Grapevines

“I am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

I am passionate about grapevines.

I enjoyed swinging from grapevines, like Tarzan, when I was a little boy. My friends and I would cut grapevines off about three feet above the ground; and then, we would jump into the air, grab the severed vines and swing through the trees.

But then, I watched something happen.

The grapevines spread through the woods and engulfed an entire valley. The grapevines climbed their way to the tops of the trees where they could be strengthened by sunlight, and they even killed the trees that were supporting them. I have watched that happen many times as an adult; and I even walk through the woods, once each summer, and cut any grapevines that I find off at the ground to protect the trees behind my home.

I did that, several days ago, and the picture at the top of this post shows the results of my latest efforts. The branches began to wither within hours of being severed from the vine. The grapes shriveled and the leaves turned brown. There won’t be grapes. The branches will be barren and dead in no time. Jesus once said: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” Life ends when branches are severed from the vine.

The Church is going through a tough time, right now. Church attendance is shrinking, and many leaders are both weary and discouraged. Ministries are being scaled back because of financial shortfalls, and rising deficits are eating away at assets that could be invested in new and life-giving ministries. People are both worried and scared. Leaders throughout the Church are brainstorming and are trying to make plans for the future using the best information that they can find and the most up-to-date statistics. But it isn’t working. You can never cut, hack, and saw your church’s way into a new and brighter future.

I believe that, as Christians, we need to trust Jesus.

Jesus is the Vine. We are the branches. Ministry is the fruit. Strong and vibrant ministries hang from the branches of Christian lives that are connected to the Vine. Christians and their churches are sustained and strengthened as people read Scripture, pray together, seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and build ministries that are borne in the heart of God. Christians remain strong and ministries remain vibrant when people cling to the Vine which is the Giver of all life and drink from the Well that never runs dry.

Jesus has promised us that the Church, as a whole, will never fail; but Jesus never gave that same promise to individual congregations. Individual congregations are closing their doors for the last time all across America. Christians who are trying to operate their church like nothing more than a business are discovering that the pulse of a thriving Church isn’t going to be found in prayerless business meetings, carefully-engineered strategic plans, and good ideas – as well-intentioned as they might be. The beating heart of our resurrected Lord provides the life-giving cadence. The presence of the Living Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit are the lifelines that God has provided to ensure the Church’s success in ministry. “As a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me.” (John 15:4b)

The shriveled grapevines behind my home reminded me again today that, apart from the Vine, we can to nothing. Churches will thrive again when Christians wake up each day with a burning desire to spend time in the presence of the Lord. New and life-giving types of ministry will be discovered as Christians learn again to listen to the cries of those who need to hear the life-giving message of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Pastors need to live their lives with their source of news in one hand and their Bible in the other. Christians need to be surrounding their pastors and church leaders in prayer every day, and need to prayerfully consider what Isaiah wrote: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’” (Isaiah 6:8)

Amazed and Perplexed

The Bible is filled with stories about people who were amazed and perplexed. Think about Moses standing before a bush that was burning, but that was never reduced to ash. Think about the Israelites standing on the shores of the Red Sea when it opened to provide a path of escape from the Egyptians and that, then, sealed off the way back to everything that they had known. Think about the people that Jesus healed and how people who were watching it happen responded by saying, “Who is this man?” Think about the people who witnessed the day of Pentecost – a day when tongues of fire fell from the sky, a day when the followers of Jesus spoke in languages that they had never learned, and a day when people thought that the only way to explain what was happening was to conclude that the disciples were drunk.

We live in swiftly-changing times. Once healthy and thriving churches are facing uncertainty and financial difficulties. Attendance is shrinking, and many churches have lost touch with the communities that they serve. New faces are seldom seen in worship. Many people in the Church are scrambling to find a way to save what’s left after two years of struggling through the pandemic. And when people see their churches growing smaller and struggling, the first thing that they are tempted to do is draw inward and protect what they know and love. But, sadly, drawing inward only makes the problems and the challenges worse.

Understanding mission and having a clear vision of ministry is vital in times like these. Churches that are focusing upon what they believe Jesus wants them to be doing right now are doing better than churches that are not doing that. Churches that are asking, “Who are we?” and “What is Jesus calling us to do?” are finding new and exciting doors to the future while other churches are continuing to shrink. I believe that every church needs to be asking itself: “What parts of our ministry are leaving people amazed and perplexed, and wanting to learn more about Jesus?” That’s what ministry is about. People get excited when they believe that they’re doing God’s work with their own hands. People want to financially support and be a part of what’s happening when they believe that their time and financial resources are being used in life-giving and life-changing ways. People want to learn more about Jesus when they are invited to “come and see” what Jesus is doing with their own two eyes. Mission and having a clear vision of ministry create focus, energy, excitement, and passion.

If your congregation is struggling, right now, you are not alone. Many congregations are facing significant challenges. But years of struggle and decline do not have to write the last chapters of your church’s history. If you are looking to turn the tide, here are some ideas:

First: Gather the leaders of your congregation and spend an evening in prayer. Ask God to send the Holy Spirit to close doors that need to be closed (think about the Red Sea being closed to prevent the Israelites from returning to Egypt) and to open new doors to the future. The Church of 2019 is not coming back. We need to open our hands and to let go of some things that are no longer working, so that God can give us something new.

Second: Study the community and the people that you serve. Can you clearly describe the people who live within 10 miles of your church? How old are they? How old are their kids? What challenges and concerns do they face? The average age of an adult in the community that surrounds the church I serve is 49 and the average age of their first child is between 20 and 25. How can that information shape ministry? What percentage of the people in the community that surrounds your church are divorced? Are you building your ministry as one that primarily ministers to married adults with children? Do unmarried and divorced people feel welcomed? Are people in your community at an age where the care of their parents is as important as the care of their children? People in their late 40’s and early 50’s reexamine their priorities, fear that they are becoming irrelevant, are facing an “empty nest” for the first time in their lives. How does this shape the ministry of a congregation? What kind of “Good News” do people who live within 10 miles of your church building need to hear?

Third: Pray about your ministry and about how you are engaging your community. What message of “Good News” are you proclaiming? If children are going to school hungry (nearly 50% of the children in a community that surrounds the church that I serve are going to school without breakfast) could you provide food for them to eat on weekends and over the summer (when schools are closed)? If people struggle with addictions are you providing a place where groups like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous can meet? How are you showing children and young people in your community that they are important to God? How are you showing people who are lonely that they are not forgotten? What is Jesus telling you to do, right now? Pray about it. I realize that there’s no congregation that can solve every problem and challenge, but every church can pick one or two challenges to focus upon. Stay focused. How is/can the ministry of your congregation bring a word of “Good News” to those who live within 10 miles of your church building before you reach beyond that radius? Think of that 10-mile radius as your church’s “parish.” How can prayer lead to action?

Fourth: Make a plan, establish clear and measurable goals, tell people what you are doing, and tell the story of how God is at work in the world and in your church. We live in a society where “the best story wins” and we, as people in the church, can never forget that. People are drawn to stories that are engaging and that help them to feel that they can be a part of something both exciting and good. Don’t forget to use the power of electronics! Update your church’s website. Realize that people are spending more and more time on electronic devices and figure out a way to use those devices to tell the story of what Jesus is doing with you and your congregation, right now. Create an exciting story by engaging in life-giving and life-changing ministries, and don’t forget to share what you are doing. Never forget that “the best story wins.” People want to be a part of something exciting; and, when they feel that they are a part of something that is important and that is changing lives, they are more likely to volunteer their time and support what’s happening financially.

The Bible is filled with stories where the people were left amazed and perplexed. And the challenge that’s being set before the Church is to live into that amazed perplexity today. God is doing wonderful things in the world. God is enabling people to do exciting things that they never imagined they could do.

Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people amazed and perplexed? Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people at a point in life where they want to learn more about Jesus, be a part of what’s happening, and know that what they’re doing is making our world a better place for us all?

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:

https://app.box.com/s/iajk0zc43wif7wztahv7avy77b3vf4vv

Jesus: The Servant

footwashing pic

Many of us know that Jesus once washed His disciples’ feet.

Jesus had ridden into the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey while people cheered and threw pieces of their clothing and palm branches. Jesus had entered the outer courts of the Temple in Jerusalem in a moment of zeal, and He had driven the moneychangers away. And on the night when Jesus knew that He was going to be betrayed by Judas, He was aware of the fact that something terrible was about to happen.

John’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We read: “And then, the chief priests and the Pharisees said, ‘If we let Jesus go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will take away our Temple and our nation.’” (John 11:47) Shortly after that, Caiaphas, the High Priest, said: “Don’t you understand that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people, so that our whole nation will not be destroyed?” (John 11:50)

Everything became radically different in a very short period of time.

And yet, in the midst of that change and uncertainty, what did Jesus do? We read that He got up, took off His outer robe and tied a towel around His waist. And then, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and dried them with a towel. And He said, “Do you know what I’ve just done? I’ve set an example, so that you will do what I have done. Servants are never greater than their master, nor are the messengers greater than the One who has sent them.” (John 13:12-16) And Jesus shows us that when we serve other people what we’re doing is holy in a selfless act of washing feet. Jesus, our Master, shows us that serving others is a “holy act” that we can continue to do even today.

There are opportunities in every crisis.

Many of us are rightfully concerned about the coronavirus and are staying in our homes to prevent the spread of the virus. And yet, even in these frightening times when it’s very easy for us to withdraw and turn inward, Jesus is challenging us to continue to search for ways that we can creatively serve others.

People are continuing to serve others by working at food banks during these uncertain times and others are struggling to overcome steep technological learning curves, so that other people can remain connected. People are picking up their telephones and are calling people who live by themselves, and children are coloring pictures to send to other people. We serve others every time we wash our hands and voluntarily embrace social distancing. Last week, a member of the congregation that I serve asked me if it would be helpful for her to donate money to our church’s Family Fund since she is working in her home and spending less money for gasoline. People continue to serve others by working in hospitals and grocery stores. People are serving others by harvesting food that could simply be left in fields to rot. People are sewing masks for healthcare workers. People are delivering groceries and medications to those who are not able to leave their homes. And every time we do these things (or other creative things) to serve others, Jesus comes into our midst and we discover that we’re doing God’s work with our own hands!

There are opportunities in every crisis.

There are many opportunities for us to join hands (not literally) with other people in our communities who are brightly shining as “Jesus People” in these challenging times. Just as Jesus did not shrink back and turn inward on the night in which He was betrayed, God is calling us to keep moving forward and to keep searching for creative ways that we can serve other people simply because that’s what “Jesus People” do.

Perhaps, in these very unusual days, we have a chance to shine more brightly, as “Jesus People,” than we ever have at any other point in our lives?

May God continue to journey with you in these scary and unusual times. And may God bless all of us as we continue to think about creative ways that we can serve other people and glorify God with our love and good deed.

Click Here for my Maundy Thursday Message

Bigger Than Me

Ordinary People

We live in an Age of rugged individualism.

We have been told that we need to go out into the world and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps (whatever that means). We have been told that people who are struggling and who can’t feed their own children just need to work harder. We’re told that there are two things in life that we should never talk about: religion and politics. And, as we’ve heard those confusing messages, our faith and our thoughts about God have been changing.

Many people believe that religion is something deeply personal.

Maybe we believe that because we think that faith is only about “Jesus and me,” and that our spiritual journey is only about finding our way into a paradise that we call Heaven. Maybe we say that our faith is a personal thing because we never learned how to talk about God with other people and don’t feel comfortable praying in front of others. Many of us say that a person’s religion is something deeply personal; and yet, for some reason, we keep talking about the fact that we need to get prayer back into public schools. Maybe we don’t think we should talk about our faith because we know that we live in a diverse country where people believe many different things about God and we don’t want to get into debates (even fights) with other people.

In my Christian faith tradition, God clearly speaks against rugged individualism. In fact, when God was creating the heavens and the earth, the first thing that God saw that was NOT good is pointed-out in Genesis 2:18. God clearly says, “It is NOT good for the person that I have created to be alone.” Wow!

In my last few posts, I’ve been reminding you that you are dearly loved by God and that God has placed you on the earth to do a very special thing. I’ve also lifted up the fact that, as people of faith, it’s important for us to remind each other that the things we’re doing with our lives are important. God created us to encourage each other and to build each other up. God created us pray for each other and to spur each other on. But, we can’t do that as individuals who are not connected to each other in some way. And that’s why, as people who are dearly loved by God, Christ brings us together in the Church.

A lot of people don’t want to have anything to do with the Church these days; and, quite frankly, I can sometimes understand why they remain distant. People are sometimes like porcupines on a cold winter night. We need each other to stay warm. We, perhaps, even need each other to survive in a world where God says that it’s not good for us to be all alone. But, sometimes, when we get close to each other, we prick each other with our quills, don’t we? Sometimes WE prick other people with OUR quills. Sometimes we get pricked by the quills that other people have. And it can hurt. It can make us want to run away. Some of you may have decided that you don’t want to have anything to do with the Church because you are sick and tired of being hurt by people that you think should be nicer, or more friendly, or less belligerent, or even more forgiving. One of the things that I’ve learned about the Church is that the Church is filled with people. And, if I require the people in the Church to be more perfect than I am, I’m bound to be disappointed.

Saint Paul talks about the Church in 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. He clearly reminds us that the Church consists of many different gatherings in many different places. Saint Paul even acknowledges that people in one community of faith can feel separated from folks in other communities of faith. Have you ever been afraid to work with another group of Christians in a different faith community to meet the needs of young people because you think that “other” congregations want to “steal” the young people in your congregation? Have you ever secretly gloated when you heard that another faith community was going through a time of struggle? Have you ever been afraid that the newly-installed and very charismatic preacher down the street is going to draw “your” people away? We’re very good at talking about the fact that we are all Christians together and that we shouldn’t feel that we’re in competition with each other, but….

What would the ministry of the Church look like if we all reached out to each other and tried to form partnerships? Maybe we could do things together that we’re having trouble doing all by ourselves? Maybe, if we set aside some of our feelings of competition, we could re-discover the fact that the Church is one Body – not just a bunch of individually working body parts? Maybe we could all thrive and become more healthy together by remaining connected to each other in times when the Church is going through a lot of scary changes? Maybe we could even begin to see Christ do some incredibly new things with all of us if we could just begin to see ourselves as more than individuals – or as individual communities of faith – and started working together and acting like the one Body that we are?

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Thank! Encourage! Build-up!

Encourage

Do you have somebody in your life who encourages you and who cheers you on?

In my last post, we learned a little bit about the baptism of Jesus. We remembered the day when Jesus was baptized, when the Holy Spirit touched Him and when God called Jesus “beloved.” We reflected upon our own baptisms remembering the fact that God has touched us in the very same way. We are loved. We are precious. God has created US and has sent US into the world to make it a better place.

And now, as we read John 1:29-42, we find another interesting story.

We read that Jesus was walking along a road one day and that John the Baptizer shouted, “Look! This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” and, after that, John talked about what happened on the day of Jesus’ baptism. And then, John does the same thing again! It’s almost as if John the Baptizer is trying to tell people that Jesus is doing something important. John is announcing to the entire world that Jesus has been filled with the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus has been sent into the world with a special mission and purpose to fulfill.

Now let’s stop right there and think about what’s happening….

I suspect that Jesus didn’t really need John’s affirmations as He moved forward in life and ministry, but I don’t really know that. But I do know that, as WE travel through life, we all need people who thank us, who encourage us and who remind us that we’re doing God’s work. We are doing something important that’s changing lives….

You might be serving in a position of leadership at a church, or you might be helping to pack boxes at a food pantry. You might be a teacher. You might be an engineer. You may be a stay-at-home mother or father. Or, you may be one of those people who is always at work behind the curtain, so that things run smoothly in front of the curtain. You may be a parent, or a grandparent or another type of caregiver who is helping a young person to grow toward adulthood or an older person who’s slowly approaching death. You may be a musician. You may be an administrator. You may be…. You get the point.

God is at work in your life, but what God calls us to do can sometimes be both exhausting and discouraging. We’re all human, right…? We may even have times in our lives when we experience something called “compassion fatigue” that can deeply affect how we feel, and how we think about life and about what we’re doing. And that’s why we need people who thank us and encourage us and build us up as we continue to do what we’re doing.

We all like to be thanked when we’ve done something, don’t we? We all have times in our lives when we need to be reminded that we’re doing something important. We all have times in life and ministry when we need to be reminded that what we’re doing is God’s work with our very own hands.

And so, here’s what I’d like you to carry with you this week….

  1. Listen to me…. Thank you! I know that life can be challenging, but I want you to know that, even if nobody else is saying it, you’re doing something important. God wants you to know that you’re loved and that you’re precious. And God also wants you to know that, when you do what you believe you’re being called to do by God, you are doing something that’s changing lives and helping our world to be a much better place for us all. Thank you!
  2.  And now watch this…. Other people are experiencing exactly what you experience. They’re fighting on the front line beside you. They’re trying their best to live and to do what they believe God wants them to be doing in a crazy world. And, sometimes, they also need to hear the very same words that I just addressed to you…

Be like John the Baptizer in the coming days. Look for the face of Jesus in the people who are around you and examine the many ways that people are doing what they think God wants them to do. Thank them. Encourage them. Build them up, and help them see that they’re doing something important as they invest their time and lives in other people.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

 

Should Worship Challenge You?

Luther Pic

This week, the clashing symbols at our worship services couldn’t go unnoticed.

We celebrated Reformation Sunday, as Lutherans, and the great hymns of Martin Luther were vibrating in the air. But, in the midst of the celebration, there was also a flickering candle in front of our altar that had been lit in memory of the eleven innocent people who were senselessly killed in the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill exactly one year earlier.

We celebrated the life, ministry and teachings of Martin Luther – a man who boldly and with great courage nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. And yet, we remembered that Martin Luther vehemently attacked the Jews with words like these: “We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather, we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to overcome us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property as they daily pray and hope.”

We remembered that modern-day Lutherans have openly denounced these horrible words of Martin Luther. But, we also remembered that Adolph Hitler used the words of Martin Luther to convince the German people that Germans have always felt that the Jews should be “removed from society with no less mercy than a doctor cuts a cancerous tumor from someone’s body” – ultimately firing suspicions and fears that led to the Jewish Holocaust.

Even our altar was covered with red paraments that remind us of the Holy Spirit that continues to reform the Church even today; but, paraments that also remind us of the blood of those who have been killed because of their religious convictions.

Should worship challenge you?

I guess that I would respond by saying that if you’re attending a church where you are not feeling challenged and confronted from time to time, you need to find a new church.

The Bible continues to remind us that we are sinners, and that we want to continue to believe what we believe and act in the ways that we act because there is no fear of God before our eyes (Romans 3:18). But, the words of St. Paul remind us that God is at work in our lives to transform us and to restore a sense of peace in our relationship with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Set free by the love of Jesus, we can “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12) and find peace with God (and with each other) in a world that God created with wonderful diversity.  Set free by the love of Jesus, we can join hands with others and be “good moral neighbors” in a world where hatred, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression need to be confronted by the Word of God and by the Church that’s called to proclaim that Word.

Abraham Lincoln once said, as he gazed across a muddy field that had been transformed into a cemetery after the battle at Gettysburg: “It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

If the death of those who were slain in the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill has called us to reflect upon the ways that we think about others and about new ways that we can work together to make our world a better place, those who were senselessly slaughtered (as they were worshipping) did not die it vain.

But, before we can begin to move in that direction, we need to allow the words of pastors and those who teach in the Church to challenge us and to even confront the ways that we think and behave. And, as long as that continues to happen, we will be challenged during worship services and we will continue to be called to be a part of the solution – not a part of the problem.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

 

Jesus is Searching for You

Searching

Stories are an important part of our lives.

I suspect that many of us can remember the day when terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers, and that many of us can remember what we were doing on that day. My father used to tell me a story about the day when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I’ve been told many stories in my years as a pastor, and I truly believe that many of those stories capture the very essence of life.

Jesus told many stories, called parables, during His ministry.

And one day, Jesus told a story about a shepherd who left 99 sheep in the middle of the Wilderness in order to search for one of the sheep that had wandered off. He searched behind rocks and boulders. He shouted until the back of his throat was raw. He searched and searched and searched and searched. And he rejoiced when he found the lost sheep and was able to return it to the flock.

We all have times when we wander off and get lost in the Wilderness.

Some people get lost when they sink into the bottomless pit of addiction. Some of us struggle to forgive people who have hurt or disappointed us. Some of us get lost as we face the temptation to withdraw and isolate ourselves as we grieve. Teenagers who are being bullied can feel lost. People who struggle with homeless can feel lost. People who are trying to escape from the grip of Internet pornography (which is a plague that affects and ruins many people’s lives – even in the Church) can feel lost. And, when we’re lost, we can’t always find our own way back from the lonely Wilderness, can we?

Jesus is searching for you.

The Church was never meant to be a place where people, who have life all figured-out, come together to be entertained for an hour each week. The Church was never meant to be a place where people, who don’t want to admit that we’re all lost in some way, come together to have their ego stroked by an inspiring speaker. We’ve all had times when we’ve needed to be found by the Shepherd of our Souls. We’ve all had times when we’ve been lost and when we’ve needed to be brought back to the safety of the flock whether it be to the safety of our family, or to the safety of  the Church, or to the safety of a support group that can help and encourage us as we struggle with the uncertainties of life.

Jesus is searching for you.

No matter where you find yourself in life, right now, the arms of God are opened wide and God’s embrace is big. Take heart! The Shepherd of our Souls continues to search for you even when you feel lost and alone. Jesus is searching for you in whatever Wilderness surrounds you today. And that’s truly a message of Good News, isn’t it? It’s a message that can comfort and sustain us when we’re feeling cut-off from other people and when we’re feeling that even God is standing at a distance as we struggle to find our way through a Wilderness that can leave us feeling very lost and alone.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

 

The Cost of Discipleship

blog pic

I am a person who likes to know how much things cost.

I look for the sign at the gas station because I want to know how much gasoline is going to cost me and if I can get it cheaper somewhere else. I sometimes order from the right side of the menu in a restaurant because the cost of a meal can determine what I’m going to eat. I seek an estimate before I hire someone to do a job and I want to know how much a hotel is going to charge me to stay overnight before I book a room.

I am a person who likes to know how much things cost.

But how much things are going to cost isn’t always easy to figure-out. How can you figure-out how much it’s going to cost to be a parent? How can you begin to estimate the cost of being a son or daughter when you become responsible for a parent’s care? I have to admit that I had no idea of what it would cost both me and my family when I invited a Bishop to place his hands upon my head and ordain me.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous pastor who was martyred by the Nazis during World War II, once wrote: “When Christ calls a person to come and follow Him, Jesus calls that person to come and die.” Jesus once said that people who want to be His disciples must learn to deny themselves and to take-up the Cross and follow Him. (Luke 14:27)

Jesus continues to call us to set aside some time to pray each day and to read our Bible in a world where some Christians believe it’s alright to say things like: “I hear what you are saying, but I’m just not that type of Christian.” Jesus continues to call us to come together in worship in a country (the United States) where only about 15% of the people who say that they’re following Jesus set aside time to worship and pray each week. Jesus calls us to join hands with those who are feeding the homeless, to stand beside women and men who are survivors of abuse and sexual assault, and to provide safe places where people who are fighting their addiction to drugs or alcohol can find people to support them. And Jesus still calls His disciples to stand in solidarity with those who are very easily pushed-aside by those in positions of power and by those who are not afraid to use their power to benefit themselves, their friends, and their heirs.

But, as we pay the cost of discipleship, Jesus also blesses us.

How can you ever describe the feeling of warmth that fills your heart when a young man who lives almost 1,000 miles away asks you to help him put into words what he believes about God as he prepares for his Confirmation? How can I ever begin to describe what it feels like to watch a young man that I visited in jail (as a teenager) pull life back together and grow into a wonderful husband and father? I often look back and am truly honored by the fact that my father trusted me during a time in his life when his friends were gone and when he had even lost the ability to fully care for himself.

Yes, the cost of discipleship is going to challenge you to set some things aside in order to do other things that aren’t always going to be easy to do. But, the only other alternative is to simply soak in the luke-warm waters of life and never allow God to challenge you.

May God bless you as you continue to walk your journey of faith and as you figure-out what Christ’s call to discipleship means to you. Discipleship calls us to do thing that we never imagined we’d ever do. It challenges us to reach beyond the places in life where we feel “safe” and to engage with people that we’re tempted to just ignore. We’re going to laugh, we’re going to cry, we will see life from the top of the mountain, and we will most certainly have times when we’re weary to the bone.

And that’s what happens when we find ourselves following Jesus and living-into God’s plan for our lives. So, don’t keep calm! Go change the world!

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Click here to learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s – “The Cost of Discipleship”