Monday, September 29, 2008

Will You Change Your Mind?

"What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. Matthew 21: 28—32

Just about everyone knows this type of disappointment: someone promises you something, then they don’t deliver. If you’ve been disappointed enough, you don’t even let yourself get your hopes up anymore, because you know there’s a difference between knowing the right answer and doing the right answer. There are a lot of people who know what they ought to do—and promise to do it--and far fewer who actually live it.
The simple story Jesus told the ruling priests and the elders brings this idea to light. One son says “no” to his father, but changes his mind and goes to work; the other says “yes” but never gets around to working. Who does the will of his father? Of course, the one who changed his mind and worked! And I suppose someone could look at this brief tale and conclude that the moral of the story is: “We ought to be people who keep our word. If you make a promise, follow through on it.” Certainly, we should strive to be people of integrity. But, as usual, Jesus wants to go deeper than that. He wants to go deeper than behavior. He wants to know about your heart and your motivation. He wants to know if you’ve really changed your mind.
In our story, the son who did the father’s will is the son who changed his mind and went to work. Jesus moves right from the story to its application: he told the religious establishment of His day that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of them because those “sinful” folks heard John the Baptist’s preaching and it changed their minds. But it didn’t change the minds or lives of the priests. It didn’t change the minds or lives of the Pharisees. It didn’t change the minds or lives of those who believed their “religiousness” made changing their minds unnecessary. Not only did it not change their minds, but they were enraged by the very suggestion that their minds needed changing, and they began looking for ways to punish and silence those who dared to say such things. They knew that they were guilty and that they needed to turn around. But they would not—call it pride, stubbornness, sin—they would not change their minds and go God’s way.
Does that sound like you? I didn’t say, does that sound like someone you know; I said, does that sound like you? Do you recognize your need to change—or do you refuse to believe that you need to? Do you recognize yourself in the son who says an easy “yes” to the father, but then doesn’t do what he’s asked? Are you OK with a little bit of church or a little bit of Jesus as long as you don’t have to change your mind and the way you live your life? Christians can start trusting in their own “religiousness” as much as they trust in Christ! Or more than they trust in Christ! We can start thinking, “Well I’ve done this, and I’ve done that, and I’ve done this for that many years, and I did that with them,” but the bottom line is: Are you a changed person? Has Jesus changed you with His forgiveness; with his mercy? Have you let Him?
It’s the change of mind—the turning around—that God is looking for. And I say all of this as someone who is no less guilty than you. I sin too and I’m pretty well versed in it. Sometimes when people are leaving a worship service, they’ll say, in reference to the sermon, “Pastor, I really needed to hear that today,” and I often answer by saying, “So did I!” And it’s the truth! If I happen to really nail you in a description of a particular sin, how do you think I know? I struggle with it too. And just like you, I need to hear God’s Word, because God’s Word cuts through all the static and all the junk and all my self-justifying arguments and excuses and says: Look. You are a sinner. You choose the wrong. You neglect the right. You need to repent.
Convinced of this, I still need to hear God’s Word, because it says to me in my embarrassment and shame, your sins are forgiven through Jesus Christ. That good Word tells me that Jesus stamped “paid in full” on the account of my sins as He died on the cross. When God leads you to realize that your only option before Him is to say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” He has led you into life-saving truth. He then is happy, overjoyed even, to be merciful to us, to give us the gift that He purchased with the passion and death and rising again of His Son: the gift of forgiveness and restoration.
When God’s Word moves you to repent, you become the son in Jesus’ story who at first said “no,” then changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard. Believing the Gospel, you willingly go to work for your Father. Trusting that Jesus has granted you full pardon of your sins, you look for ways to ease the burdens and increase the joys of others. Lord, change our minds, change our priorities, change our lives so that you are clearly visible and active in us; in Jesus’ name: Amen.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What Makes a Lutheran Church “Lutheran”?

How would you answer that question? Is “being Lutheran” a matter of:
· drinking lots of coffee
· sitting in the back during worship
· being part of a particular ethnic group
· worshipping in a distinct manner
· resisting change

Let’s start with the name itself. We are named after a German monk, not Martin Luther King. Martin Luther took a stand against non-Biblical tradition and through study of the Scriptures brought the Gospel and justification by grace through faith to light once again. That is the Lutheran “center of gravity.”

Let us also understand that Lutheran = Christian.

Ultimately, being a Lutheran Church is NOT a matter of:
· what we drink
· where we sit
· our ethnicity
· how we are structured as a congregation, district or synod

It is a matter of what we believe (our confession of faith).

That confession of faith is spelled out for us in the Holy Bible and the Lutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord.

A Lutheran Church is a Lutheran Church because it has pledged to remain faithful to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions and her pastor has done the same.

Do we know what our Lutheran Confessions say? Does it matter to us?

Monday, September 15, 2008

490 Times & Counting

“…in anger his master delivered him to the torturers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18: 34—35

Dear Friends,

It’s a provocative story. A man who owes a gigantic debt has it forgiven, wiped from the books. He has the proverbial “new lease on life.” And how does he use his newfound freedom? He uses it to put a stranglehold on a co-worker who owes him a small sum. From the sidelines, we can boo and hiss at this villain. What a jerk. And we can cheer when he gets his comeuppance—the king who forgave the debt now sends him to the jailers—the original Greek cranks up the intensity, rendering “jailers” instead as “torturers.” “Yes—the bad guy got what he deserved. We can now go back to business as usual.”
But not so fast…Jesus wasn’t quite done…for he drops this at the end: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." With this final twist, you and I are forced to participate in this provocative story. This story is not about finances owed; it’s about forgiveness owed. If you bear any resemblance to the villain in this story; if you have been forgiven a debt that you could never hope to repay, only to turn around and be unforgiving, you’ve got problems. Which means we’ve all got problems. If we don’t turn from our unforgiving ways, there are torturers in our future. Knowing this, we still ask, over and over: “Do I really have to forgive?” You know the answer and so do I.
Forgiveness is the heart and soul of the Christian faith. It’s why Jesus was tortured and died on the cross, so God could provide forgiveness, debt-free, to all. Forgiveness is what enables us to belong to God, and yet there something about forgiveness that just bewilders us. The question that prompted Jesus to tell this story in the first place is a good example. Good old Peter asked: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Now, I’m sure Peter thought he was being overly generous when he said “seven times.” I mean, this is “three strikes and you’re out” times two plus one for good measure. Peter probably thought his suggestion of “up to seven times” was a very virtuous one. And truth be told, we probably do too. We might even think it’s a little much.
So what does Jesus think of Peter’s suggestion? He says, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Don’t hear that as a new number. Hear that as a new attitude. Hear that as, “there should be no limit to the forgiveness you offer to people.” To flesh out his point, Jesus then told the story about the unmerciful servant, and just in case his listeners didn’t get it, he spelled it out: “…in anger his master delivered him to the torturers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
That leaves all of us in an uncomfortable position. We know what we harbor. We know what we hang onto. We know what we withhold. If this Jesus-story is nothing more than a pep-talk to get us to go out there and be more merciful people, do you think it’ll work? If this story is nothing more than God’s way of saying: “Forgive others or else,” do you think it’s enough to change us? There’s got to be a better reason to forgive than fear of punishment. And—good news—there is.
The problem you and I have with forgiveness is not so much a “giving-of-forgiveness problem.” That’s a symptom. The real problem we have is a “receiving-of-forgiveness problem.” That was the unmerciful servant’s first mistake and it’s our mistake, more often than not.
Think about it. That servant was under an extraordinary debt, which was compounding daily. There was no chance that he could ever repay it. This meant for him total ruin of his life. And in a moment of mercy; a moment of compassion on the part of the King, the debt is cancelled. The debt is forgiven and it is gone. It is not as if the terms of the debt were re-negotiated. It is not as if now the servant has to work less or has less to pay off. He has nothing to pay off. He has no more work to do to get out from under this mountain. The threat of ruin is replaced with complete freedom. He has a life again. He has a family and a home again. And somewhere between the master’s office and his encounter with his fellow servant, he forgot what had been done for him. Or, even worse, he began to believe that he deserved what had happened to him. Doesn’t that sound stupid? He had a “receiving-of-forgiveness” problem. For whatever reason, he didn’t understand the magnitude of the gift he had been given, so it didn’t translate into new attitudes or actions.
And isn’t that the trap we fall into? You and I are under an extraordinary debt, a debt we owe God for sins committed, good works gone undone. There is no chance that we could ever repay it. This means for us total ruin of our lives, here and eternally. And in a moment of mercy; a moment of compassion on the part of the King, the debt is cancelled. The debt is forgiven and it is gone. He pays it off with His own blood. It is not as if the terms of the debt are re-negotiated. It is not as if now you have to work less or have less to pay off. You have nothing to pay off. The threat of ruin is replaced with complete freedom. You have a life again. You have a life again and you have options. Somewhere between the sanctuary and your next encounter with your fellow servant, will you forget what has been done for you? Or, even worse, will you begin to believe that you in some way deserve what has happened to you through Jesus Christ? Or will the magnitude of the gift you have been given dawn on you, so that it translates into new attitudes and actions? Will you realize that the mercy God showed you when he laid your sins on Jesus is the same mercy that he has for that brother of yours who continually sins against you? Will you see that the forgiveness the Son of God earned for you on Calvary’s cross and guaranteed in his Easter resurrection is the same forgiveness earned for your brother, or sister or whomever it is? Your brother’s pardon is the same as your pardon. Your sister’s forgiveness comes from the same place as your forgiveness. It all comes from Christ—His passion—His cross and suffering—His death—His resurrection! So forget about trying to dig deep for some feeling of forgiveness; forget about forcing yourself to forgive through an act of will—the only basis for your being able to forgive another person is the Word of the Lord concerning your forgiveness. You don’t say, and neither do I, “Because I am a good person, a patient guy, a merciful gal, I announce my forgiveness to you. Instead, you and I say, “In the name of Jesus, and by His authority, I forgive you.” In other words, forgiveness is not our work, it is Christ’s; if we are in Him and He in us, we won’t get in His way. We’ll receive and give His forgiveness, with His infinite love as our power source. With Him, seventy times seven is only the beginning. Amen.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Become Like Children

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18: 1—4

Jesus’ acceptance of children has shaped His Church in profound and lasting ways. His love for children is on full display in the passage that serves as our Gospel Reading for today. His Church has, especially in our modern era, tried to model and mirror Jesus’ attitude toward children by providing opportunities for their growth. The Church’s desire to “receive the little ones” has given birth to Christian Day Schools, Christian Preschools; and yes, Christian Sunday Schools. On this Rally Day, hopefully what we’re rallying around is a teaching ministry aimed right at children. Who could argue against it? A Church that does not honor or serve its children is, point-blank, ignoring the spirit in which Jesus interacted with young people and even babies.
However, as important as instructing our children in the Word of God is, it’s not the main point of today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus doesn’t plop a child down in the middle of his disciples in order to say, “You guys really ought to start a Christian School.” In fact, Jesus does this to say, “This child could school you guys. You’ve got to learn what this child already knows, or you’ll never make it in the kingdom of heaven.” The point of this reading is less about teaching our children, and more about what they can teach us.
It seems the disciples had been bouncing around the question “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?” Usually when people ask such questions, you know what they’re getting at. It’s a pastime: who is the greatest pitcher of all time? What is the greatest movie of all time? From greatest player to greatest president; from greatest singer to greatest school—we concern ourselves with who is number one, which is almost always based on high performance. The disciples were doing this with the kingdom of God. So Jesus calls to a child, who comes and stands in the circle, as it were, and says: "Truly, I say to you, unless you(B) turn and(C) become like children, you(D) will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4(E) Whoever humbles himself like this child is the(F) greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Now understand that Jesus’ answer here is like answering the question “Who is the greatest pitcher of all time?” by saying, “Well, there’s this kid in Little League right now that’s got great stuff.” The reaction was likely a collective “Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?” What does it mean to “turn and become like children”? It’s pretty important that we know. Jesus said, if you don’t turn and become like [a child], you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. What do children have that we need?
Let’s think for a minute. What would you say is the biggest difference between children and adults? Lots of ways to answer that question, of course. I would suggest that one of the biggest differences between children and adults is control. Control over their lives. Adults have it. Children don’t. Or put it this way—they shouldn’t. Here’s one example—the child that declares, “When I grow up, I’m going to stay up all night, play as many video games as I want, eat only Captain Crunch cereal…” you get the idea. Parents set the rules, and, best case scenario, they enforce them. The bottom line rests with the parent, not the child. By the way, in the culture of Jesus’ time, children had even less control over their lives than they do now. Roman citizens—fathers of the household, in particular—had the right to execute their children if the situation warranted it.
So what does it mean to “turn and become like children”? I believe that it means more than just ‘having a child-like faith’—though that’s part of it. I believe that when Jesus says “turn and become like children” He means “surrender control of your life to God.” Become the child and let God be the Parent. Let Him set the rules. Let Him set your agenda. Let Him guide your steps. And do so willingly, trusting that He has your best interests in mind. Turn and become dependent on God. Turn and give Him control of your priorities. Surrender control of your life to God.
Is that really what you want? Of course, there’s that sinful person inside of us who’s going to say “no.” There’s that sinful person inside of us who’s going to insist on being a free agent. There’s that sinful person inside of us who puffs out his chest and says, “I did it my way,” and if my way takes me to hell, oh well. To that person inside us—to that person who is us—Jesus says, “unless you(B) turn and(C) become like children, you(D) will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Surrender control of your life to God.
Jesus isn’t asking anything of you that He hasn’t already done. He surrendered control of His life to His Father, and His Father asked Him to give up His life. This was by no means easy, and the Gospels reveal Jesus’ great distress in Gethsemane, with the whip and scourge and cross just hours away. But Jesus went through with it. He submitted to His Father’s will. He endured the whip and scourge and cross so that your sins could be pronounced forgiven today. He died on that cross so that His body and blood could be served to you today, forgiving your sins of pride and lust for power and the chronic need to be number one—they’re all wiped clean away. Having surrendered His life to His Father, His Father then returned Jesus’ life to Him on Easter morning. Whoever believes in Jesus’ death and resurrection will have life returned to them as well, better life; risen life; not only a future home in heaven but a new birth today.
The old sinner lives in fear of losing control; that surrendering control of my life to God will mean that I lose. The Holy Spirit reveals the truth: giving control of my life over to God means that I win. Yes, I lose some things that are worth losing, but what the believer in Jesus gains is far greater. To use the apostle Paul’s phrase, it is a “peace that surpasses understanding.” It is victory over death. It is communion and relationship with God. It is better than all our thinking, because it is rooted in and flows from Jesus our Lord.
Turn and become like children. Return to your Father God and let Him parent you. Accept His guiding hand and the decisions He makes for you. Happily receive the gifts He gives to you. Surrender control and let Jesus drive you. You are his baptized, adopted, beloved child. Amen.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Blueprint for a Caring Church

Let love be genuine.(B) Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10(C) Love one another with brotherly affection.(D) Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal,(E) be fervent in spirit,[a](F) serve the Lord. 12(G) Rejoice in hope,(H) be patient in tribulation,(I) be constant in prayer. 13(J) Contribute to the needs of the saints and(K) seek to show hospitality.
L) Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15(M) Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16(N) Live in harmony with one another.(O) Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.[b](P) Never be wise in your own sight. Romans 12: 9—21

St. Paul always wrote to congregations. Now maybe that’s self-evident to you, but it is worth thinking about nevertheless. St. Paul always wrote his letters, which we call epistles, to congregations—to groups of Christians living in the real world. These letters were never meant to be dry, academic exercises for the scholarly few. These letters are personal, pulsating with life and energy, written by someone with a vested interest in the church’s success. They were meant to be read in the public assembly of believers, which is to say, in worship. And so today let’s hear these words as if we were the Roman congregation that Paul was writing to. Let’s take stock of ourselves in light of the directives the Apostle gives here—which provide us with a blueprint for a caring church.
Paul begins this blueprint by saying: “Let love be genuine.” What a simple idea. I think it’s safe to say that more people have been brought into the church by the kindness of real Christian love than by all the theological arguments or worship styles or special programs combined. A person will get up and get ready and drive all the way across town and past who knows how many other churches if he or she knows that they will experience love and true fellowship at the church they’re going to. Now, Paul’s not saying we ought to make a show out of it—hugging and kissing and backslapping if that’s not your thing—instead he writes, “Let love be genuine.” Let it be real. Let it be sincere. Let it be unique to who you are, and who Christ is making you. Don’t get the idea that Paul is saying, “try hard to love each other.” When a group of people see one another as fellow sinners, saved under the cross of Christ, there will be love for one another. As Jesus said in the gospel of John, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." So let it be genuine.
In verse ten, Paul continues, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” How are we doing when it comes to showing honor and respect to one another? According to the journal U.S. News and World Report, 89 % of Americans think that incivility, rudeness, and a general lack of respect is a serious problem. Now listen to these statistics. 73 % think mean-spirited political campaigns are to blame; 52% think talk radio is to blame; and 1% think their own behavior is uncivil. Something doesn’t quite add up.
The fact is, thanks to sin, it is not natural for me to think about someone else’s needs before my own. It is not natural for me to set aside my own desire to be honored; it may not be natural, but it is possible, through the forgiving power of Jesus. We must never forget that Jesus, second person of the majestic Trinity, came into this world to become a servant. The King of Creation became its slave. Our holy and perfectly just God was treated as a criminal and hung from a cross, punished for sins that were not his own. They were yours, and they were mine. His rising to life on the third day means many things—one of which is that his sacrifice was accepted by the Father, and now it counts for us all. And so we trust in Jesus’ servant actions. His servant actions save us from self-destruction and eternal punishment. And his servant actions show us who we become with Him inside us.
A story comes to us of a king who organized a great race within his kingdom. All the young men of the kingdom participated. A bag of gold was to be given to the winner, and the finish line was within the courtyard of the king’s palace. The race was run, and the runners were surprised to find in the middle of the road leading to the king’s palace a great pile of rocks and stones. But they managed to scramble over it or to run around it and eventually to come to the courtyard. Finally, all the runners had crossed the finish line except one. But still the king did not call the race off. After a while one lone runner came through the gate. He lifted a bleeding hand and said, "O King, I am sorry that I am so late. But you see, I found in the road a pile of rocks and stones, and it took me a while, and I wounded myself in removing them." Then he lifted the other hand, and in it was a bag. He said, "But, Great King, I found beneath the pile of rocks this bag of gold." The king said, "My son, you have won the race, for that one runs best who makes the way safer for those who follow."
There is great reward in serving, but it’s not a bag of gold. The reward in serving is simply being like Christ, who stooped down to serve us in love. The reward in serving is fulfillment, the sense that we are finally doing what we have always been meant to do. We’re being who we are: people in whom Jesus Christ has made a home.
That’s critical for us to remember as Paul continues to draw the blueprint for a caring church. He writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them,” and a few verses later, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” None of the things just mentioned come naturally to us. If someone pushes us, it’s human nature to push back. Human nature is concerned with self first and foremost. Living in harmony means I look outside myself. And human nature knows that there is nothing much to be gained from associating with the lowly. If you and I belonged only to the kingdom of the world—the kingdom occupied by sin, death and Satan—then these words would be a fairy tale. The idea of blessing those who persecute you would be foolishness. The thought of living in harmony would be discarded as idealistic, na├»ve, wishful thinking. Associating with the lowly would be seen as a waste of time. But you and I do not belong to the kingdom of the world. As Jesus himself said, you are in the world, but not of the world. You are not of the world because Jesus has chosen you to belong to Him. You were adopted by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism. All the benefits and blessings of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead have been applied to you through baptism, even the faith to believe has been granted to you as a gift. The believing Christian is, to use Paul’s language, “In Christ” and Christ is in him or her. You are a person in whom Jesus Christ lives and works, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the faith he brings.
And that truly makes us different. “Jesus in us” makes us different from those ruled by the kingdom of this world. With Christ as our life, we can and do bless and pray for our enemies. With Christ as our life, we can and do seek to live in harmony with one another. With Christ as our life, we can and do associate with those who by worldly standards are lowly—because we know that as we serve them, we’re serving God. A caring Christian—and a caring Church—dares to be different than the world. Caring Christians and the caring churches they populate cannot help being different—as they show forgiveness; as they act in mercy; as they work in harmony; as they welcome and help the lowly; as they do all these things and more, it’s Jesus doing it, through them. It’s Jesus doing it through you. I can think of no stronger witness to the reality of Jesus Christ than just living out His different way of life for all people you to see. The difference Jesus makes confuses people, in a good way. The difference Jesus makes attracts people—it opens their eyes, it challenges them to think that there might be something to Christianity after all. Living out this difference is what you were put here for. Living out this difference is what St. Paul’s was put here for. But make no mistake—what St. Paul’s does as a congregation starts with you. Being a caring church starts with you—and your connection to Christ Jesus. The blueprint is right in front of us. Let’s get to work being who we are—people in whom Jesus has made a home. Amen.