Archive for August, 2013

We Are Here Now, But Where Are We Going?

I’m a new pastor, I’ve never made a secret out of the idea that I’m the new guy…and I’m new at this.  I was ordained on Father’s Day, just a few months ago. I started my first call right after Independence Day which puts me just short of the 2 month mark of this whole thing.

That being said, I’m not new to life in general. They say the first third (as in first third of life) ends right about 30-33. I’m 34. Darn it, I guess I’m not a kid anymore am I?

All sarcasm aside, one of the things I’ve been doing in my new call is getting to know the people through Cottage Meetings. A couple of hours in the home of a member, sitting down with about 7-12 members, letting them get to know me. Also, letting them give feedback on what they’d like to see happen in the congregation and the community.

So far, I’ve seen a trend emerge. Most of the people coming are retirement age, or getting close to it. There have been a couple of middle aged families, and I’ve had one couple attend that are in their mid-20’s with a new baby, but they’ve been the exception so far. When I’ve posed the question of “What would you like to see happen in the future?” I’ve heard the same thing time after time. “We need to get our youth involved again. We used to have such great stuff for them, and we need it again.”

My first thought…absolutely…I agree. As a young person that has remained involved in the church from college on (though admittedly the annoyed kid that walked away from the church all the way through high school), I understand the issue that many of my peers have not remained involved, or were never involved in the first place. It saddens me…but its also the reality.

One of the (MANY) books that I had to read in Seminary is entitled We Are Here Now by Patrick Keifert (amazon link for the book here). This book encourages us to be realistic when we take a look at ourselves to see just what is our reality? We can’t possibly know how to move forward as a church (either the church as a whole or individual congregations) if we don’t know where we are starting.  The key is not to dream about where we’d like to go and get stuck in the notion of “if we were just in that situation, then we could move forward.”

Sorry folks…that’s not reality, so let’s stop for a minute, look down, and see just where our feet are standing.

The sad reality is that young people are leaving the church in record numbers. I stumbled across a blog today that offers what I consider to be a pretty honest and candid look into why so many young people are leaving.

Please read it.

Self admitted, I hate the phrase “church of the future.” As in, our children and our youth are the church of the future.  I cringe whenever I hear it. When I hear it I feel my personal BS meter red-line.

If we continue to think of our young people as the church of the future and neglect them or treat them like second class citizens in the here and now…which I’m sorry to say happens in a lot of congregations that I’ve seen…then there isn’t going to be a church in the future, because when we die (and rest assured that we will at some point) then there isn’t going to be church anymore because the next generation won’t be here to continue it.

And while I think it is important to offer programming for our youth as a way to engage them, I do NOT think that it is the only solution. Nor do I think that hiring a 30-something pastor with a young family is going to automatically bring in the young people.

The notion that I got from this article on why millennials are leaving is that they want some authenticity. They want to know that the church isn’t a place where behavior is dictated ahead of time. They want to know that the church is a place that can not only handle questions of faith, but welcomes questioning OF faith. They want to know that the church is a place that’s safe for everyone…and that’s accepting of everyone, even those people that don’t have it all figured out yet.

You know what, I might be a little bit more of a millennial that I realized, because that describes a lot of my thoughts too.

Yes I love God. Yes I believe that Jesus died for my sins and without His sacrifice I am condemned. I do believe that…but I’ve got a lot of questions too. I don’t have all the answers…but I am excited to engage with the questions…and I rest easy in the faith that Jesus’ sacrifice was big enough to overcome the mistakes that I make, both in my life and in my ministry.

And it is my hope that the congregation that I have been called to serve embraces the idea that we are all in this together. We may not know where we are going? We may not know where God is leading us in the world today. We may not know what the “church of the future” looks like (may not nothing…we flat out don’t know), but if we are all willing to open up to one another regardless of age (or race, or demographic, etc, etc, etc) and see that God can use all of us and any of us to teach one another, then we stand a pretty good chance of learning.

Grace in the Unexpected Place

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.  Matthew 25: 35-36

So today it happened. The thing that I’ve been dreading since I started my first call. The telephone call from someone, stranded in town overnight, needing help. I stalled as long as I could. I spent my lunch hour trying to reach country service organizations that might bail me out. A telephone number that I could give them for assistance without having to commit myself or my church.

Epic fail right? Sounds like I was looking for a easy way out. I’ll own it.

In the end, I couldn’t find one. I did some checking around, and in the end, went with my gut and helped them. They came to the church and as I looked them in the eye, I couldn’t in good conscience turn them away.

The help that they needed really wasn’t that big of a deal. A ride for a couple miles, and the equivalent of a tank of gas.

What got me was the person that I met in the midst.  A local business manager. Three of us stood there for half an hour talking. Talking about Christ. Talking about Grace. Talking about second chances and helping out someone in need. Helping someone else as a way to pay forward the helping hand that was extended our direction at a critical time in the past.

The man in need was rough around the edges, but he was grateful.  The manager I met had his own rough edges, but he also had kindness in his eye and a genuine attitude of caring about people. He’s tough, and he won’t take any crap, but he’s also fair.

In the end, a couple in need got the help they needed.

I offered my small part in it grudgingly, at least grudgingly in my own mind. But in the midst of the moment, God offered me an important lesson in caring for our neighbor. I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan a few weeks ago.

I wish I’d experienced this before I preached it…but I got the message today God…loud and clear.

Jesus Wants To Break Up Your Family

This is my sermon from Sunday August 18th. The Gospel reading is Luke 12: 49-56 in which Jesus tackles division. You can hear the sermon here:

Here is the word file if you’d like to follow along that way. As usual, disregard the weird punctuation and indications to pause. I gotta remember them somehow.

Once I had answered my colleague, he responded to me…preach on this (pause) Jesus just wants to break up your family. (pause) I laughed at first…and was still laughing about it when I got off the phone with him…until I thought about it for a moment and realized that he was serious.
Fast forward a few minutes, and I was sitting behind my desk, thinking about how in the world I could possibly turn that into a sermon. I had a music app called Pandora playing in the office, piping songs into the background, when all of the sudden, this theme song broke through.
(Play the Mission Impossible Theme song on the piano)
Do any of you recognize that theme? Mission Impossible. A popular spy themed tv show from the 60’s and 80’s and now a series of popular movies starring none other than Tom Cruise.
Mission Impossible…the very premise of the show indicated the task that I was facing. Find some good news in the idea…that Jesus is going to break up your family…division, in the ranks.
Well, it happens doesn’t it? Division in families. Division in general. It’s nothing new is it? There’s this funny thing built into our DNA…individuality. Just like your fingerprints, you are unique to you. There is no one else on the planet, and there never has been, and there never will be…another person just like you…and with that wondrous variety in the world…with that amazing individuality that defines each and every member of the human race…with that amazing gift given to us by God in creation…we have the ability…and tendency…for opinion.
(pause) And those opinions vary don’t they?  Parents…you have kids?  Then you know what I’m talking about. Kids, you have siblings? You know what I’m talking about.  Everyone else out there…got a coworker? Chances are…you know what I’m talking about.
The ability to formulate an opinion is a marvelous gift…but by its very nature, it creates the dilemma of choice…and by forming an opinion, by forming an interpretation of a situation…by making a choice, we are dividing ourselves from the opposite side of the situation.
Each and every time we make a definitive decision, regardless of the question…regardless of the issue…we are alienating those that are on the other side. Sometimes this alienation is friendly. It could be as simply as “do you like winter or summer better.” If I put that question to a poll right now and each of you raised your hands to answer…I seriously doubt that anyone would start arguing in the aisle about who was right and who was wrong. (pause)
But not every question is as simple and innocent as winter vs summer…and as we look back through history…we can see example after example of situations that didn’t turn out quite so friendly.  All too many examples turned out bloody. Jacob and Esau…remember those guys…offspring of Adam and Eve…they quarreled over the best way to honor God…and in the 2nd generation of humanity…murder was invented. As society grew and developed, there were disputes over territory…and resources…and war became a scary reality.
In the last 100 years alone there have been countless wars around the world…and several of you in this room have been directly affected by that reality…WW1 and 2…Korea…Vietnam…Desert Storm…Iraq…Afghanistan…the War on Terror…and those are just the ones that we’ve been in on directly. Disputes…battles…over ideals…over opinions…and the differences that individuals make of those opinions.  How many lives lost? How many families torn up and destroyed…and not just of our soldiers…but all of the lives affected and torn apart around the world….because we have different ideals.
It’s a sobering thought isn’t it…and the church isn’t immune to it either. When we look back through the last 2000 years…we find that our own history is dotted with just as many “family squabbles” as the rest of history.  The book of Acts alone is full of disputes. Paul speaks of more in his various letters…and they were all written within the first 50-100 years of Christ.
As time marches on, we see more disputes. Constant councils and opinions over doctrine…constant fights centered on the notion that “we’re right and you’re wrong.” A big one happened about the year 1000, when eastern orthodoxy split off from the Roman Catholic church because they couldn’t decide where the center of church power was.
Then 500 years later…the Roman Catholic church experienced another family squabble that perhaps we’re a little more aware off…It centered around this guy named Martin…seems like they named a denomination after him or something…but even the reformers couldn’t get their act together…and their differing opinions led to countless denominational splits. Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Christian Reformed…
Even when we start to narrow the microscope, we find it doesn’t get any better…Look at Lutheran history…our family tree can be best described as a weeping willow…countless divisions centered around doctrine, or nationality, or practices, or whatever have led to more splits than you can shake a stick at…and if we look at the Lutheran landscape today…especially here in America we find countless variations…each with their own opinions about what’s right and what’s not…and we can go farther than that.
Something tells me, that if we chose a subject, and sat down to debate it…we’d quickly find ourselves at odds with each other…because we all interpret things differently. We all make our own judgment calls about what’s right and what’s not…and in the end…we fail to agree. As I said before, it can happen with pleasant conversation…or it can happen with heated debate…or sometimes in an extreme case someone picks up a gun…or they set off a bomb…or they hijack a plane and knock down a building.
It’s true my friends…we live in a world where different opinions can be a matter of life or death…and for many individuals out there…it is exactly that dire…and in today’s scripture lesson Jesus himself tells us that he didn’t come to bring peace…He came to bring this very division that we’ve been talking about.
But how can that be? We hear in so many places that God is a God of Love…that Jesus came to bring peace and not the sword so what’s up with this passage?  Just what is it about Jesus that offends? What is it about Jesus that is so decisive that we find ourselves split from person to person, even within families?
What is it about his message that is so hot button? Well, it’s amazingly simple…yet devastating at the same time. Forgiveness of sins…(pause). It is that simple…but simple as it is…its not easy…it comes at a cost and Jesus hints at it in today’s story. I have a baptism with which to be baptized…and what stress I am under until it is completed…does that sound a little familiar?
Can you think of another time when Jesus talks about being stressed…maybe to the point of sweating…maybe to the point of sweating blood?  In a bit of foreshadowing Jesus is telling us here how much stress is upon him to complete the work that God has given him.
Jesus came to Earth for the sole purpose of sacrificing his own life as a ransom for many. God himself came to Earth to accomplish that which we could not do…atonement for sin…that sin that separates us from God…a reality of separation that God himself could not bear for his beloved creation…and so God chose to do something about it…we couldn’t get up there so he came down here.
We hear the famous words in John’s Gospel that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  And that right there…reassuring as it may be for some of us…is a huge tripping point for others…because there are those out there that don’t believe…there are those out there than simply cannot wrap their heads around this reality.  There are those out there than want to believe…but doubt creeps in…questions come in and sometimes there just aren’t good answers to those questions.  There are bad things that happen in the world…like all those wars that I mentioned earlier…and acts of terrorism…and natural disasters…things happen that make us question how a God who supposedly loves us so much can allow stuff like this to happen.
And you know what…there are no good answers to those questions and because of that, there are individuals out there that chose to turn their backs on all things spiritual…and it’s not a small group of people.
The single biggest group of religious affiliation in the US today is the nones…as in “no affiliation” or more specifically…religion…I’ll have NONE of it.
And they chose…not to believe….or perhaps we can say that their hearts are hardened…or that the Holy Spirit hasn’t acted in their understanding…or countless other reasons or opinions…but whatever the cause…there are those that do not believe…and I believe that this is what Jesus was talking about…if you believe in Christ as savior, then the Bible says that you will be saved…period…end of story…but not everyone believes it. And this is the reality that we face. (pause)
But you know what…we don’t face it alone…There is one that also faces this reality with us…one that understands our reality so much better than we do…one that created it…and one that I believe mourns the divided, messy, opinionated state that the world currently experiences. And that is God himself and I believe that God mourns this present reality so much that he got into it.
That’s why Christ came down…not only to point out this division…but to fix it. I don’t know how it all works…all I know is that I trust that it will. I trust it when I hear someone say that one day EVERY knee will bow and EVERY tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord….but until that day…I worry…and I pray…I worry and I pray about those people in my life that fall on the other side of the line. I pray for those people that do not understand…that do not believe….and I think we all do…I think we all have those people in our lives that we just don’t know about…and if you don’t have a person like that in your life then chances are you are that person for someone else.
I don’t bring this up to be antagonistic…only to point out the reality that we face in the world today…a reality that seems insurmountable for us…but it’s not up to us…and I believe it when I stand up here in front of you and proclaim with the authority of Christ that you are forgiven of your sins…and I believe that Christ is big enough to forgive the sins of each and every person in all of history…even if I don’t understand how.
So yes, it’s true. Christ came to bring division…but he also came to overcome it. May we all pray for the day when it is finished. Amen

What About Me

In this sermon I explore Jesus’ parable of the rich man building bigger barns. The sound file can be found here:

Here is the text of the sermon. As usual there are little differences. Excuse them as well as the odd punctuation and indications to pause. Gotta remember to do that somehow.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sitting in my office, leaning against the back wall under the window, are two posters from my past. They are the posters from two different community theatre productions that I acted in when I was in my early 20’s.  The first is from a play called Proof, in which I played a young mathematics professor.

The second, which I actually have here…is from a show called The Lion in Winter. Now, perhaps you are familiar with this show. It was made into a movie back in 1968 starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn…and then it was remade in 2003 starring Patrick Stewart and Glen Close.

The Lion in Winter focuses around a very famous royal family in England. King Henry and Queen Eleanor, and their three sons. 26 year old Richard the Lionheart…perhaps you’ve heard of him…16 year old John…or Prince John as he’s called in most Robin Hood films…and the middle son…25 year old Geoffrey…played by yours truly. The premise for the play finds the entire family together at Christmas, as the entire family tries to push their own agenda in the naming of the heir to Henry’s throne.

Richard, the oldest and strongest, plans to simply take the throne…and he has the backing of his strong-willed and crafty mother Eleanor. Young John…daddy’s favorite…thinks that he will simply get the throne because…as favorite, it makes him entitled…and then there’s Geoffrey…the schemer…I played a bit of a rat you see…My character plots and plans and pits everyone against everyone until in one rage-filled scene, I reveal to Henry that both Richard and John have betrayed him and in my favorite line of the whole play, I scream out. “Here I am Father…I’m all that’s left…so what about me?”

What…about…me? Throughout the entire play, we see this attitude dominate. All three boys are out for the crown…the ultimate prize? And the king and queen…they might as well be saying “But what about what I want?” Everyone in the family…is self-centered…no one cares about anyone else…they only care about what’s best for themselves….Me me me…mine mine mine…I I I…What about me?

Sound a little familiar doesn’t it? (pause) What should I…do, for I…have not place to store my…crops. I…will do this. I…will tear down my…barns and build larger ones, and there I…will store all my…grain and my…goods. And I…will say to my soul…relax, eat, drink, and be merry. It would seem that the rich man in the parable thinks only of himself here in Jesus’ example…and that mirrors the attitude of the man that spoke up from the crowd…Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.

He might as well be saying “I need more…he’s got it…but who cares about him…what about me?”

Greed…now that’s a bit of a tricky one…and to be honest…sometimes it seems like the rich man in the story is getting a little bit of a bad rap.  All too often when we encounter this story, we tend to come away with the lesson that money’s a bad thing, and those that are wealthy are the bad guy…and when we limit ourselves to that interpretation I fear we get the wrong impression and probably miss the point that Jesus was trying to make in the first place.

So let’s get down to it. Money right…in the end, this story has to be about the dangers of money doesn’t it? If I had to make a ruling…I’d say no…its really not about money…its about attitude. The rich man in the story couldn’t see beyond the end of his own nose…and it would seem that despite his short sightedness, he’s led a pretty productive life. Apparently the only concern that this guy has is the fact that his crop was WAY too big that year…a nice problem to have isn’t it? If only we could all be so lucky.

But the man misses several important things…He forgets about everyone that helped produce his bumper crop. As a landowner in this time he would have had servants doing much of the work for him…in his place…but does he acknowledge them? No, he doesn’t…nor does he recognize the help that he got from nature…crops don’t grow on their own as any of our farmers can tell you…sun, rain, nutrients in the soil…he sure didn’t provide that for the crop…and yet he forgets to mention that too…and then, in perhaps the most irritating display of self-centeredness, all the man can think about is what to do to hoard this bumper crop for himself…to keep it all for himself so he can slack off in the future. Never once, does he think about anyone, besides himself…What about me? How can I benefit from this?

As Jesus continues…we see just what the rich man gets out of it…he dies…and someone else gets his riches…someone else, gets his abundance. Someone else, benefits…but we don’t know who…and neither was the man who spent all his energy focusing on what he could get out of the blessing that God had bestowed.

Now, here’s the part where things get a little tricky…where the moral lesson comes off a little hazy. When we think about the example of this rich man…and we think about the response of God…calling him a fool, it seems at first glance that Jesus is telling us to give it all away. Be wary of wealth. Cleanse yourself from the evils of money….but that’s where things start to get a little uncomfortable don’t they…because the tendency to think with the checkbook hits a little close to home doesn’t it? And so perhaps it becomes easy to gloss over this passage when it comes up. Perhaps we start to ignore it just a little bit, or we put it on the back burner, or we think to ourselves…sure that meant something in Jesus time, but it doesn’t apply to us today…Society is different, so what are we supposed to do with this one?

You know what…that’s a darn good question. What are we supposed to do with this one? Think about it for a second…we live in a “what if” society…and so many of our financial decisions reflect that. I heard a comedian talk about the idea of insurance…and he said that we should change the name. He said we should call it “in case stuff.” You need car insurance in case stuff happens to your car. You need medical insurance in case stuff happens to your health. You need life insurance in case stuff happens to you.

Now I don’t bring that up to pick on insurance companies or agents, but you know what…there’s a nugget of truth in that notion. And so we beg the question what does this story tell us about someone that tries to plan for the future…or someone that is attempting to make sound financial decisions? Is Jesus telling us just to throw all that aside?

Is Jesus telling us, don’t worry about having a job…money’s not important. Don’t worry about food…don’t worry about clothes…don’t worry about your house or your car? Is that what Jesus is saying here? Well, no…I don’t think so…but what do we do with that?

How are we supposed to hear this story? What about the person saving away for retirement…is that bad? And perhaps the most troubling situation to talk about is, what about the person who has been blessed abundantly? What do they do? Just throw it all away?

How are we supposed to hear this in today’s “Gotta plan for tomorrow” society. And how are we supposed to hear this in today’s “buy it now…spend spend spend because this will make you fell complete” society?  (pause)

Maybe…in the end…that’s the point right there. When we get too focused on the question “what about me” or “how will this make me feel” or “what can I get out this” we get blinded to the notion that life is just too darn unpredictable to put so much stock in stuff.  The rich guy in the story died…he didn’t have a chance to do any of the stuff that his riches fooled him into thinking he could…and some unknown person got the riches.  The poor guy hadn’t even had the foresight to appoint an heir for his riches…he was too focused on himself…and what he could get.

And so we come to it…the notion of stewardship…that fearsome time in the church year when a lot of pastors make their obligatory plea for the congregation to be good stewards…to look beyond themselves and give to the church.

Perhaps they play the shame card. “Look at the rich guy in the story…he got what he deserved but if you just keep writing those big fat checks to the church, you’ll be spared from it.”  Maybe they play the get out of jail free card…and they ask for funds as a way to buy your salvation.  I can think of several televangelists who made a heck of a fortune spinning that yarn. “If you want God to bless you, then send me a check for $1000.”

But what if we looked at this whole deal from the perspective that we are blessed by the gifts of God. Yes we work and we toil and we plan and we save, and none of these things are bad things…but we need to remember that our very lives are not our own and at any time…literally any time…that life can be over…and as they say…you can’t take it with you.

And so I raise the question of just how you use the wealth that you have? Is it all about me? How does this benefit me or make my life easier…or are you also thinking of the other? Because that was the mistake of the man in today’s story…he couldn’t see past his own reflection in the mirror to see that in his abundance, he could be helping others.

And perhaps that’s the challenge of this story. What are we to do? Stop thinking about tomorrow? Disregard our children or our spouses so that they are left destitute if, heaven forbid, something did happen to me today? What about those employees that are dependent on our wise business decisions to provide for their families? What about those situations?

Attitude is everything…perhaps you noticed, Jesus didn’t condemn the bumper crop…he doesn’t look down on money he just doesn’t want our lives to be ruled by it…and as Jesus is also famous for saying where your treasure is there your heart is also…and if our lives are ruled by the pursuit of money…or worse yet when we start to find our life’s happiness and purpose in it…well then I believe we’ll find something missing…because we can’t buy our way into heaven…we can’t earn our salvation from sin…Only God can give us that…only God can give us life beyond this “in case stuff” life…and we have the perfect example of someone that looked beyond their own life…someone who looked beyond the notion “what about me” and instead focused on everyone else…Jesus Christ himself…who gave himself as a ransom to ensure that those who believe in him may have eternal life.

We gather together in the name of Jesus Christ. Not just here at Underwood Lutheran but all over the world…the church gather’s together but we are also sent out into the world to proclaim the good news of Christ…that is the mission that God has placed before us, to proclaim the Gospel of Christ in a broken world…in a materialistic world…in a “in case stuff” world. And we do that because the love of God in Christ Jesus is not something that we receive in order to hold onto it. It is a blessing that is mean to be shared…and there is no barn big enough to hold it…and if that’s something that you believe in…and something that you think is of worth, then that’s why we support it…we support it with our time and with our treasures so that one day…all may come to know the saving love of Jesus Christ. Every…single…one…Amen.