Sunday, June 22, 2014

With Reckless Abandon ~ Matthew 10:24-39 ~ Second Sunday of Pentecost

When I was about six, I came home from Sunday school with an important question for my dad:

“What is a Die Bible?”

He really wasn’t sure what I was talking about—so he tried to convince me that there was no such thing.  But I know what I saw. 
So next week, I took him to my Sunday school room, I pointed to the book on the shelf, and I ask him: “what’s a Die Bible?”

He laughs as soon as he realizes I wasn’t making this up!  He then explains that this is a German Bible. 

I took great comfort in that the Bible wasn’t telling me to die.
Except that it does…

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks what are unquestionably the most challenging words of the Bible: “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

In other words, “come and die.

How do you think the public would react if those words were on our outdoor sign?  Or if someone wrote a book with those words as a title, do you think it’d reach the bestseller lists?

We all come before God full of desire for God’s blessing.  Trouble is, we approach God in terms of what we can get out of God.  There is a heresy spreading like wildfire across this country: that you can have it all and Jesus too.  “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” they say. That’s not unbiblical—that’s Psalm 37:4. 

There is a tremendous appeal in a Christian faith that gives us everything, and costs us nothing.  We love a faith that’s convenient, easy, comfortable; and never gets in the way of any of our personal ambitions.  We make up our minds to put Christ first in our lives—as long as it doesn’t cramp our style.  We do this partly because we know we’re saved by grace—so the temptation always exists to render to God as little as necessary to still continue in God’s grace.  Far be it for us to abandon parents or children, livelihoods and possessions, plans and pleasures. 

Ironically, while we are most reluctant to abandon anything to God—we abandon to other things all the time.  We abandon our hard-earned money on things we think will make us happy, or on lottery tickets and table games that give us a slim shot of winning it big.  We abandon our troubles to wine and spirits.  We abandon our safety (and others’ safety) by driving too fast and sending text messages.  We abandon our principles and our morals to be successful and win peoples’ approval. 

Yet when it comes to Christ, we hold it all back.  We Lutherans won’t even abandon our pews. 

The trouble is, the anxiety’s high, and “prayers aren’t working,” we feel abandoned by God.  So we grab on to anything and everything that’s going to give us security and control.  Since we cannot control or understand God, we grab onto everything else we feel we need to survive. 

But today, Jesus declares that he has come to put a sword through every attachment and ambition in our lives that is not based on a relationship with himself.

This sounds like dreadful, terrible news.  But Jesus doesn’t come to destroy your life.  He comes to save it.  You see, saving grace liberates you from everything that prevents his resurrection from flourishing in your life.  Worldly attachments consume you.  Christ saves you.

Jesus says that those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, they will find it.
Already, you have died to sin in baptism.  Jesus comes so that you may welcome him into where fear, ambition, and pride rule over you.  Opportunities exist TODAY for you to die and rise with him.

So begin by looking at your life—and giving thanks for every good gift you are given.  To God be the glory for all the good you are permitted to do and receive. 

Then, in the presence of God’s grace, abandon.  Look at your treasures—then give liberally.  Start tithing.  Take something valuable and give it away.

Let Jesus break your plans.  Stop keeping up with the Joneses.  Get off the hamster wheel of trying to have it all, know it all, and do it all. 

Swallow your pride and forgive sins.  Confess your own and ask for forgiveness.  Accept that you’re not perfect and that you cannot please everyone.  Let loving take priority over being loved. 

Let people become more precious to you being right and getting your way.  Let others be first.  Become a servant of all. 

Do what’s right instead of what’s easy and what feels good.

Without abandonment of these things, you will be a prisoner to fear.  But when Christ puts the sword through these attachments, resurrection happens.

Today, let me invite you to practice abandonment…  As you are able, get up from your pew, and sit somewhere else—in front of the pew with the flower, if you can.  Then share the peace with someone different today.  Join hands with the person next to you during the prayers. 

If this ruins your life, let me know.  But let me assure you that Jesus can bring resurrection into something as simple as this. 

Don’t do it for me.  Do it for Christ.  Do it for your sisters and brothers.  

For when we let go, even of a little, Jesus can do great things.  Abandon, and Jesus will show you life like never before.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Between Fear and Faith: Bible Study blog for June 19

Tonight, we journeyed into the story of God’s miraculous deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.  Our discussion was centered around two topics:

When God appeared to Moses, God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews.  Moses asks God, “when the Israelites ask me, ‘what is the name of the God who sent me to you,’ what do I say?  God’s answer is “I am who I am.  Say ‘I am sent me to you.”  If we are to interpret the original Hebrew in the best way possible, the name would be “I will be who I will be.”  So God does not reveal the divine name—only a promise.

At first, this may be a disappointment—for why wouldn’t God want to reveal the divine name?  The reason why is to define the terms of the relationship between human beings and God—God is God and people are not.  Knowing God’s name would put a person at an equal relationship with God—which is basically the same reason why you never addressed your teachers by their first name! At the same time, the hiddenness of the divine name speaks to God’s greatness and holiness, so far beyond human comprehension.  In the same way as no one could see God and not die, one cannot know God’s name.  A human mind simply cannot understand.

Note: the names Yahweh and Jehovah (which are transliterations of what is referred to as the tetragrammeton—the four-letter symbol for I am, which in actuality is an unpronounceable word.  Any time you see the word Lord written in small caps, the original Hebrew uses the tetragrammeton.  Since God does not reveal a name, we should therefore not name God Yahweh or Jehovah.  (That being said, Jesus invites us to pray to our God as Abba, Father—but again, this is a symbol for God—not God’s name! )

Our second topic centered around what will be a recurring theme throughout the exodus and wilderness narrative—God makes a promise, but the dismal present state of affairs dashes the people’s faith to pieces.  As soon as Moses declares God’s Word to Pharaoh, Pharaoh increases their yoke of slavery—and the people direct their wrath squarely at Moses.  They will continue to do this in the desert.

Almost all of us can easily identify with their situation.  God promises to listen to our prayers and deliver us from our darkest trials, but we look around us and see no sign of God’s presence.  Sometimes troubles multiply instead of going away.  When this happens, we assume that our prayers aren’t working and that God isn’t doing anything.  Often, it will feel as though we are falling further and further away from God’s promises.  It is then that we must hold fast to God’s promises.  Faith holds onto Christ and his promises, even when there are no other reasons to do so.  In the same way as the Hebrews’ liberation came only after great suffering and difficulty, we will often see God’s power revealed most greatly as God delivers us from the largest and most painful trials we face.

Our next Bible study will take place on Thursday, July 10 at 7:00 p.m.  We return to our regular schedule of meeting on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Trinity in Action ~ Matthew 28:16-20 ~ Holy Trinity Sunday

Image courtesy of Evegeni Dinev /
My first day of school in seventh grade was also my first day learning the French language…

The course curriculum was called French in Action.  Instead of teaching us to translate English words into French, the curriculum uses a teaching method called immersion.  We watched thirty-minute videos in which French was the only spoken language.  They featured a cute little storyline about two college students who meet in Paris and fall in love: a French woman named Mireille and an American student named Robert (who’s still learning the language).  Every so often, the storyline would be interrupted by “the professor,” who’d cut in to teach us using the dialogues of the characters.

This method may sound absolutely nuts—but it worked.  I discovered that this curriculum was adapted from a WW2-era language training program for the military, which was found to be very effective.  The soldiers learned the French language by immersing them in the French-speaking world.  Isn’t this the way we all learned to speak as children?

And yet, it’s incredibly intimidating to learn a new language!  No wonder we say, “it’s all Greek to me,” when we’re confronted with something we don’t understand.

But are we any more comfortable learning a new language than we are with this Great Commission Jesus lays upon all of us in today’s Gospel?

In a few brief words, Jesus presents us with a gargantuan task: to GO and MAKE DISCIPLES of ALL NATIONS, BAPTIZING them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Do you consider yourself up to the task?

I don’t know about you, but the Great Commission does not exactly fill me with a great deal of excitement—probably less even than seventh-grade French…

I personally respond to it in one of three ways:
1.      I tend to think it doesn’t apply to me; just to those people who have the right skills, the time, and the drive.  It applies only to those people with the guts and the wits to knock on strangers’ doors or go to a foreign country.
2.      I know that it applies to me, but I feel guilty—because I don’t know how to convince an unbeliever to be baptized.  If I did, I can tell you this church would be much more full!
3.      I look for ways to fulfill the commission that are easy and comfortable; that don’t cramp my style or take me to where I’ve never been to do what I’ve never done…  In other words, I look for the easy way out…  If it’s too hard to do, then it’s not worth doing

Yet, Jesus does not give the Great Commission as the way that to make the cut for heaven.  The Great Commission is a gift to us—and it’s a gift to the whole world.  A gift of compassion, and love, and hope.  This isn’t marching orders.  This is Jesus inviting us into the dance of the Holy Trinity, as one God in Three Persons brings healing and new life to a dying world. 

If you were hoping for a sermon that explains the mystery of the Trinity to you in a simple and understandable way, I’m sorry to disappoint you! 

But what I can tell you is that you are immersed into the reality of the Trinity.  One God acts in three persons to claim you; to form you; to sustain you; and to save you.  The Trinity is in action to reveal God’s love to you.

However, to really know the Triune God, you receive the Great Commission as God’s plan for your life.  You accept as your foremost vocation to magnify the presence of the living God in the world.  The power of the Trinity lives in you to GO and MAKE disciples.

How this will happen is not for me to say.  But don’t think you have to become like a Mormon missionary, going door-to-door.  (If that’s your gift, however, do it for the glory of God.)  But you don’t have to be what you’re not. 

Simply begin where you are.  Put your eyes, your ears, and your heart to work.  Opportunities for you to fulfill the Great Commission already exist. 

There is going to be an anxiety threshold.  The Spirit will burn within your heart to act in faith, but your flesh will be weak.  But we meet Jesus when accept the weakness and move forward, trusting that he meets beyond our fears, our comforts, and our abilities.  The Trinity is strongest as God’s love so burns within us that we must share this great treasure.  The Trinity is stronger when we go to do God’s work, even though we lack the experience and the comfort and the know-how to do it.  God is strongest in those moments when we know we have nothing else to rely upon.

You are immersed in the life of the Trinity—the joy of being a Christian comes in immersing yourself in the Trinity’s action.  You may never understand the Trinity in your mind; you may struggle to believe in your heart that one God can exist as Three Persons.  You know the Trinity in sharing and witnessing.  You know the Trinity as your are immersed in God’s will being done, on earth as in heaven.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

God Always Triumphs ~ Bible Study blog for June 5

Our Bible study took us through the second half of the saga of Joseph and his wild ride through life.  Joseph goes from being his father’s favorite son, to being sold into slavery by his brothers.  As a slave in Egypt, he rises to prominence in the household of one of Pharaoh’s officials, but is later imprisoned due to a false accusation.  But he rises again to become second in command over all of Egypt.  When a famine strikes, his brothers come to Egypt in search of food—which ultimately leads to a reconciliation of the family.  For generations, the Israelites prosper in the land of Egypt.  But as we see in the next chapter of our book, things will change once again. 

A new Pharaoh rises to power who does not know or care about Joseph.  Seeing the Hebrews’ vast numbers in the land, he begins to perceive them as a threat to his kingdom.  So they oppress and enslave the Hebrews.  But the more they are oppressed, the more they multiply and spread.  This culminates with the massacre of Hebrew boys—from which Moses is placed in a papyrus basket and floated down the Nile.

Isn’t it amazing how greatly evildoers have worked against God’s people and God’s purposes—but they have all failed!  The eleven brothers failed to destroy Joseph.  The famine failed to destroy the house of Jacob.  The Egyptians will fail to destroy the Hebrews.  Throughout Scripture, other great powers will attempt to thwart God’s purposes—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, and the corrupt religious leaders.  Turn the pages of history, and even more powers will thwart God’s people—both Christians and Jews alike.  Persecutions continue even into the present time.  What we see most in our context is the rapid spread of atheism, agnosticism, and the non-affiliation of persons to the Church.  But God’s people will remain a people.  God’s purposes will not be thwarted.

As we look ahead to the Plagues and the miraculous liberation of the Israelites from slavery, we will be encouraged by God’s faithfulness, justice, and love.  Moreover, we will be encouraged by God’s faithfulness, because it is not just our enemies who oppose us.  We, too oppose God’s purposes for our lives because we are sinners.  But our stubbornness, lukewarm-ness, and apathy to our Savior cannot thwart God’s plan.  How much more, then, can we be encouraged in the struggles of our own lives?  There is not one of us who doesn’t wish to be able to live out their Christian lives on the mountaintop, prospering in faith and never facing any doubts.  But that is not reality.  The Christian life brings highs and lows—but the Spirit forms us in faith and Christ-likeness through it all.  God’s deliverance is known and experienced in the face of the most dire of circumstances.  Whatever enemies may be oppressing us, we can have full confidence that God’s good purposes for us will always prevail.

Our next Bible study shall meet on Thursday, June 19.  In July, we will resume our normal schedule—meeting on the second and fourth Thursdays; July 10 and 24.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Living Energized ~ 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 ~ Day of Pentecost

Image courtesy of ArtJSan /
I happened to be watching a show on TLC called “The World’s Strongest Toddler,” which was about a three-your-old boy who had a genetic condition that made him very fit and strong.  He could play football, do pull-ups, push-ups, and all kinds of feats that simply cannot be done with a normal three-year-old body. 

A doctor interviewed on the program said, “all human beings are born with extraordinary capacities to do what others cannot.  But most persons never realize that they have them.”
His words are not all that dissimilar to the words of the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.  He writes, “to each is given [gifts which are] the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

But do you consider yourself to be spiritually gifted?

Who among us is given “the utterance of wisdom” or “knowledge?”  Who possesses gifts of faith, healing, the working of miracles, or prophecy?  Who can discern spirits?  Who can speak in tongues?  Who can interpret them?

Raise your hands if you have any of these gifts.  So should I take the lack of raised hands as indicating that there are no spiritual gifts in this church?  Spiritually, is our church as good as dead?

The problem of today’s church is not a lack of gifts.  It’s simply that the gifts aren’t shared.  There are a number of reasons why this is true:  

  1. First of all, we tend to only identify certain spiritual gifts; the ones that appear to be making the greatest difference: gifts like preaching; teaching, public speaking; leadership; playing a musical instrument…  So if we don’t have those gifts, we think we have no gifts—or, that the gifts we have aren’t important…
  2. Secondly, we’re afraid to share our gifts—because we lack the confidence in the Holy Spirit to be able to exercise our gifts effectively.  Most ministry happens outside our comfort zones.  We all know that ministry never guarantees success.  Who wants to fail?  Who wants their gifts to be rejected? 
  3. Thirdly, our gifts have a way of getting tangled up in our busy lives.  Much of the time, we live life exclusively within the bounds of our work and our personal plans, such that we do not present our gifts to the Body of Christ has generously as we are able…

But the Pentecost event is the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit onto a crowd of the most unremarkable of persons, who gives them the ability to speak in languages other than their own, so that people from the ends of the earth believe and are baptized.  They didn’t know they had these gifts—but the Holy Spirit enabled them to speak. 

We are no different.  The Holy Spirit who comes upon is in baptism energizes us for words and deeds of compassion and forgiveness that bear witness to Christ’s love for the world.  As you sit here today, you possess gifts through which God performs the work of resurrection in this world.  You possess gifts that can ignite faith in the unbeliever.  You possess gifts that can transform this community so that hope flourishes, instead of fear and despair.

Keep in mind that at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the gifts they needed to do God’s work at that time and in that place.  So what if you can’t speak in tongues?  So what if you “lack” the utterance of wisdom?

The gifts this congregation needs—and this community needs—are already here.  We need teachers, mentors, and leaders.  We need people who can speak before others what God is doing in their own lives.  But we also need people who can pray.  We need people who are generous in sharing time, talent, and treasure.  We need smiling faces, listening ears, helping hands, and compassionate hearts.  We need friends for strangers.  We need people who aren’t afraid to do good.  We need Baby Boomers and Gen-X-ers, and Millenials.  We need retired people.  We need teens, children, and even infants.  We need people who hurt and people who are happy. In other words, we need you. 

“Can’t spell my name, huh?
That makes two of us!”
Image courtesy of Feelart /
The Spirit of the living God is energizing and activating you for service.  The only way you’ll discover your gifts and the joy of sharing them is to go forth and do according to whatever the Spirit is putting into your heart to do; anything and everything you can to tell someone that Jesus loves them.  Just jump right in and do good.

Are we guaranteed success?  Never.  Is failure an option?  Oh, yes.

The only time we’re guaranteed to fail is whenever we try to be everything to everyone.  When we despise who are and try to be who we’re not.  When we follow our own desires and serve ourselves instead of God…

But even if you are faithful with even a little, there’s no limit to what God can do.  So what if you can’t preach like Paul or play the organ like Becky?  So what if you can’t spell kabarogoya? God is using ordinary people and even small churches in struggling communities (like ours) to bring resurrection into the hurting world. 

And let’s be sure and tell these stories.  There’s no reason we can’t fill those back windows with stories, either of ourselves or someone else.  Because God is here—and God’s Spirit is in you.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What You Intended for Evil, God Intended for Good ~ Bible Study blog for Thursday, May 22

Tonight, we moved quickly through chapter 3 in our book, which is the account of Joseph.  Joseph is a man who experiences life on the extremes: when things go wrong, they go terribly wrong; and when things go well, they go extraordinarily well.

Though not the oldest of his father Jacob’s sons, Joseph became his father’s favorite.  He also possessed the gift of interpreting dreams.  He incurs his brothers’ jealousy when he tells them of his dream that his brothers would someday bow to him.  So they hatch a diabolical scheme: as he grazes their father’s flocks, they throw him into a cistern.  Their plan is to leave him for dead, but his brother Reuben urges them not to kill him.  Judah urges them to sell him to a band of Ishmaelite merchants, which they do—though they tell their father that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. 

Joseph is subsequently sold as a slave to an Egyptian named Potiphar, who was one of Pharaoh’s officials.  God prospered Joseph in his servitude, so that Potiphar put him in charge over his household.  Joseph’s prosperity ends when he refuses the advances of Potiphar’s wife, who avenges Joseph’s rejection by accusing Joseph of attempting to rape her.  Joseph is then thrown into prison.  But God prospers him there, and Joseph is eventually put in charge of the prison.

Soon, Joseph becomes a deputy of Pharaoh, after Joseph successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a warning of seven years of famine.  His interpretations allow for all of Egypt to prosper during the famine.  Pharaoh then puts Joseph in charge over all of Egypt.

The famine eventually makes its way back to Canaan, where Joseph’s family lived.  Facing immanent starvation, Jacob’s sons come to Egypt in hopes of buying food.  Joseph encounters his brothers, but they do not recognize him.  Unsure of whether or not his brothers can be trusted, Joseph devises a test in which the brothers are proved worthy of his trust.  He ultimately reconciles with his brothers, and the family lives a life of privilege in Egypt from that day forward.

We ended our study reflecting on Joseph’s words to his brothers: “what you intended for evil, God intended for good.”  It turns out that God was working through his brothers’ wickedness to preserve Jacob’s family in the time of famine.  We shared many powerful stories of ways that God has worked powerfully in our lives for good, even in spite of the most dreadful of circumstances.  In even the worst of days, God can be trusted to do good unto us.  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

When It All Falls to Pieces ~ Acts 1:6-14 ~ Seventh Sunday of Easter

Image courtesy of ze-pOr-ex /
To say that Jesus’ disciples had been on a spiritual roller coaster ride over the last eight weeks would be an gross understatement.  There was the shock and horror of his death, followed by unbelievable news that he was alive.  Once they finally came to believe, there was joy and hope once again; perhaps even more than before.  But the events of Acts 1 bring another unprecedented turn of events…

It all begins with a question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  This was the single greatest hope shared by all the Jews who’d believed in Jesus: that Jesus was going to drive the evil, pagan Romans out of the Holy Land and rule over the world.

But Jesus tells them what surely comes as a disappointment: “that time isn’t now—and that time isn’t for you to know.”

Then Jesus commissions them: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  They will carry on Jesus’ mission—while facing head-on pretty much everything they’ve ever feared.

Then Jesus ascends into heaven.  He’s gone from their sight.  Now, they face the future without him.

This could very well have felt like Good Friday all over again.

How often do you find yourself feeling like this?

How many of us feel like our lives have fallen to pieces?  How many of us feel like the Church has fallen to pieces?  How many of us struggle to hold onto hope in these times?

One of the most difficult truths of life is that the passing of time takes away so much of what we build our lives upon, to give us happiness, purpose, peace, and security.

This is happening right now in churches all across the Kiski valley.  Just consider how has been lost: all the people who’ve died, moved away, or simply stopped coming…  Once upon a time, the Church was the center of community life.  Its influence and authority reached into nearly every aspect of people’s lives.  There once was a time when we didn’t have to worry about finances or wonder how much longer the doors will be open.  But not anymore.

Doesn’t it feel like we’re losing everything that we build our lives upon?  Doesn’t it feel like we’re losing everything we need just to survive?  Is there any hope for the ministry of Jesus Christ in this valley?
This question takes us back to the Ascension moment.  Remember: Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit, who will give them the power to be his witnesses.  Even though they lost everything that had given them comfort, confidence, security, and purpose—God gives them the Holy Spirit.

Let us bear in mind that these people weren’t super-human.  These were the same disciples Jesus chastised again and again for their lack of faith.  These were the same disciples who ran off in fear of their lives when Jesus was arrested.  They know they will face violent persecution and even death if they continue Christ’s work.  But God will use them to build the Church that will reach across the globe, to reclaim it as God’s own, and fill it peace, justice, forgiveness, and love.  This is a gargantuan task—but by the Spirit’s power, they do it.  They will be the face of the living Christ in all the world.

What we are about to see as we enter the Pentecost season is the power of God springing forth in the most impossible circumstances.  Amid all the doubts and disappointments, in the face of unspeakable evil, with the most unqualified of people, the Holy Spirit comes—and God’s will is done.

We all will inevitably find ourselves stripped of nearly everything we’ve built our lives upon.  We’ll come crashing down like the Tower of Jenga.  But it is in these times that we will know the awesome power of the Holy Spirit.  When we cling to other things, we don’t really know the Spirit’s power.  But when Christ in the Spirit becomes all that we have to claim, this is when we’ll be lifted by the by Christ’s resurrection.  Jesus may very well be all that you have—but he’s all you need.  When we lose everything, Christ will be our everything.

When tomorrow looks bleak, Jesus will meet you there.  When life and circumstance force us to where we would not wish to go, we can cling to Christ with the confidence that Christ’s resurrection will revive and sustain us.  There can be peace and rejoicing amid the most bitter pains.  There can be confidence in the face of death.  This is God’s will.

And this congregation can go out into the community and be the face of Christ—and lives can be transformed by the work we do together.  We can baptize more new believers than ever before.  The Lutheran witness can be stronger in the Kiski Valley than ever before—because the Holy Spirit is upon us. Our community belongs to God—and God is determined to claim it and transform it

Life in Christ is about hope; and God’s perfect love driving out our fears.  It is about God’s will being done in us and throughout this world, in bold defiance of all evil.  It begins with prayer—and God will take you from there.  And there’s nowhere else any of us should be other than with Christ bringing resurrection to the world.