Jesus Promised

I’ve been taught to trust in the promises of Jesus.

I believe that death is not going to be my end because Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, and those who believe in Me are going to live again, even after they’ve died.” I believe that I’m going to go to Heaven because Jesus promised me that He’s gone ahead of me to prepare a special place where I will live with Him forever. Perhaps, you trust that Jesus is walking beside you every day because Jesus once said, “I am with you always, even to the End of the Age.” Jesus also gave another promise. He said, “I am going to build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

What did Jesus mean when He said that He’s going to build His Church and even the gates of hell are not going to prevail against it? What sense do you make of this promise of Jesus when it seems that there are many prevailing powers opposing the ministry of the Church? Can we use these words, today, to assure us that the specific congregations that we attend and support can never fail in the same way that some Christians assume that Jesus will never allow them to become infected by the coronavirus while they are worshiping and singing hymns without masks? What sense do you make of this promise of Jesus in the midst of a time of dramatic change, both inside and outside of the Church, and during a time when many individual congregations are closing?

It seems to me that we can make sense of this promise of Jesus by doing three things:

First, we need to begin by remembering who made the promise. Jesus is with you today, and Jesus continues to be with the Church as well. Individual Christians and even specific congregations have not been left alone to make sense of our changing times. Jesus is with us as we read our Bibles and pray with each other. Jesus has promised to lead us and guide us and direct our ways as we move through changing times. The Holy Spirit once worked in the life of St. Paul by closing and opening doors in front of him (Acts 16:6-10). Rely on the One who has given us wonderful promises and you can never go wrong.

Second, we need to remember that God has a long history of leading people through times of change and uncertainty. Think about the people of Israel being led out of the land of Egypt when all that they wanted to do was return to the “Good Ol’ Days” of slavery when they were given free cucumbers. Think about the people of Israel living in Babylonian captivity and longing for the day when God would bring them back to Jerusalem after their exile. God has a long track record of leading people safely from one place to another and that’s what God is doing in the life of the Church, right now. Trust in the God who is leading you and you can never go wrong.

Finally, we need to remember that, when Jesus gives us a promise, Jesus gives us a promise that He’s not going to break. The Church is built upon the foundation of God’s love and faithfulness. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one that proclaims timeless truths like love, forgiveness, hope, and the dignity and value of all people. Specific practices and ways of doing things in churches may need to change with the passage of time, but the Church that’s build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ and that has rooted itself in timeless principles will endure. Trust in the One who doesn’t break His promises and you can never go wrong.

We may not have all of the answers that we need right now, but our faith calls us back to the Great Source of God’s promises and to the timeless values that will endure. Jesus once said, “I am going to build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” And today, I’m willing to trust in that promise. And I’m willing to put all of my eggs into one, single basket that’s carried by the One who gave us those promises. Are you?

Listen to this week’s message: “The Mighty, Prevailing Church”

Insiders and Outsiders

Our world is often shaped by our understanding of insiders and outsiders.

We tend to feel most comfortable with people who resemble us and who think about life in the same ways that we do. We divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups by defining distinctions based upon race, ethnic background, economic level and even political party. Surveys have shown that Christians in America are most segregated on Sunday mornings during times set aside for worship. Denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) continue to struggle with the fact that members of the ELCA are more than 98% white even after people have tried for decades to change that.

In Matthew 15:20-28, we find an absolutely fascinating story from the life of Jesus. Jesus has traveled into a land that’s inhabited by both Jews and Gentiles. And, while Jesus is in that area, a Canaanite woman approaches Him and asks Him to heal her daughter, who is possessed by a demon. We might expect Jesus to heal the woman’s daughter in the same way that He healed so many others. But, in this short story, Jesus responds to the Gentile woman’s request by saying: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and to feed it to the dogs.” And, frankly, Jesus’ response continues to shock me every time that I read it.

Jews didn’t allow dogs to live in their homes in Jesus’ days, but Gentiles often looked at dogs as pets who deserved kindness and care. But, the word “dog” was also used in a very different way. The Jews didn’t want “those kind of people” – the dogs – to mix with “our kind of people.” The Jews called outsiders “dogs” because they didn’t live their lives based upon Jewish teachings and purity practices.

But, before we look too harshly at the Jews in Jesus’ days, we need to consider some of the things that are happening in our own lives, right now.

People who do not attend worship services are sometimes looked down upon by the people who do attend worship services. Churches sometimes draw clear distinctions between the people who are members and those who are not members of the congregation. People who struggle with mental illnesses, homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction often find the doors of churches locked when they get there. America continues to be most segregated and divided during the one hour when people are worshiping on Sunday mornings than at any other time in the entire week!

But, then, Jesus seems to turn on His heels.

Right after Jesus says that it’s not right to feed the children’s bread to the dogs, the woman responds, “But even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” And, right after that, Jesus commends the woman for her great faith. Faith realizes that God is a God who welcomes and embraces both insiders and outsiders alike. Faith realizes that God is a God who looks past the artificial barriers and walls that we build between people who are like us and people who are not like us. Economic barriers are challenged as we gather to celebrate Holy Communion at an altar rail where company presidents kneel beside the folks who work for them. Faith creates radical hospitality that gazes beyond distinctions that are based upon race, ethnic background, economic level and political party.

Great faith recognizes the fact that Christ’s Church is meant to be a home for everyone, and great faith recognizes that even deep divisions and barriers can be overcome when love is allowed to rule in our hearts. And that’s the challenge that’s placed before us as we listen to this intriguing story from the life and ministry of Jesus.

Let radical hospitality challenge you and transform you. Let the love of Jesus empower you and enable you to see that the Church is meant to be a place that welcomes everyone. And, as that’s happening, let the love of Jesus tear down the divisions and barriers and walls that we continue to build, create and maintain even inside the Church itself.

This Week’s Message: “Insiders and Outsiders”

Journeying with Jesus in Stormy Times

I often recall that early Christians used a boat as a symbol for the Church.

The Church is a vessel that sails through smooth times and difficult times. The image of a boat is often used to describe the Church because it’s a vessel that carries people all the way to the gates of Paradise. If you look up while you’re sitting in many church worship spaces what you’ll see is that you’re worshiping in what looks like an upside down boat.

Immediately after Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 little fish, He commands the disciples to get into a boat and sail to the other side of the sea. Imagine these early followers of Jesus getting into a boat (the Church) and moving, together, toward the place where Jesus told them to go. As we read Matthew 14:22-33, we’re invited to think about the ministry that we’re doing today. We listen to Jesus. We gather together in the boat (the Church). We go where we believe Jesus wants us to go.

But then, in the middle of this well-known story, something happens.

We read that the boat that was carrying the disciples was being beaten back by the wind and the waves. In Matthew 14:24, we read that the “wind was against them.” The earliest Church was sailing directly into the wind. The earliest Church was experiencing opposition and was even being pushed in the wrong direction! And the Church is going through a time just like that in 2020. Many church buildings are still closed. Tens of thousands of churches all around the world have needed to embrace new technologies. And the scariest part of it all, at least for me, is that we don’t know how long this disruption is going to continue, or what our ministry is going to look like when we get to the other side of the sea.

It’s easy for us to go where we think Jesus wants us to go when we simply need to unlock the doors of a building and wait for children to arrive for Sunday School. It’s easy for us to do what we think Jesus wants us to do when all that we need to do is give someone a key to a building. It’s easy to go where Jesus wants us to go when we don’t need to deal with Zoom meetings, and the misunderstandings that often occur when people stop talking face-to-face and start to reply upon email and text messages.

But these are days when the winds have shifted.

I can picture myself in the boat (the Church) in Matthew 14:22-33. I, sometimes, feel like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back, or even one step forward and two steps back. I’m reminded of the times when storms have emerged while I was sailing and when I needed to constantly adjust the sails and the rudder while water poured over the gunwales and started to collect in the bottom of the boat. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt that the wind was blowing against you and trying to push you in the wrong direction? Do you feel like that, right now?

But Jesus carried the boat (the Church) through the storm, didn’t He?

And Jesus is going to carry us through this storm as well. We don’t fully understand what our ministry “on the other side” is going to look like, but we can know that it is Jesus who is taking us to that “other side.” None of us can predict the long-term personal and economic impact of the coronavirus. None of us know how this time of protesting and political turmoil is going to end. But we do know that the boat (the Church) is going to continue to sail – even if it looks very different than it did just a few months ago.

And so, this week, I’d like to encourage you to think about where YOU are in this story.

You might want to begin by remembering that we’re all in the same boat, right? Some of us have been thinking about what’s most important to us. Many of us have needed to return to Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment and to try our best to keep interpreting the actions and behaviors of others in the best possible way. Some of us are being called to step onto the water in faith during a time that’s scary. We’re all learning about life and faith and ministry because in every crisis there are opportunities to learn and grow and stretch our wings.

Please remember that you’re not alone.

Your journey is a part of my journey, and my journey is a part of your journey. And OUR journey is a journey that’s being shared by our friends and family members, by the people that we work with, by our neighbors and by people that we don’t even know. And we’re sailing through these scary and changing times even when we’re feeling both weary and frazzled knowing that better days will surely come as Jesus continues to lead us and guide us and direct us toward the “other side” where our ministries will grow and flourish again because that’s what the Church has done in every Age.

For this week’s message, please click here:

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Little Things Make a Big Difference

I was told that I can be anything that I want to be when I grow up.

I can remember imagining myself as an archaeologist digging through the sands of Egypt. I imagined being a concert pianist accompanying a symphony orchestra. And, of course, I was often told that I could grow up to be the President of the United States.

But, I’m none of those things as I move into the sixth decade of my life.

I began my career as a Chemical Engineer; and then, after attending a seminary, I was ordained as a pastor. I spend my days talking with people who are going through a rough time. I write sermons to encourage people to think about their relationship with God. I attend a lot of Zoom meetings, right now. And, of course, I spend time in prayer and try my best to care about others. That’s far from what I imagined many years ago, isn’t it?

This week, I want you to remember that the little things that you do make a big difference.

Jesus once fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus is at work every time you help people or encourage them with your words. Jesus uses money that you contribute to charities to do wonderful things in the lives of other people. Jesus is using you to make our world into a better place for all of us.

It’s very easy for us to begin to turn inward when life becomes challenging.

Notice that, in the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-21), the first thing that the disciples noticed is that they didn’t have enough of what they needed. I don’t have the skills of a concert pianist, but I can bang out a hymn on the piano during worship. I can’t feed all of the unemployed people in my community, but I can donate cans of food to our local food pantry. I can’t solve every challenge in other people’s lives (I can’t even solve all of the challenges in my own life), but I can listen to people and be compassionate. I can’t change the whole world during this crazy time that’s wearing all of us out, but I can be kind to others. I can lend an ear. I can protect other people by wearing a mask. I can be kind to others by simply refraining from blowing the horn on my car when I’m frustrated at other drivers.

We may not be the most powerful people in the world, but we’re important.

Yes, powerful people can change the world in incredible ways. But, life’s taught me that it’s more simple people, just like us, who make our world into a better place by doing things that we never imagined we could do to make a difference in other people’s lives.

And so, this week, I want to encourage you to get out there and to do your best. And, when you think that you’re not big enough or powerful enough to make a big difference, remember that the Lord who fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two little fish is a Lord who can take whatever you have to offer and use it to change the world.