Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Will You Read to Me?

I wrote the following as a lead article for our preschool newsletter.

Do you read to your child?

Studies have shown that just fifteen minutes a day of reading can do wonders for a child’s ability to learn the skill for themselves. It can become a special part of your daily routine. There’s nothing else like having a little person snuggled up next to you, hanging on every word of a good book.

But do you do it? Do you read to your child?

Has reading to your child been put on that infamous list named “Someday”? Of course, there are days when there aren’t even five minutes to spare, let alone fifteen. But it’s no secret that if you consistently show your child that reading is important—not to mention fun—then they will pick up on your example. Neither is it a secret that if your child learns to love to read, they will have the tools to succeed in nearly all they do.

One of the best gifts you could give your child is a love for reading. Make use of your local libraries—Ohio has some of the best in the country. Mix in some Bible story books as you go. (The Arch Book series by Concordia Publishing House is excellent for small children.) Share the most important words there are—the words of Jesus, God’s Son—with your child.

When you read to your child, you give them the world. When you read to your child about God, you give them even more than that.

“I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.” Psalm 119: 16

Monday, September 24, 2007

God and Money

No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Luke 16: 13

Pastor Wilson was going about his Monday morning routine when the phone rang. It was loyal church member, Abagail vonLutheran. The conversation began pleasantly enough, with Pastor asking Abagail about the green bean casserole she had brought to the last potluck.
“Could my wife get the recipe for that?” he asked.
“Oh, that was just something I threw together at the last minute,” Abagail said.
“I sure liked it,” Pastor said.
“Well, thank you.” The line was quiet for a few moments. “Pastor, I wanted to ask you something.”
Pastor Wilson took a deep breath and said, “OK.”
Abagail continued, “I was confused by the gospel lesson yesterday. You know, that one about that manager. It sounded to me like Jesus said it was okay for him to be dishonest.”
“Well, I can see that,” the Pastor said. “It is kind of an unusual story. But the point of the whole thing is not so much that it’s OK to be dishonest, but that we ought to be wise with our money.”
“Hmm,” said Abagail. “But that manager didn’t tell the truth! Is that any example to follow?”
“No, of course not,” said Pastor Wilson. “Jesus’ point is that the manager was smart, in that he used money to make friends, since he had just gotten fired. Those friends might come in handy, now that he was unemployed. Even his former boss had to agree that was a shrewd move.”
“OK,” said Abagail, not sounding all that convinced.
“But remember how Jesus wrapped up the story?” the pastor asked. “He said, “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves.” He also said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” This whole discussion is really about how we use our money.”
Abagail said, “Well, I know Christ ends up saying, “You cannot serve both God and Money.”
“Exactly,” said Pastor Wilson, “and I think Jesus is asking some hard hitting questions of us. Are we wise in how we use our finances for the sake of God’s kingdom? Do we use our money to “gain friends,” so that the good news of Jesus is heard? Do we even think of using our money that way? I think Jesus might have some serious issues with the way his modern disciples are using money.”
There was silence on the line for a few seconds. Then Abagail spoke.
“Pastor, why didn’t you preach on this reading yesterday?”
Now it was Pastor Wilson’s turn to be quiet. Finally he said, ‘Well, Abagail, you know no one wants to hear another stewardship sermon. It turns people off. Did I tell you the story about my cousin? He and his wife were church-shopping, and the first church they went to, it was Stewardship Sunday, and the sermon was all about what you ought to give to the church. So they decided to try a different church the next Sunday, and guess what? It was Stewardship Sunday there too, and they quickly got the impression: the church just wants our money. So now they don’t go anywhere.” Pastor Wilson paused. “I guess I do tend to shy away from talking about money from the pulpit,” he said. “I just don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, like I’m some kind of televangelist or something.”
“Oh, no one’s going to think THAT,” Abagail said. Pastor Wilson wasn’t quite sure how to take her comment. She continued, “I think people need to hear it. If the Bible has something to say about money, tell us what it says! Why should we pretend it’s not part of our life with God?”
“You’re right, Abagail, in fact, did you know that if you total up all the quotes of Jesus from the gospels, do you know what he talks about the most in his teachings?”
“Let me guess, Pastor. Money.”
“Bingo. No pun intended. He talks about the proper use of money. Over and over Jesus says that how we use money is a direct reflection of our faith. He also points out that money and possessions, the stuff that we love so much, can quickly become a god of its own, like in yesterday’s reading, “You cannot serve both God and Money.”
“That’s true,” said Abagail. “Just look at all the foreclosures happening—little mansions sitting empty because people thought they had to have the biggest and best. Where are they now?”
“I know,” said Pastor. “But we have to be careful, in thinking that the problem is all out there. We have to ask ourselves if we’re being wise in our spending for the sake of the gospel. I mean, think of all the creature comforts we enjoy. Do you have cable?”
“Ah, satellite, actually,” Abagail said.
“Oh, good for you!” Pastor Wilson thought, “Wow! Sounds nice,” but didn’t say it. “What package do you get, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oh the premium, but I don’t know why. There’s never anything good on anyway.”
“Well, since that’s the case, have you ever though about dropping down a tier? Think of the money you’d save in a year’s time. And think of what you could do with that money for the sake of the gospel! I’m sure there’s some mission organization that you know about that could really use it. Or what if you dropped just one magazine subscription, and used that money to help fund a student’s tuition in a Christian school?”
“This may sound strange, Pastor, but I never thought of that before.”
“Well those are just couple ideas, and they don’t even really get at the heart of faithful giving.”
“What do you mean, Pastor?”
“I mean, we should not be giving God our leftovers. I just heard a presentation on the prophet Malachi that got right at the heart of giving. You know, back then, God expected his people to bring the very best as offerings. He expected them to bring the best and healthiest animals. But do you know what they were bringing? Blind, diseased, and crippled goats. The leftovers. What do you think God thought of that?”
“I can’t imagine he appreciated that very much,” Abagail said.
“You’re right,” said Pastor Wilson. “But we’ve all done it, at one time or another. We bring God our blind goat and keep the healthy one for ourselves. We give God the leftovers and act as if we’ve done Him a favor. I confess I’ve done it myself.”
Another pause, and Abagail then said, quietly, “So have I, Pastor.” She took a deep breath. “But times are tough for a lot of people.”
“Believe me, I know that’s true, Abagail. But here’s the thing: in Malachi and elsewhere, God says, “Test me. Try it. Give me your best, and just see if your needs are not met.” It’s almost like he’s saying, “I dare you to try to outgive me.” Wait, here’s the verse, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse…Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.”
“Pastor Wilson let those words hang in the air.
“That takes a lot of faith,” Abagail said.
“It does,” the pastor said, “but it’s more about thankfulness.”
“By the way, Pastor, what about the tithe? Are we bound to that?”
“I’d ask a different question, actually. Are we limited by ten percent? The answer to both questions is no. St. Paul wrote that we are free to give what we think is appropriate, after giving honest consideration to what Jesus has given us by his passion, death on the cross, and resurrection.”
“Well, when I think of it that way, I want to give him everything!” Abagail said.
“Now you’re onto something,” Pastor Wilson said.
“But there are practical considerations…”Abagail replied.
“I know there are,” the pastor said. “God’s not asking you to bankrupt yourself. Just remember the great sacrifice he made for you and respond by giving what you think is right. Test him and see what happens when you give freely. Try it out and see if you lack anything when you give generously back to the Lord.”
Abagail was silent. Pastor Wilson could hear the smile in her voice when she finally said, “I still think you should have preached about this yesterday.”
“Don’t worry, Abagail. You’ve helped me to see that I should, and I will, very soon. Now about that casserole recipe…”

September 22 and 23 + Pentecost 17

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Excruciating Love

Chances are you have heard someone describe pain they are experiencing as “excruciating.” You may be familiar with excruciating pain yourself. It may not surprise you, then to learn that the word “excruciating” comes directly from the Latin word excruciates which means, “out of the cross.” When someone describes pain as excruciating, they’re really saying that it is like being crucified.
It’s hard to imagine a more painful way to die than crucifixion. And yet, one thing I fear is that Jesus’ death on the cross has become a type of Christian cliché. You hear it so often: “Jesus died for your sins.” Those words can be spoken so easily. Are we becoming numb to the crucifixion of Jesus? I pray not. The greatest act of love is displayed by the man on that cross. In Jesus’ bloody death lies our salvation. In Jesus’ crucifixion lies our escape from the pit of hell. Let’s not be in a hurry to leave the scene of the cross.

Although the Romans did not invent crucifixion, they perfected it as a means of capital punishment. It was designed to produce a slow death with a maximum of pain and suffering. In some places, it was customary to tie the crucified to the crossbar with ropes. The Romans preferred to use nails. Archaeological digs have indicated that these nails were tapered, square-shafted iron spikes about 5 to 7 inches long. With arms outstretched, but not taut, the wrists were nailed to the crossbar. The driven nail would crush or sever the large median nerve, producing bolts of fiery pain in both arms.
The feet were usually fixed to the front of the cross, and again, the Roman practice was to use an iron spike. The knees would be bent. The spike was placed on top of the leading foot between the second and the third toe, and the blow was delivered.
The major effect of crucifixion, beyond the blinding pain, was a tremendous interference with normal breathing. The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would fix the muscles in an inhaling state. In order to exhale, one would have to push up on the feet and flex the elbows and shoulders. That move would put the entire weight of the body on the feet and cause searing pain. The wrists would also pay a terrible price for that maneuver. Each effort at breathing would become more agonizing and exhausting and would eventually lead to asphyxiation. If the crucified lingered on too long, the executioners could speed the process considerably by breaking the legs below the knees, which is what happened to the thieves on either side of Jesus.
This is what we mean when we say, “Jesus died for your sins.” We’re talking about iron spikes, forged in the fire of human sin, causing catastrophic damage to Jesus’ body. We’re talking about his muscles straining beneath the suffocating weight of our disobedience. At the moment of Jesus crucifixion and death, all of the righteous anger of God was focused on his Son with laser precision. The nails became agents of God’s justice.

How can the believing heart hear all of this and allow it to pass into the realm of “ho-hum, Jesus died for you, yeah, we know, we’ve heard this a thousand times before”?

How can the believing heart hear of all of this and not grieve? Grieve for Jesus, sure, but even more so, grieve the fact that my sin caused this horrible event? Our sin nailed him to that cross.

How can the believing heart hear all of this and not be moved to say: “It should have been me. I deserved this punishment, not Jesus. I know what I have done—the temptations I’ve given into; the terrible ways I’ve treated people; the greed and the lusts that consume me. I know what I haven’t done: I haven’t loved my neighbor as I do myself; I haven’t fulfilled my responsibilities to my family; nor have I put God first in every area of my life or come close to serving him as I ought. It’s only right that I should pay for those sins; for all my sin. It should be me.”

And God says: “No. My Son will pay for you. He will be your substitute. He will stand in for you on this cross. He will know what hell is really like; so that you will never have to know. Though you deserved punishment, I will punish my dear Son instead. You are spared. The price is paid. You are free.”

The relief and gratitude that you feel at the hearing of this news is nothing less than the stirring of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit. Yes, this is what we’re talking about when we say, ‘Jesus died for your sins.”

Monday, September 17, 2007

Honesty with God

In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15: 10

He was a religious zealot, well-trained in the holy writings of his people. He took pride in the traditions handed down to him, and when Christianity began to entice people, he went into attack mode. He went after Christians, imprisoning them when possible, trying to frighten them out of their faith. He was even present at the brutal homicide of a Christian who dared to speak to the truth, giving his approval to the execution.
Who am I talking about? Without any context, one might guess that I’m talking about some radical Muslim in Afghanistan or Africa. But I’m not. This is a description of Saul of Tarsus, better known to the world as the Apostle Paul.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he writes openly about his past. He says, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
Imagine—our congregation and countless others are named after a man who attempted to stamp out the Christian faith, only to be given a second chance by Christ. The mercy and grace given to him through Jesus changed him so profoundly that he began promoting the faith he once persecuted. Reading his letter to Timothy, it’s obvious that Paul was very up-front about what he had done, and what Jesus had done to him. In fact, what Paul seems to be saying here is, “Hey, look, I was the worst sinner I know, and if Jesus can change me and turn me around, he can do it for anybody. He can do it for you.”
Our church is named after a man who tried to destroy Christianity, only to be given a second chance by Christ. We are worthy of the name St. Paul’s only if we continue to be a place where Jesus offers second chances; and third chances, and fourth chances. We’d better change our name if we start putting on airs and thinking we’re better than other people because we know the truth. Paul’s example shows us that being a Christian is not a show, it’s not playing pretend, it’s not a mask or a crutch. Being a Christian means living a life of repentance.
In today’s Gospel lesson we have two examples of the type of stories Jesus told to get his point across. The ones we heard today are ultimately stories about repentance. These parables are among Jesus’ most well-known tales. The plots are simple. A sheep goes missing. The shepherd goes looking. A woman loses a coin and turns the house upside down to find it. But here’s what I want you to notice today: the stories end exactly the same way. Both the shepherd and the woman, having found their lost objects, call their friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me! I have found my lost sheep! I have found my lost coin!” Jesus uses that to say, “…in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent,” and “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” According to Jesus’ words, heaven does not erupt in celebration when people believe that they’re basically good, based on some good stuff they’ve done. The rejoicing happens when sinners repent.
Do you see things lining up here? First we meet Paul, who, with his past and his second chance, is a model of repentance and faith. Then Jesus tells us stories about the joy in heaven over the sinner who repents. Are you getting the point that repentance is a crucial part of your life with God? But do you wonder, what is repentance, really?
Well, there are a number of ways of trying to describe repentance. Going for a literal meaning, it is a turning around—a change of direction in life. I’ve heard repentance described as admitting your sins, feeling sorrow over them, and asking God for forgiveness. More and more I have come to think of repentance simply as honesty with God.
If I am honest with God, then I will be forced to admit that even as I am serving Him, there are evil thoughts and feelings that well up from my heart and mind. If I am honest with God then I have to admit that my love for Him is far from full and complete, and I don’t love my neighbor as I do myself. If I’m honest with God then I have to tell him where I have done far less than I am capable of, that I have nursed grudges, that I have been unfair and unloving in even the most important relationships. It’s this type of honesty that repentance is made of.
Remember Paul’s example of honesty. Writing to Timothy, he admitted, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” He confessed to being the worst of sinners. He wasn’t trying to fool anybody. Just the opposite. He was telling the truth about himself. “Lord, here’s who I am and what I do. Save me. Forgive me. Change me.”
Do you have this kind of honesty with God? Are you just beginning to discover it? Are you at a point in your life where it is painfully obvious that sin is ruining your life? If so, then rejoice, because heaven is rejoicing. Take heart, because you’re being honest with God, and that’s what he wants. Listen to and believe this: your sins are forgiven before God through Jesus Christ. The Son of God himself took our death sentence upon himself at the cross, releasing you from the penalty of your sins. Your record is clean. There are no charges against you. A life of ongoing honesty with God keeps you plugged into the freeing power of forgiveness. Paul was not afraid to talk about his past, because it meant he would also be talking about Jesus, the giver of undeserved blessings. We do not have to be afraid to talk about our sins, either, because the same grace and mercy—the same do-over--given to Paul is given to you. Honesty with God allows us to enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his triumph over death on Easter. It is dishonesty about our sin that prevents us from living in the gifts of Christ. My friends, go with repentance. Go with honesty. And when you do, you can live knowing that you have a God who feels this way about you, from Ezekiel 34:
“I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. I will rescue them from all the places they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will tend them, and they will feed in a rich pasture.”
And, again, quoting Paul: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
Christ was patient with Paul, and Paul is proof that Christ can forgive and change anyone. He patiently loves you. He has made forgiveness and a new way possible for you, too. Let’s make heaven ring with rejoicing, today and throughout our lives, with our honest repentance and our faith in the one who gives eternal life, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Partnership in the Gospel

I've had the privilege of preaching at my father's installation not once, but twice. Since today is his birthday, I thought I would post this sermon from his installation at Zion Lutheran Church, Painesville as my tribute to him. Happy Birthday, Dad!

God’s Word comes to us from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Phillipi, where he writes: “I thank my God for all the memories I have of you. Every time I pray for all of you, I do it with joy. I can do this because of the partnership we’ve had with you in the Good News from the first day you believed until now. I’m convinced that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it through to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.” This is the word of the Lord.

“Every time I pray for all you, I do it with joy. I can do this because of the partnership we’ve had…” It’s that word “partnership” that I’d like for us to focus on today. In a way, that one word gives us a complete picture of the relationship that exists between pastor and people when it is centered in Christ Jesus. May the Lord of the Church demonstrate his grace by leading you, people and pastor, into a true partnership in the Gospel.
Dad, I never thought I would be doing this again. And I really never thought I would be doing this here, at a church four miles from my own! Our God has truly shown us His loving kindness in making us not just neighbors but also partners in ministry.
You know, some funny things have happened before when we’ve been partners. Playing partners, that is. I’ll never forget the times we went to Myrtle Beach and the two of us were paired up with other twosomes, and we start playing as a foursome, and the guys that we’re playing with hit a bad shot and…speak their mind, in a colorful way…and that would go on for a while and then in the course of the usual small talk we would get asked, so what do you do? And you would say, “I’m a Lutheran pastor and my son is studying to become one.” And in the moment of silence that followed you could actually see them ticking down the list of everything they’d said. It was like a bubble that appeared over their head. And for the rest of the round, the language was amazingly G-rated. A lot of rats! Nuts! & Oh No! I guess respect for the pastoral office is not dead, after all.
As excited as I am that you’re here, though, today is not about me or even about us—it’s about your call to serve the people of Zion. This is a congregation with a wonderful history of being greatly blessed by God, and in turn, being a great blessing to this community. Through them, the Lord has called you to be their pastor, their shepherd, one who will help them write new chapters in their story of faithfulness. It’s God’s will that you would now form a partnership in the good news with them. Now that all sounds very good and churchly, but what does a God-pleasing partnership really look like?
Well, first of all, take another look at the way the apostle Paul talks to the Philippian Christians. He thanks God for the memories he has of them. He prays for them with joy. He sees God at work in them. This is a partnership built on Christ-like love. This partnership was born in Christ and established through Christ. It is the partnership that develops when a group of people recognize themselves as sinners, as people who would be utterly lost without Jesus, people who would be sliding down the path to hell were it not for Christ. That’s humbling! That levels the playing field, doesn’t it? But then, we also share in the same Savior when the same Spirit points us to Him. None of us deserve heaven; all of us who trust in Jesus receive it. Faith that trusts in Jesus’ sacrifice and risen life also enables us to see Jesus at work in each other—remember how Paul put it: “I’m convinced that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it through to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.” How could there not be love among God’s faithful people, when this is the gift that we share? This is where a partnership in the gospel begins.
Another thing that characterizes a true partnership in the Gospel is when the partners play to their strengths and gladly accept their roles. Certainly there are tasks that are peculiar to the pastoral office--after all, the pastoral office is God’s idea. Paul told the elders in Ephesus, “Pay attention to yourselves and to the entire flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he acquired with his own blood.” The Good Shepherd has given undershepherds—pastors-- to his Church as his representatives. But part of being a good partner on the pastor’s side means using this authority wisely and dare I say, lovingly. As Dr. James Bollhagen of Concordia Theological Seminary writes,

After spending several months teaching the truths of God’s Word to an adult confirmation class and demanding their undivided attention, it was inevitable that one of the neophytes to the Lutheran Church would ask, “Just how shall I address you?” My stock answer was: “You can call me Your Holiness.” After a brief flash of panic in the questioner’s eyes, a smile would creep across his face. In a sense, a healthy pastoral relationship was established in that moment. The confirmand knew that when I was dealing with the business of Word and Sacrament, utmost respect and ears open were essential; but my self-deprecation also led him to see a man who could play softball with him (and strike out), a man who had cars that stalled, who actually had a sense of humor, who got sick, who could say some mighty stupid things about the business world or gardening. Here was a man just like him. On one hand, I was always known to him as “Pastor.” On the other hand, I was human and everything that goes along with that designation.

On the other side of the partnership is the congregation—the people—the priesthood of all believers. You should rightly expect your pastor to be a servant—to serve you with the gifts God gives through his Church. But that, in turn, will create the desire to be a servant in you, as Jesus himself comes to live in you through Word and Sacrament ministry. Can I really say this? Part of the fun of being in a partnership in the gospel is exploring together—pastor and people—what we can do to serve our neighbors. Identifying your strengths as a congregation, playing to those strengths, considering the Scriptural advice of a pastor who loves you and has your best interest in mind. Respecting the fact that your shepherd will have to give an account for his ministry to the Chief Shepherd—and that you play a part in that. This is serious, exciting, life or death stuff here. Supporting, encouraging, serving each other in the roles the Lord has chosen for us—a partnership in the good news has these qualities
I would be remiss if I did not also mention that a partnership in the gospel, since it’s about THE GOSPEL, assumes that genuine forgiveness will be given and received between both parties. Forgiveness in Christ is what holds the partnership together. As a friend of mine once said, “The church is not a place where people are granted forgiveness only if they can first prove that they don’t need it.” Did you get that? I’ll repeat it. A partnership in the good news puts the good news to work. It lives the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness. It has to, or the partnership will crumble.
And so it is my sincere prayer, and I’m sure I echo the sentiments of my brother pastors and visitors from your sister congregations, that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ would cement a true partnership in His good news between Pastor Gerald Matzke and the gathered saints of Zion Lutheran Church, for your mutual growth in faith and for the praise of His name in our community. And if you don’t mind, before I wrap things up here, there are a couple more things I’d like to tell my Dad. You can listen in, too.
Dad, you’ll be developing a number of relationships and partnerships in the months ahead, and I just wanted to give you a head’s up on a few of them. First of all, the one person who will probably become your closest partner in ministry is Vicar Jim Riley, and I think the two of you are going to make quite a team. You know I’ve had the privilege of working with Jim in his DELTO training and…are you cringing yet, Jim?...you’re entering a partnership with one of the most passionate, knowledgeable, and truly humble Christians I’ve ever met. That’s what I was supposed to say, right? I think you will be a blessing to each other and an example of the type of partnership I’ve been talking about.
You will also have the opportunity to partner with Our Shepherd Lutheran School. I think it would be fair to say that if it were not for the Lutheran educational system neither one of us would be doing what we’re doing today. I can’t wait for you to get to know everyone involved in this exceptional teaching ministry. Sue and I like to call Our Shepherd “Andy’s school,” even though that’s a couple years away at this point. But that’s the kind of investment we have in its success. My suspicion is that you will bring a similar level of interest to this special partnership.
Finally, with all the changes going on right now for you, with all the hopes and expectations that you’re dealing with, your partnership with your Lord Jesus is being tested. Especially at the beginning of a new call, we pastors are reminded of how utterly dependent we are on Jesus just for the ability to do the job. And there is a tendency to wonder about: will I be able to do this? How will I be able to do that? When I find myself asking those sort of questions, I find great relief in these words, “Not I, but Christ in me.” This is what God is calling you to give the people of Zion. You can’t fix their problems, but Christ can. You can’t heal their diseases or broken hearts, but Christ can. “Not I, but Christ in me.” That’s the partnership you have with Jesus, and I’m convinced that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it through to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.

People of Zion; Pastor Matzke. Pastor Matzke; people of Zion. Let the partnership begin! Amen.

Now may the God of peace himself grant you peace at all times and in all ways. The Lord be with you all. Amen.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

God Wrote His Name On You: Baptismal Echoes in the Toy Story Movies

The following was delivered as an Our Shepherd Lutheran School chapel message on September 12, 2007:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 Peter 2: 9

Have you seen the movies Toy Story and Toy Story 2? Who hasn’t, right? Those are great stories with great characters like Buzz Lightyear and Woody the cowboy, and Stinky Pete the Prospector (don’t you love that name?) You know the part I really like is when Mrs. Potato Head gives Mr. Potato Head an extra pair of shoes and his angry eyes, “just in case.” Or when Mr. Potato Head scrambles up everything on his face and says, “Look, I’m Picasso.”
I also like the part when we learn that Woody is a Very Important Toy. He is Andy’s favorite toy, as a matter of fact. And do you remember how Woody knew he was Andy’s favorite? I’ll give you a clue: it had something to do with his boot. Do you remember? Andy had written his name on the bottom on Woody’s boot. Woody was very proud that Andy had done that. It showed he was special. It showed that he was important. It showed that he belonged to Andy.
That’s what makes it so sad in Toy Story 2 when Woody agrees to become part of the collection that’s going to Japan—remember the guy who comes in to fix Woody’s arm? Not only does he sew Woody’s arm back in place, but he also gives Woody a new coat of paint to make him look brand new. And that’s when the worst part happens. With a couple strokes of brown paint, he covers over Andy’s name. If someone looked at the bottom of Woody’s boot, they would never know he really belonged to Andy. Later on in the story, when Woody decides he wants to stay, he wipes off the brown paint so that he can see Andy’s name again, because seeing that name means that he’s special, that he was important, that he belonged to Andy.
Your theme for the school year [at Our Shepherd Lutheran] is two words: “His People.” In the verse from 1 Peter, it said, “You are a chosen people,” and, “a people belonging to God.” This was written by the same Peter that you learn about in the gospels. He was a disciple of Jesus. He knew what it was like to be a chosen person, because Jesus had chosen him personally! Jesus had come up to him and said, “Follow me.” And Peter did.
Now Peter is writing to other Christians, saying, you are a chosen people! You are people who belong to God! He’s not just writing to other Christians, but he’s writing to you, right now: You are chosen people! You belong to God! You are His people!
Have you ever been chosen to do something you really wanted to do? Have you ever been chosen for a team or a part in a play? Have you ever been chosen to be a friend by someone you hoped would like you? Every single one of us here today loves the idea of someone else taking a look at us, what we can do and who we are, and saying: "Yup, it’s you. You are the one that I want. You are just right for me." And you know what? That’s what God the Father and his Son, Jesus say to you. "You are the one that I want. You are the one that I love. You are the one that I treasure." Jesus proved it by coming down to us on earth, becoming a human being, taking our punishment and dying on the cross and then coming back to life and rising again on Easter. He did those things so that he could say, "I choose you. I forgive you. You belong to me."
And do you want to know for sure that God has chosen you? Do you want to know for sure that you belong to Him? Then remember Woody from Toy Story. Remember what made Woody feel so important. Remember what the proof was that he belonged to someone. Remember what was written on Woody’s boot. A name. Andy. That name meant that Woody belonged to someone and was loved.
If you want to know for sure that you belong to God, remember that Andy wrote his name on Woody; and then remember that God wrote his name on you. You know when? When you were baptized. When you were baptized in God’s name; in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it was like He wrote his name on you, and from that moment on, you belonged to Him. This is great news, because if you don’t belong to God, then you belong to someone else—his enemy, the devil. But God gave you his name. He adopted you! You are much, much more than God’s favorite toy: you are his own child now; a child that he loves. That doesn’t make you perfect; but it does make you perfectly forgiven. If you ever want to know for sure that you belong to God, just remember: he put His own name on you when you were baptized! You know, I wish that we could look at the bottom of our shoes and see the name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That might be helpful sometimes. Because that’s who I am—that’s who you are. Chosen people. People who belong to God. His People. People on whom God has written His name. And because of that, you’ve got a friend in Him. Amen.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Questions Moses Asked

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” Deuteronomy 30: 19—20

Some choices in life are agonizing. It’s almost impossible to decide which way to go. When you feel like you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, it can cause you significant stress, to say the least. And when you are tempted to indulge in a custom-made-just-for-you sin, it can be incredibly difficult to make the right decision.
But every once in a while we are blessed with easy choices. No-brainers. Decisions like: “What flavor of ice cream will I get?” “What story should I read to my child?” ‘Which golf course should I play today?” “Which friend should I call?” “What should I get my daughter for her birthday?” These choices are fun. It’s pleasure to make them. Many times, the answers are obvious.
Here’s a few more choices to consider. Would you like life or death? Do you prefer prosperity or destruction? Ridiculous questions, aren’t they? Who in their right mind would choose death and destruction over life and prosperity? That’s not really much of choice, is it?
And yet these are exactly the questions Moses asked God’s people during their desert pilgrimage. He asked these questions because God asked him to. He asked them because, unfortunately, they needed to be asked.
Is it life you want, or death? Would you prefer prosperity or destruction? If it’s life and prosperity you want, Moses says, then love the Lord your God; walk in his ways; keep his commands, decrees and laws—then you will live and increase and you will be blessed.
If it’s death and destruction you want, Moses says, then just let your heart turn away from God; disobey him; go ahead and find a false god to worship. That is a sure recipe for disaster, if that’s what you’re looking for.
When phrased that way these are ridiculous questions, aren’t they? Who in their right mind would choose death and destruction over life and prosperity? That’s not really much of a choice, is it? The right way to go is obvious, isn’t it? Then why is it so hard for us to choose it? Why do we doubt that God is right?
The answer, of course, is sin. Each one of us was born with a terminal illness, passed on to us from the generations before us. That disease is called sinfulness. Because we are infected with sin, our hearts are naturally turned away from God. Our default setting is disobedience. We are drawn to other gods, and we worship them freely. Even though there is a part of us that knows that God’s way is the way of life, we still choose death and destruction when we choose monetary wealth as our god, or when we choose worldly success at all costs as our god, or when we choose sports and leisure as our god, or when we choose a relationship with another human being as our god, or when we choose ourselves as our god. It’s so easy to say, “Who in their right mind would choose death?” And yet our actions betray us. They’re a record of destructive choices. It turns out the questions Moses asked are not as ridiculous as they seemed.
So, will you choose life? Will you turn away from the gods of your own making and turn to Jesus Christ? Will you turn to Christ—the only person who ever kept God’s commands, laws and decrees perfectly? The only one who ever loved God in total faithfulness? Will you turn to Jesus, God’s own Son, for the forgiveness that only he can give? Will you come to Christ, who purchased your full pardon by his bloody death on the cross? The Lord Jesus is your life. He is your way out of the bad choices you have made. He is the way to the land God wants to give you. He is God’s love in human flesh and bone—sent here to meet his Father’s demands for you—to be your substitute in punishment—to share his resurrection with you---and to be your source of love for God. The Lord Jesus is eternal life—and He is yours. He (and all that He is) was given to you in the sacrament of Baptism. With the water and the name of God came a connection to Jesus that has constant benefits for you. With water and the name of God came faith itself—the ability to receive the great gifts God gives, like hands reaching out to receive a birthday present. That same gift of faith enables you to actively pursue God’s way of life.
Look at everything God wants to give you. Life. Prosperity. Forgiveness. A new start. Purpose. Love. Everlasting life in heaven. He does not ask you to earn these things. He simply asks for your love. He asks you to listen to His voice. He asks you to hold fast to Him, to hang on and to trust in him. He asks you with an almost desperate love, will you accept these gifts I’m giving? Will you treasure them? Will you choose life, so that you and your children may live?
Not much of a choice is it? It’s a no-brainer. Thanks be to God. Amen.

September 8 and 9 + Pentecost 15

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Debunking a Popular Myth

Here's a sermon from "the Barrel," which evalutes the truth of the popular phrase, "God never gives you more than you can handle."

“God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

It’s hard to say how a myth gets started. Someone reports an event as truth; someone else believes it; and it starts to spread. For whatever reason, I have a strong interest in “urban legends,” stories that are reportedly true, but have no real basis in fact. The ease with which urban legends can spread has been multiplied by the rise of the Internet. Now, as story that would have only been told regionally can go worldwide with the click of a mouse.
Urban legends are also known as “a friend of a friend” stories, because they are often relayed to others by saying “This really happened to someone my friend knows.” But much of the time these stories are completely made up.
Here is one of my favorites: A man I work with claims his father was driving down I-75 here in Michigan and saw a stranded limousine by the side of the road. He pulled up to the driver’s window and offered the use of his cell phone. The driver was thankful because the limo’s cell phone wasn’t working. After calling for assistance, the driver asks if the guy wants to meet the famous people inside the limo. Of course he does, and is promptly introduced to Donald and Ivana Trump. Mr. Trump indicates his thankfulness and asks if there is anything he can do for the man. He thinks a moment and then says, “just send my wife some flowers. She would be thrilled to get flowers from Donald Trump.” Trump takes the man’s address and says he’ll do just that. The man drives away pretty happy.
A few months go by, and the man and his wife are eating breakfast, when all of a sudden the doorbell rings and there’s this huge flower arrangement sitting on the front stoop. After getting the arrangement through the front door, they both read the attached card, which says, “Thank you very much for the help. By the way, we’ve paid off your mortgage. Signed, the Trumps”
Great story, but the only problem is that the same type of story has been told about Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Bill Gates, and other celebrities. It’s a story people tell themselves because they want to believe that they’ll be rewarded for their Good Samaritan activities. In fact, most urban legends have some sort of moral. They’re like Aesop’s Fables of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, urban legends can worm their way into the Church, as well. This is nothing new. Saint Paul warned his colleague Timothy, “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine…they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” Now some myths are obvious and are easy to debunk and dismiss. But some myths are very difficult to deal with, because they describe things we hold dear, they describe things we really wish were true, and those dreams die hard.
Today’s Epistle lesson gives us the perfect opportunity to talk about one of those myths, something that has become an urban legend of sorts among Christians. And I think that it’s time we debunked this particular myth, because it really gives us a false impression about the Christian life.
What is the myth? Well, it goes something like this. I’ve heard well-meaning Christian people say, when they’re going through a hard time, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Let me say it again. The myth is: “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I sure wish that was true, and so does everyone else who says it. But the problem is I can’t find that in the Bible. What I do find is the verse that’s included in today’s Epistle, which reads: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” Now, that is an incredible promise. St. Paul says here that God will always provide a way out of temptation. He will always provide the means to say no to a sinful choice. He will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear. That’s the truth. Somewhere along the line, though, that mutated into the increasingly common, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and these are two separate things.
What’s wrong with “God never gives you more than you can handle”? It’s just this: Sometimes we are given things we can’t handle. Not alone. Do you really think God allows cancer to threaten a child’s life because he knows the family can handle it? Do you really think God permits a loved one to waste away from disease because he thinks you can handle it? “Well, I’ll have them go through the heart attack of their dad, but I won’t kill him, because they couldn’t handle that.” You don’t just “handle” the death of a spouse who’s been with you three quarters of your life. You don’t just “handle” a bitter family dispute. You don’t just “handle” having to become a parent to your aging parents. These things tear you apart. They squeeze all the energy out of you. They drive you to your knees. God does not watch us being put through the wringer and think to himself, “well, he’s a tough guy; he can take it.” There are things that happen in our lives that we just don’t have the wherewithal to handle. And that, my friends, is the point.
When were are driven to our knees by life—and if it hasn’t happened yet, you can be sure that it will—when you are confronted with situations that are just too much to handle—then you are finally ready to really and truly depend on your Lord Jesus Christ. The storms of life strip away our illusion of self-reliance. They drown the type of pride that says “I can handle this.” But God, in his wisdom, uses those same storms to pull us like a riptide to the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross we see how deeply we are loved by God, especially when our circumstances would tempt us to believe otherwise. There is purpose in Jesus’ suffering, namely the removal of sin’s awful curse from us; and there in purpose in our suffering, even though that is harder to see.
But know this too: the same Jesus who suffered and died made the third day after his burial a celebration of life and victory over evil. The same pattern holds true for you: suffering, then glory. There is hope not just for a brighter day, but an eternal day that belongs to you as a child of God. In faith we look forward to justice being served; we look forward to forgetting all about sin, pain, and death; we look forward to all creation being restored. The final word has already been spoken on all these things: “It is finished.”
But what do we do now? Now, when the wounds are still open and the nerves are still shot? Well, you could start by coming to the meal Jesus has gotten ready for you here today. Jesus invites you to come to the table he sets in His Church. He invites you to come with all of your baggage, all of your hurt, all your exhaustion; come as you are! Come hungry and thirsty for that which is good, and you will not be disappointed, as Jesus gives you His own body, which handled so much suffering; as He pours into you his blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Yet these are not dead things we consume, but living! Our risen, active, victorious Lord meets you right here, and there is peace; there is wholeness; there is profound goodness entering you. It is Jesus Christ himself! Come to the table. Throw your burdens on his broad shoulders; then help yourselves to the gifts He worked so hard to give you.
After you’ve left his feast, what then? Well, do not let your troubles put you into circle-the-wagons mode, with Jesus on the outside looking in. Do not let your situation get you so worked up that you forget to eat and drink. Isn’t that what Mom always said—“You’ve got to eat!” She was right. When you’re getting beat up by life, do not forget to keep eating and drinking at the table of your Lord. Don’t forget to eat and drink of the Words he has spoken to you in Holy Scripture. If you don’t feed your faith, especially when stress is burning those calories, how do you expect it to stay alive?

Whatever you are going through right now, you don’t have to pretend that it’s all up to you to try and handle it. You have the Son of God to depend on. He is totally reliable. Pride says, “It’s up to me. I’ve got to be tough. I can handle this myself.” But there is a better way, and that is to let your Shepherd carry you. Humble yourself and depend on Him.

God never gives you more than you can handle? Let’s let go of that urban legend. As a substitute truth, how about Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” Amen.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Remember Your Leaders...and Imitate Their Faith

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Hebrews 13: 7

So who is it for you? This verse asks you to remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. It asks you to consider the outcome of their way of life. It asks you to imitate their faith. So who did you think of? Who has brought you closer to Jesus? Who still influences you to keep the Christian faith? Take a moment to think about the person or persons that have had the biggest impact on you spiritually. Think about what they did to point you in Christ’s direction. Offer a prayer of thanks for them.
How long has it been since you really gave that some thought? You know, it might be a pretty good idea to take time to tell that person you just thought about—if it’s possible—just tell them what they’ve meant to you in your life of faith. Imagine what it would be like to receive a card or a phone call like that: “You are responsible for bringing me closer to my Savior, Jesus Christ!” If you can make that happen for someone, why not do it?
It’s difficult for me to create a short list of people who have influenced my faith. I have been blessed to have many strong, faithful examples to imitate. There’s my parents, who taught me Christian love and forgiveness and put me in places like church and the classroom where I would hear the Word of God daily. There’s my vicarage supervisor, Pastor Larry Kudart, who showed me what the dedication of a servant of Christ looks like. There’s my former associate pastor, Powell Woods, who demonstrated the humility and love for people that characterizes a Christ-like pastor. Though it may embarrass him, I have to mention Pastor Mattson’s encouragement to faithfulness and an evangelical spirit. To that list I could and should add my Lutheran teachers and professors, along with other family members and friends who have shown me something about Christ’s love, and given me something to imitate.
Time for some more remembering. Whoever you thought about a moment ago—what were some concrete, specific things that they did to push you God’s way? This is a very important question. What actions did they take, and how did those actions affect your life? One of the easiest ways I know of to share your faith with someone is to remember what another Christian did for you, and then do the same thing. That’s what imitating is, after all. They do it, then you try it. That’s how we learn. When the author of Hebrews writes, “Consider the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith,” he’s saying, do for someone else what your Christ-like leader did for you. Imitate the things they did that made a difference for you. And in that way you’ll make a difference for someone else.
Now at this point we need to be cautiously aware of two things. Number One: We must take care that in remembering our leaders, considering the outcome of their lives and imitating their faith, we do not end up worshipping a hero that is not Jesus Christ. This can be very subtle. Few people I know would actually worship or pray to another human being, but we do have a human tendency to elevate those who’ve been good to us. We do put people, even Christian people, on pedestals in small and large ways, and of course, this misses the point entirely. There is no other faith to imitate than faith that confesses: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3: 23) Every Christian is a sinner forgiven, and the Christian always points others to Christ, not to him or herself. That is the faith we are to imitate.
The second caution is this: though we are encouraged to imitate the faith of our Christian leaders, it must not be an imitation of faith. In other words, our faith must be our own, and it must be sincere. It must go beyond doing things just because others have done them, with little sense of why. No one can believe for you. If your mother was pious and faithful, that’s a wonderful blessing. Thank God for it. But her faith cannot save you. If your pastor taught you the Christian faith and was there for you in difficult times, that was God’s intention for you to benefit from such ministry. Praise God for it. But your pastor’s faith cannot save you. Your faith is what matters, and it must not be a pale imitation of true faith, or it will do you no good. True faith confesses, “I cannot by my own reason, or strength, or sincerity, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts; given me holiness and kept me in the one true faith.” Do not confuse an imitation of faith—doing some good things every now and then—with true faith, which clings for all its worth to a crucified and risen Savior and stakes everything, life after death included, on what Jesus has done.
“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Today we have remembered. Will you imitate the faith and love of the Christ-like people God has placed in your path? Will you follow their example and point others to Jesus? Consider the outcome of their way of life:

A missionary traveling through the interior of China once told a group of natives the story of Jesus for the first time. When he had finished, someone said,
“Oh yes, we knew him; he used to live here.”
But the missionary said, “No; I’m talking about another person who lived centuries ago in another land.”
“But we did know him,” the man insisted. “He lived in this village.”
The disagreement continued until the people took the missionary out to their village cemetery. There they pointed to a grave, marked with a cross, which belonged to a Christian doctor who had lived, served, and died in their community.

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Imitate their faith. Show Jesus to the village in which you live. Amen.