Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Cost of Adoption

Adoption is not an easy or cheap process.  When my wife and I adopted our two daughters, we had to jump through all sorts of hoops and pay all sorts of costs just to be able to adopt.  We had to have a social worker come out to our home and do a home study.  She toured the house and made recommendations for us that we had to follow so that our home would be deemed acceptable.  We had to undergo psychological, emotional, and family evaluations from that same social worker to check for red flags.  We had to undergo criminal background checks complete with finger printing and the like.  We had to join a support group and drive to College Station monthly to talk about the ins and outs of adoption.  Then there was the adoption fees that had to be paid.  Afterwards, there were the home visits after we had adopted the kids ensuring that they were healthy and taken care of.  Finally, we had to hire a lawyer and appear before the judge.  Fortunately, everything lined up.  All the i’s were dotted.  All the t’s were crossed.  We were deemed fit guardians, and so we became the legal parents of our girls.

It was a long, drawn out and costly process, but it is one that I would gladly go through again in a heart beat because I love my girls.  They were worth every hour of work that we put into the process; every mile driven to go to support group; every dollar spent on fees and attorneys.  I have no regrets at all–even as they are entering into their teenage years.  Oh, I may have joked that I’d turn them in for a refund if they got too out of line, but that’s not going to happen.  They are my children.  Period.  And they know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Dawna and I love them dearly.  We do not treat them any differently than we treat Kevin, who is genetically our child.  We would lay down our lives for our girls just as we would lay down our lives for our son.  Our girls will receive the same inheritance that Kevin does.  When we talk about our children, we don’t say, “These are our adopted children and this is our child.”  No.  We say, “These are our children.”  Because they are!

Talking about the adoption process is near and dear to my heart, and when I read St. Paul’s words from the fourth chapter of the book of Galatians, something is tweaked very deep inside of me.  And I am sure that it is because I know exactly what it is like to adopt children.  And the parallels jump out at me all throughout this short text as we now consider what it was for God to adopt us as His children.

Paul begins with these words, “4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”  When I hear these words, I think about the hoops that Jesus had to jump through to pay for our adoption.  You see, our adoption was not cheap!  Anyone who says grace is free needs to make a qualifying statement. Grace is free for us, but it cost God deeply.  The Son of God left his throne from on high.  He took on the limitations of human flesh to live and dwell among us.  He became the God who hungered; who was tempted; who thirsted; who slept on the ground; who worked with his hands; who endured the same things that we endure.  This was very unbecoming for any God of the ancient world!  Ah, but He didn’t just become like us–he succeeded where we failed.  For he was born under the law; he was born under God’s rules and commands.  And whereas we fail to follow them; we fail to complete them; we break them on a daily basis; Jesus fulfilled them.  Jesus worshiped only His Father; Jesus remembered the Sabbath; Jesus honored his father and mother; Jesus did not kill; He did not steal; he did not covet.  Jesus did what we could not do.  He became spotless and blameless before God.  He became righteous and holy.  He could actually stand before the Father and say, “I’ve done what you asked.  I’ve fulfilled your word.”

And here is where it really, really became costly for God to adopt us.  For in order for us to become children of God, we needed to be as blameless as Jesus.  We needed to have followed God’s commands as well as Jesus did.  We needed to have loved God above all things; kept the Sabbath; honored our fathers and mothers; not murdered; not stole; not coveted.  But we had failed.  Sin had stained us.  We were ensnared and held hostage by its power.  But Jesus redeemed us.  The word here in Greek for redeemed means to pay the purchase for a slave’s freedom.  Jesus paid for our release.  He paid for our freedom, as Luther says in the Small Catechism, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that [we] may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”  Jesus gave up his holiness; his righteousness and became stained with our sin.  The spotless lamb of God became dirty and filthy with all we had failed to do, and then he gave his righteousness to us.  He gave his cleanness to us so that we could become children of God.  Oh, this did not cost us a single thing, but it cost Jesus everything.  See what love Jesus has for you!  See what compassion Jesus has for you!  See the lengths that Jesus has gone to redeem you!  It cost him his very life!  But he paid it; willingly, with no coercion.  He loved you and wanted you to be his brother.  To be his sister.  He considered you family.

And now that is exactly what you are.  You are sons; you are daughters of the Most High King.  You are children of God.  As Paul continues, “6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”  Now hear what God does for you to help you know that you are indeed His child.  He sends to you the Holy Spirit.  This is the Spirit of truth who comes deep into your hearts to mold you and make you into the image and likeness of Jesus.  He comes into you to help you know deep down within the depths of your soul that you are loved and cherished by God.  He comes deep within you to help you look heavenward and cry out, “Daddy!” just as Jesus looked heavenward and uttered the exact same word.  When you are in doubt; when you wonder if indeed you are loved; when you wonder if God really and truly loves and cares for you; shut out the distractions.  Still your mind.  Quiet the inner thoughts and turmoil.  And let the Spirit warm your heart.  Let the Spirit penetrate your mind.  Let the Spirit move on you and through you, and you will sense deep within that you have been adopted.  You have been called.  You have been claimed.  You have been bought with a great price.  You have a Daddy in heaven who loves you beyond measure.

And you will receive the heavenly inheritance.  You will receive the same thing that your brother Jesus received.  You will receive all the love and joy and peace that the Father can give.  You will receive the assurance that no matter what happens in this life–whether it be good or bad; suffering or illness; or even death; God’s promises will come true for you.  You will have joy.  You will have peace.  You will have patience. You will have eternal life.  This is what it means to be an heir of God.  This is what it means to have been adopted as His child.  This is what Jesus came to earth to accomplish.  This is why he arrived in the manger; so that you may be his brother; his sister.  God has adopted you and paid a great price for you.  What a tremendous gift.  Merry Christmas.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Merry Christmas, Dilly Dilly!!

I’m going to start off this sermon with a little bit of a disclaimer: I don’t watch much television anymore.  Hardly any at all, in fact.  That’s an important bit of information to understand as I lead into my next point.

A few months ago, I started seeing some folks on my Facebook feed posting all sorts of things followed by the words, “Dilly dilly.”  “The Houston Astros won the World Series!  Dilly dilly!”  “Jose Altuve won the MVP! Dilly dilly!”  I’m like, “What is this dilly dilly stuff?”  And I was too embarrassed to say anything either.

Then one day, as I was browsing an internet blog that I frequent called Intellectual Takeout, I saw an article titled, “Bud Light's 'Dilly Dilly' Commercial is Ingenious.”  Well, that explained why I didn’t know what was going on.  No television.  But there was a link to the commercial on YouTube, so I watched it.  Now, I am curious.  How many of you have seen the “Dilly Dilly” Bud Light commercial?

Several.  Cool.  For those of you who were like me and clueless, let me give you a brief description. 

        The scene opens in a castle where a banquet is taking place.  A guy walks up to the king and puts a six pack of Bud Light on the table in front of the king.  The King says, “Sir Jeremy, you are a true friend of the crown. Dilly dilly.” 

Everyone else in the room raises a bottle of Bud Light and says, “Dilly dilly.”

Then a lady walks up to the king and places a 20 pack of Bud Light on the table.  The king says, “Madam Susan, you are an even truer friend of the crown.  Dilly dilly.”  The rest of the crowd raises their bottles and says, “Dilly dilly.”

The next person in line walks up and with gusto places this capped wine bottle in front of the king.  The music stops.  The king quizzically says, “What is this?”

The guy responds, “This is a spiced honey mead wine that I have really been into lately.”  There is a slight pause until the guy shakes his head with a little smile and says, “So...dilly dilly?”

The king instead looks at the guy and says, “Please follow Sir Brad. He is going to give you a tour of the Pit of Misery.”

The guy looks at the king and says, “I’m sorry, what?” But before anything else can be said, one of the party guests yells out, “Pit of misery.  Dilly dilly.”  And everyone else says, “Dilly dilly!”

Then there is the ending credits where Bud Light is advertised.

Now, some of you might just be wondering what a beer commercial might have to do with Christmas and the arrival of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on earth.  The two things seem to be miles upon miles apart and have nothing to do with one another.

But let me read to you an excerpt from the article that Intellectual Takeout posted:

When I first saw this, I laughed so hard to the point of nearly crying. This one ad brilliantly calls out the snobbery of craft brew culture and all the pomp that goes with it. Nowhere does it make a direct pitch for Bud Light. It just says exactly what we think but never say: Bud Light is a people’s beer, and that’s just fine because now the people rule.
So embedded in this commercial is a bit of the story [that]...  No longer would the elite of the past determine the tastes of the kingdom and the way resources would be used. There would be mass production for the masses of people. It was a revolution in history, and one that would never stop.
And from a marketing point of view, this commercial deals directly with Bud Light’s real competition in the craft brew industry, which is making inroads by the day. Bud Light obviously cannot claim to have a better product. And guess what? Everyone knows that. Everyone knows what a Bud Light is: it is a beer-like drink that is watery but let’s you drink a six pack in an evening without any great disaster the next day. Sorry snobs, but the people like this feature.
...If you are in the know, you are starting to get the sense of a whole world in which the tastes and habits of regular people have become the prevailing cultural sense. No more ... top-down cultural impositions.

Now, I’m not advocating that it is perfectly okay to go home and down a six pack of Bud Light.  Please don’t take that away from this sermon–unless maybe you are a Bud Light representative and would like to thank me for advertising your beer and would like to pay me for it.  No. Just joking.  JUST JOKING!!!  What I am trying to call your attention to is the idea the last thought expressed by the author of this article.  No more top-down cultural impositions.  No more imposing one’s will by power or force.  No more living a life of fear of punishment for failing to obey the ruler of the land.

You see, the fact of the matter of Christmas is that God could have chosen to come to earth with all sorts of power and might.  God could have chosen to come to earth being born to a king enthroned in power and wealth and majesty.  Jesus could have been born and raised in such an environment.  He could have become powerful beyond any king ever known.  He could have wielded the power of God from His thone, and, of course, He could have been very, very good.  He could have fed His people and ensured that no one ever be touched by hunger.  He could have healed His people from all disease and sickness.  He could have brought peace and prosperity to His entire realm with His godly wisdom.  But He also would have had to institute swift and immediate justice.  He would have had to use His power to impose strict punishment upon those who failed to obey His commands.  He would have had to harshly deal with those who stole or murdered.  He would have had to swiftly uphold His statutes and laws lest someone try to take advantage of Him.  He would have had to protect His people and unleash His power upon their enemies, striking them dead or rendering them helpless with a simple word.  While everyone would love this king’s power for good, they would have feared His power and punishment against those who wronged Him.  They would greatly love, but also greatly fear His reprisal for their failure.  This is what happens when you have a top down imposition of culture.  And while God does want us to obey His commands, He does not want us to do so in fear.

And so, instead of coming to earth as the baby of a king, God came to earth as the baby of an ordinary young woman engaged to an ordinary man.  God did not arrive in a castle but instead in a stable.  He did not arrive cuddled in warm blankets by a roaring fireplace, but He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger surrounded by warm hay.  His birth announcement was not given by state employees to the nobility, but was given by angels on a hill side to common shepherds.  God’s arrival on earth was not meant to impose fear, but to cause wonder–a wonder that would begin opening our hearts so that eventually we may see God’s great love for us.

And that love would be most visible, not in Jesus’ healing or teaching or providing food.  That love would be most visible on the cross when He died for our sins.  For this is truly how our fear of God is taken away.  When you break the law, you deserve punishment; you deserve justice.  And each and every one of us has broken God’s law–we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We have not loved God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  We have pursued other idols; other desires and not kept God in His proper place.  We have tried to justify ourselves and our actions saying that circumstances made us act a certain way or that other people caused us to fall into temptation.  God’s anger burns hot against us because of these things.  But Jesus, on our behalf says to the Father, “I will pay for what they have done.  I will bear the cost of their sins.”

It’s not such a strange thought.  I mean, what parent whose child accidentally breaks something in the store will have the store manager call the police to arrest the child for his or her carelessness?  No parent that I know of.  Most of us pay for the item that our child broke even though we were innocent.  We paid our child’s debt because we love our child.  The question becomes, does that child live in thankfulness for what the parent has done, or does the child continue with his or her reckless behavior?

You see, for us who believe in Jesus Christ, we look up at the cross, and we see what Jesus is doing for us.  We see how He is dying for our sin; for the sin of the world.  We understand that we are the ones who should be hanging there, and our hearts melt.  Our hearts break with sadness for our sin, but then they are filled with wonder and admiration for the One who would give Himself for us.  And we seek to put an end to our reckless behavior.  We seek to put an end to our chasing after our idols.  We seek to love and honor our King Jesus because instead of sitting in a throne in a castle, He has become enthroned in our hearts.  We seek to follow His will and His law not because of fear of a top down punishment, but because we love Him so much for what He did that we do not want to dishonor Him and His sacrifice. 

This love–this grace, is for the whole world.  It’s for kings and shepherds.  It’s for rich and poor.  It’s for parents and children.  It’s for Republicans and Democrats.  It’s for craft beer drinkers and Bud Light drinkers.  It’s for you and for me.  This love begins being poured out on this night as we welcome baby Jesus in the town of Bethlehem.  Let us rejoice that our Savior has come.  I am awful tempted to end this sermon with “Dilly dilly!”, but instead I’ll say, “Merry Christmas and Amen.”

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Gospel Strengthens You

Whenever I begin teaching my confirmation students the Bible, I always start with Genesis chapter 1 verse 1.  That verse reads, “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth...”  I ask them, “Who is the subject of this sentence?”  Immediately, someone will yell out, “God!” 

And I say, “That’s right.  God is the subject of the first sentence of the Bible.  The first sentence of the Bible tells us who the entire book is about.  The Bible is about God.  Now, are we the subject of the Bible?”

The kids usually have to think about this for a moment or two, but the general consensus then becomes, “No.”

And I say, “That’s right.  We are not the subject of the Bible.  Now, we can certainly find ourselves in the story of the Bible.  We can certainly relate to things in the Bible. There are certain things in the Bible that apply to us, but at the end of all of this, the Bible is not about us.  The Bible is about God.”

As Paul finishes out his letter to the Romans, he wants to bring everyone back to this basic fact.  When all is said and done; when all the chips are laid on the table; when all the facts are made known, ultimately anything and everything about the Christian life comes back to God.  Anything and everything about the Christian proclamation is about God and his wonderful, marvelous, overwhelming, action in and through Jesus Christ. 

Paul finishes with a sentence that would have made his grammar teacher turn over in her grave.  Paul runs things on and on and on as he seeks to bring folks to a place where they will give honor and glory to God.  Listen to the words once again: “25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.”

Paul indicates that God is working to strengthen us according to the Gospel and the proclamation of Jesus.  There are those who would like to say that Christianity is simply about enduring this life for a little while so that we can experience the true life of the world to come.  They accuse Christians of ignoring the here and now and simply focusing on heaven, but this is not what Paul is indicating here.  Paul is not talking about heavenly strength.  He is talking about a strength that takes place here and now; a strength that can embolden us in this world; a strength that empowers us to truly live a life of freedom and joy.  How is such a thing possible?  I mean, when you look at much of the world today–including the Christian world, do we see such freedom?  Do we see such joy?  Do we see such strength?  Maybe.  But mostly not.  Perhaps we need constant reminder of how the gospel of Jesus Christ strengthens us.

First, it says that we are sinners.  This is the fundamental, basic starting point of the Gospel.  We are all broken.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  We are all in need of a savior.  This doesn’t quite seem like it is a position of strength.  How can admitting that we are sinful be a position of strength?  It seems like we are admitting weakness.  It seems like we are admitting that we are flawed.  It seems like we are admitting that we are in need. 

And, indeed we are.  But this is actually a point of strength.  How?  I remember watching “Spiderman” long ago, and the main villain in the movie has a potent line.  The villain says, “The one thing people love more than a hero is to watch that hero fall, fail, die trying.”  There is some truth to that statement.  We admire someone who rises to the top, but we also become enamored in the drama of watching others trying to displace the person at the top.  Why do you think we become so enamored with what goes on in politics?  Why do you think we get so wrapped up in our candidates?  Who will become strongest?  Who will last?  And who will find your opponent’s fatal flaw?  Who will find the unforgivable sin?  What story of brokenness will be used to topple the king of the hill? 

But what if you are unafraid of your brokenness?  What if you are unafraid of your flaws?  What if you admit, honestly admit that you are a broken, flawed, sinful individual?  What if someone comes up to you and says, “Aha!  I heard you cuss the other day, and you shouldn’t do that!  I’m going to tell everyone about what you did!”  And you respond, “Yes, you are right.  I have failed.  I am flawed.  I acknowledge this beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Go ahead, tell everyone that I miss the mark.”  What does anyone have over you then?  What can anyone use against you?  You’ve already admitted your weakness.  You’ve already admitted your sin.  No one can use it against you!  When we admit that we are flawed, broken, sinful beings, we are free from the tyranny of having to be perfect people living perfect lives.  We are freed from spending time, energy, and money trying to hide our imperfections.  We are freed from hypocrisy for we readily admit that we do not do that which we ought to do.  There is great freedom in admitting that one is flawed and imperfect.

Yet, one must be careful–so very careful.  Because if you spend all of your time thinking that you are imperfect and flawed, you can become very, very depressed.  You can become so wrapped up in your weakness that you grovel and wallow in sorrow.  You can become so caught up in the doom and gloom that you think of yourself as a victim of karma, cosmic justice, or pure, bad luck.  You are like Charlie Brown having just hung that ornament on that scrawny little tree and watching that tree bend over unable to bear the weight of that glass ball.  You look up and say, “I broke it.  I’ve ruined Christmas.” 

Ah, but the gospel offers a strong corrective here.  It reminds you that in spite of your brokenness; in spite of your flaws; in spite of your failures; in spite of the fact that you have fallen short of the glory of God, you are deeply, wonderfully, marvelously loved.  For the God of the universe came down to earth to die for you.  The God of the universe took on human flesh and gave Himself in your place so that you would not receive punishment for your sin.  The God of the universe braved the fires of hell; braved the wrath of God on your behalf–certainly not because you were perfect and good, but because He is good.  When you remember this amazing grace, you ascend from the depths of depression, sorrow, and victim-hood to claim your status as a beloved child of God–a daughter or son of the Most High.  To know this status indeed brings strength!

Oh, and when you know that your worth and value comes from God and God alone, you find freedom.  You find glorious freedom.  I know that a lot of you Astros fans are still riding high from their first World Series win.  It’s an awesome feeling when the team that you support wins the championship.  But do you remember what it was like only a few short years ago?  Do you remember what it was like when the Astros were in last place?  What if you got your self-worth and value from how the Astros did?  What if your every emotion hinged upon whether or not they won or lost?  Sure, it feels good now, but what about when the cycle reverses?  You see, when your value and self worth is tied to anything, you stand a very good chance of finding yourself high one minute and down low the next minute.  If your value is tied to your stock portfolio, right now, you are feeling very good about yourself, but in 2009, you probably weren’t feeling very great.  And if you really, really think about it, you are enslaved to where you get your value.  You are completely dependent upon it for your satisfaction and worth.  But when you get your value from God–you are freed from such things.  Nothing in this world has control over you anymore.  Talk about amazing strength!!

And so, your ego finds itself going neither too high–because you know that you are flawed–nor too low–because you are deeply loved.  The good news of Jesus Christ makes you humble and strong all at the same time, and it brings you incredible freedom.

But we are not done yet!  For there is more to the story that must be told. There is even more strength that comes!  For we also know that we have a sure and certain hope!  We know that God has an ultimate destination for our lives!  This is very important to realize because, as C3PO said in Star Wars, “It seems to be our lot in life to suffer.”  Indeed, it is.  It is our lot in life to suffer.  Everyone sooner or later suffers.  We suffer the pain of broken relationships.  We suffer the pain of betrayal.  We suffer the pain of illness.  We suffer the pain of job loss.  We suffer the pain of broken expectations.  We suffer the pain of injury.  We suffer the pain of our bodies breaking down.  We suffer the pain of death.  Life is full of suffering.   Life is full of injustice.  Life is full of things that sometimes do not make any sense to us.

But God strengthens us through the power of the resurrection!  God strengthens us by showing that His kingdom is breaking into the world.  Jesus is the first fruits of that kingdom raised from death to life.  For the resurrection shows that God will unmake all the evil that has ever befallen us.  God will reverse all injustice, pain, suffering, and even death.  When God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness, we will have a new heaven and a new earth and a new body.  We will be in the presence of God, and He will wipe every tear from every eye.  Suffering no longer leads us to despair.  We may question it.  We may raise our fist in anger against it.  We will work to alleviate it, but it no longer devastates us for we now know God’s ultimate plan for our lives.  We know that God’s plan is to make all things new.  We have a sure and certain hope, and that hope gives us strength!

Put all of those things together.  Know that this mystery remained hidden for a long, long time, but now it has been revealed.  Now it has been made known to all the world.  It has now been passed down to us through the writings of scripture, and it comes to us–to our very hearts.  This is what God has done.  This is what God does for us through Jesus Christ.  It is nothing less than amazing.  It is nothing less than wonderful.  It is nothing less than fantastic!  This is the God we come together to serve and worship and give glory and honor to.  This is the one God who saves by grace.  This is the one God who reveals true wisdom–a wisdom that is so contrary to the way the world works!  This is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Have you been grasped by this Gospel?  Has this good news sunk deep down into your soul?  If it has, you know that there is only one thing to do.  Give glory to God!  Raise your voice in song to God!  Tell everyone what God has done!!  So ends the book of Romans–with a call for all of us to give such glory, praise and worship to our God.  May His work in Jesus Christ grasp us through and through.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

More than Just Greetings: Romans 16:1-16

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to talk about in our lesson from the book of Romans this morning.  I mean, essentially all you have Paul doing is sending greetings.  Greet such and such.  Greet so and so.  Greet this person who is beloved.  Greet that person who is a member of that house.  Over and over again–27 people worth of greetings. I mean, if that is the sum and substance of Paul’s paragraph here, what more is to be said than simply getting up here and saying, “Greet one another.  Amen.?”  Short.  Sweet.  To the point.  Done. Let’s call it a day.

But let’s take a moment to dig a little deeper.  Let’s go beyond the superficial and look at some of the details and see what is revealed about what it means to live a life that is convicted by the Gospel.

The first thing that stands out to me is how many people Paul actually knew in the church that he had never visited.  Think about this with me for just a moment.   Remember, Paul has admitted that he has never been to the church in Rome.  He has yet to travel there, even though he has desperately wanted to.  If that is the case, how is it that Paul knows the names of so many people?  How is it that he somehow can ask for greetings for over 20 folks whom he has yet to see face to face?

This gives us some insight into the early Christian church.  It tells us that in the early Church, folks knew of fellow Christians throughout the Roman Empire.  They were not isolated in their little enclaves, thinking only about themselves, and connected to their small circle of friends and relatives in their communities.  No.  They had a much larger perspective of what the church was.  They had a much larger perspective of where the Gospel was supposed to go.  They knew that the church was struggling to gain a foothold in the Roman Empire.  It faced trials and tribulations.  It faced some persecution.  It faced shortage of resources.  So, people stayed in contact with each other.  People prayed for one another.  People in Achaia and Macedonia cared for the people in Jerusalem.  People in Jerusalem prayed for the people in Rome.  The early Christians knew that the church was much, much larger than their local congregations, and they made it a point to reach across the distances to get to know folks in other places.

I must confess that this is an area of growth for me.  I tend to be rather short-sighted.  I tend to focus right here on this community and neglect others throughout the world.  I tend to forget that the church is much, much larger than Saint John Lutheran Church of Cat Spring.  I tend to focus my prayers right here and forget about the rest of the world.  I do not know many people outside of this congregation and the congregations I served previously.  It is a challenge for me to think on a grander think about the larger church.  Perhaps this is also a challenge for our congregation.

The second thing that stands out for me is the diversity of people that Paul greets.  There are men and women.  There are Jews and Gentiles.  There are people who own houses, and there are slaves.  These early house churches cut across racial, gender, and socio-economic status.  When you walked into those churches, you did not see row after row of people who looked the same, had the same background, and had the same status in society.  The Gospel had broken down these boundaries and replaced them with a new set of boundaries.

For you see, the Gospel proclaimed that each and every person was in Christ Jesus.  Each and every person had been clothed with Christ Jesus. Each and every person had a new identity that went above and beyond any other identity conferred upon them in society.  People did not cease having a Jewish or Gentile background. They did not cease being rich or poor.  They did not cease being slave or free. They did not cease being male or female, but those identities were nothing compared to their identity in Christ.  Therefore, there was only one status that was important in the church: that you were a child of God.

That’s it.
Nothing else.

You were not given special privilege because you were wealthy.  You were not given special privilege because you were male.  You were not given special privilege because you were Jewish.  All of these things, which at one time did bestow privilege, were gone.  You were a new creation being made into the image and likeness of Jesus.

This too has implications for the church today.  For it is awfully easy to flip back into the distinctions of status and privilege.  It is awfully easy to believe that our job or our title or our bank accounts or our possessions or any other distinguishing mark gives us a special privilege.  This is something we must resist.  When the church begins allowing these distinctions, we fall away from the promises we have inherited in our baptisms.  We fail to remember how Jesus has claimed us and clothed us.  We fail to remember what Christ has done for us and instead focus on, well, us.  And we are not the focus of the church.  Jesus has been, is, and always will be.  When a church fails to focus on Jesus, distinctions get made, and we are another step further removed from the becoming the body of Christ.

Finally, in this passage, we see a deep, deep sense of love and respect between church members.  Paul’s initial words about the deaconess Phoebe are a recommendation to end all recommendations.  They are very, very flattering and are intended to paint her in the best possible light as she, in all likelihood, brings Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  We then see just how far members in the church are willing to care for one another in the next statement.  “Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.”

I must confess to you that I don’t think I had ever paid that much attention to this sentence the previous times when I had read through the book of Romans.  Prisca and Aquila literally “risked their necks” on behalf of Paul.  Whatever they did, it put them in great risk for their fellow brother in Christ.  Whatever they did, it could have cost them their lives.  In the early church, folks were willing to risk their lives for one another!!!  Chew on that for just a minute. 

Being a part of the early church literally could put your life in danger.  Much like being a part of the church in Iran today, or in the areas still controlled by ISIS.  Much like being a part of the church in China.  Christians in these parts of the world are apt to suffer greatly at the hands of the ruling authorities, and being a part of the church there could literally jeopardize your life.

And yet, the church is actually growing rapidly in these parts of the world just as it grew rapidly in the Roman empire.  There was something so deeply moving about the Christian faith that it led people to do things that were almost unthinkable.  It led people to take unbelievable risks for one another–risks that were not done out of any sort of self-interest or personal gain, but risks that were taken out of great love for fellow believers.

And why wouldn’t they take such risks?  They knew what Jesus had done for them. They knew what Jesus had endured for their sakes.  They knew that Jesus had come into this world as God-incarnate.  They knew that Jesus had lived the life that God desired of mankind.  They knew that Jesus was spotless and blameless before God.  They knew that Jesus offered Himself as the sacrifice for their sins.  They knew that they didn’t measure up to God’s standards.  They knew that they fell woefully short.  They knew they deserved eternal punishment for their shortcomings before the Almighty Creator of the universe.  But instead of that punishment falling on their heads, Jesus took that punishment for them.  Jesus interceded on their behalf and faced hell for them.  Jesus faced rejection for them.  Jesus faced divine wrath for them.  And then He became the first fruits of a new creation as he was raised from the dead.  He became the first sign of God’s new kingdom breaking into the world and reversing all evil and hatred.  He became the unleashing of God’s rule in the world where death and the devil would be defeated.  These early Christians were grasped by this marvelous act of Jesus.  They were grasped by this undeserved love.  They were grasped by the wonder of God dying for them when they least deserved it, and their hearts were moved to love God and love one another so that they would lay down their lives for each other.  They would take great risks for one another.  They would sacrifice their time, their talent, and their treasure for one another.  The Gospel changed them deeply from within!

And O how desperately do we need this Gospel today!!  How desperately do we need to have Christ’s love poured into our hearts so that we are willing to have our lives changed again!!  How desperately does the church need an infusion of God’s love reawakened within it!  How desperately does the church need to rediscover its roots so that it has the energy, drive, and hope of the early church!  For as the rest of the world saw how different the church was; as the rest of the world saw the changed hearts and self-sacrifice of the church; the rest of the world noticed that this change was not brought about by self-will and determination.  The rest of the world saw that God had indeed touched the hearts and minds of the church.  The rest of the world saw that God was real and had come to earth as Jesus the Christ.  The rest of the world saw that God’s kingdom was breaking into the world, and they wanted to be a part of that kingdom as well.  The rest of the world’s hearts became changed because the Gospel captured them through the love, preaching, teaching, and risk taking of the church.

Oh, my brothers and sisters, this text has so much more within it than simply greeting one another.  It helps us see what the church can be when it loves God and then loves one another.  May God’s love find us so that we may be the Church!!  Amen.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

God's Plan for Your Life

God has a plan for your life.  It is a good plan, but, I am sorry to say, God’s plan will probably disrupt your plan that you have for your own life.  Let me put it more bluntly, if you seek to follow God, He will disrupt your life and lead you to places you never thought you would want to go.  He will take you down pathways that you didn’t expect.

It’s actually an old, old story that runs throughout scripture.  Noah never expected to build an ark.  Abraham never expected to be called away from his homeland to travel to a land far, far away.  Moses never expected to be called by God from a burning bush.  Gideon never expected to be called from his farm to lead Israel’s army.  Samuel never expected to be called by God as a boy to become a prophet.  This thread runs all throughout the Old and New Testaments, and it runs square through our text from the book of Romans today.

Paul is working towards the closing of his letter to the church in Rome, and as he does so, he lays out what he would have liked to have done and what he now hopes to do.  He says that he has been delayed in coming to visit the church in Rome because he had been spreading the Gospel throughout Asia Minor–establishing churches, converting the Gentiles, and making Christ known.  He has wanted to come to Rome desperately, but he hadn’t made it yet.  This is what he would like to have done.  Now, he shares his hopes: verse 23 and 24, “23But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.”  This is Paul’s plan.  This is what Paul wants.  He wants to go to Spain, and on his way to Spain, he wants to stop in Rome to enjoy their company for a while.


But Paul’s plan is disrupted by God’s plan.  Before Paul can make his plan happen, God has called him to another task.  “25At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; 26for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.”

Paul is taking an offering from the Gentile churches in Asia to the saints in Jerusalem who are in poverty.  This is not exactly a risk-free endeavor.  Remember, in those days, there was no such things as wire transfers.  There were no such things as checks.  Paul would have been carrying gold or silver coins along the way.  He would have had to worry about bandits and brigands.  He would have had to keep careful guard to make sure this money was not stolen.  He was taking a risk to deliver these funds to Jerusalem.

But he knew that this was part of his calling as an apostle.  He knew that he was called to facilitate generosity.  He knew he was called to help these congregations stay in touch with each other and work together.  He knew that he was called to build relationships between both Jew and Gentile.  Bringing this offering would help do exactly that, and at this particular point and time, building those relationships was more important than traveling to Rome and then to Spain.

Remember, in the ancient world, Jews and Gentiles oftentimes did not get along.  Before the start of Christianity, Jews and Gentiles kept separate.  They did not associate with each other.  Oftentimes, there was animosity between these two groups.  Yet, Paul knows that through the Gospel, these two groups have now been brought together in Jesus Christ.  In fact, the Gentiles now owe their salvation to the fact that the Messiah came through the Jewish people.  Paul says that in this regard, the Gentiles owe the Jews a debt.  The Gentiles are actually repaying part of this debt through this generosity.

Perhaps it is good to take a moment to think about this in light of the fact that today we celebrate the Women’s Thankoffering.  This tradition “goes back to the 1800s or even earlier. Then, when it seemed that there was not enough money to carry out the work of the church, the women would take action. Gathering in groups called “cent” or
“mite” societies, each woman would set aside offerings at home throughout the year, in thanksgiving for blessings received. And on occasion, the women would come together as we do today, joining their offerings together to support ministry of many kinds.” (ELCA Thankoffering service)

This tradition is rooted and grounded in remembering what God has first done for us.  It is rooted and grounded in the fact that Jesus canceled our debt of sin and offered his life in payment for our sins.  Christian generosity flows from a heart that is deeply moved by Christ’s sacrifice.  For a Christian, our financial plans are disrupted by God’s generosity toward us.  When we understand the Gospel, we cannot help but respond in generous giving toward the church and toward the world.  We cannot help but want to share with others our treasures.  Jesus’ love poured out on the cross leads us to pour out our love upon others.  Our offerings, the Women’s Thankoffering, the giving of the Gentiles toward the poor saints in Jerusalem are all examples of our love for God.  We don’t give because we are required or compelled.  We give because of a deep seated gratitude for what God has done for us.

Paul reminds the church in Rome of this as an explanation of why this ministry is so important and why he will be delayed even further from visiting them.  And then Paul asks for prayer.  And I want you to notice something very peculiar about what Paul asks for.  Paul asks for three things: 1) that he may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea.  2) That the offerings he is bringing from the Gentile churches might be acceptable to the Jewish saints in Jerusalem.  And 3) That he might finally be able to make it to Rome and be refreshed by their company.  Now, the reason I asked you to look at those prayer requests carefully is this: does it sound like there is a bit of uncertainty in Paul when he asks these things?  I mean, why would you pray that you might be rescued from unbelievers?  You pray this because there is a good possibility that you will be harmed by unbelievers!  God’s plan is leading Paul into dangerous territory!! 

Why would you pray that the offering that you are bringing be found acceptable by those who are receiving it?  Well, because there is a chance that the offering might be rejected!  This might sound far-fetched to us today, but in that time, it was not.  Jews were not always open to accepting offerings that came from Gentiles.  They might have been gotten by impure means.  The coins might have been used at one time for temple sacrifices.  The coins might be bearing the image and likeness of Caesar.  These were all things that were unacceptable to Jews, and even though some Jews had converted to Christianity, these things were still roadblocks to many.  There was a possibility that the Jews would reject the offering!!!  God’s plan has some uncertainty in it!!

Finally, why would Paul pray that he might finally get to Rome and visit?  Well, there was a possibility that it wouldn’t happen after all, that’s why!!  As God’s plan continued to unfold for Paul; as the Spirit led Paul in his work, it could very well lead him away from Rome again!  There was still much uncertainty in the air!!

What does this all mean for you and for me? 

I think that oftentimes we believe that a life of faith brings absolute security and safety.  I think that oftentimes we are led to believe that if I just pray enough; if I just believe enough; if I just give enough; then everything will work out according to the way I see it.  Life will run smoothly.  There will be no hiccups.  There will be no detours.  Everything will be good.

This is not what we see happening in the least in Scripture.  This is not what we see happening in the least when we see what Paul reveals to us about his life in this text.  In fact, we see quite a bit of uncertainty.  We see quite a bit of wonder about what the future holds.  We see potential pit falls.  We see potential danger.  We see that living out God’s plan–living with the Spirit leading us–takes us to places we might not want to go.  It causes us to do things that we wouldn’t normally want to do.  It causes us to take risks we normally wouldn’t want to take.  Who would want to face persecution by unbelievers?  Who would want to potentially have their ministry rejected?  Who would want to think that they wouldn’t be able to travel to a place they wanted to go?  We like to have certainty.

But in living a life of faith, there is no certainty in the journey.  There is only certainty in the destination.  Let me say that again.  When living a life of faith, there is no certainty in the journey.  There is only certainty in the destination.  God has a plan.  We don’t know what that plan is, but in the end it will be good.  In fact, it will be more fantastic than we could ever imagine.  And to hold firm to this, we need to hold firm to our trust in Jesus.

For in Jesus, we see that a life of faith does not always lead us to the best of times.  In fact, in Jesus, we see a life that leads us to the cross.  We see a life that leads to self-sacrifice.  We see a life that leads to pain and even death. If we as Christians are molded into the image and likeness of Jesus, we can expect nothing less in our lives as well.  We can expect nothing less than pain and sorrow and death in our lives as well.

But fortunately, the story does not end with death.  The story ends with resurrection.  The story ends with all evil being reversed. The story ends in triumph.  The glory comes after the cross.  The joy comes after the sorrow.  The light shines after the darkness.  The ending is good. 

Paul trusted in that ending.  For his final prayer lifts this up.  “33The God of peace be with all of you. Amen.”  The God of peace.  Not peace in a calm, tranquil life.  But peace in God.  Peace in one’s heart.  Peace in knowing that no matter what happens and befalls you; no matter that you are knocked away from your wishes and desires and outcomes; no matter that you face pain and sorrow and grief; that God is at work in our lives.  God is at work to bring us to the fullness of faith.  God is at work to bring transformation and joy.  God is at work to bring His plan to fruition–a plan that wildly exceeds our greatest dreams–a plan to make us into His image and likeness.  No matter what troubles befall you, rest your hope in Jesus.  He has a plan for your life, and it is good.  Amen.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Changing the World: Romans 15:14-21

I can only imagine the dread that I would feel should I look up one Sunday morning and see someone enter through those doors at the back of our sanctuary clothed in body armor and wielding several guns.  I can’t imagine the horror I would experience seeing this person shooting at you as you sat in the pews; perhaps scrambling for safety; perhaps throwing stuff at the shooter; perhaps screaming in agony.  Such terrifying thoughts should never take place because such things should never happen.  But such a thing did happen last Sunday, and we are all aware of it.

As happens with such events, folks are quick to jump into the blame game.  Generally, the blame is simplistic–guns, mental health, the NRA, lack of proper laws.  We want a simple answer so that we can get a quick fix.  We just need to properly fund mental health care, and these things will stop.  We just need to pass the correct gun law, and these things will stop.  We just need to arm every single citizen, and these things will stop.  Simple problems can be solved with simple answers, and that’s what we like.

But what if the problem runs deeper?  What if the problem is more complex and more difficult to solve?  What if the problem cannot be solved by passing laws or spending money?

This is a heck of a sermon to be preaching on the day that we are confirming seven young men and women.  It would be nice to have a fluffy, happy sermon.  It would be nice to have a sermon that is simply rejoicing and full of rainbows and unicorns.  But the world is not full of rainbows and unicorns.  The world is not always just or kind or fair.  The world is oftentimes full of hatred and violence and evil.  We see this on a daily basis when we look at the news.

But there is other news that is oftentimes overlooked.  There is other news that is oftentimes ignored or relegated to superstition or called a myth.  There is other news that has power to bring change; to bring hope; to bring light into the darkness.  It is the news that we as the church have been entrusted with.  It is the news that God has begun His restoration project of the world.  God has begun the process of unleashing His kingdom, and He builds that kingdom one heart at a time.  He is building that kingdom through you; through me; through these seven young men and women; and He is expecting us to go out and help that kingdom grow.

And that is not an easy task.  It is not an easy task at all because of the society in which we live.  For you see, I believe that our society has changed.  I would argue that at one point and time in our society, most folks agreed on what was right and what was wrong.  They agreed on a basic standard of morality.  They agreed on what was shameful, and they corrected the folks who deviated from what was considered acceptable.  Now, this was not always a perfect process, and sometimes what was agreed upon was wrong, I mean, I my family would look very differently if I were living in the 1950's.  Sometimes a shaking up of the boundaries is a good thing–as long as you establish other boundaries.

I am not certain that we have any clear cut, universal boundaries in our society anymore.  I am not certain that we have any clear cut, moral values in our society anymore.  I am not certain that you can go out in public anymore and correct anyone who might be deviating from what might be considered the norm.  What do I mean by that?  Well, let’s say that you are walking around in Wal-Mart.  You are walking by the toy section, and you see a child flop down on the floor throwing a temper tantrum because he or she wants a toy.  You see the parent, bend down and say, “There, there, stop crying.  I will get you the toy.”  If you were to tell that parent, “You know, it’s probably not a good idea to give that kid a toy because he threw a temper tantrum,” what is likely to happen?

Well, that person will probably look you right in the eye and with more than a bit of anger tell you, “You have no right to tell me how I should parent.  You just mind your own business!”

Oh, and just in case you might feel morally superior to that person, reverse the roles.  Say your child was throwing a temper tantrum and you were refusing to give in.  Say that other parent walked up to you and said, “You know, you should really just give the kid a toy.  They aren’t going to be with you forever, so you should just spoil them.”  What would you say?  “You have no right to tell me how to parent!!!”  You see, it works both ways.  We want to defend “our” rights to do things as we please.  We don’t like anyone telling us what to do.

And here begins the problem.

If I don’t like anyone telling me what to do, who becomes the ultimate authority of my life?  I do.  I become the sole source of authority of what is right and what is wrong.  I become the sole source of what I think is good and what I think is bad.  I call the shots.  I make my own way.  I am my own boss.

Now, what if everyone feels the exact same way?  What if everyone believes he or she is their own boss?  What if everyone thinks no one has the right to tell them what to do or how to act?  What do you end up with?


You have people thinking they can do anything without any sort of correction at all.  You have people thinking that it is perfectly okay to shoot folks at a concert; shoot folks in a church; say that there is no such thing as male or female; give two correct answers to a problem on a test and say that one of them is more correct than another; and so on and so forth.  Truth becomes relative to what any one person or group of people in power say that it is.  And ultimately, the only way to resolve a conflict between differing, deeply entrenched beliefs is violence.

This is the path our society and culture is on if we continue to believe there is no greater
authority than the individual.  We can expect more shootings.  More violence.  More hatred.  More division.  Until we can agree upon a set of standards, morals, and values, these things will increase.

It’s not a pretty picture.  But it is a picture tailor made for the Gospel.

For it is the Gospel that points the way to God’s kingdom breaking into the world.  It is the Gospel that points the way to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  It is the Gospel that says that we do not discover the Truth, but that the Truth is revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.  The Truth comes to us not as an idea, a thought, a methodology or a way of life, but it comes to us as a person–fully God and fully man.  The Gospel says that the Truth enters into our world and seeks to dwell within the very depths of our hearts.

And it is on the cross that the Truth is most fully revealed.  “For ‘twas on that old cross where the dearest and best came to pardon and sanctify me.  So I’ll cherish the Old Rugged Cross.  Where my trophies as last I lay down.  I will cling to that Old Rugged Cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”  As the hymn proclaims–it was on the cross that Jesus took our sin unto himself and gave his righteousness to us as He suffered the death and punishment that we deserved.  He bestowed salvation upon us by sheer grace–through no work of our own.  He did not seek to claim us with power or authority or violence, but He sought to claim us with self-sacrificial love–a love that we did not deserve.

Oh what heart changing love!!!  Oh what amazing grace!!!  Oh that our hearts may be moved with gratitude and love in return!!!  Oh that our hearts may melt so that we give ourselves to Him in submission–casting aside our desires to have authority over our lives and instead living for Him and seeking His will!!

And then to behold the marvel of his resurrection!!   The marvel that all evil will be overcome with good!!  The marvel that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.  Not even death can overcome the Truth!!! 

Oh, and what can happen when a community of people is seized by this Gospel?  What can take place when human hearts are changed and come together living in the grace and mercy of God?  What kind of kingdom is established on earth when people who are grasped by the Gospel of God and live for God?

Acts 2:43, “43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

Who does not long for such a community?  Who does not long for such a place where people gather and share?  Where people gather and care?  Where people gather in mutual harmony?  Where people have glad and generous hearts?  This is what the Gospel produces.

But how can this Gospel produce this if it is not shared?  It must be shared–not through power and violence, but through a burning desire to love the world as Jesus loved the world.  It is this burning desire that shines through Paul’s words from the book of Romans this morning.  “17In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God. 18For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, 19by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ. 20Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation, 21but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.’”

Is it possible for such news to change the world?  Is it possible for such news to bring about transformation?  Is it possible for us to make such an impact if our hearts were seized by the love of God in Christ Jesus?  Is it possible for our nation to once again find a common purpose; a common sense of morality; a common sense of right and wrong?  Is it possible for our nation to be transformed by the power of the Gospel–to participate in God’s kingdom being revealed?

In a few moments, seven young men and women will stand here this morning to affirm their baptism.  They will stand here to say before God and this congregation, “Yes, I believe.”  Yes, I believe I have responsibility to live out a life of faith. Yes, I believe I have responsibility to share the Good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, I believe that Jesus died for me and for the world.  Yes, I believe that God’s kingdom is breaking into our world.  Yes.  I believe.  May their statement be our statement, and may we dedicate our lives to the spread of the Gospel–the spread of the kingdom of God. Amen.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Learning How to Cuss: Remembering My Grandpa, Willie Haug, Sr.

Today is November 1, 2017: All Saint's Day.

I took a little bit of time today to remember my immediate family members who have died: most recently, my Mom's Dad: Roy Grote, My Dad's Mom: Estelle Haug, My Mom's mom: Pauline Grote, and then my Dad's Dad: Willie Haug, Sr.  I put them in that order because it is the order from most recent to least recent in which they entered into their eternal rest.

And as I thought about each of these individuals, I thought about how I had taken time to memorialize them in this blog--all except my dad's dad.  That's because he died when I was still in college in the mid 90's.  I hadn't even heard of a blog then.  I didn't write anything about him then, so I thought that I would today.

I have often said that from one side of my family, I learned how to cuss.  From the other side, I learned how to pray.  Such was the contrast between the two family units that were united by the marriage of my mother and father.  Yet, this is not entirely true.  While it is true that my mother's side of the family was very religious--they were a clergy household and never cussed, it is not true that my father's side of the family was irreligious.  Oh, don't get me wrong, they had that sinner stuff down quite well: my grandpa was a farmer and WWII vet.  He cussed.  He drank.  He smoked.  He was as hard headed as he could possibly be.  But he was also a man with a deep, abiding faith, and his influence on me runs as deeply as my mom's dad.

I spent many hours with my grandpa on the farm.  I did a lot of work around the house, spraying weeds, fixing implements, and the like.  I also spent a lot of time in the fields: chopping cotton, removing weeds from the grain, and riding the tractor when grandpa cultivated the crops.  Notice I said riding the tractor.  Grandpa drove the tractor.  That was his love.  I rarely ever got a chance to drive the tractors, and only for short amounts of time.

But I learned a lot while walking in the fields.  I learned a lot while riding on that tractor.  You see, there weren't any cell phones back then, and the only thing you did was think.  Your mind had time to roam and process things.  Sometimes, I still long for a cotton patch and a cotton hoe--to have time to allow my brain to process all the things it is exposed to today.  I long for that time when as I walked and chopped, the Lord and I would converse and I would hear of His voice.  Grandpa paid me for the work then.  I'd do it for free today.

For I know now what Grandpa was thinking as he sat on the tractor all those long hours.  I know some of what went through his head.  There were things that emerged along the way.  Things that he shared with me.  There was the time when he showed me that God had written His name in the cotton.  There was the time when the extension agent received and unexpected rebuke.  Such things leave an impression on a youth--the impression of a deep, deep faith.

I remember how that faith came forward at church one Sunday.  Grandpa stood up in church that day and announced, "I want to tell everyone that God has worked a miracle in my life.  My kidneys started working again, and I am no longer on dialysis!"  It shocked our pastor something fierce.  Grandpa was invited to go to the front of the church, and we all prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for what had happened to him.

But, the miracle didn't last.  Grandpa had to go back on dialysis a few months later.  Continued smoking and drinking aren't exactly healthy exercises for kidney function...  But no one ever called Grandpa soft headed.

Good Lord, that man was stubborn and hard headed.  He wouldn't back down for anything.  Part of that blood runs in my veins.  It can be a blessing, and it can be a curse.

It was both for my grandfather.

He received a kidney transplant and should have stopped smoking and drinking.

But he didn't.

He developed cancer, and he should have stopped smoking.

But he didn't.

These were things he enjoyed.  He wasn't going to forsake them, and you either accepted him as is, or you avoided him.  There was no middle ground.

A lot of people accepted him.  I remember his funeral procession was very, very long.  I shed many tears during that funeral.  He was the first grandparent that I lost to death.  And on this All Saint's Day, I am thankful for a future where I will see him once again.

Monday, September 18, 2017


Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.  

Now, this is the standard definition of privilege that most folks agree upon.  It is the standard to which we adhere to in normal conversation.  When someone says, "You have privilege," we immediately think, "I have an advantage over someone else."

But according to those who like to redefine things, privilege has a different connotation.  

So, privilege is not a special right or advantage, but is instead the idea that you do not have a particular life experience and cannot understand what another is going through.  And, of course, you will "likely" underestimate just how bad the problem really is because, since you haven't gone through it, you really, really just don't get it.

If this is the case, then "privilege" ideology is simply a reiteration of placing one's experience as the highest form of knowledge possible.  Same song.  Another, tiring verse.

There are two problems with this approach that I can see.  

First, every, single, bloody person has different problems.  No one shares every single experience alike.  Therefore, it logically follows, given the proposed definition, that EVERYONE has privilege.  How?  Well, given my particular situation: if you are not a white, male, heterosexual, rural, Lutheran, pastor who is married to a vertically-challenged, Italian, heterosexual female Spanish teacher who, together have two adopted, bi-racial daughters, and then a naturally born son--with all the trials and problems that such dynamics create, then when you address me about things I am going through, then you are a person of privilege.  You can't possibly know share this experience with me.  You can't possibly share the problems that I have.  You don't have that experience.  You have privilege!!!

Taken to its logical conclusions, the definition is quite meaningless!

But that perhaps is not the worst of the problem.  For by essentially limiting authority to personal experience, it is also quite possible that one exaggerates ones problems beyond the scope of reality.  Saying that should get me in a bit of trouble, but frankly, I don't care.   It's simply the truth.  (Caveat: there are obviously some problems that are tremendous.  When you are diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, that is a gigantic problem.)  For instance, as the father of a "tween" daughter, at least once a week, I hear the dreaded words, "You just don't get it!"

Well, in a way, my daughter is right.  I don't fully get the "tween" angst problems of today.  There weren't cell phones and the technology of today during my time.  Athletics wasn't quite the booming business that it is today.  Her school is a bigger school than I went to.  And, of course, she is a she.  I am a he.  And she is bi-racial and I am white.   I don't get it--on one level.  

But taking a step back and looking at a bigger picture, I darn sure do get it.  I darn sure can see what is going on, and I can tell my daughter with conviction that these problems that she is experiencing are minor.  They aren't life-threatening.  They are not a threat to her person and being.  There is a much larger world that she will experience, and the trials and tribulations she is experiencing now will seem like minuscule things in the future.  Learning to cope with these small things will give her confidence to deal with the bigger things later.  Learning to put things in proper perspective now will help her put things in proper perspective later.  Learning to look at the big picture now will help her get away from myopia in the future.  Although she might think that her world is crashing down around her and that all hope is lost, it is my job to remind her that there is a very big world out there and that what is happening to her right now will only have as much bearing on her future as she allows.  Allowing her to dwell in her limited experience will only harm her.

Allowing anyone to dwell in his or her limited experience will only harm him or her.  For experience is not the be all and end all of knowledge.  There is a vast array of knowledge that does not come from experience, and oftentimes that knowledge is much more reliable than our limited experience.  

If you want to talk about privilege, then let's do so under the standard definition.  We can easily talk about how some folks have advantages that others do not.  We can easily talk about ways to improve the lot for those who indeed are disadvantaged.  But let's not go changing definitions to suit our own purposes.  You don't have that privilege.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Amazing (In)Capability of Interpretation

I find myself in the unenviable position of defending someone whose theology I simply cannot stand.

Just down the road from the congregation that I serve stands the United State's largest church: Lakewood Church pastored by Joel Osteen.

Joel is a preacher of the prosperity gospel.  It is not the Gospel--it is a very warped version of what you will find in the Bible and in the New Testament.  In my estimation, this "gospel" does much more harm than good.

But that is a topic for another discussion.  What I would like to speak to at this moment is the response first given by Lakewood Church in regards to the severe flooding experienced in Houston during Hurricane Harvey.

During the heaviest flooding, Lakewood released the following statement, "Dear Houstonians! Lakewood Church is inaccessible due to severe flooding. We want to help make sure you are safe. Please see the list below for safe shelters around our city, and please share this with those in need!"

The post went on to list numerous for people to gather.

Of course, in the internet, multi-media, instant communication world we live in, someone went to "fact-check" Lakewood's statement.  Pictures were posted showing that the facility itself was accessible.  

Lakewood then took severe heat for failing to open its doors as a shelter.  Intense heat.  In the eyes of many, their reputation is now damaged irreparably.  

However, not all the facts were known.  Here is why Lakewood Church's statement is accurate, although not as clear as it could have been.

In his sermon this past Sunday, Joel Osteen laid out several more facts:

1. The facility had been flooded back in 2001 and had five feet of water in it.  Therefore, the church installed flood gates to prevent such a thing from happening again.

2. During the severe flooding, the water had risen to within a foot of the top of those flood gates.  At the time, no one knew whether or not the water would rise any higher.  (...due to severe flooding.)

3. Rather than take a chance and have people start moving in only to be flooded out by the water breaching the flood gates, the church decided to play it safe rather than sorry.  (Lakewood Church is inaccessible...)

4. As soon as the water began receding, the church opened its doors.

Now, interestingly enough, one must ask--which interpretation is correct?  Those who "fact-checked" by posting photos from outdoors?  The interpretation that I just set forward?

Well, honestly, they both are--depending what you mean by inaccessible.  If you mean getting to the facility, then those photos from the outdoors showing that you could get to the parking lot are correct.  If you mean by inaccessible that the church can't be used as a shelter until safety is ensured, then the church's statement is correct.

There is no doubt that the church's statement regarding inaccessibility could have been more clearly worded.  There is no doubt that more explanation could have been included in that statement that might have prevented the social media backlash that ensued.

However, I also think that there are those who used this as a "gotcha" moment for Lakewood and Joel Osteen.  I think there was some intentional desire to paint Joel and the church in a bad light, and given whatever particular bias you have, you were going to have that bias influence how you viewed the situation.

As more of the facts have been presented, I think how the church handled itself is exactly how I would have handled it.  Given how high the water was rising and the inability to know how high it would rise, I wouldn't have wanted to bring people in unless I knew whether or no the flood gates would be breached.  

But would I have chosen the same words to inform?  Would I have worded things differently?  

I don't know.  Sometimes what looks like an innocuous statement turns friends into enemies, and when we don't agree on the definitions of words, the likelihood of such things happening rises.  When we refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt, firestorms arise.  When our biases creep up, it's easy to fan the flames (do you know how hard it is for me to actually defend Lakewood Church???).  

What I do know is this--sometimes we benefit by waiting.  Sometimes we benefit by listening.  Sometimes we need to see how facts emerge before offering our own critiques or criticisms.  We are limited in that we will never know all the facts, but that is no excuse for jumping in and offering our own interpretations before more information is on the table.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Lakewood, Joel Osteen, and Hurricane Harvey

I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the social media backlash against Lakewood Community Church and its unwillingness to open its doors to displaced people due to the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.  And, believe it or not, I have no desire to bash Lakewood in the least.  I am well aware of Jesus' statement: take care of the log in your own eye before you try to pluck out the speck in your neighbor's eye.  For all the disagreement I have with Joel Osteen's theology, I want to see no church harmed.

And this is why I want to write this post.

It's because I believe that what happened at Lakewood can teach the church an invaluable lesson, and it's not simply about opening your doors during a disaster.

For you see, Lakewood is a church of nearly 40,000 members.  I would be willing to bet a substantial portion of my paycheck that thousands of those members, even the vast majority of those members were not idle during the events of Harvey.  I would be willing to bet--even though I cannot substantiate it--that thousands of those members were helping neighbors, were donating food, were making sure folks were rescued, and now are giving to relief efforts, joining in clean up crews, and working to care for their flooded neighbors.

But, little of that will matter in the public perception.  Lakewood will be remembered as the giant church that refused to open its doors to its neighbors until it was shamed into doing so.


Because, a church is not simply judged by what its members do, but a church is also judged by what it does as a whole.

It doesn't matter if you think it's right or wrong; just or unjust--every congregation has its own personality; its own range of actions; its own public perception, and it is judged as a whole by the surrounding society.

Individual members might be the nicest folks in the community, but if someone worships on a Sunday morning and does not feel welcomed, the church will be judged as unfriendly.

Individual members might be involved in all sorts of ministries outside the life of the congregation, but if the church isn't reaching out into its community, it will be seen as uncaring.

Individual members might be giving to all sorts of charities outside the congregation, but if folks aren't giving to the congregation and the congregation is not giving of its monies, the congregation will be seen as stingy.

Individual members might be reading all sorts of devotionals and educational materials outside the congregation, but if very few attend Bible studies within the church, the congregation will be seen as refusing to grow spiritually.

This is the lesson the church must learn from Lakewood.  Not only does it matter what individual members involve themselves in.  It also matters what kind of public witness we offer as a whole.

An internet meme made its way around after this whole fiasco that said, "God didn't ask you what Joel Osteen did.  He asked you what you did."  And that's is most certainly true.  But God isn't the only one watching.  The rest of society is, and they are watching what kind of witness our churches and congregations as a whole are offering.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hatred is an Appropriate Christian Response

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good--Romans 12:9

God is love.  Yes.
Christianity preaches love.  Yes.
Christianity is all about love.  Yes.
Christianity gets rid of hate.  No.

Folks who say this do not understand Christianity.  Neither do they understand love.   Hatred is an absolute part of Christianity, and it is vitally necessary in living an active, public, Christian life.

The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia bring this to light.  There were several hundred neo-Nazi, white supremacists marching.  They had come from all over the country.  Residents from Charlottesville didn't want them there.  They didn't desire their town to be making headlines, but social media gives us a platform to organize and bring together people from all over--a platform which was non-existent only a couple of decades ago.  So, in the big picture of things several hundred white supremacists in a nation of over 300 million is a minuscule, minuscule percentage of the population.

Yet, what they stand for...

Is deserving of hate.

Yes, a Christian is to hate what these people stand for.  A Christian is to hate their ideology.  A Christian is to burn with hatred toward it--because a Christian is full of love.

That might sound like an oxymoron.  But it isn't.

If you have genuine love...
If you have been claimed by the good news of Jesus Christ...
If you no longer live for yourself but live your life for God...

You love what God loves.
You hate what God hates.

Yes.  God hates.  If you don't believe it, you need to read and re-read your Bible and stop having your own presuppositions regarding God.  You need to allow God to reveal Himself to you and stop making God into your own image.  If you allow God's revelation of Himself to the world to stand, you will see that God unequivocally hates, abhors, is horrified by our failure to live in a right relationship with Him and with one another.  In short, God hates sin.  Absolutely hates it.  His wrath burns hot against it.

--For I the Lord love justice,  I hate robbery and wrongdoing.  (Isaiah 61:8)

--Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, ‘I beg you not to do this abominable thing that I hate!’  (Jeremiah 44:4)

--I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. (Amos 5:21) not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.  (Zechariah 8:17)

--For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless. (Malachi 2:16)

--For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)

--Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. (Ephesians 5:6)

And it must.  It must.  If God does not become outraged at murder, what kind of God is that?  If God does not erupt at injustice, what kind of God is that?  If God smells roses when people are allowed to die of famine, what kind of God is that?  An uncaring God.  An unloving God.  And God is not unloving.  God's great love leads God to hate.

But God does not hate individuals.  God does not hate people.  He has great love for them.  He wants them all to turn to Him.  He will give them every opportunity to come to Him; to renounce sin, the devil, and all his empty promises.  It breaks God's heart each and every time a man or woman made in God's image walks away from Him.  But God loves them enough to let them go.  And He also hates it.  He wants to see no one walk that dark path.

And neither do we.
We love what God loves.
We hate what God hates.

We love those who are created in the image of God.  We desire them to come to God.  Even those neo-Nazi/white supremacists.  Yes.  Even them.  We want those neo-Nazi/white supremacists to come to God for the sake of their repentance, forgiveness, and new life in the Gospel.

But we hate what they stand for.  We hate their ideology.  We hate their sin.  For the idea of racial superiority is not supported by the Gospel.  The idea of racial intolerance is not supported by the Gospel.  The idea of domination by one particular group over another is not supported by the Gospel.  God has made it clear in Jesus that there is neither Jew nor Greek (no ethnicity); there is neither slave nor free (no social status); no male or female (no gender) for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  All have been clothed with Christ.  Such distinctions have disappeared for those called and claimed in the Gospel.  (Galatians 3)  We cling to this because it is good.

And we hate anything that is contrary to this.

Because in order for Christians to love what is from God, we must also hate what is not.