Friday, April 20, 2018
On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergoglio was a surprising choice to a lot of people, due to his age, his nationality, his religious order, and more. But the thing that stood out about Cardinal Bergoglio was that his whole career had been spent in service and care for the poor. He was known for his dedication to living a simple, humble life with few possessions, and his willingness to live and work with the poor, sick, and needy. When it came time for Bergoglio to be introduced to the world as the new pope, it was revealed that he had chosen a name that no pope had ever taken: Pope Francis. The name choice was in honor of St. Francis of
who dedicated his life to following God by serving the poor, and who, in doing
so, awoke an entire generation of devout Christians. Assisi
The man we call St. Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in either 1181 or 1182 AD, in the town of
in northern .
His father was Italian and his mother was French, and hew as not very tall as a
child, and so was given the nickname Francesco, which means “little Frenchman,”
from which we get Francis today. Francis’ early life is actually quite similar
to the life of Augustine that we learned about last week, though not entirely.
Francis was somewhat spoiled and indulged as a child, and was quite
self-centered as a result. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and Francis
loved fine clothes, good food, and expensive parties. Though he was a
Christian, he was one in name only. His life did not bear any marks of real
faith at the time. Italy
In 1202, at about 20 years old, Francis went off to war. While in the army, he was captured, and spent the next year in captivity and illness. During this time his spiritual conversion began. When he was finally able to return home, he began to avoid the parties and games of his carefree days. He spent a great deal of time praying in a run-down old chapel in San Damiano, just outside of
While he prayed at San Damiano, he experienced the same vision three times, in
which the Christ on the cross of the chapel spoke to him and said, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My House
which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis assumed that this
vision was about the chapel he was in, which was in great disrepair. So he sold
some of his father’s golden cloth and used the money to rebuild the chapel. Assisi
When his father heard about this, he was furious. His son had stolen valuable merchandise and then spent it all! Francis’ father dragged him before the bishop and began legal proceedings against him. At that moment, Francis made the decision that he would change his life: He decided to renounce his whole life, give up his inheritance and family business, and leave. In order to owe nothing to his father, Francis even took off the clothes he was wearing at that moment, gave them to his father, and then walked out of the court naked and went straight into the woods.
From that time on, Francis lived the life of a poor wanderer. One day when he stopped in a church, he heard these words from Matthew 10 from our scripture reading. Francis took this message to heart and chose to live as simply as possible, in imitation of Jesus. He also began to see that Jesus chose to identify with the poor, and so he took a vow of poverty. He lived only by begging for food, and he also taught others as he travelled. He also begged for money to give to the poor, and spent much of his time helping those who lived in abject poverty. He had no possessions, and spent a great deal of time in nature.
Even later in life, when he had founded a monastic order and lived with others, it was said that Francis would spend up to half of each year in the natural world, away from people and cities, praying and communing with God. Francis loved God’s creation, and never ceased to worship God for the things he made. The famous hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King” was written by St. Francis. That hymn represents Francis’ love of nature, and his desire that the whole earth, not just humanity, should give praise to God.
There is a famous story about St. Francis that he was trying to decide whether to retreat into nature, or go back into the cities to teach. In a fit of inspiration, he ran up to a flock of birds and began to preach to them about Jesus. The story has it that none of the birds flew away until he had finished preaching and made the sign of the cross over them! As wild as that story sounds, it reveals Francis’ deep connection to the natural world, and his love of God’s creation. The story says that when he came back to his friends after preaching to the birds, he accused himself of negligence because he had never preached to the birds before then!
Despite Francis’ love for nature, he could not remain entirely out of human society. By 1209, he had about a dozen friends and followers who had begun to imitate his lifestyle and travel with him. So Francis decided to found a monastic order, which meant that the Catholic Church would officially support his ministry and would allow others to follow his path. In order to found a monastic order, you had to have permission from the Pope. Otherwise, you could be declared a heretic for practicing something that was against the church. There was just one problem: Francis wasn’t just out there living like a hermit, caring for the poor, and preaching to animals, he was also challenging the structure of the Catholic Church.
When Francis chose to take a vow of poverty, and people started to follow him, it began to raise questions about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. You see, many bishops, cardinals, and popes over the centuries had amassed incredible wealth through their church offices. It probably comes as no surprise to any of us today that powerful people were abusing their power to obtain incredible wealth. The bishops and cardinals of
Italy were perfectly content to oversee the
church and live comfortable lives of wealth, until along came this voice in the
wilderness of ,
living in poverty and caring for the poor. Assisi
You can see why it might have been a bit daunting for Francis to go to
and seek approval for his monastic order. For the pope to approve of Francis
and his followers would be to acknowledge that the riches of the Catholic
Church were un-Christ-like. Yet Francis believed that his life and his group of
followers were ordained by God and living in a way that was pleasing to Him.
The pope at the time was Pope Innocent III, who had inherited great wealth from
his predecessors. Innocent was somewhat uneasy with the idea of a wealthy
church, but he was not about to change the status quo. Rome
When Francis came to him for permission to start his monastic order, he came in his beggar’s clothes. When Pope Innocent saw Francis, he said that he looked and smelled like a pig, and he should go wallow among the pigs Francis, instead of taking the insult and leaving, went to a pig sty, rolled around, and returned to the Pope saying, “Father, I have done as you ordered; now, will you do as I request?” Pope Innocent was impressed with this display of humility and obedience, and allowed Francis to officially form his monastic order.
With official approval, the Franciscan order quickly grew. A woman named Clare founded a sister organization that soon became known as the Second Order of Franciscans, but was also known as the Poor Clares. After that, there were many who wanted to live in imitation of Jesus and follow the Franciscan Rule, but felt it necessary to remain in their jobs, families, and so on. These people were also formed into communities and became the Third Order of Franciscans. Thus, the Franciscan movement began to spread in all facets of Christianity: men and women were joining the movement, whether it was the first, second, or third order.
Francis also tried to spread the message of the gospel around the world. He made a trip to
in an attempt to convert the
Muslim Sultan to Christianity. This shows the boldness of Francis, in that he
travelled deep into territory controlled by Muslims, at a time when Muslims and
Christians were constantly at war, just to try and win people for Jesus.
Supposedly, Francis was able to gain an audience with the Egyptian Sultan, but
wasn’t able to convince him to convert. However, the sultan was so impressed by
Francis that he granted him safe passage back to Egypt . Italy
Francis spent many years leading his monastic brothers and sister, teaching them and trying to keep them humble. Thanks to the rapid growth of the movement, there was always the temptation to give up humility or poverty in exchange for the glory and wealth of the world, just as the bishops and cardinals had done before them. So Francis worked hard to make sure that his followers would not give in to these temptations. He spent the final years of his life continuing to live in poverty, teaching about the life of Jesus to all who would listen, and growing his Franciscan order to become the largest monastic order of the time.
For a church that had become increasingly wealthy and hierarchical, Francis was nothing short of revolutionary. Francis called people out of their comfortable lives and into service, poverty, and humility. He challenged the dominant power of his day, not through revolution or fighting but through the example of his life. Francis’ vision from his youth, of Jesus telling him to “repair my house” had become about so much more than a small chapel. He had begun to repair the whole Church from its ruin of excessive wealth and comfort.
The life of St. Francis has many lessons for us. First, follow the calling of God in your life. If Francis had not obeyed the small call of rebuilding that chapel in San Damiano, who knows if he ever would have embarked on the path of his life. Francis shows us that God cares not only about humans, but about the world that he created: the animals, plants, birds, and the rest. Finally, Francis shows us the power of following the example of Jesus in our life. Francis’ commitment to living like Christ was revolutionary enough to change the whole church.
I would like to close with a prayer written by St. Francis that has remained a powerful and popular prayer down to this day. Let us pray,
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Friday, April 13, 2018
Think for a moment about a time when you grieved the death of a loved one. What was that experience like? I believe grief is the most intense and painful experience in all of life. For some of you it is a distant memory. For others the sting of grief is still raw and painful. In our story from the Gospel of Luke, two disciples are sharing their grief with a stranger on their journey home. Many of you have walked that road.
Cleopas and an unnamed disciple are departing from
Jerusalem and heading back to
their home in the nearby . They are trying to come to grips with the
death of their dear friend and teacher Jesus.
At this time they were completely unaware of Jesus’ resurrection. For them it was still Good Friday. Overwhelmed with grief, they push on,
alternating between moments of silence and quiet conversation. village
“We had hoped that he was the one. The one to redeem Israel.” They had hoped Jesus would liberate the Jewish people from the Romans. They loved and respected Jesus as their teacher and friend. They had seen him perform miracles, care for lepers, and heal the sick. Jesus taught spiritual lessons through parables about the
. But now that was all in the past. Kingdom
They trudge on, when suddenly, a stranger appears before them and asks: “What are you discussing with each other?” They were surprised and probably annoyed by this interruption. This stranger listens and then gently chastises them for their lack of faith in His teachings and promises. He spends a day with them and then at the right moment, the stranger reveals His true identity as the Risen Lord.
In this Easter season, we shout with joy because we don’t grieve a dead Jesus, but follow and worship a living Lord. What is God’s word to you in this story? Here is what I hear God saying.
First, the two disciples were surprised by the sudden appearance of this stranger. He appeared out of nowhere. They didn't expect him at all. And this intrusion turned out to be a surprise of grace. It changed their lives and renewed their hope and faith and courage. Sometimes God surprises us in this way. It's the surprises of life: the unexpected blessings, a contact by a friend from the past, anticipated bad news that turns out to be good news, a gift of health or finances, that you realize is God’s will in your life. Can you think of a time when God's grace surprised you?
Second, Jesus met the two disciples at a time of deep personal need. Here is an amazing truth. There are times when we are more receptive, reachable, open to God’s word and action in our lives than other times. A time of need is just such a time. Scripture has story after story when Jesus meets people at their point of need. They are surprised that this stranger is interested in their conversation: “What are you discussing with each other?” God cares about what you are discussing and thinking about and doing. God’s mercy meets us in our times of brokenness spiritually or emotionally, when we are weak or hurting. When has God met you at a time of need?
Third, Jesus appeared to them, but they didn't recognize him. Why? Perhaps Jesus didn’t want them to immediately recognize him. Or maybe it was about perception – if you don't expect to see something, you often won't recognize it, you won't see it, you will look right past it. I remember that happening to me when I ran into a couple from our former church in
Santa Monica when we were living in . They were looking at me and I noticed them
looking, but kept walking, until they shouted “Hey, Colorado Pastor it’s me.” They were out of place. I saw but I didn’t see. Our own perception prevents us from seeing
what is right in front of our eyes.
Jesus stood before the disciples, but they didn't realize who it was. There are times when God is acting in our lives, when God is intervening in our lives, when God is reaching out to us, but we don't recognize that it is the presence and power of God. Later we think, I wonder, could that have been God intervening in my life?
Fourth, though broken-hearted, these disciples were not defeated and headed home to start the next chapter of their lives. In my experience, people who battle on in times of grief and deep disappointment, who persevere in making a life or taking care of family are more likely to find God or to be found by God, than those who just give up. Having the courage to keep moving forward, to carry on, opens up opportunities to encounter the living God. There is one set of footprints in the sand, because God is carrying you forward. I have experienced this in my own life. I have seen it many times in the lives of people.
Fifth, God is saying that Jesus the Lord reveals Himself, His word, to us in the scriptures. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” God has inspired people throughout history as they have turned to His word. God continues to speak to us through the Bible today.
The psalmist says: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The Gospel of John says: “These words were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” II Timothy says: “The Bible was written to teach us the truth about God and salvation, to teach us the truth about moral living, to correct unjust or unkind behavior and to change our lives, so that we might mature in faith and grow closer to becoming like Jesus Christ in mind, heart, and behavior.”
The Bible is a priceless source of inspiration and guidance and strength and wisdom. By the Holy Spirit's witness through the Bible: Bach composed, El Greco painted, and Pascal wrote his book Pensées. The Word of God has inspired Christian authors like Catherine Marshall, Charles Swindoll, Billy Graham, Charles Stanley,
Pastor Rick Warren, and Max
Lucado, whose works have inspired millions.
Sixth, I hear God saying that Jesus reveals Himself to us in the Lord’s Supper. The church has claimed from the time of the first Easter meal when the disciples ate with Jesus after his resurrection, that the Risen Lord is present whenever his followers gather together for communion. The two disciples sit down with Jesus, break bread and Luke tells us: “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” Throughout the ages, Christians have testified to Jesus the Risen Lord being truly present in the celebration of Communion. The broken bread and poured wine are occasions of Christ's presence.
In the Lord’s Supper, by faith, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith and confirms our faith. We participate in a spiritual communion with the living Christ. We receive forgiveness, healing, and spiritual renewal. We grow closer in our union with Christ and with one another as we gather at His table.
Shortly before his death, tennis star Arthur Ashe, who died of AIDS due to a tainted blood transfusion in 1993 wrote these words to his daughter: “Camera, have faith in God. Do not be tempted whether by pleasures and material possessions or by the claims of science and smart thinkers, into believing that religion is obsolete, that the worship of God is somehow beneath you. Spiritual nourishment is as important as physical nourishment and intellectual nourishment. And by it you will grow into a deeper understanding of life’s meaning.”
A woman writes: “Someone dear to me once gave me a little cross adorned with roses. It bears the inscription, ‘Hope raises no dust.’ I tried my best to penetrate its mystery. But after thinking about it, it still seemed like a vague axiom about hope. But for Christians, hope is not vague. We have a hope that is historical, personal.” We have a hope that encounters us in life and says, “What are you discussing with each other?”
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann expresses the heart of God from Good Friday to Easter in these words: "God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him." My friends, may we too encounter the Risen Lord in worship and in our daily lives. Such encounters are surprises of grace. Amen.
Friday, April 6, 2018
A pastor writes:
“A friend of mine who worked for a mortuary, had a number of responsibilities in his job, including traveling to small rural communities to conduct funerals where there were no churches. He would go out with an undertaker and they would drive together in the hearse. One time, on their way back from a funeral, my friend was feeling tired. He decided to take a nap and went to lie down in the back of the hearse.
The undertaker pulled into a service station to gas up. The attendant started filling up the tank and was kind of freaked out, when he saw a body stretched out in the back. While he was filling the tank, my friend woke up, opened his eyes, knocked on the window and waved at the attendant. My friend said he never saw anybody jump so high and run so fast in his life.”
Yes, when you’re expecting death and you see life; it startles you, it shakes you up, it shocks you. So it was on that first Easter. Everything turned upside down. The women and disciples thought they were going to see death, but instead they saw life! Jesus' followers were shattered, grief-stricken at seeing Jesus crucified and buried. But all that changed on Easter. Jesus’ appearances transformed his followers; they were now hope-filled and bursting with joy and passion and power and began to witness to others in His name. Easter is proof that all lives, any life, every life, can be changed when one meets the Risen Lord, when one hears the truth and power of the gospel.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb early in the morning to anoint Jesus' body with oil and spices as was the Jewish custom. The women encounter an angel who says to them: “Do not be afraid; He is not here, He has been raised as He said. Come and see; go quickly and tell the disciples Jesus has gone ahead of you to
there you will see him.”
The Risen lord suddenly appears to these two women as they are leaving the tomb. Jesus utters his first word “Greetings.” No, not “I’m back.” But rather, Greetings! And our Risen Lord says greetings to you this morning as well.
The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith and hope; it’s the historical basis for the celebration of Easter. Easter is a shining light in the darkness of this world. Critics argue that the resurrection is a hoax. But if this is true, if there is no hope, if we are earthbound, if aging, suffering, pain and death is all there is; well, listen to this scripture from I Corinthians: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all people. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.”
Easter declares Jesus is alive! The tomb was empty! The stone was not rolled back so Jesus could get out, but so people could enter the grave and see for themselves that Jesus had risen from the dead. As a pastor, I’ve seen people who by grace through their faith, have been saved from tombs of grief, from tombs of self-loathing, from tombs of shattered relationships, from tombs of aimlessness, from tombs of addiction, from tombs of hopelessness.
The Risen Lord changes, transforms, sinners, nihilists by grace and power. You may have heard the song, “I Can Only Imagine,” written and sung by songwriter and vocalist, Bart Millard, lead singer in the Christian band MercyMe. The story behind the song is that when he was young his father, known as Bub, was extremely abusive toward him, verbally and physically for years. When the beatings slowed down in Bart’s early teens, the father told Bart: “Do what you want, I don’t care anymore.” Bart said those words hurt almost worse than the beatings.
His father became ill and something miraculous began to occur, Bub unexpectedly began praying and reading the Bible. He encouraged Bart in his church youth group, rather than berating him for going to church. Bart and his father became friends. They prayed and talked together daily for hours. Bart saw God transform his father’s heart before his very eyes. He said: ”If the gospel could change that guy, the gospel could change anybody.” His father died of cancer when Bart was in his late teens. At the gravesite, Bart’s grandmother, a woman of faith, said: “I can only imagine what Bub’s seeing now.” Those words penetrated Bart’s soul and inspired him to write the song “I Can Only Imagine,” in 2001. It’s been released as a movie this year.
Easter announces that there is no grave deep enough, no stone heavy enough, no evil strong enough to keep Christ in the tomb or to keep us, whoever we are, and despite whatever we have done, from meeting the Risen Lord and finding grace, mercy and forgiveness in His name. The question is: Is evil stronger than God, hate stronger than love and death stronger than life? Christianity says no! Why? Because on Easter God raised Jesus to life, because Jesus is alive and the Risen Lord said: “Greetings” to a world that believed he was finished. Easter declares there is hope for tomorrow, there is the promise and assurance of new life.
Easter further points to an afterlife, an eternal life, a life beyond this temporary earthly life. A new heavenly life awaits those who surrender their lives, who trust, who believe in Him. Scripture promises: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Life begins when we discover this truth for ourselves and act upon it. The resurrection shows that even the seemingly indomitable power of death is inferior to the will and power of God. Easter announces that Jesus' resurrection opens up the future.
I ask you two questions: Do you have hope for the future? What is the basis for your hope? Christians around the world today are not declaring: "The stock market has risen. It has risen indeed." "The dollar has risen. It has risen indeed." "Google has risen. It has risen indeed." The hope that has ignited the hearts, stirred the souls, and uplifted human beings across the centuries is: "Christ is risen. He is risen indeed."
So where do we place our ultimate trust, in our President and our politicians? In ourselves? I’ll let you answer that question. Because of Easter, I place my ultimate trust in Jesus, the Son of God, the Risen Lord. Let us place our trust in Christ alone. Jesus says: “I have come to bring life and life abundant.” “There are many rooms in my Father’s house, I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it were not so, and I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.” Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even though they die, shall live.”
Jesus is Risen, Jesus is Lord. The first word Jesus spoke on Easter was “greetings” to those who believed he was dead. On this Easter Day, Jesus looks into your heart and says: “Greetings” to you as well. Alleluia. Amen.
Thursday, March 22, 2018
“Dear God, so far today, I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent. I’m thankful about this Lord. But in a few moments, I’m going to get out of bed, and then I’m going to need a lot of help.” Amen!
This morning we are focusing upon prayer. Why? Three reasons. Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the Patron Saint of Ireland, a Roman Catholic Bishop in 5th century Roman Britain, whose life is well worth studying. Prayer was central to the spiritual life of the Celts of Ireland. God used Patrick to evangelize
synthesize the Roman Catholic Faith with the culture of the Celtic people. This synthesis has come to be known as Celtic
Christianity. Second, because today
Christians are observing the season of Lent, with its emphasis upon the
interior spiritual life. Third, because
prayer is indispensable to following Jesus and it’s crucial to the ministry of
the church. Ireland
I am convinced that if a Christian is to be spiritually alive, if a Christian is to have a vibrant faith, if a Christian is to be joyful, faithful, Spirit filled, Christ centered, one must be continually immersed in prayer. I believe the same thing about the church. Is prayer important? The Gospel of Mark says: “And in the morning, a great while before day, Jesus rose and went out to a lonely place and there he prayed.” It was important to Jesus. Prayer was fundamental to his life and ministry. Jesus personally prayed. He taught the disciples and crowds how to pray. He commanded his followers to pray.
What is prayer? It's not an empirical science, based upon observation and experimentation. Thousands of books have been written about prayer. But prayer remains shrouded in mystery; we don’t finally understand it. But that’s OK. There is a plethora of things we don’t understand about life, but we keep on living it. We don’t fully understand the human brain, but that doesn’t keep us from thinking. We don’t know how to raise children, but we learn and keep having them and do the best we can. We don’t fully understand human biology, but the medical field continues researching. We don’t understand ourselves fully or what motivates others. We don’t understand why the universe exists and we only have theories about how it came into existence. We don’t know if life exists anywhere else in the universe except on earth. We don’t know what happened to the dinosaurs. I love what one scientist said: “It’s easy to focus on what we know, yet to me the wonder of the cosmos, the awesomeness, is never greater than when we contemplate all that we don’t know.” I feel exactly the same way about prayer.
I believe prayer is the highest activity of the human spirit. Prayer is a gift of God's grace. Prayer is a spiritual bridge in the divine-human relationship. Prayer is the soul's approach to God. Prayer is an encounter with God. Prayer is communion with God, an intimate meeting with God. Prayer is conversation with God which involves speaking and listening. Prayer is a spiritual discipline which needs to be practiced. Prayer is the path to a deeper relationship with God and to a deeper knowing of ourselves. Prayer, transforms our minds, lifts our spirits, and enlivens our hearts. Prayer is a way for our spirit to get in tune with God's Spirit. Prayer is an expression of love. Intercessory prayer is a way of loving others whether members of your family or friends or strangers. Prayer builds our faith up in God and expresses our faith to others. Prayer is a way God achieves His plans and purposes for human lives and the world. Prayer is a way God changes us and circumstances around us. Prayer keeps us dependent upon God which is a good thing.
Prayer says: “I need you God, I belong to you. I want to be in constant touch with you. My heart is restless until it rests in you.” Prayer helps us to be a better human being, a better follower, and to see God more clearly, follow God more nearly, and to love God more dearly.
I like what author Richard Foster says about prayer: “Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life. Prayer brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit. Real prayer is life creating and life changing. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”
From where does prayer flow? Prayer flows from a heart of Thanksgiving. “I thank you God.” “I praise you God.” Prayer flows from a heart of fear and need. “Help me God.” “I am sorry, forgive me God.” Prayer flows from a heart of love. “Help this person God.” Prayer is our response to God’s word and activity in our lives.
I thank God for prayers which have been answered in my life: prayers about Nancy and our sons, and our daughters in law and grandchildren; prayers for protection in frightening situations; prayers for healing and health; prayers for surprises of grace which I didn’t expect nor deserve, but isn’t that what grace is all about; prayers leading me, guiding me, inspiring me and encouraging me in ministry as a pastor serving four churches in 42 years.
I am thankful for prayers for others which God has answered over the years. Prayers for healing, for employment, for marriages becoming healthy, for parenting challenges which were resolved, prayers for older parents who reconciled with their grown children, prayers for grown children stepping up to care for aging parents, prayers for people who discovered direction and purpose in a life that had been aimless and lost. Prayers for persons who came to faith in Christ as their lord and savior.
And yes, there have also been prayers that were not answered, at least in the way I had hoped they would be. Some of those are the questions I hope to have a conversation with Jesus about one day. I like some of you have questions as well. In my own case I can think of prayers God did not answer in the way I prayed, but in looking back, I am grateful God didn’t, because things unexpectedly turned out better. I am thankful for the prayers of others for our family over the years. Yes, we learn a lot about patience and trust in the life of prayer.
I think of an older member in one of our congregations who was having severe back pain. Two highly qualified doctors informed him of the diagnosis and the recommendation – lower back surgery. He prayed about it. We prayed about it, because he still had doubts in his mind. He finally went to visit one of the Mayo Clinics. They told him it was an issue with a leak in the cerebrospinal fluid and required a stint and that he needed a totally different surgery. He recovered fully. This is not to disrespect the doctors at all. We all know diagnostics can be extremely difficult. The point is my friend continually prayed and listened and was guided by God to the right place and the right doctor for him.
We know that prayer can be spontaneous or read, memorized, silent and spoken. I love classic prayers, like the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I love The Prayer of St Francis: “O Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is doubt, faith, where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light, where there is sadness, joy. O master grant that I many not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood, as to understand, to be love as to love, for it is giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, and in dying that we are born to eternal life.” I love the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
I close with the inspiring words from the letter of Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen!
Friday, March 16, 2018
How do we measure the size of a fire? By the number of firefighters and fire engines sent to fight against it. How do we measure the seriousness of a medical condition? By the recommendation’s the doctor’s make in prescribing antibiotics or surgery or radiation. How do we measure the gravity of human sin and the vastness of God's love for us? By looking at the magnitude of what God has done for us in Jesus, the Son of God who became like a common criminal for our sake and in our place. The cross is the most familiar, the most recognizable symbol of the Christian faith.
People have long asked - who killed Jesus? History has blamed the Jews. Jews have been called Christ-killers since the first century. I wonder if this charge is behind the anti-Semitism which has followed Jews throughout their history. The New Testament Gospels tell us that the Jewish political and religious leaders and crowds brought Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor of the
, under Roman
Emperor Tiberius, and shouted - “Crucify him, Crucify him.” The Jews accused
Jesus of committing blasphemy, because he claimed to be God, an egregious
offense against the one God and a charge which deserved capital punishment. province
History has also pointed to the Romans. Roman soldiers, under orders, beat and whipped Jesus and then hung him on a cross to die a slow and agonizing death. The Roman's charged Jesus with treason; that he claimed to be King, king of the
Empire. Such a claim was
sedition, which meant that Jesus was a traitor.
Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar was the only King. The derisive
inscription on the cross mocked Jesus – “King of the Jews.” The place where criminals were crucified was
at a site just outside of the walls of Jerusalem
called Golgotha, an Aramaic name for “place of
Theologically, to contend that the Jews and Romans killed Jesus, means that human sin took the life of the Son of God. Due to sin, humanity dishonored God, disobeyed God, rebelled against God and followed other gods. Humanity rejected Jesus the Christ, rather than believing in him and following him as the Messiah. Scripture asserts that humanity, represented by the Jews and Romans, executed Jesus.
In the N.T. the letter of Romans says: “What then? Are we Greeks any better off than the Jews? Not at all, for we have already charged that all, Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The Bible declares: “For the wages of sin is death.” Because of humanity's sin against God, humanity deserves the penalty of death. Human sin was responsible for Jesus’ death.
But scripture further announces a third word. It declares this astounding truth; that out of love for the world. It was God’s will that Jesus died on the cross. I Timothy says: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” The letter of Romans says: “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Jesus death was a vicarious sacrifice. Jesus took our sin, guilt, our shame, our punishment, our death upon himself. Jesus the judge, was judged in our place. The cross, an instrument of torture, became in God’s hands a means of redemption, of freedom, of forgiveness to all who come to the cross in faith.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah, chapter 53 written centuries before Jesus appeared on the human scene proclaiming: "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he bore our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
When someone deeply hurts you, what are your options? You can choose to ignore the offense, or reject the person, or seek revenge and punishment, or decide to forgive and to strive to reconcile with that person. The last option is the most difficult option of all.
Rather than punishing humanity, God decided to do something about this broken relationship and mend the relationship, reconcile it, restore it, through the life and death of His Son Jesus Christ. Scripture uses different metaphors to portray this. Jesus' death was a means of redemption or deliverance from sin. It was a sacrifice, a ransom, a debt paid, a satisfaction, a substitution, an act of forgiveness, an ultimate price paid to bring us back to be at one with God.
The letter of Romans says: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Now that’s grace. Scripture and our Christian faith, are saying that Jesus’ death is a paradox; it was the result both of the sin of humanity and the will of God.
John 4:9 declares: “This is how God showed his amazing love among us; He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” Jesus’ death is an atoning sacrifice, it made us at one with God, it was the price Christ paid because of human sin, to bring us back to be at one with God. The crucifixion, made us right with God and through faith in the crucified and risen Savior, we can experience new life, a new beginning, a fresh start now and forever.
For centuries, the message of the gospel has radically changed people's lives. People who have heard and believed this message experienced a transformation and were never the same again. At the same time, this same message has been rejected by people over history. People have distained it and called the message sheer folly. People have mocked and ridiculed the gospel.
The Bible calls this message a mystery. We read in I Corinthians where the apostle Paul writes: “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Scripture says human wisdom alone, apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, cannot believe or receive this message. Scripture says: “We speak of God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
I close with this story from the Rev. Bill Hybels, pastor of
. He tells about a
Vietnam veteran‘s parade in Chicago to commemorate a mobile version of the
Vietnam Wall, which like the original wall in Washington D.C. bears the names
of all the American service men and women who died in Vietnam. Willow Creek Community
A reporter asked a veteran why he had come all the way to
to visit this
memorial and to participate in the parade. The veteran looked straight into the
face of the reporter and with tears flowing down his face said, "Because of this man right here." As
the veteran talked, he was pointing to the name of a friend that was etched in
the wall. He traced the letters of his
friend's name in the wall with his finger saying: "This man right here gave his life for me. He gave his life for me." And the
sobbing veteran let the tears flow, as he stood there with his finger on the
name of his friend. Chicago
As we approach holy week, beginning with Palm Sunday, let us both remember and testify to this central truth: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to but to all who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Jesus calls you and me to come to the cross this Lenten season. Amen!
Friday, March 9, 2018
Change isn’t easy! Like the story about when Lloyd quit farming and moved to a new town in
. He discovered he was the only Lutheran in a
town of all Catholics. Since Catholics
couldn’t eat red meat on Fridays, the neighbors had a problem with his
barbecuing beef every Friday. The tempting aroma was getting the best of
them. They decided to confront him. Minnesota
"Lloyd, since you are the only Lutheran in this whole town and there's not a Lutheran church for many miles, we think you should join our church and become a Catholic." Lloyd thought about it for a minute and decided they were right. He talked to the priest and they arranged it. The day arrived and the priest asked Lloyd to kneel, put his hand on Lloyd’s head and said, "Lloyd, you were born a Lutheran, you were raised a Lutheran, and now, as I sprinkle this incense over your head, you are a Catholic!"
The whole town was delighted. But the following Friday evening, the aroma of grilled beef still wafted from Lloyd’s yard. The neighbors went to talk to him about this, and as they approached his fence, they saw his hands raised and heard his voice saying: "You were born a beef, you were raised a beef, and now as I sprinkle salt over you, you are a fish!" Yes, it takes more than a ceremony to change the human heart.
The season of Lent is a period intended for believers to take stock of their relationship with God. It is a time to look inwardly, to examine one’s soul and decide what needs to change, where one needs to grow spiritually. Are we who and where God wants us to be and doing what God wants us to do? Lent is a time to exclaim – “O Lord I repent, help me to change this about me, I am sorry for straying away from you, create in me a new heart and bring me back to you.”
The Bible says the first step in getting right with God is repentance. Jesus began his preaching in Galilee saying: “The time is fulfilled, the
has come, repent
and believe in the good news.” kingdom
Our scripture passage from the Gospel of Mark is often referred to as one of the hard sayings of Jesus. It says if anyone puts a stumbling block before a child, it is better for you, if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. Jesus loved children. There are severe consequences for anyone who intentionally hurts a child or leads a child astray. Jesus is speaking about human sin. Jesus says: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, if your foot causes you to stumble cut if off, if you eye causes you to stumble, cut it out. It is better for you to enter the
maimed than to be
whole and go to hell.” Kingdom
This passage shows that Jesus takes sin seriously. In my opinion there is a growing coarseness in our society, a growing insensitivity, intolerance, an aversion to taking personal responsibility, an expanding “me centeredness” and violence such as the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida. To the question why, there are many different answers and perspectives. The biblical/Christian answer is theological; the answer is sin. It is the sin of idolatry, the worship of other persons or things than God. It is putting other things or persons at the center of one’s life instead of God. More people are turning away from God and Christ and repentance and faith. I don’t see or hear a lot of repentance today.
How do we interpret Jesus' words? One way is to take Jesus' words literally. If you sin against God or someone with your hands or feet or eyes, cut them off or pluck them out. Jesus is teaching us to maim ourselves when we sin.
But I have never read about anyone in the history of the church maiming themselves because of Jesus’ words. Jesus you recall commanded us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Maiming ourselves is hardly an act of love. So I don't believe, and neither do biblical interpreters, that Jesus meant for his words to be taken literally.
Another approach is to ignore Jesus’ words, pass over them. But that shows a disrespect for Jesus’ teachings and a disregard for the Bible, the word inspired by the Holy Spirit and God’s word to us. It is a way of cherry picking the Bible. You pick and choose what verses you will listen to.
So a third approach is to interpret Jesus’ words. And we start by remembering that Jesus often spoke in hyperbole. Like he does on the subject of judging others. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you do not notice the log in your own eye. You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see the speck in your neighbor's eye.” Jesus called the Scribes and Pharisees white-washed tombs and snakes and a brood of vipers. Jesus said: “You can lift up a mountain and throw it into the sea.” Jesus said: “You are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth.”
Most people in Jesus’ day were illiterate. Jesus used vivid imagery, symbols, metaphors in his teaching to inspire his audience to listen to him. Jesus’ taught in word pictures and parables to get people's attention so people would remember his teachings. To tell an audience: “I’m Jesus, don’t sin, OK, any questions,” is probably not the most persuasive preaching technique.
So we must interpret Jesus' teaching figuratively, metaphorically. We are hearing a word picture that Jesus is painting to teach us about repentance from sin. He is calling people to repent, to change, to stop thinking in some way or behaving in some manner. He is saying whatever is causing you to sin, whatever is leading you to sin, separate yourself from it, sever yourself from it, cut it out of your life, remove it from your life. Jesus is not calling people to literally cut off limbs or poke out their eyes, but to repent of anything in your life that is causing you to sin, that is becoming a barrier between you and God or you and others.
“The time is fulfilled and the
is near, repent and believe in the good news.”
“It is better for you!”
Repentance is the first step toward becoming a new follower of Jesus and
committing ourselves to Jesus as Lord and Savior. Jesus calls us to repent against the sin of
pride for example: “I don't need God in
my life.” “I can lead my life without God.”
Repentance includes three movements:
Recognition of your sin, remorse for your sin, and reform or changing
your thinking and/or behavior.
Repentance opens the way to receiving the gospel, the good news of God’s
forgiveness in Christ. There is no new life without repentance, there is no
possibility for change without repentance.
There is no chance for experiencing God's love and joy without
repentance. Faith and repentance,
repentance and faith are inseparable. Kingdom of God
Jesus also calls long-time Christians, believers who have walked with God for many years, to repent at different times along our spiritual journey when we have sinned against God or someone else. We are to confess our sin and seek God's and the person's forgiveness. Scripture says: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God is just and may be trusted to forgive us and cleanse us from every kind of wrong.”
Repentance puts us back on track with God, it gets us back in sync with God, it puts us back into a right relationship with God. Repentance opens the door of our hearts to the Holy Spirit. The sole purpose of repentance is not to make us hate ourselves, or loathe ourselves, or despise ourselves, but rather to turn away from sin and put us back into a right relationship with God. It’s so that our attitudes, our behavior, our hearts and minds, our soul, will become more and more like Christ.
Psalm 51 says it beautifully: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions, and cleanse me from my sin. You desire truth in the inward being, teach me wisdom in my heart. Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
What is God calling you to change in your life? Lent is a good time to make these changes. Amen.
Friday, March 2, 2018
Listen to these maxims about life: “Life is like a rollercoaster, tighten your seatbelt, and try to eat a light lunch.” 19th century Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Where do you turn when you need guidance or wisdom?
In Fulghum’s book: All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten, he offers these lessons: “Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Play and work some every day. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.”
Jesus’ teachings too are a source of wisdom about living a God-centered life. Jesus taught his disciples lessons about the
in the form of parables. These truths
apply to you and me as well in our journey of faith. Kingdom of God
What is the
? In Greek, basileias tou Theos, refers to
God’s reign or rule in our lives and in the world, God’s sovereign power
occurring in some circumstance, God’s will being fulfilled in some event or
situation. It’s wherever and however
God’s loving purpose is being accomplished whether in the life of an
individual, a family, a community, a nation or in the world. Yes, even in the church. Today we are referring to God’s Kingdom when
we say: “God answered my prayer, only God
could have made this happen, it was a God thing.” The Kingdom of God
is wherever God is doing something or saying something. Kingdom of God
Jesus says: “A sower went out to sow; a planter went out to plant.” Who is the sower? God, Jesus or the Risen Lord. This parable shows that God isn’t lazy, oblivious, indolent and passive. God isn’t sitting in a rocking chair sipping a mint julep, while watching his servants, you and me, slave away in the blistering sun. God is working, busy, active, involved, intervening in the world planting seeds. This is the God we worship. This is the God we serve.
What is the seed? The lesson is that seeds vary. The seed is God’s word or God’s purposeful activity in our lives: It may be: the gospel, a word of forgiveness, a word of encouragement, or love, or peace, or courage, or comfort or joy or justice. It may be God fulfilling His will or calling us to work for justice. it may be a call to repentance and faith, it may be a call to obedience, it may be a test or challenge, it may be God’s calling you to help or support someone, it may be a surprise of God’s grace. The seed may be a coincidence. In the
coincidences are small miracles in which God chooses to remain anonymous. Kingdom of God
“Listen, Jesus says, a sower went out to sow!” What is the lesson? That there are different types of soil or to put it into today’s language, different responses from people to the word of God. People’s spiritual receptivity varies widely. Jesus experienced this in his ministry. We too should not be surprised. When you seek to share Jesus’ word expect different reactions. The sower faithfully sowed the seed, but he encounters hard hearts, shallow or superficial hearts, distracted or preoccupied hearts, and finally open, ready and receptive hearts. The seed only took root in the last soil which was open and receptive to the good news. No, not everyone is ready to receive the seed that God plants or the seed God calls you and me to sow.
Don’t become discouraged. This is a painful lesson to experience. But people are free to respond or not to respond. This is a truth I suspect most of us have experienced at one time or another.
We sometimes blame ourselves for not witnessing effectively or not being a good example. We blame ourselves for not resolving some conflict in a relationship or saving a relationship or failing to guide someone to make better choices. You try to help. You do your best. You pray. Remember this parable. You or I may not be the one who will be successful in planting the seed. Even Jesus, the Son of God, didn’t always win people as his followers.
I recall when I was the pastor at another church, and I regularly talked to a visitor who worshipped with us and said he was discovering a new interest in faith. I met with him, prayed with and for him, but he didn’t make a confession of faith. I wondered where I went wrong. We returned to visit the church years after I had left, and there he was very involved in the church. Someone else sowed the seed that took root in his life. You and are I are not responsible for the response. God does hold us responsible to sow, to scatter, to plant.
is like a mustard seed or like yeast.
It’s the truth that great things start from small beginnings. A mustard seed was the smallest seed planted
in Kingdom of God
to grow food. When it grew it became a
towering plant reaching 12 to 15 feet high.
Big, large, splashy gets our attention.
Mt. Everest, at 29,000 feet, the tallest mountain in the world, CA
redwood trees topping 350 feet high, salt-water crocodiles reaching twenty
feet, and the tallest skyscraper in the world in Dubai, which stands over 2,700
feet high. Israel
But scripture teaches that God affirms small efforts and small things. Every important accomplishment requires a willingness to begin small. World-wide Christianity began like a mustard seed. The Christian faith began with Jesus an itinerant preacher and 12 ordinary followers. No Rhodes scholars or
celebrities or politically powerful people in this group. And Christianity has flourished.
In the early 20th century there was a widespread belief, based on the theory of evolution, that religion would eventually die out as the human race became more sophisticated and technologically advanced. Religion was needed early on because humans were ignorant and superstitious, and didn’t comprehend the world. Science, technology and modernization would eventually eliminate the need for religion because humans would come of age, outgrow the need for religion and learn to understand and control their environment. This universal evolution of secularization never materialized. The seed of the Christian faith is deeply rooted and growing in the world.
Christianity has lost ground in parts of Europe, true, but not everywhere in
Europe. There are over 2 billion Christians in the
world and those numbers are growing. A
recent article reported Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in , at around
20% each year. Christianity is growing
rapidly in Iran Lebanon and . The Christian faith is exploding in Afghanistan . The church is growing rapidly in South Korea and
experts are predicting a half billion Chinese Christians fifty years from
now. China Africa
is close to being 50% Christian today.
Yes, the mustard seed of Christianity has grown into a towering plant.
The truth is that little things count! God values those little seeds you plant, those little efforts you make for Jesus, because they can open up possibilities and opportunities for some future growth. They matter in what God seeks to do through your life and in the lives and events around you politically, socially, economically, and religiously. Small seeds you plant with your children or grandchildren, friends or colleagues, matter in the realm of God.
Like the story of a ninth grade teacher, Helen Mrosla, who was having a terrible time controlling her class and getting the students to cooperate. Then she had an idea. She instructed the students to list each person’s name in the class on a sheet of paper and then write something nice about each one. The next day, she took those papers and compiled a list for each student and passed them out. The atmosphere in the class changed instantly. One student said: “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone.” The students began to be happy with themselves and one another. The class began to work together. Years later, at a class reunion, some of Helen’s former students gathered around her. One opened his wallet, and carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper which contained the list of all the good things of each classmate. Another told Helen that she kept her list in the top drawer of her desk at home. Another had placed his list in his wedding album. Helen was simply overwhelmed.
Don’t say: “But who am I or what can I alone do?” You never know how something you do or say, however seemingly insignificant, can have such a powerful and transforming affect upon someone for God’s Kingdom. Remember, the
grows secretly, quietly,
undetected. Growth is occurring even
when you or I don’t perceive it. For God
gives the growth. I believe with all my
heart and soul that one-day God will reveal to you and to me, the difference we
made with the seeds we planted over our lifetime for His Kingdom. Kingdom of God
is like someone finding a treasure hidden in a field or a merchant finding a
pearl of great value. People in Jesus’
day buried their valuables in the ground.
No safety deposit boxes in that day.
Here a man finds a treasure hidden in a field. He buries it and is so filled with joy that
he sells everything and buys the field.
He did nothing wrong. Jewish law
clearly stated: “What one finds belongs
to the finder.” A merchant stumbles
across a pearl of great value. kingdom of God
God’s kingdom appears like that; it often comes as a complete surprise. God’s will surprises you and brings incredible joy and can lead to our making important changes in our lives. Walking daily by faith with God can lead to your setting new priorities and goals or cause you to change your attitude or behavior because you have experienced the surprising touch of God’s grace.
Think of a seed a person planted in your life and the difference it has made. Can you think of a seed you planted in someone’s life where God used it for His purpose? What a joy, what an honor and privilege to be surprised by God and to be used as a means of grace. God has a passion for people and He wants us to share that passion.
Have you ever heard of a preacher named Mordecai Ham? Very few people have heard of him. He was a small town evangelist and traveled throughout the south during the 1920’s and 1930’s. He never made a big name for himself like for instance Billy Sunday. One day he arrived in
. A Billy Frank went to hear his preacher,
accepted the gospel, turned his life over to Jesus Christ, and became a
Christian. The name Billy Frank later
came to be known as Rev. Billy Graham. Charlotte, North Carolina
Take a chance, step out of your comfort zone, take a risk. Trust God. Don’t underestimate God’s awesomeness. Listen, a sower went out to sow. God plants seeds. What seed is God calling you to plant? Amen!