Monday, August 29, 2011

A Life Sentence ~ Matthew 16:21-28 ~ August 28, 2011

One of the biggest surprises about being married is how much I’ve actually come to enjoy some of Elizabeth’s favorite shows…

One show I’ve really come to enjoy is What Not to Wear on TLC.

What Not to Wear is a reality show that gives people fashion makeovers.  People get nominated to be on the show because of the strange ways they dress.  One episode we saw recently was about a woman who always dressed in a fairy costume—and never left home without her magic wand…  The purpose of the show is to teach people how to dress for success. The show aims to completely transform the people, so that they will have the confidence to be who they want to be and realize their life goals. 

But there’s a catch—the people must give up all of their clothes.  Nothing from before can be saved.  Then they must agree to wear what the hosts tell them to wear.  And this isn’t easy for anybody who comes on the show.  There’s always a reason why these people dressed the way they did.  The clothes they wore helped them to cope with a hurt or insecurity.  The clothes they wore helped them feel safe.  Being on What Not to Wear forces these to “face their giants.” 

This show’s not about winning or losing—but some people’s lives are dramatically changed by the experience, and some others aren’t changed at all. 

The people who let go of the old embrace the new are the ones whose lives are transformed for the better by the process…  These are the people who face their giants—and defeat them.  They discover a new self-confidence that they never thought they could have.  Their “old self” dies—and a “whole new self” springs to life. 

But for those people who refuse to let go and who don’t embrace the changes—life goes on pretty much the same as before.  They end up losing out on a whole new way of life—because they refuse to let their “old self” die.  They don’t defeat their giants.  Their giants defeat them.

Being on What Not to Wear is a lot like becoming a disciple of Jesus. 

In baptism, God gives us the gifts of forgiveness, unconditional love, and eternal life.  These are gifts of unsurpassed worth—and best of all, we don’t have to do anything to earn them.  They’re free…

Yet God is doing more than just giving us gifts…  God is transforming us—making us a new creation (cf. 2 Co. 5:17).  But in order for the new creation to come alive—the old creation, the old person, must die.  That is why answering the call to discipleship is so incredibly difficult.  Jesus says “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  To put it bluntly, the call to discipleship is a death sentence.  God is putting to death the life that we control.  God is putting to death the life we live for ourselves. 

It is not in our nature to surrender control of ourselves to God.  We want to be in charge.  We want all of God’s gifts—but we want to set the terms of how we’re going to live as Christians.  We want to worship God our own way.  We don’t want our faith to cramp our lifestyle.  We want to serve God only in the ways that are most comfortable to us.  We want to decide what we’re going to give—and how much.  We want to live our life in pursuit of our hopes and our dreams—and we want to God to help us achieve them. 

If we are not willing to surrender ourselves to Jesus Christ; if we insist on serving Jesus our own way, we can never his disciples.  We won’t truly know Jesus.  We’ll just be admirers of Jesus.  We won’t be transformed into a new creation.  We won’t have new life in Christ.  We will lose our life.

But if you want to know Jesus; if you want your life to be saved, then you’ll have to lose your life by taking up your cross and following Jesus.  It almost goes without saying that it’s a very dangerous thing to surrender control of your life to God.  We have no idea what God may have in store for us.  God may take things away from us that are important to us.  God may lead us to serve people who make us uncomfortable.  God may call us do things we don’t want to do.  God could turn our life completely upside-down.  We may even have to suffer for Jesus’ sake.   Your cross is whatever scares you the most about becoming a disciple.  It’s that thing you hope Jesus won’t ask you to do—because you feel you can’t do it.  It’s that thing that you are constantly tempted to avoid.  Your cross is whatever would take you out of your comfort zone.  Your cross is that giant you need to face up to. 

Now is the time to stop making excuses and putting off to tomorrow what needs to be done today.

If you want to truly know Jesus for who he is, you have to take up your cross—because he took up his cross for you.  Jesus cannot be known apart from his cross—and that is good news…

The very presence of crosses in our lives is enough to drain the life out of us.  We fear our crosses because we feel they have the power to destroy us.  But if we take up the crosses; if we are bold enough to face those things that scare us the most, Jesus is going to be right there with us to help us carry the load.  Jesus is waiting for us at our crosses; waiting to show us who he truly is as he helps us to bear our greatest burdens.  No one will carry their crosses by themselves.  If you consider all of the crosses in your life and all you can say is “Lord, I can’t bear them,” God has this to say to you: “through you, I can bear them.”  It is in these moments of weakness, in these times of helplessness that God makes us a new creation.  When we take up our crosses with the help of the Lord, new life is born.  God’s saving power is at its greatest.  God uses our crosses to give us new life.  

Jesus asks a great deal of us today.  He calls us to accept a death sentence; to die to everyone and everything that stands in the way of his rule over us.  He calls us to face the giants in our lives that scare us away from living the life of a disciple.  There is so much we must lose if we are to receive new life.  But taking up our cross is not a curse.  It’s a promise.  It’s a promise that you will make it through the hurts and pains of this life because Jesus will be with you.  It’s a promise that that God’s amazing love and grace are going to be made real to you.  It’s a promise that God is going to use you to heal this world.  Those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will be united with Jesus in his resurrection. 

If you let go, if you let God be in charge of your life, if you join Christ in carrying your crosses, you will be a whole new creation.  If you want to know Jesus; if you want your life to be saved, take up your cross—and you will see just how great and powerful our God truly is.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who's Your Jesus? ~ Matthew 16:13-20 ~ August 21, 2011

They say “when in Rome, do as Romans do…”

Since the region we know as the Holy Land was nowhere near Rome, a city was built so the people in Jesus’ day could do as Romans do—and that place was Caesarea Philippi. 

To be a Roman meant offering sacrifices to the gods of the empire—and Caesarea Philippi was the place to do that.  Strangely, Jesus chose this place to ask his disciples:

Who do people say that I am?

This question was like the game show Family Feud.  Jesus was asking his disciples for the most popular answers.  So they tell him “some say you’re John the Baptist, you’re Elijah, you’re Jeremiah, and you’re one of the prophets.”

But the second question was no quiz.  He asks them, “who do you say that I am?”  Answering it wasn’t as easy as it may sound.  It was true that they had witnessed Jesus’ miracles; they heard his teachings, and Jesus told them many things that he didn’t tell everyone else.  But Jesus never told them in black-and-white terms who he was.  And on top of that, we can’t forget their surroundings.  It had to have been difficult not to be overcome by the sight of thousands of people worshipping the Roman gods in the mighty temples and shrines.  Jesus could not have chosen a more intimidating place for his disciples to testify to who they believed him to be. 

So Peter steps up and answers, saying “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” 

Peter didn’t take a shot in the dark and give the right answer.  Peter knew who Jesus was because God had revealed that to him.  God gave Peter the faith to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. 

So as Jesus asks you “who do you say that I am?” what would you say?

Chances are that we’d have no trouble answering the question.  Most people can say that that Jesus is the Messiah—including people who’ve never set foot in a church.  It’s common knowledge.  But Jesus isn’t after the most popular answer.  This isn’t a pop quiz. 

Jesus’ question for us is “who am I for you?” 

Or to put it another way, “who is your Jesus?”

Today’s Gospel is calling all of us to pause and consider the works of Jesus Christ in our lives.  It calls us look back upon our days and give thanks for all of the things he’s done for us.  We remember that Jesus gave his life for the forgiveness of our sins.  We remember that we have eternal life in his resurrection.  We remember that Christ is not a distant Savior, but a present Savior. 

But today’s Gospel also calls us to consider all of the ways that we need him…  We sin daily and always need his forgiveness.  We always need his strength and comfort amid the trials and temptations we face.  We always need his new life in the wake of our failings and disappointments.  We need him to nourish and grow our faith so that we can live the life he wants us to live.  We need him to save us from the powers of evil and death. 

The good news is that your Jesus reaches out for you in your most desperate needs.  Your Jesus gives you the faith to trust in the promises of the Gospel.  And your Jesus brings those promises to life. 

Since we need him so much, we need to constantly be receiving him in Word and Sacrament.  Those who are hungry must come to Jesus to be fed.

Yet we are also to tell others about our Jesus.  The mark of a disciple of Jesus Christ is testimony.  Testimony isn’t just telling people that Jesus the Messiah.  Testimony is telling the story of a Messiah who does great things for us.  Your Jesus should not be kept secret.  And that is one of the greatest challenges this Gospel presents to us.

We’re inclined to do as 21st century Americans do.  21st century Americans don’t talk about their faith to others.  For 21st century Americans, faith is a personal matter to be kept to ourselves.  So we do just that.  If you talk openly about your faith, you may get labeled a ‘Jesus freak,’ as if to say that something’s wrong with you.  But how often do we talk about our relationship with Jesus here in church?  How often do we share our testimony of all that Jesus does for us?  If we’re not, we aren’t ministering the Gospel to one another as effectively as we could be.  We are called to testify to the work of Jesus Christ in our everyday lives.  Our personal testimony of Jesus makes the Gospel all the more real.  God uses our testimony to create and build up faith in other people. 

At the same time, we must be honest and open in sharing our faith struggles—because everyone struggles to trust in the promises of Jesus Christ.  Our lack of faith is not a failure in our part.  It’s a hunger for new life.  If, right now, you feel as though there is nothing you could possibly testify about Jesus Christ, there is good news for you…  Come to the table today…  Keep feasting on his Word, and you’ll see…  Your Jesus will give you plenty to talk about.

Jesus is not a silent presence in our lives.  So why should we be silent about him?  Where is the joy in knowing Jesus if we never talk about him?

The Christian faith is not strictly a personal matter.  We cannot allow the surrounding culture to intimidate us and silence our witness.  God created us to be in community with one another.  God gave us relationships so that we can better know Jesus by knowing one another.  There must be a time and place for testimony in our church.  We need to be telling one another about all that Jesus is doing for us.  We cannot be a strong church unless Jesus Christ is the subject of our conversations.  We cannot be a growing church unless we testify to the work of Jesus Christ in our own lives.

Jesus asks us “who do you say that I am?” 

The time for us has come for us to testify.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Home for All ~ Matthew 15:21-28 ~ August 14, 2011

In the last eight years, I have moved a total of twelve times.  I can honestly say that moving is a real headache.  With all these moves came one experience that was truly priceless: church shopping.

I’ve probably visited at a hundred churches in my lifetime. 

One church gave all of their visitors a free jar of jelly.  All you had to do to get it was to stand up, take the microphone, and introduce yourself to the hundreds of other worshippers.  At another church, I was told that two long-time members walked out of the church because I was sitting in their seat. 

Overall, I can honestly say the churches I visited were warm and welcoming.  People were genuinely glad I was there.  They thanked me for visiting and invited me to come back again.  I enjoyed worshipping with them. 

But one thing I couldn’t change was the fact that I was a stranger to them.  Even though people introduced themselves to me, I didn’t remember their names—and they probably didn’t remember mine.  And worst of all, there weren’t many other people in their twenties like I was.  I was an outsider.  And that feeling of being an outsider was the number one reason I stayed home many Sunday mornings.  And since I didn’t go to church, I felt empty.  Something truly important to me was missing from my week.

If there’s anyone who knows the pain of being an outsider, it would have to be the woman from our Gospel text for the day. 

In her daughter’s hour of most desperate need, she came to Jesus begging for his mercy.  But this woman was a Canaanite…  To a Jew in Jesus’ day, a Canaanite was someone who was unclean—and to be avoided at all costs.  She was also a woman—someone who had no rights of her own in this period of history.  To approach a person of stature like Jesus was socially unacceptable…  And on top of all of that, she was crying out to Jesus.  In sum, she was a nuisance.  And strangely, Jesus makes that quite clear to her…   In no uncertain terms, Jesus says she’s dog.  And the woman agrees with him!   She knows she has no right to ask Jesus for anything.  All she can do is beg for Jesus to help her daughter.  It is this faith—this faith that cried out, begging for mercy—that Jesus commends.  Her only hope was to come face-to-face with Jesus—and that was all it took to make her great faith come alive.  Everything changed for this woman and her daughter the moment she came into the presence of Jesus Christ. 

How strangely ironic that it’s an outsider, a “nobody”, who has great faith, while the disciples—the insiders—have little faith  Great faith was found in the least likely of places, and in the least likely of peoples…

And that is still true for our world today.  We may be living a “Post-Christian” world, but there are people everywhere who have the potential for great faith, just like the Canaanite woman.  Spiritual hunger is very real—and those who try to satisfy their hunger with worldly treasures, cheap thrills, and self-help quick fixes are eventually going to find that none of these will satisfy.  People are in desperate need—and it’s only in Jesus Christ that one can receive a true and living hope.  And there is nowhere else we can come into a life-changing encounter with the living Christ than in the community of faith. 

Everyone who comes to church—either as a first-time visitor or a regular attendee—comes hungry for the real presence of Jesus Christ.  We come to be surrounded by Christ’s love in the community of faith.

But the sad reality is that many people who come to church feel like outsiders.  They come hungry for the presence of Christ, only to end up a spectator to all the things God is doing for everyone else.  To be an outsider is to feel like you don’t deserve God’s gifts, or that others are more important than you…  Being an outsider makes you feel like Jess us has rejected you.  It’s hard enough to set foot in a new church for the first time—but it’s even more difficult to go back when you feel like you don’t belong.  A 24-year-old member of my internship congregation said it best: “I love my church—but there’s nothing there for me.”

It’s not that we or any other church has set out to exclude anyone.  We want to attract new members and grow our churches.  We want everyone to be at home with Jesus Christ in our church.  But no church is perfect—anymore than our people are perfect.  People feel excluded.  But the problem isn’t solved by pointing fingers or placing blame.  The question is what can we do about it?

The first thing is this: we hear again the promise of the Gospel…  We all come before Jesus Christ with nothing to deserve him.  We have nothing to offer to Jesus but our desperate need of his forgiveness and grace.  And Jesus gives us everything.  All of the gifts of God are free. 

The second thing we do is to be in conversation with one another.  We share with one another all of the ways we encounter the living Christ in the ministries of this church.  We share with one another how Jesus has transformed our lives.  In our conversations, we discover our congregation’s spiritual gifts.  And it is out of these very gifts that our church will grow. 

And let us also talk about the ways we haven’t felt welcome here.  Let us talk about the times we’ve felt left out.  Let’s be in conversation with the people who we haven’t seen in some time.  By the Holy Spirit’s help, we will see the opportunities to make this congregation a place where more and more people can come into the presence of Jesus Christ. 

And finally, let us be telling others about the Savior who comes to us here in Water and Word, bread and wine, and in the fellowship we share.  People are hungry for the forgiveness and mercy of Jesus Christ—and here at First Lutheran Church, they can be fed. 

God has given us everything we need to make this church a place where young and old can come into the presence of the risen Christ.  We have the Word, we have the Sacraments, and we have each other.  Nothing is missing.  The gifts are ours—we just need the Spirit to teach us to use them to make this house a home with the living Christ. 

Let us build a house where the least, the lost, and the hurting can take refuge in the arms of Jesus.  Let us build a house where we can live together in the hope that is ours.  Let us build a house that welcomes everyone into the eternal feast that has already begun.  Let us build a house where all who are hungry can come and feast on the bread of eternal life that is Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Get In the Boat ~ Matthew 14:22-33 ~ August 7, 2011

Say what you want about Southwestern Pennsylvania winters—there's one big advantage to living here: we enjoy relative safety from natural disasters that plague other regions of this country.  Our hilly terrain keeps the tornados away.  We’re far enough from the coast so that we don't have to worry about hurricanes.  We’re nowhere near a fault line, so we don't have earthquakes.  There are no volcanoes around. 

Yet we are not immune to flooding.  Every time we get severe rains, there's always someone, somewhere who tries to drive across a flooded road and ends up stranded.  As the flood waters rise around them, they climb onto the roof of their car, waiting to be rescued.  The news helicopters hovering overhead bring the terrifying footage right into our living rooms.  The best hoped-for ending is for firefighters and police to risk their lives and rescue the helpless victim from the clutches of the powerful torrent. 

But have you ever seen anybody simply get out of their car and walk on top of the waters to safety?   Could a person with iron-clad faith save themselves from the clutches of death? 

We all know the answer: no.  No one gets saved from a flood this severe without a rescuer. 

So would it be any different for Peter?  As the winds raged and the waves battered the boat, should Peter have been able to get out of the boat and walk to Jesus without getting his feet wet?  Would Peter have been able to save himself from the clutches of death if he had kept his eyes on Jesus and had enough faith? 

One thing to note is that it wasn’t Jesus’ idea for Peter to walk on water.  This was Peter’s idea.  When Peter saw Jesus, he decided to put Jesus to the test.  “Since it is you,” he said, “command me to come to you on the water.”  Peter stepped out of that boat in hopes of proving to himself that it truly was Jesus walking toward him.   Jesus granted Peter’s request—but not so everyone could see what was possible if they all had enough faith…  When Peter’s faith melted away as the winds raged around him, Jesus had the perfect opportunity to show himself for who he is—the Savior of the world.  No one gets saved from a storm this severe without a rescuer. 

All throughout Scripture, we’re taught that we can move mountains with faith... nothing is impossible with God…  Four times in Matthew Jesus says to people “your faith has made you well.”  So we believe that if we have faith, things will work out for the good.  And much of the time, that works out just fine for us.

But what happens to our faith when the floodwaters rise?  What happens when the storms of life roll in and we’re battered by the winds and tossed about by the waves?   What happens to our faith when we feel ourselves going under?

Don’t get me wrong—miracles happen every day.  Prayers are answered.  God intervenes in mysterious and awesome ways to deliver us from life’s trials and tribulations.  By faith, we can do awesome and amazing things.  

But when that miracle doesn’t come—is it because of our lack of faith? 

It’s so easy to think that our struggling faith is a failure on our part.  We feel as though we’re slamming the door on God with all of our fears and our doubts.  All the clichés start stirring around in our minds: “have faith” or “trust Jesus;” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” or “God only helps those who help themselves.”  We end up feeling that we’re worthless and dead in God’s eyes when God is so hard to believe in.  So how can we believe that Jesus Christ is with us when all the things happening to us suggest he’s not?

To answer that question, we cannot look within ourselves—because faith is not something that we can simply do through our own effort.  The only way that we can have faith is by the Holy Spirit.  Faith is a gift—not an achievement.  Faith isn’t about smiling and smoothly sailing through life’s worst storms any more than it’s about walking on water.  It’s about crying out to God for help again and again—even when the only answer we seem to be getting is silence.  Faith is about believing that Jesus is listening…  It’s about believing that Jesus is right there with us when everything around us would tell us otherwise.  It’s about believing that Jesus’ arm is stretched out to us when we feel like we just can’t go on…

Even when we do not believe—when our eyes aren’t set on Jesus; when we’re feeling overwhelmed and overcome by whatever has thrown our lives into chaos—Jesus is still holding onto us.  Peter may have taken his eyes off of Jesus, but Jesus never took his eyes off of him.   That is the good news of this story.  Having faith doesn’t save us.  Jesus saves us.  Faith is all about believing that Jesus saves us—because no one can be saved from the powers of chaos and death without a Savior.  The cliché “God only helps those who helps themselves” makes no sense.  The gospel is the story of God doing for us what we are too weak, too stubborn, and too scared to do for ourselves.  Faith isn’t walking on water—because only Jesus can do that…  Faith is about you and me believing that Jesus is walking on the water, holding onto each of us so that we’ll never be swept away by the winds and the waves.

But no one can know that they’re being saved unless they hear the words of promise—and the words of promise remain just words unless they become real…  And that’s why there’s a church; that’s why we’re here…   Here in the church, God’s saving work becomes real to us.  It becomes real in word and sacrament.  We come together as a community and we see God at work in each other.  We make it real in the love we show to our neighbors and whenever we share our gifts with those in need. 

We’re all weathering the storms of life—we’re all struggling to keep our heads above the water as we’re battered by the winds and waves.  But the church is the lifeboat.  Jesus has brought us aboard so that we can all sail together with him through the storms to the land of promise.  Far too many people are treading water in the sea, gasping for air, not knowing that their rescue is under way.  Our job is to join Jesus in bringing them aboard. 

The sky may be dark, the winds may be hard, the waters may be high—but we are rescued.  Jesus is with us in the boat as we weather life’s storms.  And because Jesus is with us, we will survive the storms—and we will make it to the shore.