Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Why are We Here?: Evangelism 1

Today, as I begin my sermon, I am tempted to tell the council members on duty to go and lock the doors so that no one can escape because today’s sermon is on evangelism.  Why are we here as a church?  To do evangelism.

This is an inarguable point when it comes to the church.  Jesus gave absolutely clear commands to His disciples in His parting words.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And I am with you always to the end of the age.”  And, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my the ends of the earth.”  There’s no escaping these commands.  They are straight forward.  They are easily understood, and they are absolutely necessary if the church is going to thrive in the world.

And, honestly, there are very few Christians who think that evangelism is unnecessary.  Most Christians give tacit agreement that we are to be out in the world evangelizing.  But if that is the case, then why is worship attendance falling?  Why are fewer people attending church?  Why are so many people registering “none” in their religious affiliation?

As I’ve studied things, I think there are several reasons, but to make things easier for this sermon this morning, I’m going to concentrate on just a couple.  First, I think we have a difficult time understanding what evangelism is.  Second, I think we kick the can of responsibility.  And third, I think we struggle with how we are to evangelize.  So, let’s walk through each of these so that we can get our heads around it. 

First, what is evangelism?  If we go all the way back to the Greek text, we find that evangelism is taken from the root word “evangelion”.  This is simply translated “good news.”  So, evangelism is telling the good news. 

And this is one of the areas that we get in trouble as a church, in my estimation.  There is an adage that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assissi although it is questionable if he even said it.  Perhaps you have heard it.  “Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  Now, this might make for a good sound bite.  It might be catchy.  It might make a good meme on Facebook, but it isn’t true.  You know, I used to think it was.  I used to think that if I went around doing good things and being nice that folks would ask me, “Why are you being nice?  Why are you being so kind?” and then, I’d get an opportunity to share Jesus with them.  But, you no what?  No one ever asked.  No one ever commented on my kindness.  They kind of expected it.  I mean, that’s one of the things we expect in society, and just to let you know atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, men, and women all do kind, good deeds.  The fact that you do something nice is not a proclamation of the Gospel.  If it were, we’d have a lot more people believing in Jesus.

You see, there is a thread that is running through some branches of Christianity that says our faith is about what we do.  Our faith is wrapped up in how we make a difference and how we change the world.  There is a thread that is running through some branches of Christianity that states that our actions are the most important thing we can focus on.  This hit me really hard a week or so ago when we took six of our confirmation students on retreat.

I was sitting on the tailgate of my truck when one of our kids came and set beside me.  He made a very intriguing comment, “We’re really not doing anything on this retreat.  We’re not helping anyone or anything.”

His comment was absolutely true in one sense.  We weren’t doing any service projects.  We weren’t going out of our way to help anyone in need.  But did that mean we weren’t doing anything?  Of course not.

“You know,” I said, “one of the things that we need to realize about Christianity is that it isn’t just about doing things.  It’s also coming to learn about who God is and growing in our relationship with Him.  It’s about understanding what He did in Jesus Christ.  You are right that we aren’t doing anything on this retreat to help others.  But we are learning about Jesus.  We are growing in our faith. We are fellowshiping with one another and growing in our relationships.”

The wheels were turning in this youth’s head, and since he had gone to the national youth gathering and participated in a service project, I wanted to help bring this home.

“You know that service project that you did at the national youth gathering where you cleaned up that cemetery?”


“Do you know what’s going to happen five or ten years from now in that cemetery if no one keeps it up?  All the work that you did will disappear.  It will go back to the way it was and no one will know that you were even there.  And that’s the way it works in the world.  There is always one more person to feed.  There is always one more cemetery to clean.  There is always another thing to do to try and make the world right.  And if no one else keeps things up, everything that we did will disappear.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to do them, but they don’t last.  But what we are doing here: learning about God and growing in our relationship with Him, that will last our entire lives.”

This conversation that I had with one of our youth is key to evangelism because Christianity is not first and foremost what we are supposed to do.  It is first and foremost about what God has done particularly in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If we focus on what we do and believe that spreading the gospel is done by our actions, then folks will focus on us.  They will see us, and they will never see God.  They will never see Christ.  They will never get to the cross to see what Jesus did for them on that hill far away.  You can’t do the crucifixion and resurrection.  You have to tell about it.  News is meant to be shared.  Actions follow from how you receive the news, but news itself is meant to be told.

We will come back to this when we talk about how to do evangelism, but we need to briefly touch upon point number two.  Kicking the can of responsibility.  What do I mean by that?  This week, I listened to several challenging sermons on evangelism, and one of them was by Francis Chan.  He spoke about a conversation that he had with another pastor.  Francis was feeling very guilty because once he became a pastor, he no longer really had the opportunity to share the gospel with ordinary people.  He was preaching and doing all sorts of church work, so he didn’t get the chance to really tell the good news.  He shared his concern with a fellow pastor who said that he felt no guilt at all for not evangelizing directly.  Francis asked him why.  The pastor replied, “That’s really not my responsibility anymore.  That’s the responsibility of the people in the pews.”

Francis shared his initial reactions to this before coming to another realization.  “What if,” he thought, “what if I’m thinking that it’s the people in the pews responsibility to do evangelism, and what if they are thinking it’s my job to do evangelism–after all, that’s what you get paid to do?  What if we are both thinking it’s the other person’s responsibility, and then no one really shares the good news?”  I think Francis is onto something when he thinks this.  I think that many of us feel that way.  Pastors think congregation members should be sharing the gospel in their daily lives.  Congregation members think they don’t know enough about the Bible and God and so they believe the pastor is the one who should be doing evangelism. Therefore, no one is doing evangelism.  No one is sharing the good news.  No one is inviting anyone to come to church.  And our churches shrink.  As far as I can tell, as far as I can interpret the Scriptures, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are supposed to be doing evangelism.  You are supposed to be sharing the good news of Jesus.  I’m supposed to be doing it.  You are supposed to be doing it.  It is the responsibility of everyone to tell about the mighty acts of Jesus Christ.

And that leads to point three: how?  How are we supposed to do evangelism?  I mean, there are a lot of things that prohibit us–mainly our fear: fear that we will be rejected; fear that we don’t know enough; fear that we might actually be successful!  Fear is so dominant. 

I was very intrigued by a book that I read this past week on rethinking how we do church.  It was titled Total Church, and it had a chapter especially devoted to evangelism.  This is where the graphic on the front of our bulletin came from.  That rope with three strands is the authors’ suggestion of how evangelism is effectively done.  They argue, rather successfully, I think, that evangelism is best done intentionally by individuals working in community.  Evangelism entails three basic things: building relationships; sharing the gospel, and introducing people to community.  Please listen to the following quote from the book: 

...Not all of us are eloquent or engaging.  Not everyone can think on their feet.  Some people are simply not good at speaking to strangers and forming new friendships.  One of the practical benefits of the three strand model of evangelism is that it gives a role to all of God’s people.  By making evangelism a community project, it also takes seriously the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in distributing a variety of gifts among his people.  Everyone has a part to play–the new Christian, the introvert, the extrovert, the eloquent, the stuttering, the intelligent, the awkward.  I may be the one who has begun to build a relationship with my neighbor, but in introducing him to community, it is someone else who shares the gospel with him.  That is not only legitimate–it is positively thrilling!  Pete may never share the gospel verbally with Duncan, but his welcome and love are an integral part of the evangelic process and should be honored as such.  Meanwhile Susan can make friends and introduce them to the community, confident that others will present them–at an appropriate point in an appropriate way–with the challenges of the gospel.  It is lovely to think of us making up for one another’s deficiencies with our collective community strengths.  P. 62

This takes a lot of the fear out of evangelism.  You might not have the gift of being able to share the gospel well, but you might make friends easily.  You might not make friends easily, but you have the ability to share the gospel.  You might have the gift of invitation and bringing people into a community but not the ability to share the gospel.  When we are each working and using our particular gift, then evangelism can take place.  We can build relationships, intentionally come together in community, and share the gospel.  Everyone has a role.  Everyone has a responsibility.  Evangelism doesn’t just fall upon one person who has the gift of gab, but it is a community effort intentionally made to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

And it is done with love.  Love for others and love for the world.  Evangelism is meant to bring salvation to people.  I don’t have time to go into the details today–maybe I will touch on this next week because of its importance, but everyone knows that the world isn’t right.  Everyone knows that there is brokenness and suffering that needs to be addressed.  But you’ve got to understand the problem before you can administer the cure.  So much of our attempts to cure the world are due to the fact that we don’t look deeply enough at the problem, and we are also afraid of the cure.  Christianity digs deeply to name the problem, and then it shares the glorious news of how God solved that problem.  It shares the glorious news of how God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it.  The church preaches good news.  It does not preach condemnation.  As one of the preachers I listened to this week said, “No one was ever argued into the kingdom of God.”  They are loved into it.  “The objective is not to win the argument, but to win the soul.”  If God has won your soul; if you have been touched with His grace, you know how the Christian message is good news.  You know how important it is, and you want to share it with others.  The church knows the good news.  The church knows the gospel’s power, and that’s why we evangelize.  It’s one of the central reasons that we are here.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Why Are We Here?: Worship

Today, we move from the Augsburg Confession into the Bible to work towards answering the question: Why are we here?  And the first thing we notice in the Bible is how often we are commanded and told that we are to worship.  It’s all over the place in the Old Testament, and it’s all over the place in the New Testament.  We worship God. 

Now, this might seem like a no-brainer.  Duh!  Of course the church worships.  We have worship services every week.  Isn’t this just obvious?  Why do you need to take the time to even talk about worship?

Here’s why.  I’m going to take you back 20 years ago.  That’s when I started working in congregations.  I was on internship at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Waco.  As I think back to that time, I remember numerous people coming up to me throughout the year I was there, and they all had something very interesting to say.  Maybe you have heard this said before.  They would say, “Intern Kevin, I just need to tell you that I hate to miss worship.  If I miss worship, the week just doesn’t feel right to me.  Everything seems out of order.”  Have you ever heard such a thing? 

Two years later, I heard this and similar comments when I was first ordained and began my first call at Emanuel’s Lutheran Church in Seguin.  Numerous people would say, “I hate to miss worship.  When I miss worship, everything seems out of whack!”

And maybe it’s because I’ve been here for so long, but I rarely if ever hear anyone say such a thing today.  Something seems to have changed over the past 20 years.  Maybe it’s just my perception, but I don’t think so.  Fewer and fewer people are worshiping in churches these days.  The societal numbers bear this out as most churches have experienced a decline in worship attendance, and, most folks who attend church believe that they are regularly attending worship if they worship once a month.  Organized religion is taking it on the chin when it comes to worship.  Just this week, I read an article that 1 in 4 young people, that’s 25% of young people claim no religious affiliation.  In 1996, that number stood at only 6%.  That is a massive jump!

But, here is the kicker, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t worshiping.  Everybody worships.  You may scratch your head at that one.  You might say, “Pastor, I’ve got a friend who hasn’t set foot inside the door of a church for 30 years.  How can you say that he worships?”

I’ll respond with a question of my own: what does your friend live for?  What does your friend orient his or her life around?  Because whatever it is that he or she lives for or whatever it is that he or she loves the most is what he or she worships. 

Let me try and explain this with an illustration that I was given this week by one of our members.  It’s pretty powerful in my opinion.  It is an illustration written by James Finley in his book: Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God.

As part of my doctoral training in clinical psychology, I worked at a thirty-day inpatient treatment center for alcohol and drug addiction at a large Veterans Administration hospital. The patients in this treatment center had devised an initiation rite. By the time I was there, this rite had become an ongoing tradition, part of the process a person had to go through to be admitted to the unit. The initiation rite was held in a large room in the ward. The fifty or so members in the unit sat with their chairs facing inward around the four walls of the room. The middle of the room, around which the members sat, was empty of all furniture except for two chairs facing each other about four feet apart. The alcoholic seeking to be admitted to the unit was led into the room by one of the members, who instructed the newcomer to sit down in one of the two chairs. As the newcomer was led into the room, the alcoholics seated along the four walls of the room would all be looking downward, providing no eye contact, no smiles, and no indication to the newcomer of what to expect. 
Once the newcomer sat down, the member of the unit presiding over the rite would sit down in the other chair across from him, look him straight in the eye, and ask, “What do you love the most?” The newcomer, who was, in most cases, fresh in off the streets, still shaky from the effects of alcohol abuse, would often blurt out something like “My wife.” At which point the silence of the room would be abruptly shattered by all the men lining the four walls loudly yelling out in unison, “B--ls--t!” Startled and unnerved, the newcomer would find himself sitting in the midst of the collective, surrounded by the serious-as-death silence of all the men around him still looking downward, giving him no point of human contact except their abrupt challenge to his self-destructive self-deception. 
The interviewer would then, without delay, repeat the question: “What do you love the most?” The newcomer, this time with some trepidation, would often say something like “My children.” At which point the group would once again yell, “B--ls--t!” This would continue until the newcomer would, finally, say, “Alcohol.” At this point everyone in the room would break into applause. The newcomer was instructed to stand. The members of the unit would line up, single file. In complete silence, each would approach the newcomer to hold him for a moment in a sincere embrace, welcoming him into their midst.

Now, in the above case, can you imagine how that person worshiped before joining AA? Can you imagine where his cathedral was?  Can you imagine his worship music?  Can you imagine his liturgy?  Every day, his life revolved around a bottle, a bar, or a flask.  He needed time with his god–his one true love–the thing he looked to for comfort, safety, security, and fulfillment.  Every human being has this one true love.  Every human being has something they live for.  Every human being has that one thing that he or she looks to to provide comfort, safety, security, and fulfillment.  There are no exceptions.  And whatever this is, is the object of your worship. This means, you give it ultimate value, and engaging it energizes you.

And it will energize you until it kills you.  That may sound harsh, but I’m not the one who discovered this.  There have been numerous people throughout history who came to know that if you worship an idol; if you worship a false god, that false god will ultimately consume you.  Even atheist writers have come to this conclusion.  The following quote has been circling around for quite some time, but it’s truth cannot be denied.  It’s by David Foster Wallace, and it was delivered in an address he gave to Kenyon College at its graduation.  Just to be clear, Wallace was an atheist which makes it even more amazing that he penned these words, “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.

The last two lines are probably the scariest lines of this insight shared by Wallace.  “The insidious thing about these forms of worship is they are unconscious.  They are the default settings.”  This means, we are essentially programmed to worship idols.  We are essentially programmed to chase after the things that will eventually eat us alive.  We are programmed to seek comfort, safety, security, and fulfillment in things that will give us no such thing in the long run. It’s no wonder then why so many young people are leaving organized religion.  As parents, we generally give them the option to turn away long before their brains are fully developed.  When we give them the option, they will naturally turn away from church.  They will naturally turn away from Sunday School.  The other false gods out there are much more flashy; much more entertaining; much more inviting.  Worshiping them seems fun, and it fulfills their natural tendencies.  And they–and oftentimes we–are blind to the long-term consequences.

This is why the first and greatest commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  I mean, I think we in the church can make a great case for this just based upon what has been said about worship.  I think we can lead people to this point very easily and help them see why they should center their lives on God and make Him their ultimate value.  But if we just leave them right here, we encounter a problem. 

You might scratch your head and wonder, what problem do you mean, Pastor?  We’ve made the case that God should be worshiped.  What more do we need?  Well, if you decide to worship God because in doing so, you won’t be destroyed; if you worship God because you want safety, security, and fulfillment; then worship becomes an obligation.  It becomes something you have to do to earn God’s favor.  You understand deep in your heart: I am worshiping God because I want to receive something in return.  And if I go into it with this mind-set, then things will eventually go south.  Because, I might not get that job that I wanted.  I might end up with a severe health problem.  I might end up going through a rough time with my family.  A host of other things might go wrong in my life, and I will be left bewildered.  I will ask, “God, didn’t I worship you?  Didn’t I attend church on Sunday morning?  Didn’t I give an offering to you? Didn’t I come to you in faith?  Why did you break my heart?”  All those slick televangelists have an answer for you in regards to this.  They will look at you with all sincerity and say, “Well, maybe you just didn’t have enough faith.  Maybe you didn’t put enough money in the offering plate.  Maybe you just didn’t trust God enough.”  It’s pretty vicious.

This is why we have to understand the Gospel.  This is why we have to understand sheer grace.  This is why we have to understand what God has already done in Christ Jesus.  For the Gospel says that God has already done great things for me.  God has already acted in history to show me great compassion and care.  God has already given up the greatest thing He could have given up for me.  God has already died for me–even when I didn’t deserve it.

The Gospel says that my heart was born corrupted.  It says that I was born seeking other gods.  The Gospel says that I wanted everything for my own care and comfort–that I was selfish.  And being selfish, I didn’t love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.  Being selfish, I cared much more for me than I did my neighbor.  But God wanted to win my heart.  God wanted to transform my heart, and He didn’t want me to live in fear of Him.  Instead, He wanted me to love Him.  And so, He took my sin upon His blameless self.  He took my filthiness upon His spotlessness.  He offered Himself as a sacrifice of atonement for me, and then He gave to me his spotlessness.  He gave to me His righteousness.  He gave to me His status as beloved child of God.  And He did this not because of anything I did but because of sheer grace.  And when I comprehend what He did, my heart melts.  I understand the great sacrifice that He made to save me, and I turn to Him in love and admiration.  I turn to Him and want to do everything that I can to please Him.  I long to worship Him and Him alone.

When I come to worship with this attitude, I am doing so because I am filled with joy and awe.  And nothing can shake me.  Nothing can take away my fulfillment, safety, security, and comfort because all of that is not based upon something that I think has to happen out there, it is based upon something that has already happened and can never be revoked. 

And as I wrap this sermon up, I want to talk to the people who are not here.  I know that sounds strange, so that means those of you who are here will have to tell those who you know what I am about to say.  Or, you will have to give them the link to this sermon on Youtube.  I specifically want to talk to those of you who are at home right now, dead tired–or those of you who are working right now because of the demands of your job.  I want to talk to those of you who have spent 70 or 80 hours this past week at your job, and this is the only day off that you have.  I know that the last thing you want to do on this day is get out of bed.  I know that the last thing you want to do his come into a building where they play music that hardly anyone listens to.  I know that you don’t want to listen to some guy drone on and on about this strange stuff of forgiveness of sins and Jesus dying for those sins.  I know that it seems to have very little impact or relation to your life.  I know it seems like most of what we say here in the church has very little relevance to your life, but it does.  I know that you oftentimes wonder if everything you go through is worth it.  I know you wonder if working as hard as you do will eventually pay off.  I know that you realize in the back of your head that the day you walk away from your company, they will replace you with someone else and move on as if you never even worked there.  And I know you try to push that thought out of your head because we all want to feel valued.  We all want to feel like our lives mean something.

When you begin to worship the true God, things might feel strange to begin with.  You might not see any connections to your daily life to begin with, but over time, you will start making those connections.  Your life will begin to reorient itself.  In taking the time to come to church, dedicate your time to the living God, and learning about sheer grace–the grace that only Jesus gives, you will begin to look at the world with different eyes.  You will see meaning where you never saw it before.  You will find purpose where you never thought you would see it.  You will find hope in the midst of tragedy.  You will find love where you never thought you would see it.  Worship changes us.  It changes the world.  It connects us to God and makes our lives make sense.  And this is why it is one of the reasons we are here as a church.  Amen.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Why are We Here?: The Sacraments

This morning we will again return to the Augsburg Confession as we continue to wrestle with the question: Why are we here?  Last week, we heard the definition of the church that the Confession sets forth.  I shared that with all of you because this document is central to our Lutheran identity, and it helps us understand part of the reason we are here.  Again, to quote the Augsburg Confession, “It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever.  This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.”  Last week, I focused on the preaching of the Word or the preaching of the Gospel. This week, I am going to tackle the second part of this statement: the administration of the sacraments.

Now, I think that most of you know what a sacrament is, but I am going to give you the definition that is set forth in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.  Sacraments are “rites which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added.”  Let me repeat that so that we can understand what these are, “rites which have 1. the command of God and 2. to which the promise of grace has been added.”  This means God has to first have commanded us to do something, and there are plenty of commands in the Bible.  God commanded humanity to get married, be fruitful and multiply.  God commanded humanity to follow the Ten Commandments.  God commanded humanity to feed the hungry.  There are many commands throughout Scriptures, but the majority of these commands do not come with grace attached.  Most of the commands come with a threat of punishment if the commands are not followed.  Marriage is certainly commanded by God, but there is no promise that “if you get married, your sins are forgiven.”  The Ten Commandments are commanded by God, but there is no promise “if you follow these, then your sins will be forgiven.”  When you feed the hungry, which again is promised by God, you are not forgiven of your sins.  Therefore, there is no grace attached to these commands.

However, in two definite instances, there are definite commands with grace attached.  There is a third instance which the which some Lutherans actually label a sacrament, but there is not total agreement about it.  But, for now, let’s focus on the definite commands with grace attached.  The first is baptism.    The command is explicitly given for baptism in Matthew chapter 28 by Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  We hear in 1 Peter, the promise tied to baptism, “21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”

Jesus also gives us the command to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. When He ate the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  And then Jesus also said this about the cup, “‘Drink from it, all of you; 28for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  Command and promise.

The third instance that some Lutherans call a sacrament is confession of sins.  There are numerous places throughout Scriptures where individuals come before God and confess their sins, and the practice of forgiveness of sins handed down to Christians in the office of the keys which is found in the Gospel of St. Matthew.  Much ink has been spilled by Lutheran theologians arguing that confession is or is not really a sacrament.  I do not wish to enter into those arguments now, but I will say that the reformers expected that we would practice confession on a regular basis. 

Now, at this point, I’ve laid out what the sacraments are in the Lutheran church, the next question that we need to deal with is: why do we practice them?  Why do we have the sacraments at all?  I mean, if we understand that the Gospel is that we are saved by grace alone as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith, isn’t this all we need?  Don’t we simply need to trust in the promises of Jesus?  Isn’t that sufficient?

The answer is yes and no.  Our faith in Jesus’ action and not our own is sufficient indeed.  Jesus saves us, and He alone.  But, remember what I have said before, when we become a Christian, we change our allegiances.  We do not live for ourselves.  We do not live for anything the world offers.  We do not live for our jobs.  We do not live for our neighbors.  We do not live for money.  We do not live for possessions.  We do not live for sex or alcohol.  We live for Jesus.  We live for God.  We seek Jesus’ will, and Jesus clearly commanded us to be baptized.  He clearly commanded us to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  Following Jesus means we do what He asked us to do.  Period.  To say, “I follow Jesus and am a Christian,” and then refuse to do what He asks us to do is tantamount to playing follow the leader, picking a leader, and then going off and doing your own thing.  You weren’t really serious about following the leader in the first place, were you?  Christians who say they follow Jesus yet refuse to get baptized or who do not partake in the Lord’s Supper aren’t followers of Jesus.  They have not switched allegiances and are living for something else.

But for those who follow Jesus; for those who receive the sacraments, they find that there are tremendous benefits and blessings to receiving them.  The Augsburg Confession says this about the usage of the Sacraments, “It is taught among us that the sacraments were instituted not only to be signs by which people might be identified outwardly as Christians, but for the purpose of awakening and strengthening our faith.”  Let me repeat that last line for you: the sacraments were instituted to awaken and to strengthen our faith.

I found it very, very fascinating what the Reformers said about this when I was doing my research earlier this week.  Remember, when the Reformers wrote these things, there were no televisions.  There were no computers.  There was no YouTube or smart phones with images and screens.  I mean, today, we are bombarded with images over and over and over again.  But they weren’t.  They were just starting to get books with pictures in them.  So, the Reformers said that when the church was administering the Sacraments, people could visually see God at work.  Just as the spoken Word appealed to the ears, the Sacraments were a form of the visual Word that appealed to the eyes.  If you looked at what was going on with faith, then you were seeing the hand of God operating in the world.

This is why Martin Luther said that when you go to confession and you hear the words, “Your sins are forgiven,” you should hear them as if God Himself were speaking to you.  If you can grasp that in your head, then those words become very, very powerful.  It is not just a pastor or a confidant speaking those words to you.  It is God Himself telling you, “You are forgiven!”

And in Baptism.  Oh my, if you can visualize it...If you can get your head around it, then you are witnessing God’s hand coming from heaven and embracing and adopting someone into His family.  I remember when I was a kid and we had a baptism in our church, my sister and I would strain and move around to watch as the pastor poured water on the baby’s head.  We didn’t quite understand what was happening, but we knew that it was significant.  We knew that it was special.  Our parents would do whatever they could to help us see, and it is little wonder why.  They knew God was acting.  They knew God was making an appearance.  Do we still have that awe and wonder as we see such a thing? 

And Holy Communion.  This is where things get really, really good.  This is where, for me things get really, really powerful.  I mean, if we take what Jesus says as truth, that we are receiving His body and His blood, then this is extremely, extremely significant.  This is extremely, extremely important.  For in ancient times, the Jewish people believed that blood carried life.  They believed that life was extremely sacred because it was a gift from God, and God had mandated in the Old Testament that when an animal was killed that the blood be allowed to go back into the ground.  It was not to be consumed.  This is why Jews eat kosher meat.  The blood has been drained from the animal before processing.  Life has been returned to the ground from whence God first created.  But Jesus, Jesus changed that in a radical way.  Jesus implemented something that was over the top in His day.  Through the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.”  Do you realize what Jesus is saying here?  Do you realize what Jesus is doing here?  Jesus is pouring His life into you and me!!!   Try and wrap your head around that for a minute. God, the second person of the Trinity, is pouring His life out for and into you!!  God is giving His life to you!!!  If you believe that, if you grasp that, how can Holy Communion be anything less than one of the most amazing things that the Church can offer?  How can Holy Communion be anything less than one of the greatest things we can offer to the world as Jesus continues to pour His life out for and into us so that we may have our faith awakened and strengthened?  If you can wrap your head around it; if you can understand what is going on here, I don’t know how it is possible to not be filled with awe and wonder.

And I wish that I could explain to you how this happens.  I wish I could tell you exactly how Jesus makes Himself present in the bread and wine.  I wish I could tell you exactly how He pours His life into you.  I wish I could tell you how God reaches down in baptism and adopts the person being baptized.  I wish that I could tell you how He manifests Himself in the water and through the Word.  I wish that I could tell you how it is that He speaks through us in the forgiveness of sins. But I cannot.  And the kicker is, no one can.  This is why, if you trace the root of the word Sacrament back to the Greek, you will find that it is rooted in the Greek word mysterion.  That’s a word that you shouldn’t have too much of a difficulty translating.  Mysterion means exactly what it sounds like.  Mystery.  It is a mystery.  This is why we say that the Sacraments must be received in faith.  You and I must trust that what Scripture says is happening in these events is happening in these events.  We can’t scientifically prove it, we simply have the evidence passed down to us from Jesus Himself.

And I have to say that I have changed when it comes to administrating the Sacraments.  I used to be rather quiet in regards to how often we should offer them as a congregation.  I used to just remain quiet and allow the church to decide for itself how often it wants to celebrate the sacraments.  And, I’m not going to force you to change your practice.  But I’m going to gently urge you to practice them as often as we worship. I’m doing so because I cannot find a single spot in the Lutheran Confessions which says it is acceptable to skip Sundays with Communion.  The Confession calls for weekly celebration–even daily celebration of Holy Communion.  Martin Luther said that our preaching should have everyone begging for the Sacrament.  The documents in the ELCA that I swore to uphold and teach when I was ordained call for weekly Holy Communion.  Now, you are free to choose how many times we have Communion.  I’m not going to force you to change.  This is your decision.  And I understand that it means more work for those who are on altar guild.  I get that.  And I also understand those who say that when we have communion more frequently that it somehow lessens its specialness.  I understand but do not agree.  For at Holy Communion, at Baptism, at Confession, God is essentially telling us over and over again, “I love you.”  And for those of you who have a significant other, did it become any less special when he or she told you “I love you” day after day after day?  Or did you need to hear it?  Did you long to hear it?  And how much do we need to hear God’s “I love you” to us?

We need it.  Oh how we need it.  And this is why the Sacraments are part of the reason we are here as a church.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Why Are We Here?: Preaching the Word

Good morning, my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Today, I am going to continue my sermon series on “Why Are We Here?”  Last week, I laid the groundwork by talking about my experiences in a couple of large non-denominational churches and the importance of having a unified mission–a unified understanding of why we are here.  I promised that I would not give you a mission because that was something that we had to arrive at together, but I also promised that I would share with you several things that I believed were non-negotiable when it came to why the church was here.  These things must inform our mission as we move into the future.

Today, I must begin by asking for your forgiveness because as a good Christian, particularly as a good Lutheran Christian, I should begin with the Scriptures and then move into other avenues in regards to why the church is here.  But I am not going to do that.  We will most definitely get to the Bible and what it has to say about the church, but I wanted to start in a bit of a different place today.  I wanted to start with the Lutheran confessions, particularly the Augsburg Confession.

Now, how many of you have even heard of the Augsburg Confession?  Not many.  That’s not surprising.  It’s not a document that we generally reference much in our worship or even our Christian Education.  The Augsburg Confession was written during the time of the Reformation in the 1500's as Protestants were trying to define themselves and their beliefs to the civil and church authorities.  They were trying to help those authorities see how their stance was in accordance with the Bible and how they were not a threat to civil order.  The theology and practice is rich, and it has stood the test of time.  How so?  Because we and most every other Lutheran congregation directly reference it in our Constitution and By-Laws.  Did you know that?  Did you know that it serves as one of the foundational documents for what it means to be a Lutheran church here in Cat Spring?  Let me read to you what our Constitution says about it:

C2.05.This congregation accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.

C2.06. This congregation accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.

C2.07.This congregation confesses the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scripture and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the Church for God’s mission in the world.

Did you catch all of that?  Did you catch and see how the Augsburg Confession, while not on the same level as Scripture, is a very, very important document in helping us understand who we are and why we are here?  It is indeed central to our identity as Lutherans, and it has something to say about why we are here as the church.

In article seven, these words appear, “It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever.  This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” So we see two reasons for the church’s existence in this statement: the preaching of the Gospel, and depending upon which translation you use, this is also stated as the preaching of the Word, as well as the administration of the sacraments.  Today, we are going to try and cover the preaching of the Word.

We are here to preach the Word.  Now, when you hear me say preach the Word, what do you automatically think?  The Bible.  Right.  That’s what we mostly think when we hear someone say that we preach the Word, but let me try and expand your thinking just a bit because the Word doesn’t simply mean the Bible.

Do you remember the beginning words of the Gospel of John?  Let me remind you.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Now, we are going to skip down a few verses where we then read, “14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  So, what is the Word, or better yet, who is the Word here in the book of John?  That’s right, it’s Jesus.  Jesus is the Word.

But, we cannot stop there.  It might make it easy if we did, but we’ve got to go one step further.  We’ve got to understand something more about the Word of God because the Word of God is incredibly rich.  When you read through the Bible, you see something quite incredible about God.  You see that God is a God who speaks.  God is not silent.  He has spoken in the past.  He speaks in the present.  And in the future, there will be a time when He will intimately speak with those who love Him.  One of the tasks for the church today is to discern the Word of God as it is spoken to the world today and bring that word to the world.

And so, we have outlined what the Word of God is, and this matches what is in our Constitution as a church: The Word is the Holy Scriptures; The Word is Jesus Christ; the Word is God’s Word spoken through the church to the world today.  And it is our job; it is our calling; to preach that Word: to preach the Bible; to preach Jesus; to preach God’s message to our community.

This is not a calling to be taken lightly.  It is of infinite importance.  Why?  I don’t know if you know this or not, but there is a suicide epidemic in our nation right now.  Those who study the numbers tell us that there has been a huge up-tick in the numbers of people taking their own lives.  I have noticed this on a real personal level because in the past three years or so, I have counted at least five of my friends on Facebook who have committed suicide.  These folks all come from a town of about 2300, and to me, that is a huge disproportion.  Why so many suicides?  Why the increase?

Now, it is true that chronic depression can lead to suicide, but the statistics that I have read indicate that this accounts for just about half of suicides.  What about the rest of those?  Two articles that I have read helped give me a bit of insight into this.  In the first one, Clay Routledge, professor of psychology from North Dakota State University argued, “that the suicide crisis in the USA is in part a crisis of meaning. Recent changes in American society, greater detachment and a weaker sense of belonging, are increasing our existential despair. Although we try and distract ourselves (most of the time nowadays successfully) we realize that everyone we know and care about, including the person we care about the most, ourselves, will die. Despite our best attempts at avoiding it, we understand that pain and sorrow is part and parcel of life. But what is the point of life? One way in which we keep this existential anxiety quiet, Routledge argues that we “must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful”. We seek not only to live, but to have a meaningful existence. And when we don’t feel like our lives matter, then we are psychologically vulnerable.”

So, if you don’t feel like your life is meaningful, you are vulnerable.  The second article I read was in Sports Illustrated.  It had to do with budding star quarterback Tyler Hilinski’s suicide and the family’s desperate attempts to understand why it happened.  There is a lot in the article to take in, but one thing struck me because it was repeated over and over and over: Tyler thought he was Superman.  Tyler thought he was supposed to pull off the spectacular play every time.  Tyler thought he should lead his team to victory and be heroic.  But, he found out that he wasn’t Superman.  He found out that he couldn’t always pull off the victory.  After one particularly difficult game where he suffered a huge hit and a crushing loss, folks said he wasn’t the same.  The fact that he couldn’t be what he wanted to be seemed to have a profound effect on him.  Faced with limitations, he had a difficult time coping.

It seemed to me that Tyler was finding his meaning in things that were beyond his capability to grasp.  It seems to me that a lot of folks are trying to do such things.  I understand very well what is behind that.  I had a lot of hopes and dreams about what my life would look like at this point and time, but very, very few of those things have come to fruition.  If I were basing the meaning of my life on those things, I would probably be very depressed as well, but fortunately, I have found meaning elsewhere.  I have found meaning in Jesus.

The Greek word used in John chapter 1 is logos.  It is a word with deep, deep meaning in the ancient world.  The ancient Greek philosophers oftentimes used it when talking about the meaning of life; the meaning of existence; the reason for everything.  It is no stretch to think that John, when he was writing the introduction to this gospel had this in mind.  So, let’s read that introduction once more with that understanding.  “In the beginning was the reason for everything.  The reason for everything was with God.  The reason for everything was God...The reason for everything became flesh and lived among us.”  Jesus is the reason for everything.  Jesus gives meaning.  Jesus gives hope.  Jesus gives assurance.  The question is: how?

And this goes directly to the understanding of the Gospel.  Now, I know it is fashionable in some circles to use the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words if necessary.”  I used to believe it.  But I don’t any more.  Because I know now that the Gospel is news.  You cannot do news.  You can only share news.  Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t package the news up in doing good deeds.  You don’t tell a hungry person that Jesus loves them without giving them food, and you don’t just give them food and expect them to understand that Jesus loves them.  Proclaiming the Gospel involves loving our neighbors, but too often these days much of the church is guilty of either/or instead of both/and.

I mean, face it, anyone can and does acts of kindness.  The Hindu does acts of kindness.  The atheist does acts of kindness.  The Muslim does acts of kindness.  If the Gospel is simply acts of kindness, then everyone is proclaiming the Gospel.  And it would stand to reason, if everyone is proclaiming the Gospel, then why is there a lack of meaning?  Why is the suicide rate continuing to climb?

The answer is because the Gospel isn’t just about doing nice things for others.  It’s about God’s redemption of our fallen condition through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  You see, the Gospel tells us that we are all corrupted by sin.  We are not Superman.  We cannot be Superman.  We fall far short of the glory of God.  This means that we will never be like Tyler Hinski.  We will never believe that we have the capacity of doing everything right and making our team win all the time.  We know we are limited.  We know we are not perfect.  We can grapple with and understand the trials of life including losing.  Now, if we stopped here, that would be a recipe for despair.  Imperfection rules the day.  Sin actually wins.  But that is not the case because Jesus acts to redeem our sin.  Jesus acts to redeem our imperfection.  On the cross, Jesus takes our sin into himself and defeats it.  And then Jesus gives us His righteousness.  Jesus gives us His glory.  We are clothed with Christ.  Now, this doesn’t mean that everything turns out perfectly for us in this life.  No.  We know this all too well, but what this does mean is solidified in the resurrection.  For in the resurrection every evil that was done is undone.  Every wound is healed.  Every evil is made good.  Darkness is changed into light.  Sickness is changed into health.  We are reminded that God will work to do this in our lives.  God will transform everything in His time and bend everything toward our good.  This means we have hope.

Yet, there is a bit of a caveat to this, but it is an important caveat.  This only happens for those who trust in Jesus and His actions and not our own.  This only happens for those who do not try to work out their own salvation, but for those who believe their salvation is won for them on the cross.  For when we put our trust in God, we change allegiances.  We no longer live for ourselves, we live for God.  We seek God and His will in all that we do.  And this gives our lives meaning.  We know what our purpose is.  We know that we are to seek God and His will in our lives.  We know that we seek to grow in our faith.  We know we are to grow in our knowledge of God.  And we know that we are called to bring as many people to Jesus as we possibly can.  We know we are to share the good news of Jesus.  We are to preach the Gospel.

And so you see, I hope, why I started with the preaching of the Gospel.  One of the fundamental reasons and non-negotiable reasons the church is here is to proclaim it because through it we come to understand our limitations.  We come to understand our imperfections.  But we also come to understand the love of God. We come to understand what He has done in Jesus in the cross and resurrection.  We come to place our trust in Him and seek His will in all things.  We come to understand through Him how we have purpose and meaning, and in a society that is fast losing meaning and seeking perfection, we have a very, very important message to bring.  May we remember how important proclaiming the Gospel is to our mission.  Amen.