Thursday, July 6, 2017

Packing and Repacking Your Heart

“You shall therefore lay up these words of Mine
In your heart and in your soul…”
Dt. 11:18

Next week I leave for the US and so today I started packing..  As I do so, it occurs to me that I spend a lot of time packing.  Most every day Linda or I pack a lunch to take to the office at Church.  Most days I pack my backpack with the things I need to take back and forth from the office.  Sometimes I take a computer with me, and so I pack this suitcase.  This bag is for my camera equipment.  This one is for my CPAP machine.  Then there are the suitcases  – big ones for long trips and little ones for overnight.

Not only do I spend a lot of time packing.  I spend a lot of time repacking.  When I leave next week, this suitcase will be neatly packed.  I guarantee that two days into the trip it will be a mess.  I will be searching through everything looking for a pair of socks.  In the course of the next 5 weeks, I will unpack and repack it several times.  My backpack is in constant need of repacking.  Right now there are pretzels in the bottom, from a package that broke open.  Sometimes, there will a Tupperware container that I forgot to unpack it and put it in the dishwasher. 

You know, your heart and mine are a lot like this backpack.  My goal today is to get you to think about what you are packing there, because your heart is your most important suitcase in your daily walk with God. 

Let’s think about that.  With everything you and I read… with everything we watch on TV, at the movies… with everything we listen to… with every site we visit on the Internet – you and I are packing things – good, bad and horrible in our hearts.  When I pack for a trip, I only pack good stuff, not my worn out stuff.  We need to do that daily with our hearts.  In Dt. 11 God tells us to “lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul…”  Taking time to store up  God’s word in your heart is so important   I don’t mean simply reading the Word.   I am thinking of the old prayer from the hymnal where we ask God to helps us to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” His word.  When you commit His word to memory you will be surprised at how His word becomes a daily part of your life and your prayers.  Prisoners of War talk about being sustained by scripture they had memorized.  IN my prayers, the memorized words from Psalm 51, constantly come to my mind – “Create in me a clean heart O God…”  What could be better than to pack your heart full of God’s word which “is able to make you wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus… which is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting and training in righteousness?”

Another key aspect of packing and repacking your heart is repentance.  Like my backpack, my heart quite quickly becomes a mess.  Think of what Jesus says about the things stored up in our hearts – “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person.”  Sin will mold and decay in our hearts.  That’s why we need daily to clean them out, bring our sins to God and confess them.  He promises – “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, the blood of Jesus His Son will cleanse us of our sins… If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Our hearts need a thorough cleaning every day. 

The final aspect of packing and repacking your heart is to pray.   Paul writes in Philippians 4, “Have no anxiety about anything but in everything by prayer and petition, let your requests be made known unto God and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  I had a friend tell me recently that he has been having trouble sleeping.  There were just too many things weighing on his mind.  Finally one night, he couldn’t take it anymore, so he prayed.  He gave it up to God, and slept like a baby.  God did just what He promised.  His peace stood guard over this person’s heart.

You and I spend a lot of time packing and repacking things in our lives. But what about our most important suitcase – our hearts?  It’s worth the time to pack and repack your heart. And don’t do it by yourself.  Your God daily wants to cleanse and make your heart new!  Amen

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Happy Independence Day!

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then,
And do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
…You, my brothers were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.”
Galatians 5:1 & 13a

Happy Independence Day to all my countrymen back in America!   The fourth of July was always a big deal in my family.  Dad would hang the American flag out front of the house.  We’d go to the parade.  Then normally we would have friends and family over for a picnic.  That night we would all head down to one of the town parks to watch the fireworks.  It was the same in most every town in America, as we celebrated the birth of our nation, and the freedoms that go with being America.

I was thinking about that this morning, about not being in the states for the 4th of July, and began to contemplate this word “freedom.”  What does it mean?  What is it?  There are all sorts of different definitions.  As Americans it has a political meaning -  independence from foreign rule and the rights guaranteed by our constitution.  For a high school grad going off to college can mean freedom to set your own schedule, and your own rules, rather than living under mom and dad’s.    Getting out of jail would be a kind of freedom for a prisoner.  People talk about “financial freedom” which often means paying off all your debts.  Survivors of cancer talk about being “cancer free.”

On one level all of these examples are a kind of freedom.  On a biblical, faith level, they all fall short of true freedom.  In the Scriptures freedom is something much deeper.  Jesus makes clear in John 8 that “Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.”   We are sinful from the moment of our conception,  and already at that moment, sentenced to death.  There is nothing we can do to free ourselves.  So God stepped in.   At the heart of our faith is the good news that “since the children share in flesh and blood, Jesus likewise partook of the same, so that by His death, He might destroy Him who holds the power of death and FREE those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Spiritually we each have two independence days.  First, over two thousand years ago on a cross and then at an empty tomb, God set the whole world free through the death and resurrection of His Son.  Second, on the day of your baptism, He personally set you free when you were “buried with Christ by baptism into death so that just as Christ was raised from the dead” so you to might walk in newness of life.    For me that day was January 1, 1959.  Now you and I are free from sin, free from the sentence of death.  We are no longer slaves but sons of God and heirs of heaven!  We need no longer fear death, for now in Christ death has become the gateway to life everlasting.  We are free to walk with God, to believe and trust, to pray, to love our neighbors and more.  Jesus said it, “If the Son shall make you free, you are free indeed!”  Therefor Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free…”

Please note though that Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on.  “Stand firm, then, And do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…You, my brothers were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.”  My friends, too often we Christian do exactly what Paul warns against.  We use our freedom as an excuse to sin, telling ourselves,” After all God will forgive me anyway.”  When we do that, we are like the student from one of my classes at the University, a student once told a story about how he would react when his mom told him not to do something.  He would go right out and do the opposite.  He wanted to show her that he was “free to do as he pleased.”  Folks, people may call that freedom but it’s not.  That’s the same old slavery to selfishness with which sin has always chained us.  To be free in Christ is not to be able to do as you please. True freedom is to be able to do as God pleases.  We weren’t created to be little “gods.”  We were created to live as God’s servants.  That’s where true happiness and freedom are found – in letting God be God and being content to love and serve Him and one another.  That’s the freedom that Christ purchased for us.  That’s freedom for which you have been set free. 

I don’t know when your baptismal anniversaries are.  But because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, because of your adoption at baptism, every day of your life is a day for celebrating, renewing and living the freedom Christ won for you.  So let me say to you all – Happy Independence Day!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why Care About the Environment?

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden
To work it and take care of it.”
Genesis 2:15

For the last several years there has been a debate raging about the subject of what is called “Global Warming” or “Climate Change.”  The point seems to be that because of global warming we had better start taking care of the environment or catastrophe is coming.  Now the purpose of this week’s blog is not to join in that debate.  I will let those who know far more than I do, debate these issues. For me, global warming is not the reason I care about the environment.

My reason is much simpler.  In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that there is a simple reason why we pray.  “We should pray because God has commanded us to pray.”  The same could be said about why we care about the environment.  God has commanded us to care about the creation.  He put the first man in the garden “to work it and take care of it.”  That little verse from Genesis 2 speaks volumes to me.  First, this is a great reminder that the world belongs to God, not you or me.  He is the owner.  We are His servants.  We are His stewards.  We are not free to work and take care of this world as we please.  Ours is to watch over the creation as He pleases!

In a whole number of ways, the creation around us is a gift from God.  He gives it to us to “work it.”  That means we are to use the resources of the creation to provide for our daily lives and the lives of those we love.  So producing food, using timber for building, oil for gas and so forth are proper examples of “working it.” 

And at the same time, the creation is a gift to take care of.  This is a gift on loan to us.  There are two great commandments – to love God and to love our neighbor. Those commandments are at the heart of why we care for this gift of creation.  This world belongs to the Creator and so out of love for Him, we care for this world.  We also care for it out love for our neighbors.  We care for the world so that our neighbors might also live productive live.  We take care of the environment so that this world will be here for future generations to work and care for. 

Being made stewards of the creation is itself a gift.  When I was a kid I loved it… I counted it a great gift when my dad was working on something and he let me help.  He didn’t need my help.  But he wanted it  When he built the new shelves in our basement and he had me cutting the boards, or nailing the shelves together, I loved that dad wanted my help.  What fun it was to work alongside of him.  That’s the gift God gives in making us stewards of His creation.  He is inviting us to be a part of His work.  What a privilege!  What a gift.

Finally, creation is a gift God wants us to enjoy.  The Garden was called Eden.  That word means “delight.”  God desires that we delight in, and find joy in the creation.  Walks in the woods, a swim in the lake,  a picnic in a park, camping, fishing, playing in the midst of God’s majestic creation – those are all part of God’s will for us in the gift of creation. 

Giving us this world is one of the ways God has shown us just how much He loves us. What better way to show Him our love for Him than by taking care of this world, this universe – His amazing gift to us.  That’s  really all the reason I need for taking care of the environment.  

Friday, June 16, 2017

Pointing Fingers

“’Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you
Not to eat from?’  The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me –
She gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
Genesis 3:11-12

There is a quote that is credited to Ronald Reagan, that I really love.  “Can you imagine how much we could accomplish if we weren’t worried about who would get the credit?”  Lately the following slight variation on that quote has been running through my mind – “Can you imagine how much we could accomplish if we weren’t worried about who to blame?”

Like all of you, I was horrified (once again) by the senseless shooting of American congressman who were practicing for a charity ball game.   I am continuing to pray for the recovery of all who were wounded in the attack.  Yet it seemed for while that, as horrible as the attack was, one good thing was coming out of it.  For a little while all the vitriol and blaming and attacking of others was silenced and people in government, in the media and across America realized they were all countrymen first, regardless of their political party.  But then I woke up this morning, looked at the news from America, and it seemed that the truce was over    People, the media, the politicians were once again pointing fingers at each other.   

I need to say that such finger pointing is not unique to America.  There was a lot of it going on in the UK following their election last week. 

More importantly, for my purposes in this blog, finger pointing is not unique to the political world.  Unfortunately, it happens at work, at church, at school, in our neighborhoods, our families and our marriages We all do it.  Have you ever worked with anyone who could never admit fault?  If something went wrong, it was always someone else’s fault.  That’s finger pointing.  Have you ever gossiped about someone… made someone look bad in the eyes of others by sharing some embarrassing story about that person?  That’s finger pointing.  Have you ever tried to place the blame for something you did on someone else?  I have.  I lost one of my teacher’s books in the third grade.  Rather than own up to what I had done, I forged a classmate’s signature to make it look like she had lost the book, not me.

This is nothing new.  We all come from a long line of finger pointers. Adam was the first one.  When the Lord found him and Eve in the bushes, he asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”   Listen Adam’s answer.  ‘The woman you put here with me – She gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.”  His first, instinct, as a brand new sinner, was to point fingers. He blamed Eve for giving him the fruit.  He pointed the finger at God for making Eve. 

Why do we do that?  Shame, guilt, not wanting to get caught, fear of punishment, fear of what others might think?  Yes, it can be any or all of those things.  Sometimes it’s our own arrogant, self-righteousness belief that we couldn’t possibly be wrong.  Therefore, it has to be someone else’s fault. 

In the movie, Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks keeps asking the Russian Spy if he’s nervous, if he’s afraid, if he’s worried.  Each time, the spy answers in a calm, even bored tone, “Would it help?”  The implication is that none of those things would change or help anything.  Well that’s even more true of pointing fingers.  Pointing fingers just makes things worse.  Pointing fingers divides.  Others go on the defensive and point their fingers back.  The argument grows hotter.  Relationships at work, at home, in church or where ever are poisoned.

So I challenge you - Imagine what would happen if we weren’t so worried about blaming and pointing fingers.  Imagine what would happen if instead of pointing fingers at each other, we each shouldered our share of the blame for things.  Imagine how it would change things if we each stood before God and each other and took the ancient confession as our own – “I confess to God Almighty and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault…”  I know what God would do.  He has told us.  “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”   Right there in the garden, in response to their confession, He did this.  He promised them a savior who would crush the serpent’s head.  He gave His Son.  His Son Jesus shouldered the punishment for our most grievous fault when He died on the cross.  He rose again that we might be restored to God. That’s what God did.  And you know, forgiven in Christ, that’s what we could do for each other.  Instead of blaming, we could forgive each other.  Imagine that.

No imagine even more than that. Imagine what would happen if instead of pointing fingers and talking about each other – we talked to each other.  That’s what Jesus told us to do.  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother.”  Imagine what we would accomplish if our concern was to love… to win our brother or sister’s heart rather than blame them.  We really don’t have to imagine it.  God has shown us.  That’s why He didn’t send an angel.  He came Himself, in our flesh and blood – because He loved us… His desire was to win us for Himself.  And that’s what He did.  Imagine that.  

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Most Important Confirmation Teacher

“Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old
he will not depart from it.”
Proverbs 22:6

This past Sunday was confirmation Sunday here at Trinity!  The whole weekend was a great celebration.  On Saturday, the confirmands gave their faith statements and wow, was it great. One sang, others gave their personal testimony of faith.  One did a children’s message, another used soil and seed and growing plant, two others used their own artwork.  Each expressed their faith in their own unique way.  Then on Sunday they were confirmed.  All of us, the three teachers who taught their confirmation class, rejoiced to see and hear what God has been doing in their lives.

I have been reflecting on that a lot this week – on my role as Pastor and teacher in their lives.  Then the Lord humbled me.  He reminded me that I am not the most important teacher of the faith in the lives of our confirmands.  Luther in his Small Catechism, leaves no doubt about who that teacher is.  At the beginning of each of the six chief parts you will find these words – “The Ten Commandments (or creed or Lord’s prayer) as the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.”  Mom and dad, let there be no doubt about this – You are the most important teacher of the faith to your children. 

In 33 years of pastoral ministry – this fact has always been true.  The students who get the most out of confirmation are almost always those who come from homes where the faith is important to Mom and/or (the best is when it is both) Dad.  When the faith is talked about, and practiced at home… when the faith is important at home, it will be important to that student in confirmation too.  Now parents I don’t mean that as a guilt trip.  I mean that as an affirmation.  You are the most important people God has placed into the lives of your children.  No one else has the influence over them that you do.  What I saw and heard in the faith statements of our confirmands is more a reflection of a life time of learning the faith from mom and dad, than anything the three of us did these past two years.

There are so many ways in which you parents pass on Jesus to your children.  Think about this.  Who brings your child to be baptized?  You do.  Who says teaches them how to pray at bed time and at meals?  Who says their prayers with them from the time they are infants?  You do.  Who answers their earliest and most important faith questions?  You do.  Who is the first one to tell them about Jesus, to read bible stories to them?  You are.  Who takes them to church and makes sure they are in Sunday School?  You do..  When their grandma or grandpa dies, who comforts them with the assurance that grandmas and grandpa are in heaven with Jesus?  You do. 

The most important way in which you teach the faith is by your example.  When your kids see you going to church and Bible class… when your kids see you at home reading your Bible… when they see and hear you praying… when they see how you act towards others.  I remember watching as my dad spent his entire holiday at the church replacing the boiler with all the labor free.  I remember watching as my dad was getting yelled at by someone but dad didn’t lost his temper.  I reading my mom’s notes from my oldest sister was sick.  Those notes were filled with faith.  Their example was so very important.  So is yours mom and dad.  You are a gift from God to your kids. 

And you are not alone.  God promise that the word you share with your children will not return to Him empty but will accomplish the purposes for which He gave it  “Faith,” He promises, “comes from hearing the word, the word about Christ.”   “The Scriptures are able to make” your children “wise unto salvation through faith in Christ.”  He loves your kids even more than you do. He gave His Son for them.  His Son gave His life for them.  Trust this promise – “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”  Trust that promise and share Jesus with your kids.  You are their most important confirmation teachers.  Thank you. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

You are One of God's Best Sermons

“Shine like stars in the Universe, as you hold forth the Word of Life”
Philippians 2:15b-16a

It is truly amazing all you can learn about God from the stars!  I first heard this from Dr. Steunkel, the President of the College where Linda and I attended.  He was talking about Isaiah 40:26 – “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?  He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls them each by name.  Because of His great power and might strength, not one of them is missing.”  Wow!  There is a lot in those words.  God is the creator of the stars.  He made all of those stars you see in the sky.  They belong to Him, as does all of His creation.   I am told that on a clear dark night you and I can see with our eye only a few thousand of the millions of stars that fill the Universe.  Yet each one of those stars is important to our God and creator.  “He calls them each by name.”  Because of His power they were created and because of His power not one of them is missing.

You get the message.  If God cares that much about each and every star in the sky, imagine how much He cares about you and me.  After all it was for you and me that He gave His Son. It was for your salvation and mine that Jesus gave His life.  Jesus Himself tells us that the lilies of the field preach this same sermon.  “If that is how God clothes the lilies of the fields, which are here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will He cloth you?”  After all, in the words of Paul, “If God did not spare His own son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also along with Him, freely give us all things?”  That’s quite a sermon the stars preach.

But did you know that God preaches that same sermon through you to those around you.  That’s what Paul is telling us in Philippians.  “Shine like stars in the Universe, as you hold forth the Word of Life”  Like the stars, He created each of us. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Of us the Lord says, “I have called you by name, you are Mine.”  “The very hairs on your head,” Jesus tells us, “ are all numbered.”  He gave His Son for you.  At Baptism He made you His own.  God intends for you’re your life and your words to be a living, breathing sermon about God’s care and grace to all who meet you.  “Shine like stars in the Universe!”

But how can you or I be such a sermon.  This world is a very dark place. How can you and I possibly make any real difference.  That’s precisely the point, my friends,.  Those are the moments when God shines brightest through you and me.  Once again God teaches us through the stars.  When it is bright and sunny outside, you can’t see the stars. The sunshine obscures them.  But when its dark… indeed when its completely dark outside, that’s when you see the stars. That’s when they are at their brightest.  In the same way, it is in the midst of the darkest moments in life when God’s light shines most clearly from your life and mine.  I remember one man named Dwain, dying of cancer.   As the darkness of death encroached his faith shone at its brightest, sharing his faith with his son-in-law while in the hospital waiting to die.  His joy, his hope in the face of death – that was the sermon God preached through Dwain.  That’s what He does through you and me.  He makes us His stars shining with faith, hope and love in the darkness of this world.  For those who know you at home, at work, in various parts of your life - no sermon I ever preach from the pulpit can match up to the sermon God  preaches through you, your faith and your life.  You are one of God’s best sermons. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

You're Fired!

“’Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sins…”
Acts 2:37b-38a

One of the first things I do when I wake up most every day is get online and check the news, especially the news from America.  Yesterday morning I wasn’t expecting what I read there.  The President of the United States had fired the Director of the FBI.  Now I have tried purposefully to stir this blog away from politics and instead focus on what God’s word has to say to our daily lives.  This week’s blog will be no exception.   

However, as the day went on, I couldn’t get the word’s “You’re Fired” out of my mind.  That’s when it struck me, there is someone in each of our lives who absolutely needs to be fired!  That someone in my life is me.  That’s someone in your life is you – the old sinful you and me.  When God calls you or me to repent, that’s what He means.  That’s what it means to turn away from sin.    Spiritually, this is the first step in the new life God has given us in Christ.  This is the first step of every day of the Christian life – to repent… to fire yourself!

Now I know President Trump seems to make firing someone look easy.  He made a whole career out of sitting across the desk from people on The Apprentice and saying, “You’re fired!”  But anyone who has had to do it at work, can tell you that it’s anything but easy.  I have only had to do it once and I hated it.  Other managers talk about losing sleep when they knew that they had to take this step.

Having to fire yourself is as hard or harder!  Repentance after all means admitting that you have been wrong, that you have been going in the wrong direction, that you can’t set yourself right… that you can’t save yourself.  Most of us spend a lot of time doing just the opposite, trying to hide or deny our failures, trying to convince ourselves and others that we are handling life just fine… that we haven’t done anything wrong.  Why?  Because it’s humbling to admit we’re wrong.  There is shame involved.  We want people to only see the good not the bad in us.  We are afraid of facing the truth about our sin.  Yet go to any 12 step recovery program and they will tell that the first step is to admit you are powerless… that you can’t fix yourself.  They will also tell you that this step, just showing up at AA or Celebrate Recovery, and admitting you need help is the hardest step to take. 

Yet when the people asked Peter what they needed to do, this is exactly what Peter tells them.  “Repent and be baptized…’  “Turn from your ways and live…”  “Fire yourself!”  Why?  Because new life is found only in trusting God’s Son, not in trusting yourself.  Listen to Paul’s words to the Galatians, words of great hope that describe what happens when you fire yourself.  “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.  The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”  That’s what God does every time we repent. He starts a new life in you and me.  “If anyone is in Christ Jesus, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away.”  It’s been fired.  “Behold the new has come!”  Luther says the same thing in His Small Catechism when explaining the meaning of baptism for our daily lives.  “This signifies that the old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sin and evil desires.”  In other words the old Adam should daily be fired.  Why?  “so that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

You know there are mornings for some reason I wake up discouraged.  Linda thinks it’s because I start off with emails and the news.  Maybe she’s right.  Maybe the better way to start the day is to look in the mirror and say to our old sinful selves, “You’re fired!  I don’t need you anymore.  I’m a baptized child of God.  In Christ He’s given me a whole new life to live each day!  He’s all I need.”  Try it tomorrow morning.  I will too.  Amen.