy their desires, and we believe by satisfying them, then we too will become satisfied.  We too will reap the rewards and benefits.  If I sacrifice myself enough, then I will earn my due.  Does anyone here this morning disagree that this is the way the world works?  Does anyone here this morning disagree that this is the game played out almost every day of our lives? 

    And because this is the way the world works, how do most of us live our lives?  Wait a second, let me clarify that question a little bit.  What do most of us feel deep down within ourselves as we head to the daily grind?  What do most of us feel deep down inside when we consider the actions we are going to take at our job or in our families?  What do most of us feel deep down inside when we think about how we relate to others?

    I will submit to you this morning, we usually have two main feelings: fear and anger.  We are fearful that we will not live up to others’ expectations.  We are fearful we might slip up and cause damage to our lives and those we love.  We are fearful that at any given time, those above us might not see our worth and our value and therefore decide we are unnecessary.  We fear these things because we know retribution can be swift and merciless.  Fear dominates.  As does anger.  Yes, anger.  We get angry at those who do not work as hard as we do.  We get angry when we put in hour after hour after hour and our work does not seem to be rewarded.  We get angry when we try to live by the rules, and it doesn’t seem like the promises we were made get kept. 

    You may ask me why I say such things.  I respond: because it is exactly what I felt to a great extent.  Yes, even as a pastor who proclaims the Word of God–who taught and teaches that Jesus said, “Don’t worry;” who taught and teaches trusting the Lord brings peace.  Yes, I taught and still teach these things, but deep down inside, I didn’t believe them.  I didn’t truly get them.  I still lived in fear.  I still was angry.  I did not have the peace that passes all understanding.  Why?  I was trying to justify myself.  I was trying to live by the world’s rules–even as I worked out my calling to serve Jesus Christ.

    How did this happen, you might ask?  Well, I believed I had to make a congregation flourish–I bought into the notion that I needed to justify my ministry by racking in new members right and left.  I believed I had to have a full and overflowing church.  I believed the church had to have programs going on all over the place and people clamoring to be there every Sunday–full parking lots; full classrooms; overflow seating.  I read all the books on growing a church and sought all the techniques I could implement which would make this happen.  And I worried about what might happen should something go wrong.  I worried about people becoming angry with what I said or did.  I worried about how a particular statement would be taken.  I worried a lot.  Fear.  And I would get angry.  If people didn’t show up for worship, on the surface, I would say, “Fine,” while deep down inside, I would seethe.  When people left the congregation, I would become depressed and angry.  When programs failed and people didn’t show up to an event, I thought, “These people just don’t care.”  And at the heart of it was not righteous anger; instead it was anger that you weren’t helping me achieve my justification.  I was driven by fear and anger.  Perhaps, some of you can relate.  Perhaps some of you can’t.  I understand.  I never really knew I was driven by fear and anger until I burned out.  I never really understood the depths of my own brokenness and my own sin until I was confronted by the reality that the world will eventually try to eat you up.  I never really understood the depths of my own fear and anger until I realized I couldn’t justify myself and I was at the mercy of forces much greater than myself.  I never really understood how sinful trying to justify one’s self really was and how it only led to more frustration; more anger; more brokenness.

    But at some point, I realized my brokenness; I realized my sinfulness; I realized that trying to justify myself through my ministry and through the way the world worked was an exercise in futility.  And when this happened, I was captured by something completely and utterly foolish–completely and utterly foolish according to the world’s standards.

    Remember how I started this sermon?  Remember how I said, just about every single philosophy and religion of the world had an underlying premise: do this and you will be rewarded?  There is one religion–one philosophy which says the exact opposite.  There is one religion–one philosophy which has at its heart the notion–you are already made right with God; you are already justified with the ultimate being in the universe; you are already accepted even though you are broken; fearful; angry; and sinful.  You already have the greatest reward one could have, and because you have this, now live into that freedom with thanksgiving. 

    I want you to think about what I just said for just a moment.  Every other philosophy and religion says, “Do this, and you are accepted.”  Christianity says, “You are accepted, now do this.”  Do you find Christianity foolish?

    You might say, no, but really, I want you to think about what the world would be like if Christianity was the norm.  I want you to think about what it would be like in raising your children.  I want you to think about what it would be like to work in your job.  I want you to think about what it would be like to live in your family.  Want an example or two?  Christianity is like giving your children their favorite dessert before the meal and then saying, “I’ve given you the dessert, now eat your broccoli.”  Christianity is like an employer writing you a two million dollar check and then saying, “Work for me for the next 20 years.”  Christianity is like getting the toy you wanted for Christmas and then having your parents tell you, now be good because you got the toy.  Let me ask you again, do you see how foolish Christianity is?!!

    Do you at least see why St. Paul writes what he does in our second lesson this morning?  18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’  20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  

    No one operates this way.  No one.  Except God through Jesus Christ.  On the cross the rewards were handed out.  You were justified.  You were accepted.  Despite your brokenness and imperfection; despite your sinfulness; despite your unwillingness to follow the commands of God, Jesus died for you.  Jesus endured the wrath of God meant for you.  Jesus turned the way the world works upside down and said, “I will show you another way.”  For many this is still complete and utter foolishness.  It is complete and utter craziness.  How in the world will someone ever be motivated to do what needs to be done without fear and anger to drive them?

    What could ever replace those two emotions to lead us to work hard at our jobs; in our families; and in life?  How about love? 

    “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 might be saved through Him.”  This is the Gospel.  This is what God has done.  You no longer need to strive to justify yourself.  You no longer need to live in fear.  You no longer have to be dominated by anger.  You have acceptance, now love with the same love you have been given.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Only Once a Month?

I wish I would have saved the reference so I could note it in this blog post, but perhaps the reference isn't as important as the reality to which it pointed:


Sorry for shouting, but it's an important item to wrestle with.  I cannot remember if the article I read referenced PEW or Gallup, but the point is the same no matter who conducted the survey.

The majority of folks interviewed considered themselves regular church attendees if they attended worship only once a month.

This is quite different from a decade or so ago when regular church attendance was considered three or four times a month.  Now, it's only one, and even though I don't like it, it did jar me with my experience as a pastor even in rural Texas.  Even in my congregation, I think I can safely say a good chunk of people in my congregation fit this trend.

There are many things to wrestle with in regards to this trend.  I have already breached the topic with my staff, and will be visiting with the congregation council about this matter at our next meeting, but I hope to spend only a few moments bemoaning and griping and wondering why.  We can speculate and gripe and wonder 'til Kingdom come, and that does no good.  The trend is not only in Cat Spring, TX--it is nation wide.  The trend is caused by multiple factors, not by a simple cause and effect.  Deciphering what is "wrong" and trying to give it a quick "fix" will not happen--even though we like to think we are capable of "fixing" such matters or people.  What I hope to accomplish is get people thinking about the reality of church 1) if this is the trend and 2) what really must happen if the trend is to be reversed.

  • First, just a few moments of bemoaning, griping, and wondering why.  In my estimation, there is little wonder the definition of regular worship attendance has slipped and is slipping.  Society has shifted from setting aside Sunday as sacred--a day of rest to focus on God--to a day of work for retail and service industries and recreation/play time for others.  No longer do most businesses shut down on Sunday.  The need for more profit drives them, and workers' religious affiliation be damned.  Folks who work in this area of society generally are living paycheck to paycheck, and they cannot afford to tell their bosses and supervisors, "I want to go to church."  When the choice is bring home less income and decide whether or not to pay utilities, basic needs will win out just about every time.  And as the sacredness of the day gets diminished by the god of money, so then other gods find it easier to chip away.  
  • The gladiators of the ancient Roman Coliseum could not imagine the overwhelming draw of sporting events in our day and time.  A pastor friend has remarked numerous times, "Society shows you what is most important by the biggest buildings it constructs."  In the middle ages, it was the churches.  Then the universities became prominent.  Then the skyscrapers of business.  Now, the stadiums.  Sports offers all sorts of promises to parents and children.  Some of them are true, but a great deal are false.  Sports supposedly builds character, but I know from my own personal experience, it doesn't change a heart.  
  • Our technological society doesn't help either.  More and more we "connect" to each other via electronic means of communication.  Even this blog and the posting of my sermons is a testament to this.  If I miss church, I can read and hear pastor's sermon online.  There is no need to really and truly attend.  I can hear/read God's Word right from my bedroom in my pajamas, and I don't have to deal with the messiness of human relationships.  (Hey, I can even skip putting a few dollars in the offering plate.  It's a huge win!!!)  

Are there more factors: absolutely, but I told you, I don't want to focus too much on griping.  Onto the implications--or rather, what are some major questions of implication?

  1.  How in the world does a congregation run a Sunday School or youth program in such a cultural climate?   If regular attendance is once a month at worst (even that is stretching it for some) and two times at best, how can students learn much about the faith?   How can congregations with less than a certain amount of members find enough teachers who attend on a hyper-regular basis (3-4 times a month) to staff their teaching positions?   How can teachers build from one lesson to another if children are constantly missing--akin to teaching mathematics when a kid is present for simple addition and then next shows up for division?  Is it possible to have well attended monthly activities any longer?  What does the role of a youth director look like in such a society?  More of a program director?  More of a mentor?  More of a person who seeks kids out at home in the evenings?   Tough questions.
  2. How in the world do people connect to one another and have a sense of fellowship and familiarity?  How do people become more than a gathering of strangers on Sunday morning?  This is a fresh question since a family in my congregation decided to pull their membership in favor of another congregation down the road citing a lack of feeling "connected."  It's not surprising.  They fell squarely into that "once a month" demographic.  Given that there are an average of four Sundays in a given month, when your once a monthers are spread out over those four weeks...there is no way you can ever be connected unless you associate with fellow church members at other times on a weekly basis.  Plus, it takes time...sometimes lots of time to connect.  I am embarrassed to say that I have had quite a bit of difficulty remembering a particular congregation member's name.  I keep getting confused between "Bob" and "Bill."  I am sure it is more than frustrating for him--and it is for me too; and the sad part is, Bill is no once a monther.  We need personal contact between one another to connect and have relationship--it's part of human nature.  When we consider ourselves regular attendees while only coming once a month, we shouldn't expect to feel connected.  We simply can't with this irregularity.  Makes being in community truly difficult.
  3. How in the world do you put together a choir?  A bell choir?  A children's choir?  Getting individuals to sing shouldn't be a problem, but a group?  For the same reasons youth and Sunday School become problematic, so does choir and musical ensembles.
  4. How do you have a united sense of mission and ministry when so few are truly connected to a congregation?  
  5. How do congregation members care for one another if they do not know one another?  How does a congregation prevent pastors from becoming burned out since he/she is the only one who has direct contact with people on a regular basis?  (The same can be said for other church staff in their appointed areas.)
I am sure these are only the beginning questions of implication.  They are tough.  Really tough. 


Solving the "problem" goes far beyond logistics.  This is not something that can be cured by making sure a congregation is warm and friendly; or has a website, Facebook page, Tweets, podcasts its worship services and has the latest technology; or has great programs; or has a dynamic preacher; or has a central authority; or who focuses on the right doctrine; or so on and so forth.  This is not a problem which can be solved by a quick fix of tweaking something here or changing something just to be changing it.  It's not about trying harder and working one's self or one's congregation at a fever pitch.  Those will not change society.  Those will not change people's hearts. 

I am convinced only the change of hearts in people can make a difference.  I am convinced that unless the Gospel fundamentally changes people and leads them to be in a church community more often, we will, as congregations struggle mightily with this issue.  And the problem with this approach: it takes a lot of time before the Gospel affects this kind of change--a lot of time.

I am 40.  I can say that it is only in the past year that I have finally come to begin to truly understand the Gospel--that it isn't about what I do but what God has already done.  For so long, I was trying to justify myself and worship false gods.  I thought I would get a sense of satisfaction and wholeness through such pursuits.  You would have never, ever convinced me of this at the time.  I thought I was doing God's work.  I thought I was doing the right things.  I thought my priorities were in line.  I was and am a pastor, for heaven's sake!!

But I was wrong.  Dead wrong.  And I had to be fundamentally confronted with my sinfulness--my wrongheadedness before the Gospel could begin its transformational work.  That's started.  I know the Gospel's power.  I know it can change things and mightily.  But it takes time.  A lot of time, and with a huge chunk of people coming to worship only once a month, it will take an abnormal amount of time before change is affected.  Do we have patience? 

I hope so.

I hope so.

Monday, September 8, 2014

If You Have Anything to Say to Me...

    Our Gospel lesson this week is actually quite a bit longer than the designated text for the day.  The designated text put together by those who do the Revised Common Lectionary is actually Matthew 16: 15-20.  Next week, we are supposed to get Matthew 16:20-35; however, as I looked over these lessons, I couldn’t help but realize, these texts really should not be separated.  They demand to be put together because it is in holding them together that we truly get the Gospel revealed to us and lead us toward reconciliation and forgiveness.

    The text begins with instructions on how to handle reconciliation.  If someone in the church sins against you, you are to confront that person one on one.  If the other does not listen, you are to take two or three witnesses.  If the person does not listen, you are to bring them before the entire assembly, and if the person does not listen to the entire assembly, they are to be treated as a Gentile or tax collector.  This is very straight forward and simple, is it not?  I mean there isn’t much wiggle room in how we are supposed to handle a situation like this is there?  No.  There isn’t.  Except...

    Except no one follows this teaching.  No one.  Even those of us who are pastors and proclaim God’s Word Sunday after Sunday don’t follow this teaching of Jesus.  I mean, let’s be honest with one another when it comes to talking about reality.  Whenever we get upset with something someone has done to us or if they have done something in the church we don’t like, we don’t go directly to that person.  We either stew about it and stop attending church because “I don’t want to see that person anymore because he or she hurt me”; or we start talking about what that person did with anyone else who will listen.  “Did you see what color they painted the fellowship hall?  Oh the horrors!!  Why couldn’t they have just painted it white?”  If I can get someone, anyone to agree with me, well, then I feel justified in my position.  And, believe me, this is not something exclusive to congregation members.  We clergy jump on this bandwagon all the time.  We talk about our church leaders.  We talk about other Christians–other pastors.  Rarely, if ever do we go directly to someone and confront them with something they said or did–despite our knowing better.  I mean, even those who don’t follow Jesus have their own way of putting this.  You might have even said it yourself.  “If you want to say something to me...say it to my face.”  We know what we are supposed to do, but we just don’t do it.

    Why?  Well, of course, it’s easier not too.  I don’t have to face them directly.  But there are also the consequences that must be faced.  For whenever we confront someone with wrongdoing or confront another with hurting us, we are usually met with a harsh response. “How dare you confront me?  Do you think you are such a goody two shoes that you can tell me what I’ve done wrong?”  That’s just one of the responses.  I mean, oftentimes when we confront another, we come across as extremely self-righteous and arrogant.  This does not lead to reconciliation.  Furthermore, there are more than a few who have adopted the self-esteem gospel–that if we just let everyone know they are loved and perfect just the way they are they will work hard; do good things; and be productive.  Except that doesn’t work.  It actually leads to a sense of entitlement and narcissism.  And if you confront such a person with hurting you, it will fall on deaf ears because they don’t believe they are capable of doing wrong.  And even if you were to follow the teaching Jesus offers them, they would simply say, “I’ll just go find another church where I won’t have anyone mess with me.” 

    Do you see the difficulties involved with following Jesus teaching here?  Do you see why many people refuse to operate in such a fashion?  It’s too difficult to face another person, and the consequences are generally poor.  It’s a teaching which is almost too difficult to bear.

    Perhaps this is why Peter comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, how many times do I really have to forgive someone?  As many as seven times?”

    Some of you might think seven times is too small a number, but let me ask you this: would you let someone steal from you up to seven times?  Would you let someone slap you in the face seven times?  Would you willingly let someone take advantage of you seven times in a row without some sort of recourse?  No.  No one here this morning would think of such a thing–generally.  Seven times is a pretty generous number, but Jesus says, “No.  You are thinking too small.  As many as seventy-seven times.”

    And here we get to the important crux of the matter.  Here we get to why Jesus teaches what He teaches regarding reconciliation and forgiveness.  Here we get to why Jesus begins this segment with what to do if a member of the church sins against you.  Here we get a parable of God’s mercy and justice–a parable that leads us to the cross.

    Jesus tells us of a servant who has wracked up an incredible debt.  10,000 talents is the figure given.  Let’s translate this into dollar signs.  Let’s say an average laborer earns $30,000 per year.  A talent would have been 15 times that, so $450,000.  Take $450,000 and multiply that by 10,000.  That’s a lot of zeroes my friends.  By my calculations it would be $4,500,000,000.  This servant owed the modern day equivalent of 4.5 billion dollars!!! 

    Now, I want you to ask yourself: who in the world wracks up that kind of debt?  Who in the work borrows that much money–I mean aside from certain governments...  How in the world do you wrack up that much debt?  Any clue?  The best I can come up with is someone who is so totally irresponsible and so consumed with money that they get as much as they possibly can regardless of any sort of consequence or conscience.  This is the kind of guy Jesus talks about.

    Second question: what kind of lord loans that kind of money to this kind of servant?  I mean really.  Which one of you would have loaned that kind of figure to someone?  The lord must be extremely wealthy and not care what happens to that kind of money, that’s for sure.  Either that, or this lord must be somewhat crazy.  No one would even think of doing such a thing.  But apparently, this one did–at least in the parable.

    The lord comes one day to settle accounts, and he is furious at what is owed him.  He threatens to sell the man and his family as slaves to pay off the debt–this was considered quite acceptable in the world during that time.  The servant doesn’t want this to happen–not in the least, so he begs and pleads with his lord.  “Do not sell me.  I will repay you!”

    Interestingly enough, there are a couple of things to note here.  Unless one is very wealthy, this kind of debt cannot be paid off in one’s lifetime.  The guy is making a promise which cannot be fulfilled.  Secondly, it’s an obvious comment to save his own skin–a skin which was in trouble because of his irresponsible behavior in the first place.

    But the interesting stuff doesn’t stop there.  The lord, moved by pity forgives the debt!!!  He doesn’t work out a payment plan.  He doesn’t reduce the debt and work things out; he says you are off the hook.  You are free.  You are clear.  Go!

    Now, what would you and I do at this point?  What would you and I do if we were suddenly told that a huge amount of debt has been forgiven us?  Would we go out and do the same thing again?  Or would we be filled with joy at the fortune which had befallen us?  Would we be consumed with anger and greed, or would we have hearts full of gratitude?

    You would expect the latter, but this servant just doesn’t seem to get it.  He comes across a guy who owes him a pittance compared to the debt just forgiven him.  The actions of the lord had absolutely no effect on this guy.  He is still completely self-centered and selfish.  He is still as self-absorbed as before, and there are drastic consequences.  The lord will not let such actions stand.  Let’s try to understand why.

    A few months ago, I listened to a Timothy Keller lecture on Youtube, and he shared the following illustration by Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones.  Dr. Jones said that in order to understand the Gospel, one of the things I needed to understand was the size of the debt forgiven me.  In a sermon, Dr. Jones said, “Let’s say I come home one day from vacation and my neighbor, who was checking my mail told me, ‘While you were gone, a bill came, and I paid it for you.’  In order to know how to properly respond, I need to know how large that bill was.  If it was postage due, then I can say, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it.’  But if it was that bill from the IRS which says I owed thousands of dollars that I didn’t have, well, that’s another story.  But until I know the size of the debt you paid, I don’t know whether to say thank you or to fall down on my knees and kiss your feet.”

    Think about that for a minute as you consider what Jesus did on the cross.  For it was on the cross that Jesus incurred and paid the debt you had accumulated with your sinfulness.  It was on the cross that Jesus died as a payment to remove that which kept you from being on good terms with God.  It was on the cross that Jesus endured the wrath of God so that you don’t have to.  “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 so that the world may be saved through Him.”  On the cross, Jesus reconciled the world unto God.  Jesus reconciled you unto God when there was this huge outstanding debt that you had accumulated through your sinfulness. 

    And if you realize, first off that you were sinful and had accumulated debt.  Then, if you realize the size of the debt that Jesus paid for you.  Then, if you understand that He did this to wipe out anything that stood between you and God, you will get to that point where you say, “Man, I want all my relationships to be this way.  I don’t want anything to be in the way of how I live with others.  I want to be reconciled with them just like I am reconciled with God.”

    And so, if someone has sinned against me, I don’t wait for them to come to their senses; I don’t sit on the pain and just let it fester; there is something wrong, and if God took the initiative to fix it, then I want to take the initiative to fix it with whoever has wronged me.  And I will go to the one who hurt me, not in a spirit of self-righteousness because I needed forgiveness too, but in a spirit of humility–in a spirit of reconciliation.  I will go to that other saying, “I am not here to point out your wrong because I am so right; I am here because there is something between us that is keeping us from living out our relationship to the fullest.  I don’t want that thing to be there.  I want to be reconciled with you but I cannot because there is this hurt you caused me.”

    And if the other party does not agree, then, because you want this reconciliation so badly, you will involve others–ultimately the entire church because reconciliation is that important.  And if in the face of the church the other party does not repent–treat them as a Gentile or tax collector.  Which we need to ask–how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  He ate with them.  He healed them.  He associated with them and worked with them for the express purpose of proclaiming to them the Gospel.  He wanted them to know the marvelous power of God so that their lives would be changed–just like our lives are changed by what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.  Such forgiveness–such reconciliation from the heart is a difficult thing until you realize what Jesus has already done for you.  He’s forgiven your debt, and now He asks you to do the same.  Amen.