Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sneak Peek: Annual Meeting Report

St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
and Preschool
51 Years of God’s Grace + Christ Is Our Cornerstone

Pastor’s Report
Annual Meeting, May 17, 2009

The Lord has blessed St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. He has gifted us with the best news ever and asks us to share it with our world. There are plenty of challenges, to be sure, but we meet them with the victory already in hand, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

I would use this forum today to hold the following things before you:

1. We have a mission to fulfill. You will hear a lot about being “externally focused” in the months ahead. We want to be faithful to the mission Christ has given His Church: to make disciples. Please pray about becoming involved in an externally focused activity. In the near future we will evaluate ourselves as a congregation and develop strategies to be even more effective in fulfilling Christ’s mission.
2. Fulfilling this mission takes resources. In order to realize our potential as a mission-minded church, we need every family’s contribution of time, talent, and treasure. God’s Word tells us that our giving should be done with a thankful and cheerful heart; it also says that the Lord does not desire our “leftovers.”
3. Christ is present to help us. This is true at all times but especially in worship. The introduction and use of Lutheran Service Book has, from my perspective, gone very well. There are more services worth exploring in LSB, and we will do so with the patience such change deserves. I pray you are thankful for and blessed by our Scripturally-sound, Christ-centered way of worship.
4. We have excellent volunteers (and a strong church staff, including our Preschool Director and teachers). Across the board, we are blessed to have gifted Christian men and women who give generously of their time and abilities to further the work of God’s Kingdom. There are quite a few unsung heroes among us, without whom things simply would not happen. I am grateful for your willing service.

It is a privilege to serve you with God’s Word and Sacraments. I sincerely appreciate all the ways in which you care for my family, and I thank God daily for your faithfulness and friendship in Christ. God grant us the desire to joyfully share His gifts with our world!

Official Acts and Statistics
May 2008—May 2009

Baptisms: 9 (2 adult)
Funerals: 4
Weddings: 1
Confirmed: 7
New Members Received: 30
Worship Attendance Average (per weekend): 192
(More than double the average Ohio District LCMS congregation)
Over 400 pastoral care visits made
Approximately 165 worship services conducted
(includes Advent, Christmas, Lent, & Holy Week)
Approximately 150 Bible Study sessions offered
(includes Confirmation Classes, Saturday night, Sunday morning, and Life Group)

I currently serve the Church-at-Large in the following ways:

· Circuit Counselor, Ohio District (Northeast 7)—term up as of June
· Our Shepherd Lutheran School Board
· DELTO Mentor to Jimmy Riley—ends this summer
· Breakout Session Presenter, Ohio District Lutheran Educators Conference
· Bible Study Presenter, Ohio District Convention
· Leader of Closing Worship @ Ohio District Pastor’s Conference
· Chairman, Ohio District Board for Student Aid
· Participant, Boar’s Head Festival
· Participant, circuit-wide Ascension Day and Reformation services
· Participant, Ohio District Transforming Congregations Learning Community

Joyfully Serving Christ and His Church—

Pastor Matzke

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Resurrection Direction

There is something about good news that makes us want to share it. You finally got the job you were hoping for. Your baby has been born. You accomplished something great and are being recognized. It’s almost impossible to sit on good news like that. These days, good news travels faster than ever. I remember watching a baseball game and seeing someone in the stands catch a home run ball and in the next moment, reach into their pocket, pull out the cell phone and dial someone—“You’ll never guess what just happened…”
Good news wants to move and be shared. You could say it has an outward direction. Good news that really means something to you lights a fire under you, gets you communicating. I love it when people get in touch with me because they have good news to share. It’s refreshing.
The Christian Church has not just good news but the greatest news ever to share. Jesus Christ has died and come back to life—that we might belong to God and live forever with Him. This news ought to animate everything the Church does. It ought to be in the minds and hearts and on the lips of every believer in Jesus. But is it? And if not, how come?
When we first see the disciples in today’s gospel lesson, they are hiding out behind locked doors, trying to figure out what the good news of Jesus’ resurrection meant. Gripped with fear and doubt, they had barricaded themselves away, when all of a sudden, people they know and trust show up with incredible news—they had walked and talked and broken bread with Jesus. Jesus was alive! The good news had broken into their little safe house—and it would break in again in mere moments when Jesus would appear, standing among them, speaking His peace to them, showing them that his risen body was flesh and bone. The words Luke uses to describe their reaction are: startled, terrified, happy and surprised. But there were more surprises in store that day.
Their resurrected, once-again-living Friend began to teach them. And what a lesson it was. Again, to use Luke’s words, Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. He taught them that everything in the Bible has to do with the message of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins. And furthermore, Jesus said that they were going to be the ones to deliver this message not just to the people of Jerusalem, but to all people. He reminds them, “You are witnesses of these things.” That’s a lot to absorb in one evening. But today’s first reading reveals that the disciples learned their lesson well.
First of all, the Holy Spirit and the good news of Jesus’ Easter comeback had gotten them out of hiding; out from behind their four walls and into the public eye. Second, You can see how Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. Peter makes a quick sketch of Israel’s history and identifies Jesus as the Christ—the promised Messiah. And finally, the message of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins comes through loud and clear—Peter is preaching exactly what Jesus taught him to preach. This is some of the most beautiful language in Holy Scripture: “Repent then and turn, to have your sins wiped out that a time may come when the Lord refreshes you and sends Jesus, whom He appointed to be your Savior…” If you keep reading in Acts you quickly see that there would be consequences for this bold proclamation—but it was a price the apostles were willing to pay, because the news was too good. It was too important and too life-changing and too reality—altering to leave it unspoken.
What does that have to do with us? Just everything. As I said before, good news wants to move and be shared. We Christians have the best news ever. The resurrection direction is outward. What does it say about us if we are not sharing this news with our world?
I’ll tell you: it says that our sinful nature still tries to silence us. Our predisposal to sin conspires to keep us from sharing the greatest news ever by making us fearful and worried about how people will react. We are buffeted by doubts of our own. In many ways we are just like Jesus disciples, huddled behind locked doors, keeping faith a private matter in our little safe house.
But now in the hearing of His Word Jesus comes to you and me. Walls, doors and locks that we construct mean nothing to Him. He comes give you peace. He comes to open your mind. He comes to lead you first to repentance, to that turn-around, that change of direction away from sin and to lead you to forgiveness. Your Savior can offer you full pardon and release from your sins because He is alive to do so. He paid off your invoice by suffering and dying on the cross. But He lives. In the words of the classic Easter hymn: “He lives to silence all my fears; He lives to wipe away my tears; He lives and grants me daily breath; He lives and I shall conquer death!”
You see, the glory of the resurrection is that it eliminates fear. Jesus’ saving work for you means that you never have to fear paying an eternal cost for your sins. They’ve been paid for in full. Jesus’ saving work for you means that you don’t have to fear death. Jesus goes with you through the valley of the shadow of death, and your baptism unites you with His resurrection. Jesus’ saving work for you also means that you need not fear how people are going to react to the greatest news ever. If someone rejects the saving word, they’re not rejecting you—they’re rejecting Christ! And if someone is moved by the good news to faith in Christ—think of what it would mean to be a part of that! Now in the hearing of His Word, Jesus enlists you to carry the greatest news ever into the places you live your life. You have a story that is uniquely your own to tell about Jesus’ working in your life and the difference He has made. He has chosen you for this purpose. He is on your side to help you. Good news wants to move and be shared. We Christians have the best news ever. As you’ve seen, the resurrection direction is outward. Let’s get going!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Purpose Statement of Holy Scripture

Back in my undergraduate days at what was then known as Concordia Univeristy River Forest, we were taught that when you write a paper, you ought to have something called a thesis statement. That thesis statement was supposed to capture, in one sentence, the point you were trying to make. Having a thesis statement was supposed to help give your paper focus and a clear direction. One of my seminary professors taught us that sermons should also include a thesis statement that serves the same purpose. You will have to be the judge of whether or not this message has focus and clear direction. All I can say is, I try!
The idea of having a thesis or purpose or mission statement has been embraced by the business world and has filtered back into the church. Even though Jesus gave his church a mission statement when he said, “Go and make disciples of all nations…” congregations have found it useful to write their own, and our congregation is no different. Do you know our mission statement? It’s at the top of every Epistle. It says, “St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church exists to witness to our faith in Jesus Christ through worship, education, building relationships, and caring for others.” Those are great things for our church to “be about.”
At the very end of today’s Gospel Lesson, we are presented with what I believe to be a purpose statement. I see it as the mission statement of John’s Gospel and indeed all of the Bible. John writes: 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. Listen again carefully: these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. The purpose of the Bible is to create faith in Jesus; faith that gives godly life. Now maybe that’s stating the obvious, but I’m afraid these days the obvious needs to be stated.
A recent Trinity College survey made headlines and ruffled a few feathers within the church. This survey found that an increasing amount of Americans are willing to say, “I don’t believe in any god.” We seem to have a growing number of “confessing atheists” among us.
I know the findings of this poll deeply troubled some people, and if this poll is an accurate reading of America’s pulse, it is not good news. But at the same time, does it really surprise Bible-believing Christians that there are faithless people out there? Doesn’t the Bible tell us that by nature we are turned away from God? Doesn’t the story of Noah record this stunning commentary: “The LORD saw that the people on earth were very wicked and in their hearts were always thinking only evil” (Genesis 6:5)? Doesn’t the apostle Paul use terms like “slaves to sin” and “dead in trespasses and sins” to describe the spiritual condition of mankind? These kind of opinion polls merely confirm that God’s Word gets it right. I don’t think there is an epidemic of atheism sweeping our country. We’re all atheists to begin with—until the Lord God reclaims us through His Word and baptismal water. More people today are candid about their lack of faith, and that ought to bother us. But keep in mind that an atheist is giving expression to our human default setting. We are by nature sinful and unclean. We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him. We were born into disbelief and doubt.
Maybe that’s what makes today’s Gospel reading so powerful. It deals realistically with doubt and disbelief, within the circle of Jesus’ own disciples. Not only does it point out the problem—it offers the solution. Remember? John writes: these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Today we are re-introduced to Jesus’ disciple Thomas. Yes, good old doubting Thomas. It sure would be easy to throw good old doubting Thomas under the proverbial bus; to say: “Boy, what an idiot! How could he doubt the Lord’s resurrection?” It might feel good to know we’re superior to one of Jesus’ own students. But can we really claim that?
Can we claim to have never doubted God’s reality? Can we really claim to have never wondered if Jesus actually cares about us? Can we honestly claim to have never lashed out at God—to have never shaken our fist at Him or threatened to pull away from Him when He doesn’t do things our way? Our maybe your doubt and disbelief is a little more boring than all that. Maybe Jesus doesn’t really cross your mind during the course of a normal day. Maybe your brief morning prayer eventually becomes no prayer at all. Maybe you would never dream of abandoning the Christian label—even though you’ve quietly slipped into a life of practical atheism, where God is not the enemy, just irrelevant. We have no right to criticize Thomas for demanding proof of Jesus’ reality when we do it all the time.
Along with Thomas, we deserve to be rejected by our Master for our faithlessness. But is it God’s mission to reject his children? No. These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. Jesus has not come to reject you but to give you life—life that really counts. When He appeared to Thomas, it was not to kick him out of the fellowship but to speak peace to him and to forgive him. Thomas was given the huge privilege of seeing His resurrected teacher—but this story is just as much about what didn’t happen. Thomas was not sent packing. He was not told to get out. He was allowed to remain with Jesus and see the visible signs of his forgiving love—the very scars in his glorified body. That, John writes, is how Thomas’ faith was restored.
And then, it’s like John turns directly to you and looks you right in the eye and says: These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. The Word of God exists to give you faith. These stories about Jesus, reported by eyewitnesses, have been handed down through time so that you would become convinced that Jesus is the One Savior God promised. These events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are relayed to you so that you will put your trust in him for forgiveness and eternal life. The Holy Spirit accompanies every word of Holy Scripture, actively working to create and restore faith in Jesus. And where there is faith in Jesus, there is life. Not just “life” meaning something that is alive, but “life” meaning existence with purpose and confidence and enjoyment of God’s gifts and love that never ends. All of that comes from exposure to and belief in the Word of God.
It is therefore extremely important that we put ourselves in the position to let God’s Word speak to us. Being a Christian means believing in the God who defines Himself in Holy Scripture—not the God of our imagination or our own preferences. We need a constant stream of God’s Word to keep that picture of Jesus sharp. Otherwise we start to sink back into old doubts and fears.
I can recall so many times when I have had some stress or strain cloud my vision, going through the day tired and distracted, or saddened by some bad news. And then, in some way, God’s Word breaks through the fog, whether in a devotion, or hearing someone speak it, or reading it somewhere. God’s strong Word shatters the bad mood and sets things right by re-defining reality. Jesus speaks His peace to my heart. I am brought face to face with his wounds and his risen life. I am reminded that Jesus’ story is also my story and my faith centers on Him. That is what the Word does for me and I know it can do the same for you, because these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Does Jesus Meet Your Expectations?

During my first two years at the Seminary I worked part-time in a retail setting. That was an interesting experience for a number of reasons. The one I want to mention today is our company’s mission statement. It was our goal to exceed the expectations of our customers by providing excellent service. Now, “exceeding expectations” sounds like a good idea. Everybody likes to have a better experience than they were expecting. But even back then I thought there has to be a point at which you can no longer exceed someone’s expectations. If you keep setting the bar higher and higher, eventually you won’t be able to jump over it anymore. The fact that I had such thoughts might explain why I spent most of my time folding t-shirts.
Expectations. The relationships we live in are filled with them. One major problem people face in relationships is when expectations are not clearly communicated—if they are communicated at all. Most people are not mind readers. We need to know what our spouse expects of us—what our parents expect of us—what our boss expects of us—what our teachers expect of us—even what our friends expect of us--so we have something to shoot for. It isn’t very fair to punish someone for not living up to expectations that have never been stated.
Expectations are a part of life. You call 9-1-1, you expect help to come. You go to a movie, you expect to be entertained. You go to church, you expect to hear about Jesus. You’d have a right to be disappointed if those expectations weren’t met.
And so it is that many of you came here today with the expectation that you would hear about the events of Palm Sunday. You would hear about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. You would hear about people waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” which literally means “Save us now!” You would hear about people laying their garments on the road and the Pharisees voicing their disapproval. Now, make no mistake, this is a victory parade—the King has come to the city of peace in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. At the same time, it is worth asking: what were the expectations of the people who were waving the branches and cheering for Jesus? What were they expecting Him to do?
The Palm branches for which this day is named provide a major clue. Palm fronds were a symbol of triumph. Today we would wave a flag or a foam finger. But during the years of the Roman occupation, the palm branch took on even more symbolic value. Dr. Paul Maier writes that “the palm was the national emblem of an independent Palestine. These were Jewish flags!” Having seen Jesus do the miraculous, many were convinced that Jesus would use His power to break Rome’s rule and turn back the clock to the days of King David. When they shouted, “Hosanna/Save us now,” the meaning was “save us from these rotten Romans.” When Jesus is blessed as the King of Israel, the people have a political kingdom in mind. Their expectations of Jesus were colored by their circumstances, and when their Messiah-led rebellion seemed to end in utter failure at the cross, well, we don’t hear anyone shouting “Hosanna” at Calvary, do we? In less than a week’s time, these type of Messianic expectations were dashed to pieces.
Expectations. What expectations do you have of Jesus? Could it be that our expectations are similar to those held by the people on the Palm Sunday parade route? Those folks wanted Jesus to lead them straight to glory, to get rid of what they perceived to be their biggest troubles, and many abandoned Him when He didn’t. Don’t we want a Palm Sunday Jesus? Don’t we often expect Jesus to answer all our prayers with a “yes”? Don’t we expect God to only improve our quality of life? Don’t we tend to pull away from Him a little (maybe a lot) when He doesn’t do things our way? The God we often want is one that will guarantee us victories in life—that with a little bit of God, not too much, mind you, our general mood will be better, our relationships will be more fulfilling, we might lose some weight, feel better about ourselves, maybe find a better job, have more money to go around, we’ll have more security and prosperity in our lives. Are those expectations right? Is that why Jesus went to Jerusalem that day?
Jesus’ own expectations were always crystal clear. He told his disciples in straightforward language that he was going to Jerusalem to die and rise again on the third day. His disciples were confused by this and you may remember that Peter tried to talk Jesus out of it. There is a tragic irony to the shouts of “Hosannas” and “Save us nows” of that first Palm Sunday, because that’s exactly what Jesus had come to do—just not in the way anyone expected.
Jesus did not ride that donkey into Jerusalem to improve our lives but to save them. The King of Kings did not ride into Jerusalem to replace Roman rulers but to rescue the human race. Jesus did not endure the agony of the cross to change the political landscape, but to fundamentally change us. Instead of marching immediately to a throne, Jesus stumbled up the hill of Calvary and was executed. This was not some miscalculation on Jesus part—it was the plan. It had been all along. God had a choice—he could either punish you for your sin, or He could punish someone else instead of you. His own Son Jesus was that “someone else.” Jesus answered the Hosanna request. We are saved now because Jesus took our death sentence. The King took the punishment His people deserved. This was not the salvation that anyone was expecting. It’s not always what we’re expecting or looking for from God. But what Jesus has done meets our deepest need. You can know you are loved. You can know that you are forgiven. You can know that God is for you, not against you.
Jesus did not go straight to glory on Palm Sunday—the cross came first—but Jesus would be glorified. That would happen three days after His death, when He would physically resurrect and live again. I think it’s safe to say that no one in Jesus’ inner circle really expected this to happen, even though Jesus has plainly told them in advance. But here we see God delighting in doing the unexpected and, indeed, the impossible. He lives after dying. He leaves the grave behind. If you believe that Jesus rode into Jerusalem to go to the cross and then live again, and that He did it to benefit you, then you will also leave the grave behind. You can expect to be with the Lord forever because of Jesus’ actions on your behalf. This is the Christian faith in its most pure and simple form. “Whoever believes in Jesus will not perish, but have eternal life.” Everything else that happens to you in your life, whether wonderful or terrible, happens around the core of this expectation. The greatest joys we experience in this life are blessings, to be sure, but they cannot compare with heaven and the life of the re-created world to come. The pain and sorrow of life and the grief and terror of death are balanced by Jesus’ suffering and death and overturned by His resurrection.
Whatever your expectations of Jesus were when you entered this building today—please hear me on this: Jesus has died your death and offers you a brand new life. You are forgiven of all your sin. You have eternal life starting right now. Jesus is alive and He is with you in your pain, with you in your joy. He has joined Himself to you in Holy baptism and is absolutely faithful. He will never leave you or forsake you.
To which we can say: “Hosanna! Save us now, Lord Jesus! Make us your own today, that we might know your love forever. Hosanna in the highest!”