Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rooted and Grounded in Love

Confirmation Sunday

Brian, Kristofer, Kayla, Caity, Jason, Eve, Sara
Brooke and Ashley, this is quite a day!

I’d like to begin just by letting you know happy I am for you
as you celebrate this milestone in your walk with Christ.

And not just me, but this whole room is full of people
who love you,  and are filled with joy to see you affirming your faith today
your faith in the promises God made to you in Holy Baptism
and the faith that God will continue to walk with you each day of your lives.

And there is a passage of Scripture that I’ve been praying for you this whole year.
It’s prayer from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

This is a powerful prayer.
It’s a life-changing prayer.
It’s a prayer in which Paul, is pouring out his heart to God
and lifting up these people whom he dearly loves.

Think about that for just a moment.
Think about the people in your life who love you the most.
Think about the people who love you when you’re easy to love and when you’re not so easy to love.  You never have days like that do you? : )

Their love for you is strong,
but Paul tells us that God’s love for us,  is even stronger.
It goes way beyond what we can even imagine.

Listen to this amazing prayer as I share it with you again.
Listen to how Paul pours out his heart before God: 
Paul writes:
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”

I want to pause there for just a second.
Notice how he prays, and to whom he prays. He says, "I kneel before the Father."
I want you to know it wasn't customary for the Jews to bow their knees in prayer.
We think of kneeling as a common way people pray,
but the Jews usually prayed standing with arms outstretched to God.

It was only when something was of deep, intense concern that they bowed their knees before God; so here we can see the intensity of his love for these people
and how deeply he wants them to know God’s love.

Also notice also to whom Paul addresses his prayer.
He bows before the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”

What does that mean?

It means that every blessing, every good thing comes from our Heavenly Father.
And God is the Father of every family.
God wants every child to be blessed with:
  • protection and loving guidance
  • shared joys, kindness, and affection
  • forgiveness and understanding
  • wisdom and boundaries
  • and everything we need from day to day
On earth there is no perfect family
but God is our perfect Heavenly Father  
and out of his glorious riches we can trust God for what we need.

And God will work through this church family
to come along beside you and strengthen your family.

And on top of that listen to this:
Paul prays:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power 
through his Spirit in your inner being,  
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.“

When I read this passage, with our Confirmation class in mind
the phrase that jumped out at me was:
“strengthen you with power 
through his Spirit in your inner being”

How many of you have a great self-image? 
How many of you, at times, wish you were like someone else?

I think of when I was in 8th grade, and the number of times
I wished I was taller, or smarter, or a better athlete,
or got the attention of girls like the popular guys did.

No matter what age we are those are common feelings.
We wish we had something that we see in other people.
But the question at the root of all those feelings is this:
“Who am I?
“Do people love me for who I am?

But behind those two questions is an even bigger question:
            “Where does our sense of self-worth come from?”

If it comes from our talents, our performance at school or work
or the clothes we wear, or any of our possessions
if it comes from what other people say about us
or how many friends we have
then we’re building it on pretty shaky ground.

But then remember Paul’s prayer:
instead of all those external things, Paul prays for our strength to come from a different source.

Paul knows that all those external things will never make a person happy.
They will never give you a joy that lasts.
They will never sustain you through all the storms of life.

Instead he prays that God will “strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”
It’s God’s power and God’s strength that you can count on.
Everything else fades.
Everything else will disappoint you.
But not God.

The world gives you a distorted picture of yourself.
It tells you, you are only worth being loved
for what you can produce, your grades, the college you go to
or the possessions you have,
or what other people say about you.

The world says, “that’s what makes you somebody.”
But God simply declares it, “You are somebody”
Because I created you.
I formed you in your mother’s womb.
And I love you.
Do you remember the name game we played at our last Confirmation class?
For the rest of the congregation, what we did as we went around the circle was to say our name, and then we each shared one thing that we know is true about ourselves.

Like… my name is Marty and Jesus loves me.
or my name is Brooke and God forgives all of my sins.
or my name is Sara and I am a child of God.

Think of all the other true things we could add to that list:
·         Nothing can ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
·         I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me
·         God delights in me
·         God has a plan for me – to give me a hope-filled future
·         No one can snatch me out of my Father’s hand
·         If God takes care of the tiniest sparrow,  how much more will he then take care of me
·         as far as the East is from the West, so far has God removes me sins from me
and this list could go on and on.

God wants us to take these truths and hold on to them
and see ourselves more and more
through His eyes,  not the world’s eyes.

And as Jesus says, “then we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free.”
And God gives us that strength through his Spirit, in our inner being,
so that Christ will dwell in our hearts through faith.

And now, comes the part of the prayer that we chose as the theme for your Confirmation banner.

Paul wants the people he’s praying for to have that spiritual inner strength
and Christ living in their hearts…
not so that they can go around and feel superior to others
and look around and judge others…
he wants them to have that strength so that they might be filled with God’s love.

More than anything else, God wants you to be filled with His love.
Here’s how Paul expresses it:
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Some Christians get that backwards.
They think being a Christian is about having all the right answers
or all the right behaviors.

And it’s not that God, doesn’t want us to live our lives honorably
He certainly does.

But it starts with grasping how wide and long and high
and deep is the love of Christ
and abiding in the love of Christ, being filled with the love of Christ
so that we can reflect that love to a world that needs it so badly.

Just a few weeks ago, I met a man whose life was changed by love like that.
We were thinking about having some work done at our house
and so I made a few phone calls,
and made a few appointments so we could get some estimates

One of the guys who stopped over, had worked for his dad while he was learning the business,
and now he and his brother are the one who run it.

So he came and gave us the estimate and as he was leaving
he asked me what I do, and I said, “I’m a pastor.”
And he replied, “I’m a chaplain.”

And then he explained that he and his wife take two weekends every month
and join a ministry team that goes into one of California’s prisons that houses inmates that have been sentenced for life.

And what was remarkable about that, is that this is his life mission.  He plans to continue to visit these inmates every month for the rest of his life.  

He know their lives can be changed, because his life was changed.
He had a rough childhood.
He did a lot of bad things. Things that he’s not proud of, but God never gave up on him.

Looking for some structure in his life
he got involved with the Jehovah Witnesses.

But he met God for the first time, when he was going door to door
and at one home,  instead of getting the door slammed in his face
a lady who was well past retirement age
invited him in and overwhelmed him with her kindness.

Instead of rejecting him she invited him to come in and have a cup of coffee.
And she invited him to read to her out of his King James Bible.
And the passage she asked him to read was from Zechariah chapter 12.
And so he started reading… but she stopped him
and asked him, “Who is speaking there.”

And he looked down at his Bible until he found the words,
“Thus saith the Lord.” So it was obvious, God was speaking.

And she said, go on.
And he kept reading until he got to verse ten.
where it says,  “then they will look on Me whom they pierced.

And she said, who is speaking there?
And suddenly it came to him, it was Jesus.
And he felt the love of Jesus in a way that he had never felt before.

He had been taught that Jesus was not God.
But in that moment, he knew not only that Jesus was God,
but that Jesus was his Savior, that Jesus had been pierced for him.

And it wasn’t because he had heard a great lecture about Jesus.
It was because he saw Jesus’ love so clearly in this dear old lady.
He went back to his elders, and they forbade him from going back to see her.
They said, “she had her chance” which he knew was not reflective of God’s love for all people.

But from that moment on he was changed.
And for the last 15 years now,   he has been going to a church in San Juan…
and trying to live out the love that he saw in that woman.

That’s was Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians,
that they would know how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 
and be filled with the love of Christ forever.

And that’s my prayer for you.   Amen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Gospel Powered Leadership

7th Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

This morning I'm going to be preaching from our 1st Reading in Acts, chapter one.
And what we find there, is a passage that comes right between two big events:    
Jesus’ Ascension into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

We read about Jesus’ Ascension in Acts, chapter one, and Pentecost at the beginning of chapter, two.

If you were reading the book of Acts, you might skip right past this event and not even notice it. 
Do you remember what the disciples did right after Jesus’ Ascension?
Would you believe they called a congregational meeting?

A little anti-climactic don’t you think?
Or was it?

Jesus ascends to heaven and the disciples have an important decision to make.
They need to select a leader to take the place of Judas.
Even though this episode took place between, two larger events,
I’m convinced that Luke, wrote about this meeting for a reason. 
Through Luke, God wanted to remind us,
that Jesus cares about how the church is organized, how is it led, and what message is preached.

What we have here is testimony that the church needs leadership.
God’s people called by the Spirit, need Spirit-filled leaders.
And if you caught it, there wasn’t just one pastor, for that church of 120 people,
there were twelve.

Twelve leaders entrusted with ministry.

Today’s First Reading also reminds us that leadership, in the church is tied directly to the ministry of Jesus.  One of our responsibilities as a church when we are discerning who to call as leaders is to ensure that there is continuity between the gospel preached today
and the gospel as it’s been proclaimed from the very first apostles.

In order to be chosen as an apostle Matthias needed to be among those who were with Jesus from the beginning, someone who was a “witness to his resurrection.”

This new apostle would be able to keep the continuity of the Gospel,
because of his connection with Jesus.
And yet while the disciples are definitely looking for continuity
being called upon to do something new?

Aren't they also, meeting in order to address an urgent need,
a new situation, that has just arisen?

The disciples have come to a crossroads.
One of the twelve, the inner circle of leader, has betrayed Jesus.
The Risen Christ, fifty days after Easter, has ascended.

What now?

The good news in today’s reading from Acts, is this:
in answer to the apostle’s prayers, God provides them with a new person to share in “their ministry and apostleship.”

So the promise here, is that whatever new need arises,   
whatever new challenge confronts the church,
there is no need to panic, no need to worry,
because God will answer our prayers and provide what we need.

Let me apply this promise to our situation right here at Community Lutheran.

Over the last decade we have seen quite a few changes both in our community
and within our own congregation.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the rising number of the people who claim no church affiliation, the “nones”, especially within the millennial generation.
This week, there was a column in the Washington Post
in which blogger Rachel Held Evans writes:

Church attendance has plummeted among young adults.In the United States, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background have, at some point, dropped out.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, among those of us who came of age around the year 2000, a solid quarter claim no religious affiliation at all, making my generation significantly more disconnected from faith than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their lives and twice as detached as baby boomers were as young adults.

This reality has a lot of people concerned.
And what often happens when people are operating out of fear, 
is that they are ready to throw the baby out with the bath water.
But listen to what Evans goes on to say. She writes:

In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology.Yet they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way.Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.

That’s one of the first things I learned when I served as a youth pastor.
The last thing a youth group wants is a youth pastor who is trying to be cool.

She continues:

For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of “inauthentic” is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him.[1]

Think about that statement right there.
Which is easier to do, create marketing messages, or actually follow Jesus? 
Which is easier, forming a committee to come up with a plan for reaching millennials,
or when you see young adults visiting our church,
making it a point to reach out to them after the service, introduce yourself,
and extend yourself with gracious hospitality?

And here’s the powerful conclusion:

Millennial s “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,”[2]
When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn't looking for a better-produced Christianity.  I was looking for a more authentic Christianity:What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn't lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments.
Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years.
The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.

So what’s the message for us here at Community Lutheran?

As one of my homiletics professors used to say:
“Preach the Gospel and get out of the way.”
Or “administer the Sacraments and get out of the way.”

In other words, keep Jesus the main thing.
Don’t get sidetracked by secondary issues.
That’s what I need to focus on as a pastor.

And as a congregation, as people called to serve the Gospel,
I think we need to face this challenge in the same way.

Keep the Gospel at the center of everything we do:
-          at the center of our worship
-          at the center of our prayers
-          at the center of how we extend hospitality and reach out
-          at the center of everything we do each day of the week

Just as Matthias, was selected as a church leader,
because he was with Jesus and a witness to the resurrection…
let us all be witnesses to the resurrection.

That’s the kind of Gospel continuity that serves the church well.

So, let our hearts be guided by the Holy Spirit.
Let us love God, and love your neighbors.

Let us draw close to one another in Christian fellowship.
and reach out with the love of Christ.

That’s what it means to be the Church, the body of Christ.   Amen

[1] By Rachel Held Evans April 30, The Washington Post -  Held Evans is a blogger and the author of “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.”

[2] David Kinnaman, who interviewed hundreds of them for Barna Group and compiled his research in “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith.”

Monday, May 11, 2015

The End of Time

Week 31: The Story

Can you believe it?  We have completed thirty-one Sundays, covering thirty-one foundational stories in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and we are not the same church we were nine months ago.

Our appetite for God’s Word has grown.
Our desire to read God’s Word and to pray, and to discuss God’s Word together has grown.
Thank you for taking this journey with me!

I’m truly grateful.
It does a pastor’s heart a lot of good.

Well, here we are today on the last chapter.   And yet in many ways this is not the last chapter. The Bible is a book that continues to be written each time the seeds of faith are planted and grow, and the Word of God is shared.

That’s why I’m excited this morning.
Not because we've completed thirty-one weeks from beginning to end,
but because this book,  God’s Word, is living and active.

It’s a story that God has been writing on your heart from the moment you first came to know Him.

You see the Bible is foundational.  We can’t live without it!
It will tell you everything you need to know
  • about this world
  • about who God is and who you are in the eyes of God
  • and about the kind of life we've been called to live

And this year has been quite an adventure in becoming more familiar with the foundational stories in the Bible, what these stories mean,
and how they are meant to form us and shape us into the people God has created us to be.

And just as every story has a beginning
every story also has an ending.
It has a direction, a plot, and a future outcome.

And in the Bible we are given glimpses of the future
in books like Daniel, and in parts of Ezekiel, and Isaiah,
and in the New Testament in the book of Revelation.
Just out of curiosity, how many of you have ever tried to read through the book of Revelation before?  Did you find it confusing or hard to understand?

Well, that’s not an uncommon experience.

And then you add to that, the fact that in popular culture there are so many books and movies, that frankly just make matters worse.
They are sensationalizing the book, and trying to make it into something it was never intended to be.

Let me explain.

The first key to understanding the book of Revelation is to start is talk about what kind of literature this is.  The Bible includes poetry and history, and prophecy, and the Gospels.
But the book of Revelation is called apocalyptic literature
which means that it points to the future.

In fact, another name for the book of Revelation is “the apocalypse”
which literally means,  “to uncover” or  “to reveal.”
It doesn't mean a cataclysmic ending.

What this book reveals or uncovers, is a God-given glimpse of the future.

Some of the later prophets in the Old Testament like Daniel were given visions of the future
and in the Gospels, we have a few chapters that do that as well.

And now at the end of the Bible we find this vision that an angel delivers to the apostle John,   when he was exiled on the island of Patmos.  John is told to write this vision on a scroll and deliver it seven churches, including the church in Ephesus.

So that’s a bit about the kind of literature this is.

Now, the second key to understanding the book of Revelation is to make sure we listen to the warning at the end, where it says:
“Anyone who hears the words of this prophecy and adds anything to them
 or takes anything away from them… will not share in the tree of life”

That’s a serious warning.  As serious as any you’ll find in the whole Bible.
But, some people try to make this book into something it’s not.
Some people get hung up on words like “mark of the beast” or “anti- Christ.”
But did you know that the word “anti-Christ” doesn't even appear in the book of Revelation?
It appears elsewhere in the New Testament and it’s always plural.
It literally refers to people who stand against Christ or rebel against God.
That’s what being anti-Christ means.  It doesn't refer a particular historical person.

So let’s not make this book into something it’s not. 

Instead let’s just take it for what it says.

In the beginning of the book, verse four, it says
 “I, John am writing this letter to you, the seven churches in the province of Asia.”

Notice he didn't say, “I’m writing this letter to 21st century Americans who are trying to figure out when the end of the world is going to be.”

No where does it say anything close to that, and yet that’s the popular understanding from the outside looking in.  You would think that after all the predictions that have come and gone,  that people would take a hint.

Or better yet, that people would actually pay attention to what Jesus teaches about the end times.  Jesus simply says, “I’m coming back.”

We live in this wonderfully blessed time, between Jesus’ first arrival and his second arrival.
We’re waiting for his second coming.

That’s what we are doing when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come.”
Let’s say those three words, together. “Thy Kingdom Come”

Do know what you’re saying?

When we pray for God’s Kingdom to come, beginning now, and finally and completely when Jesus comes again. We’re praying for Jesus to usher in, once and for all, what He started through his life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus also taught, before he ascended, he said in no uncertain terms, 
“I’m coming back, and you won’t know the day or the hour.”

So, don’t be apathetic. 
Keep awake, keep alert, don’t be caught off guard, don’t drift away from me,
because if you do, my coming will be like a thief in the night.
You won’t have time to prepare yourself, when I come.

So prepare yourself now and every day.
But also hear this, Jesus says:
      “You won’t know the day or the hour, so stop wasting your time trying to figure it out.”
Stop trying to predict when I’m coming back.

The book of Revelations echoes these themes.
To the church in Laodicea,  the message is, 
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

In other words, “don’t be apathetic.  Keep awake, keep alert”
Be ready for the time when Jesus returns.

The book of Revelation also makes clear that trying to predict the timing of Jesus return is not what our focus should be.

Instead of focusing on when Jesus returns, John’s vision turns our attention to the more important matter of who will meet us when this world comes to an end.

To the same church in Laodicea,  listen to voice calling out to them:
It’s not voice of Mohammed. 
It’s not the voice of Buddha, or any other self-proclaimed prophet.

It’s the voice of our Good Shepherd calling out to us.

Listen to what Jesus says to those in Laodicea, who have become lukewarm:
Jesus says:
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.
So be earnest and repent.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
…  whoever has ears, let them hear.”

That’s the message God wants us to hear,
the message that Jesus is the one who is coming at the end of time
that the God who created us, and redeemed us,
will be meeting us at the end of history,
and will join us in a new community,  that we can barely imagine.

This new heaven and new earth that Jesus ushers in, comes to us now, only in glimpses…
but if you’ve read the book of Revelation…
you’ve already heard what an amazing future we have in store.

In Revelation, chapter 21 John writes:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.  Behold I am making all things new.”

Death will be no more.
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

I don’t know about you, but I long for that day.
I long for the day when Jesus will come again
and once and for all end the suffering in this world.

Most of the suffering in this world we can’t even fathom.
I can’t fathom what it’s like for a parent to hear the news that their son has been captured and beheaded by ISIS.

I can’t fathom the level of suffering experienced by children all around the world
who grow up in slums,  and who ache with hunger day after day.

But even closer to home my heart aches for Cody, a little boy I baptized just a few years ago
and who has been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma,
and is undergoing both chemo and radiation treatments for the next several months.

And I think of friends and family right here in our congregation.
Just this week we added seven new names to the list of people being prayed for by our Prayer Team, including the family of 2-year-old Lucy who drowned this week.

Can you imagine the suffering of her parents?
I long for the day when death will be no more.
When crying and pain will be no more.

I long for the day when we will see Jesus face to face
when all who have suffered will be comforted
when we will be surrounded by a love so divine
that it will enfold us completely and make us whole once again.

As we sing in the hymn by that name:

“Love Divine, all loves excelling,
“Joy in heaven, on earth come down!

Fix in us a humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown…

Jesus thou art all compassion,
pure unbounded love thou art… 

visit us, with thy salvation, enter every trembling heart.  

Jesus is coming again.

Thanks be to God!                       Amen.