Monday, July 28, 2008

Barna Calling

I just got done with a phone survey from the ubiquitous Barna Research Group, in which I found great difficulty answering many of the questions. The premise of the questions threw me, that pastors could measure or classify people as "spiritually healthy" or "spiritually mature".

One went something like this:

"If someone were to create a comprehensive spiritual maturity diagnostic tool, what percentage of your congregation do you expect would be seen as spiritually healthy or mature disicples?"


She wanted to know which passages we use to base our understanding of how to help people become "spiritually mature". So I pointed to Romans 3, Matthew 28 and Ephesians 2:8-9.

"Any others?"

"Yeah. Lots. But that's all I can think of off the top of my head."

This could have been a very long survey.

All this measuring, labeling, classifying, diagnosing, buzz-wording..... blech.

"What, in your opinion, is the reason more people are not spiritually mature?"

So I said, "Sin."

"That's all? Nothing else?"

"That's it."

Then they asked me how much oru church budget is and how much money I make, and how long I've been here, and what race/ethnicity we are... Oh, and what I read and what denomination we are.

I feel like in some way I've contributed to the next church-marketing strategy fad. It's kind of an icky feeling.....

Another Laughable "Scientific" Theory

Or should I call it "grasping at straws"? If life didn't come from God, then maybe it came from space aliens. Or maybe it came from diamonds! Yeah, that's gotta be it. After all, diamonds are pretty. And supermodels are pretty. So maybe that's where they came from. Millions of years ago, of course.

Sermon - Pentecost 11 - Matthew 13:44-52

Pentecost 11 – July 27th, 2008
Matthew 13:44-52

Your house is burning down and you have just minutes to escape. What do you take with you? What's your most valuable possession?
Your family? Ok, let's assume they make it out safe. What one thing would you take? A wedding album? A piece of jewelry? Maybe your computer or some family heirloom. Something irreplaceable right? Something that might not be worth a lot of money, but to you, is worth saving more than all those other things.

Today we conclude a series of parables from Matthew 13. Today we hear Jesus talking treasure. The treasure buried in the field and the pearl of great price. The kingdom of heaven is like these, he says. But what does he mean? Let's take some time this morning and consider “valued treasures”.

Well I hope I got you thinking for a moment before about what you truly value. And in a crisis situation, perhaps your true values become more clear. First make sure your family is safe. Then your own life. Then worry about what can't be replaced, and then what can. But many of these valuable things and people we take for granted until they are threatened. In normal life, we tend not to think about what's most important.

What's most important, what's most valuable, what's the best and brightest treasure for the Christian? The Gospel, of course! The good news of Jesus and what he has done for us! This is our great treasure. Or you could say, Jesus himself. Or our faith in him. Or eternal salvation. It all goes together really. But lest we take this parable too lightly, and end this sermon too quickly. Let's think about that a little more.

How often do we act like the man in the parable? Selling all we have to obtain (or maintain) the kingdom? Do God and faith and church and the Scriptures really come first for us? Or do we become distracted and complacent, do we forget the treasure before us always? Are we mindful of our baptism, and the daily forgiveness it brings? Do we appreciate that each breath we draw is a precious gift we don't deserve in the least, and that even though our sins do deserve death that God in Christ has promised us eternal life?

Oh, but there's a sale at the mall! There's a big deadline at work. My kids have a soccer game and a birthday party. And I need to see the season premiere. And we have a busy weekend planned and company's coming over and boy gas is expensive and did you see how much a pound of meat costs now and yep there's that doctor's appointment and....

Where's your treasure? What's important? In the parable, the man sells everything else to obtain the kingdom. That doesn't mean that Jesus is telling us to do the same. Family and Work and Possessions and Reputation are all good gifts of God. They have a proper place and role in the life of God's people.

But they're not the true treasure. Martin Luther said it well, “Take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife. Let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth!”

Let's hope it doesn't take a crisis for us to see the treasure. But the beauty of the treasure is that it shines brightest when we need it most. I recall standing in the room of a dying man of faith. And I was privileged to observe as he said his farewells to his loved ones. He said all the things you might expect – expressing his love for each one, giving words of advice. But the most poignant moment came when he told them all, “keep the faith!” For certainly, in his last hour, he knew where the treasure was. He could see what was most important.

Paul says the same in our reading from Romans today. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ – not trouble, hardship, nakedness, danger or sword. Not angels or demons, height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation – not even life or death. Such a great treasure it is.

And while many have read these parables and said, “gee, I could do a better job of treasuring the kingdom” there is perhaps more to it than that. In the parables Jesus has been telling, he is the main character. The farmer who sows the seed. The fisherman who casts the net. We could even see him as the man who sells his possessions for the treasure in the field, or the merchant who does the same for the pearl.

For certainly, Jesus gave his all. He gave his life. The one man who never deserved death, who had no wages of his own sin, died in our place on a Roman cross. He was tried like a criminal though he had no crime. He was found guilty who had no guilt. He was put to death like a common thief and buried like any other dead man.

He gave more than just his physical life. He endured shame and ridicule. He was humiliated and tortured. They even divided his garments among them. But worst of all, he suffered the wrath of God for the sins of all mankind. All the punishments of hell and damnation were laid on him, the one who took our place. Yes, Jesus gave his all.

But why? Our catechism puts it this way, “He has purchased and won me from sin, death, and hell, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own, live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness innocence and blessedness”

He gave it all – to purchase us. You see, if Jesus is the man buying the field or the pearl, then that makes us – you and me – the treasure! Such is the kingdom of heaven.

We love him for he first loved us. We serve him for he first served us. We treasure him, for he has treasured us – valued us – put us before himself.

And he still gives us his riches. Sure there's the earthly wealth we enjoy – good gifts from God to be sure, but not the best. In the words of absolution, we hear his own priceless forgiveness. At the altar, we receive his own body and blood and the riches of his grace are for us again. In the font he pours out, literally, life and spirit and grace – not just then but in a daily flood of blessings.

This is the richness of the Gospel, the treasure of our faith. That Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, treasures you. And nothing can take that away, nothing can make that irrelevant. Nothing can tarnish the treasure trove of blessings that are ours in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Joker

I just saw the new Batman movie, "The Dark Knight". Like every reviewer I have seen, I thought the movie was good. But what impressed me most about the movie was the character of the Joker. I suppose it was a combination of the character himself, the writing in this movie and the performance by Heath Ledger that combined to make him an excellent villain.

Of course the movie was meant to raise questions of morality and of what really is good or evil. The best movies are not just a series of explosions but also lend to these kinds of philosophical... yes, even, theological questions. And with the Joker I think they were tapping into a depiction of the ultimate villain - Satan himself.

Notice that the Joker wasn't so much out for his own gain, but to bring down good people - to make them like him. He puts them into situations with great temptation to do wrong. (Interesting, too, is how the movie treats man's response to such temptation - sometimes giving in, sometimes rising to conquer it).

Also - though he repeatedly claimed to be a "man of his word", he was full of deceipt and did, in fact, lie (for instance, there were two stories about how he got his scars...). Compare this with the Father of Lies, who often uses a little truth to support his own purposes.

Even the whole clown persona of the Joker - an expression of something good gone terribly wrong - finds a paralell in the Devil who was once an angel of light. The sick smile is not from true joy but from blasphemous laughter at God and good.

Of course, the Joker's origins are shrouded in mystery. He simply appears on the scene without a history or reason. So too Satan, who simply appears in the Garden without explanation.

The Joker begins with a promise to serve and work for the crime bosses, but then "takes over" the entire city. So our enemy makes many promises, but what he really wants is control. And to a large extent, the "Prince of This World" has gotten it.

Add to that the Joker's resilience, conniving genius, and manipulative powers - and the picture of evil is really quite exquisite.

Of course, there are various Christ figures in the movie too - Batman being most obvious. Actually, there have been many other movies with better Christ figures. But I haven't seen this good of a villain in quite a while.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 10 - Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Pentecost 10 – July 20th, 2008
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

I hate dandelions. If you have a lawn, you almost certainly have them. They grow in the little cracks and nooks where grass won't. And they will boldly take up residence right smack in the middle of your lawn. I have a special tool for pulling them up... to make sure I get the root and all. I have my kids help me go on “dandelion hunts”. And in the spring when you can see the yellow take over the median strips here in town, I just cringe. Weeds. What an unsightly, bothersome bunch of things.

For the ancient people depending on agriculture, and even for modern farmers – weeds are still a problem. More than just an unsightly nuisance, weeds cost the farmer. They cut down on productivity. They choke the crops you want to grow. They are invaders that don't belong in the field – and so something must be done about them!

Jesus has much to teach in his parable of the weeds. Like all parables of Jesus, the earthly story leads us into the heavenly meaning. For Jesus isn't really talking about weeds and farmers and harvests. He's talking about life in the kingdom – how to understand what we see, and what we can expect in the future.

We just heard, last week, the parable of the sower – in which the seed, or the word of God, is cast onto all sorts of soil – hard, rocky, thorny, and good. And so we saw that God's word is rejected by many for a variety of reasons, but that when it hits that good soil, when it is received in faith, it produces an abundant harvest.

As soon as Jesus finishes explaining that parable, he tells this one, about the weeds. And there are some common elements. For one, the seed stands, here too, for the word of God. And the wheat, the good crop of those seeds, for those people of faith who have heard the Gospel and believe in Jesus Christ. The sons of the kingdom. Great. So what about the weeds?

They are sown by the enemy. And this can only be the Devil himself. Yes, the Old Satanic Foe, the Father of Lies. He comes with a different seed – a different word. And he sows it into every little nook and cranny he can. He sows false teachings. He sows troubles and persecution. He sows doubt and temptation. He generally causes whatever mischief, trouble and grief he thinks he can get away with.

And those who are born of his seed are the weeds. The faithless, the ungodly, the evil ones. Those who reject the Gospel and the work of Christ for them. And thus, they have no place in the kingdom.

Now, knowing the farmer is wise and good, naturally the servants wonder, “why is he tolerating all these weeds?” And it's a similar question asked by God's people throughout the ages. Why did God do it this way? Why didn't he do it another way? Why doesn't he do it my way? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is God really just? Is he really all-powerful and all loving? Can you really believe what he says?

Life in this field can be chaotic. But Jesus is the wise farmer. He knows what he's doing. In the parable, the farmer explains that he doesn't want to endanger the good crops when he pulls the weeds, but that he'll sort it all out at harvest time. Our Lord knows what's what and who's who. And he has a plan for dealing with the weeds.

There will be a day of harvest. But it's in the future. All of our readings today have that forward-looking angle. In Isaiah, the Lord who is the First and the Last declares what is to come. And in Romans, Paul reminds us that the sufferings of this present time aren't worth comparing to the glory to be revealed. In other words, God makes it clear that with him, in Christ, there is hope for the future. No matter how full of weeds and thorns the ground around you. He will sort it all out in the end.

That was his promise, long ago, when the enemy first came to sow his disastrous seed in the Garden. Yes, after Eve and Adam believed that false word and trusted the enemy, after they ate the forbidden fruit, God came to the garden to sort it out. And he told Adam that thorns would infest the ground – an outward sign of the corruption of creation that Adam's sin had brought. Life would be tough. Weeds were a-coming.

But before God even got that far, he already promised a Savior. The seed of the woman, which would crush the head of the serpent. That seed is the Living Word, the Son of Man and the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Jesus, who, in the wilderness, didn't fall for the deceptive seed of the Devil, but set him straight by correctly applying the word. Jesus, who spread the seed of his Gospel to all sorts of people – turning weeds into wheat and bringing a harvest of faith where there was none.

Yes, Jesus, who wore a crown of thorns as he completed the work of salvation. Who died on the tree of the cross to graft us into himself the True Vine, and make us thrive, connected to him forever.

The Lord who has done all this - for you - certainly can handle the weeds. So don't think that he's forgotten you – when the prickly weeds invade your little corner of the field. Remember he has a plan, and he will bring in his harvest in due time.

And don't think it's your job to pluck the weeds out. The Lord, the farmer, is the judge of what plant are for saving and what plants are for casting into the fire. He will send his angels to sort the good from the bad.

The parable of the weeds reminds us that in the kingdom of God – things don't always look perfect. There are liars and troublemakers and there is discord and sometimes disaster. But the farmer is wise, and patient, and knows his plan. And he will reap a harvest in the end, sorting it all out.

So trust the Lord – trust him to forgive your sins, trust him that you would grow in the field of his kingdom, nourished by the word, thriving under the Son. Trust that the Spirit will strengthen you in faith and holy living. And don't fear the weeds – the lies of Satan, or the fruits thereof. For the harvest is coming, and with it, great joy for us and all the people of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Some Fun with Pastor Poppe

Here are some of the photos we showed at Pastor Poppe's 25th anniversary celebration. To get the full effect of all this, you had to be there, of course. But you get the idea with most of them....

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Issues Etc. Interview

I have been asked to be on Issues Etc. today to talk about my recent Higher Things article, "Sports Obsessions". I'll be on around 3:30 p.m.

You can listen live or podcast later!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The New Issues Etc.

Some of you real life people I know who also happen to read this blog have asked about the radio program "Issues Etc.". I highly encourage, endorse, and certify as well worth your time a visit to THIS LINK. You won't be disappointed!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 8 - Matthew 11:25-30

Pentecost 8 – July 6th, 2008
Matthew 11:25-30
"Rest in Christ"

Summer, for many people, is a favorite time of year. For kids, its the break from school and homework. For many families, it's a chance to take a vacation together – play, relax, and get some much needed rest. The lazy days of summer, some call them. And here we are in mid-summer ourselves, with a beautiful passage from Jesus about rest for the weary laborer.

It sounds so good, doesn't it? This invitation of Jesus? It's a universal invitation, to be sure. He was not just speaking to the people who heard him, but surely also to us and to all people who would ever be. Come to me ALL who are weary, and I will give you rest. Ahh... relaxation. Jesus is giving us a vacation. Or is there more to it?

Come you who are weary and burdened, he says. And you know he's not just being literal. Being tired and sore from hard physical labor is one thing. But the weariness and burdens Jesus comes to relieve are much more tiring and heavy. They are the spiritual burdens we all carry.

You've probably got one yourself. Maybe a few. What are you carrying around today? What's your burden? Is it trouble with your spouse? Stress at work? Struggling to pay the bills and put ever-more-expensive food on the table? Are you carrying a hurt or pain so deep that few even know of it? Or is life for you just a series of fires that break out, and you weary of running from one to the next?

Are you struggling with your health? The old bones are getting a little creaky and things don't work like they used to? Maybe it's someone you love that is struggling, but you still bear the burden.

Or maybe your burden is death itself – your own, staring you in the face, closer with each breath. Or perhaps someone dear to you has gone – and your burden is living each day without their company.

Or maybe your burdens are some combination of these – but I can be fairly certain – burdened you are. We all are. We all grow weary. We all need rest.

Jesus comes with a promise today that makes our spirits yearn to hear more. Come to me... I will give you rest.
Really? If that's true, Jesus, then how come we still have so many burdens? How come we are still so weary? Most of us came to you a long time ago- we've been following you faithfully. And still we have all these – burdens. We are weighed down, and yet you promise us rest? What gives?

Ah but what does Jesus promise? That we will have no more troubles or cares with him on our side? That He is the magic bullet to solve all our problems and make us entirely happy? No. Not now anyway. But he does promise rest... for your souls.

And as we take his yoke on, and learn from him, we see that rest for our souls is far better than any other kind of rest. Stress relief – financial solvency – peace and quiet – these kinds of earthly rest may be good, but how long can they last? What good does it do when the next problem comes along?

But rest for the soul... that's eternal rest. That's the rest that only Christ can give. Yet it's that rest that God has been giving since the beginning. Already on the 7th day – when God had done all the work of creation, he rested. The Sabbath.

Jesus Christ, after finishing all the work of our salvation, after carrying the burden of our sins, after laboring under the yoke of God's wrath on the cross, when it was finished and he even gave his very life – he rested in the tomb. When the Passover Sabbath began it was Friday evening. And shortly after that Sabbath rest Jesus rose again – now in exalted form – victorious over death and hell for us all.

Because of his work, we have rest. Because he carried the burden of our sin, our souls are relieved. The burden and yoke that he offers us – the one that is easy and light – is his own righteousness. It's the life of faith, trusting in him. It's knowing that Christ our savior has done it all. It's freedom from the demands and commands of the law – freedom to live for God and do good works out of joy and love, rather than obligation or fear.

Each time our sins are forgiven, we are at rest. That's what the whole idea of Sabbath is really about, you see, rest for our souls. It's not about taking a day off from your job or trying not to do too much work around the house. Oh the legalisms some have invented to make sure no work is done on the Sabbath! But the real purpose of Sabbath is, of course, the spiritual one. Finding that rest which is Jesus Christ alone.
Does that still leave us with life's labors? For now, it may. Christ doesn't promise immediate rest from all our problems and sorrows. But he does promise to be with us through them, and to work for our good through them. He knows our weaknesses. He's walked our walk, he's taken our flesh. And he's still there for us. So bring your burdens to him in prayer, and know that he hears you.

But that's not all. There is a rest – an eternal rest – which is also our inheritance. While in this life we still carry the burdens of life in a sinful world, one day the new heaven and earth will come. One day our bodies will rise from death in glory, like Christ's own resurrected body. And the picture God paints of life for his people then – is truly one of rest. No more tears. No more hunger or thirst. No more pain. Just an eternal, perfect, communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We await the fulfillment of these promises on that day. And even if we die before its arrival, we still rest in peace.

For we rest in Christ. Blessed are the dead who die in Christ, Scripture says, for they rest from their labors. And blessed are we who are weary of sin and its consequences, for we have the living, in-the-flesh Sabbath-rest, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.