Friday, January 29, 2010

What's a Congregation to Do?

What's a Congregation to Do?

Reflections on the mission and ministry of the local congregation
Rev. Tom Chryst - Elders' Retreat January 2010

Every congregation offers worship services on Sunday. Most every congregation has a pastor leading them. Baptisms, funerals, weddings, confirmations. Usually there's some kind of Bible study. But then what?

Some congregations run a soup kitchen. Others have a school. Some have a radio or TV ministry, or an ethnic outreach. There's braille workers and quilters and seniors groups and grief support groups. Stephen ministries and youth retreats, homeless shelters and neighborhood canvassing. There's any number of programs, events and social gatherings that happen on a regular or irregular basis.

With so many possibilities, someone in congregational leadership might be led to wonder, “what's a congregation to do?” In other words, besides having church on Sunday, how does a congregation decide how and where to spend its time, talents and treasures?

Especially when a congregation is at a crossroads, I contend that it's well worth it for the leaders to intentionally think these things through. Rather than haphazardly doing things in a random fashion, or always doing what we have always done, isn't it better to come to a well-reasoned plan for how a congregation will choose its course?

First, let's consider what Scripture teaches about the purpose of the local congregation. Acts 2:42 gives us a basic outline, “and they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”. This suggests that the gathered believers of Christ are to:

1)be devoted to doctrine
2)devoted to fellowship (sharing what they had in common – several aspects to this)
3)breaking of bread – Lutherans have understood this to include the sacrament
4)the prayers – suggesting a formal order of worship

These four priorities are covered nicely in our “Sunday Morning” routine. So far so good. Acts 2 goes on to talk about how the early Christians cared for each other, even going so far as communal living – sharing all possessions. This indicates another purpose of the congregation: care for one another

Matthew 28, the Great Commission, Jesus instructs his Apostles and the Church to “Make disciples of all nations” by baptizing and teaching. “Baptizing and teaching” is another handy summary of what we Lutherans call “Word and Sacrament Ministry”.

Surely we could add to the list, based on the example of the New Testament church. But the fact remains, nowhere does Scripture give us detailed instructions for the local congregation (like it does, for instance, when it comes to the construction and usage of the Tabernacle). It certainly teaches the centrality of the Word and the sacraments, but allows for broad freedom beyond this. So what's a church to do?

Let me suggest the following simple framework for deciding what to do:

Things you need to do:

Those things you simply have to have, in order to do “Word and Sacrament” ministry. For instance: Pay the pastor. Order communion supplies. Have a building with heat and lights. Collect offering. Some of this will vary from situation to situation, but these are the “no-brainers”.

Things someone else has a need for:

Needs vary greatly from place to place. Socio-economic, demographic, geographic factors all come into play. This is a matter of knowing what people need – both in and out of the church. There are all kinds of resources to help determine these things, but a common sense observation of the conditions isn't such a bad place to start.

Things you are good at:

Each congregation is blessed with people having different and diverse talents. Why not play to your strengths and do what you are best at? I think of a nearby Hispanic congregation that holds a taco dinner fund raiser. They need funds, and they make good tacos. Pretty simple. Does your congregation have people who are talented in education? Finance? Art? Cooking? Cleaning? Organizing? Or something else? This is a matter of managing the talents God gives us (stewardship).

Things you want to do:

It's a whole lot easier to do something you want to do, than something you don't. If your congregation likes to get their hands dirty, then maybe a community rehab project or a soup kitchen is right for you. If you want to work with children, then maybe a school or daycare. If you want to concentrate on music ministry or some other focus area – it will always be easier to do if the people are interested. We shouldn't feel bad about doing those things that we, as a congregation, simply want to do. As long as we are not sinning, and as long as we are keeping in mind our main purpose, there's no reason we can't choose from the panoply of options and find our own comfort zone. A caution: This can be taken too far, and if a congregation is too comfortable they will likely NOT be fulfilling their full potential for service and mission work.

If you can find an ideal combination of these four factors, you may have found what you (or your congregation) should be doing!

Also, as you are deciding “what to do”, ask questions along the way, which evaluate a proposed plan or activity:

Does it serve the Gospel?
Generally, most things we do should have some connection to the main thing we're about. However it's not wrong to do something as a congregation “just for fun” or just to help people.

Is it good stewardship?
Money is always an issue. Remember it's God's money we're spending. He calls us to do so wisely. Still, many things worth doing are costly. Jesus tells us to consider the cost of discipleship, but still wants us to be disciples! Don't let money stop us from doing good for the kingdom. (Discussion – how to decide how much we spend on aesthetics vs. functionality?)

What are others doing?
Have others succeeded or failed, and why?
Are others nearby doing the same? Would we be stepping on toes, or helping them?

What witness would it give?
Remember what a congregation does is seen by those within and without. Even non-believers will take note of the good a congregation accomplishes. Are there other projects or events that might give the wrong impression?

Would this offend someone needlessly?
I'm not saying compromise our beliefs in any way to avoid ruffling feathers. But simply to consider our neighbors – community and other congregations, for instance – and how our actions affect them too.

Some final thoughts:

Be careful to avoid acting only in your congregation's “best interests”. Perhaps balancing “internal” and “external” projects is a healthier approach to consider.

Avoid major projects which have the support of only a small number of people, or only one individual. Even the pastor shouldn't decide by himself the overall course a congregation will take.

Remember there are always unintended consequences. Try to think them through.

In those things which are not central, it's ok to fail! I once had a frustrated member bring me a list of all the projects we had tried that “failed”. While working in and for a congregation can be frustrating, there's no guarantee of “success” in everything we do.

Questions for discussion:

What are some of the advantages of carefully evaluating a new plan or program or activity in the life of the congregation?

When should these kinds of discussions and evaluations take place?

Who should do them?

How has your congregation made decisions in the past, and how has it worked out?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Issues Etc. Roundtable - The Church

Once again I participated in a Pastors' Round Table segment on Issues, Etc. Lutheran radio program. With Pastors Nebel and Walther, we discussed the Apology of the Augsburg Confession: The Church

You can listen to the entire hour for free, now or later, by clicking here:

Sermon - Epiphany 3 - Luke 4:16-30

Luke 4:16-30
Epiphany 3
January 24, 2009
“The Hometown Preacher”

As a preacher, it's always good to take note of how and what Jesus preaches. In our Gospel reading today, we have Jesus attending the weekly worship gathering on the synagogue. Much like our practice of church on Sunday, those gathered would have an appointed reading from Scripture, followed by a Rabbai or teacher, or in our case, pastor, explaining and proclaiming it. So Jesus was the guest preacher that day in his hometown of Nazareth.

They had seen him grow up as Joseph and Mary's son, probably had some tables and chairs from his carpenter's shop. They knew his family. Little Jesus, all grown up, and now a famous preacher. He'd been making quite a name for himself with his miracles and messages in Capernaum – the nearest big city. Now they had a chance to hear the hometown hero. Perhaps it was Nazareth pride that made them speak so well of him. But... the sermon didn't go so well.

It started out with Jesus preaching about a passage from Isaiah, which clearly predicts the coming Messiah. He states very simply, very boldly, “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. And this striking claim seems to fly right over their heads! Jesus is basically claiming to be the Messiah! He says, “hey, I am the guy. I'm the one Isaiah is speaking about here. When he predicts the one who would come to preach good news and proclaim freedom, the one anointed by the Spirit. That's me!”. But they are not even phased. Instead they continued to speak well of him and marvel. It doesn't seem they were even listening to his words.

Perhaps their hearts weren't ready for such good news. So it is with many today. You can sit in church for years, and though the preacher preaches till he's blue in the face, never really “get” the Gospel. Some of us here today, probably also, have a fuzzy picture at best of who Jesus is. Is he the one and only Savior from sin? Or is he the one who sets the example for us to follow? Is it what would Jesus do, or what did Jesus do for me that is most important? Is the answer to my problem of sin the grace of God in Christ? Or should I just try harder to be a better person and sin less?

We preach, like Jesus preached, that Salvation is a free gift of God alone. And yet it's so hard to hear. It's so difficult to believe.
So Jesus shakes them up. He preaches some law. He says something that gets their goat. He pulls out some history.

Back in the time of Elijah and Elisha, the people of Israel had largely turned away from the true God. So these prophets, partly as a testimony against such unfaithfulness, were sent to foreigners and outsiders. The widow and Zarepheth and Namaan the Syrian. To his hometown crowd of Nazareth, who thought themselves insiders to God because they were Jews, insiders to Jesus because they were from his hometown.... Jesus shoots that all down. Because they reject him, the Gospel will be offered to others. Because they refuse to hear, they will be shamed by outsiders who receive Jesus in thanks.

And really, he's poking holes in their pride. He's exposing them for their hardened hearts. They were not listening to him to really hear what he had to say, and so they were offended. Especially when he began to compare them to those lousy gentiles. They were about to push him off the cliff and probably stone him as a false teacher! But it just proved Jesus' words all the more true.

We too, don't like to hear what we don't like to hear. When your pastor stands here and tells you what scripture says about your sin, it's not supposed to be a kind word. The law offends us. It's an assault on your sinful pride, your false sense of righteousness. But before you try to stone the preacher or push him off the cliff, remember this is God's word of Law. This is a slap in the face we need to experience.

And even when Jesus himself speaks, preaches, teaches – some will reject. They did then, and they do today. But to him who has ears to hear – the message gets through. When the law breaks us into pieces and leaves us a quivering pile of guilt and shame. Then Jesus has another word. Then he has good news.

He is the chosen one, the Messiah, anointed to preach good news to the poor. And the good news is this: that he has died for your sins, that he has taken your guilt and shame. That all your sinful pride and self-righteousness are forgiven by his work for you. His death on the cross pays the price of freedom for us who are slaves to sin, and our newfound liberty in him is reason to rejoice.

Today, here 200 years later, Isaiah is fulfilled yet again. As Jesus' good news comes to people who need to hear it. As his word is proclaimed, as his gifts are freely given. The Spirit of the Lord works faith through his Word, gives and strengthens our faith, and assures us of the blessings of salvation through Jesus Christ. Today, in Jesus, what is written is real and sure and true.

Does it offend you? It should. Does it give you comfort? It should. For Jesus the guest preacher is still speaking, still calling sinners to repentance and faith. The Spirit is still working in devious ways to open our eyes and ears to see and hear this Jesus, this great Teacher, this anointed one – whose word is worth hearing and believing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sermon - Epiphany 2 - John 2:1-11

John 2:1-11
Epiphany 2
January 17, 2009
“The REAL Bridegroom”

Jesus first miracle seems unplanned. It happened at a wedding, at the request of his mother. There was no pressing need, except the possible embarassment of a host that hadn't planned for enough wedding guests. One commentator (Bo Giertz) describes it this way:

...Let us ponder the reason behind Jesus' miracle: a small irritating mishap threatening a respectable Galilean family with great shame. This Sunday in the Church Year used to be called "Home Sunday" because it emphasized Jesus' relationship to our home life and how we immediately see what Jesus has to do in our homes. He is there--even during the trivial annoyances of everyday life. Christ descended into our everyday life when He became man. This is how He really shows us who He is. His glory is revealed to us not only on the Mount of Transfiguration, but as a helper and a friend at the very center of every day's prosaic reality.

Rightly understood, however, we see our Lord God as providing all the wine and food for every banquet, all the daily bread of life. So is it really a surprise that Jesus would tend to such an important detail?

But the significance of this miracle is even deeper, as it serves to help answer our Epiphany question, “who is this Jesus?”. We've already heard with the Wise Men that he is the one born King of the Jews. The angels announced him as “A savior, Christ the Lord”. God himself adds to the growing picture at Jesus baptism, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased”. And now this little miracle at the beginning of his ministry gives us another picture and pointer of Christ's identity. He is the true Bridegroom.

After all, it was the bridegroom at the wedding that was responsible to take care of the guests. Here Jesus, by providing the best wine himself, shows that he is the True Bridegroom, even if it wasn't his wedding.

Scripture, even from the Old Testament, uses the metaphor of marriage to teach us our relationship with God. In Jeremiah 31, God laments that the people “broke my covenant with them, though I was a husband to them”. The nation of Israel as a whole, and the individual sinners within it are described as adulterous. They pollute and disdain the true and proper relationship to God by following after and “having affairs” if you will with all sorts of false gods.

And we are no different. Our sins, of commission and omission, of thought, word, and deed, are a turning away from the true Bridegroom to some other, lesser, lover. When we, the bride of Christ, his church, do anything other than His will, we break the marriage bond and adulterate ourselves, and our relationship with him. When we, as a body, or as individual members of the body, do what we know is wrong, we forsake and divorce ourselves from him – it's a terrifying place to be.

But he is a forgiving husband, a loving bridegroom. His patience surpasses any human husband, his love is greater and deeper. He lays down his life on the cross to save the marriage, to save his people forevermore. He takes us back, time and again, with a forgiveness that is hard to imagine. Calling us to turn away from our false loves, and receive him our true love, according to his grace.

Our bridegroom, Jesus. He asks his mother, “why do you involve me, my time is not yet come?” But he responds to the requests and needs of his people.

His hour of glory was still on the horizon – his glorification at the cross, and his final coming in glory. But here in his first sign Jesus points forward to other miracles to come, and to the final feast of celebration at the consummation of all things.

The feast – we sing about it. “This is the feast of victory for our God”. We pray about it, “a foretaste of the feast to come” the “marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom which shall have no end”. We look forward to that day, that final day, at his second coming, when the Bridegroom brings all things together and fulfills his plan. When the dead are raised, and his people are judged righteous on account of him. When we enter into our eternal rest and celebrate the final victory.

Revelation gives us a picture of the final bride – the holy city of Jerusalem – adorned for that celebration. It stands in contrast to Eve, the first bride – who was ashamed of her sin and nakedness. The final bride – the entirety of God's people – we are adorned with the very glory of God.

So today, like every Sunday, we celebrate the wedding. We have a foretaste of the feast to come. And the Bridegroom who provided the wine at Cana, provides the bread and wine at the altar. The same Jesus who in miraculous fashion caused the creation of the best wine – he causes, by his word, the sacramental reality of his presence for our blessing. His true blood and true body, here for us. Not for our mundane needs, but to rid us of guilt and shame and sin. His feast for his people, his love for his bride.

Turning water into wine is a mighty wonder. But forgiving our sins is the greater miracle. As you come to the feast today – all you who hunger and thirst for righteousness – bring your infidelities and unfaithfulness, and receive his everlasting forgiveness, his eternal life, and his sure salvation. He is the true bridegroom, and we are his true bride forever. In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sermon - The Baptism of Our Lord - Luke 2:21-22

Luke 2:21-22
The Baptism of Our Lord
January 10, 2009
“Baptized for You”

Short of his death and resurrection, it has been suggested that Jesus' baptism is the most important event in his work for us. You could argue that, of course. For everything Jesus does for us is important.

But at least we can say this. His baptism was very significant. There's a reason that the entire Godhead is on display – The Father in the voice from heaven. The Spirit descending like a dove. And the Son, on center stage, the Beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. There is deep significance to this public declaration, this inauguration of Jesus' preaching ministry. In word and deed, what Jesus does should be marked and studied and pondered.

Not only is this event important for theology and for our study and understanding of Christ. When Jesus is baptized, it makes a difference to you – it is for you. So let's pay attention here to what's going on in the Jordan river.

Every Sunday School child knows baptism washes away our sins. But we also know that Jesus didn't sin. So his baptism presents us with a puzzle. And in working out the answer, we see a great blessing in Christ's baptism for us.

We do know this. That we are sinners. And we need baptism. We know very well the filth and dirt that cling to us. When we hear the accusations of God's law, we admit we deserve his punishment. For we don't like the reproval any more than Herod, who locked up John the Baptist. We get more than uncomfortable when someone reminds us, shows us our sin. But we can either rebuff the accusation – silence it, ignore it, rationalize it.... or we can fall down in repentance and beg for God's forgiveness.

God calls us to repent. And God has good news for us when we do. He provides ways for us to receive his grace. And one of those is Holy Baptism.

At the font of baptism, we enter the church and become part of God's family. We receive the gift of faith, forgiveness of our sins, life and salvation in those baptismal waters. What a flood of blessings! But it's not just a one-time-thing, either.
We believe that baptism is a daily blessing to the Christian, as each day we drown our sinful self in repentance and faith, always turning to Christ for forgiveness. Arising to live with him and for him and in him each day.

And we know that Jesus death is why we are forgiven. Because at the cross he bore our sins, took our punishment, and made everything right between us and God again. He took our place on the cross. But he took our place long before that.

Here in his baptism Jesus first publicly shows his ID card. He is the Son of God, the savior. As John says, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He takes them away, because he takes them on himself. And that's why he is baptized. It's not his own sins he took into the Jordan River, but ours. It's not for himself that he is baptized, but for us.

And even as he takes something away, he gives something in return. Our sins are gone. Our punishment is gone. And in return, he gives us his own righteousness. He gives us God's approval. So when God says of Jesus, “with him I am well pleased”, we should also hear, “with you, my child, I am well pleased”. Jesus takes our place as a sinner, and he gives us his place as a child of God forever.

The great exchange. This is what Jesus does for us. But there is more.

Remember back in the Garden of Eden, when our first parents sinned and were sent away? God barred the gate to Eden's paradise. He set an angel with a flaming sword to stand guard, so man could not return to his idyllic home. Paradise was closed. But in Jesus baptism, “the heavens are opened”. Paradise, access to God is available once again, through Christ. Just as Jesus could offer the promise of paradise restored to the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise”. So does Jesus procure the same for us his people. When you are baptized, paradise is yours. Heaven is opened to you. It's a present possession that one day you will enjoy in full.

It's even significant that he is baptized in the Jordan – the river that is the threshold, the border to the promised land. In Christ, we enter the promised land of God's kingdom, through our baptism.

But there's still more. As the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, so does the Holy Spirit descend on us. We don't see the dove come down at Christian baptisms. But by faith, we do. We believe what Scripture teaches – that in Baptism the Spirit is ours, lives within us, guides and directs us and sanctifies us wholly. And the Spirit testifies to Christ, points us, leads us, again and again to Christ and to his cross for our comfort and peace.

And we don't hear the thunderous voice of the Father's approval at our baptism. But by faith, we do. We know the promises of Jesus, that no one can come to the Father but by him, Jesus. And that he and the Father are one. And that he prepares a place for us in the Father's house. And that “he who receives me, receives the Father who sent me.”

Yes, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, God's own Son... becomes one of us. He takes our place, as he wades into the water, as he drowns our sins there. And as comes up, he brings us with him. He takes our place on the cross. And as he rises from death, he brings us with him. And as he ascends to heaven, he will come back to take us home with him.

Just as everything he does is for you, Jesus was baptized for you. You are baptized in him, and awash in blessings now and forevermore through him. And with you, God is well pleased!


Friday, January 01, 2010

Sermon - New Year's Eve - Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10
New Year's Eve
December 31, 2009
“Nothing New”
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.

You might think it strange to hear this passage on a New Year's Eve. Ecclesiastes isn't the most upbeat book of the Bible. Solomon's voice and tone here are less than bubbly... downright depressing, really. “All is vanity” he preaches. Everything is pointless. And it's all been done before. There is nothing new under the sun. Nothing he hasn't seen or heard. Even he, Solomon, with all his great wisdom, is not impressed by anything. If anything, he's become jaded about this world and what it has to offer. It's the same old, same old, same old. Nothing changes. It's always the same.

He talks about all the pleasures he has sought and experienced, and how they leave him empty. Self-indulgence, Hard work, gold and silver, gardens, wealth and honor, slaves, a full stomach, wine, women and song. None of it held meaning for him, this old king looking back on his life.

Tonight we look back on another year of our lives. And we may find some milestones and events to remember. For good or bad, much has happened in this last circle around the sun. Maybe you've lost a job, or gotten a new one. Maybe you've fallen in love, or seen a relationship fall apart. Have you seen the birth of a child or the death of a loved one? Had health problems, faith problems, or some other problems worth remembering or forgetting? It's only natural as we turn the calendar to take stock of the past year and what it's meant.

Solomon, at the end of many years, offers a word of wisdom: it all means nothing. It's all vanity. Emptiness. Pointless.

What does he mean? Perhaps that in the grand scheme of things, there is nothing much different about his life than your life, or anyone's life here on earth. There is nothing new under the sun. It's always the same.

We are conceived and born in sin. We grow up, eat and drink and marry and work. We live our lives for the pleasures we can find, but none of it satisfies us, ultimately. It's all corrupted by sin. It's all shy of perfect, less than fulfilling.

Sure, you might have those “snapshot moments” in life. A time of great joy you try to remember, and maybe by rehearsing it – burn it into your brain. But even those moments are bittersweet – for they don't last. Soon it's on to the next grief and trouble of life. Life in this world, viewed honestly, is really pointless.

Unless. Unless there is more...

As depressing as Solomon's wisdom is in Ecclesiastes, he gives us some hope. He also says, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.”

Through all his moaning and groaning about the futility of this life, Solomon still sees there is more on the horizon. He knows there is something deeper that God has planned. Hints and glimmers of the hidden wisdom of God poking through the clouds of a gloomy day-to-day existence.

There is nothing new under the sun.... for us, from us. But from God there is something new, different, and worth our attention. Something that does last forever. There is news – good news – from God. And it begins with a child born unto us in Bethlehem.

Jesus Christ is the only antidote to the vanity of this life. He is something new under the sun. A human being who can perfectly fulfill the law. A sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The one who lays down his life for his friends, even for his enemies. He is something totally other, totally different, totally new, and entirely not of this world.

For he is not under the sun, but as Lord of creation he sits over it. He is the one who gives light to light. He is the one who gives new life to the dead. He is the one who makes the Old Adam the New Adam. He makes us a New Creation. “Behold” he says, “I make all things new!” For at his second coming he do away with this corrupted creation, and bring forth new heaven and earth. And his redeemed people there will sing him a new song!

In Jesus Christ, God is always working for renewal. In our baptism we have the washing of rebirth and renewal. In the Lord's Supper we receive forgiveness, new life and salvation.

And though what he brings us is good news, he never changes. He's the same yesterday, today and forever. And all the while the story never changes. The sermon is always the same. You are always a sinner, and Christ is always the Savior from sin by his death on the cross. But that message is always news to me and you.

Whatever your year has been like, whatever sorrows or joys it has seen, however you will remember 2009 (or maybe you'd like to just forget it). As we look forward to 2010 and beyond, we rejoice in the good news of Jesus Christ, who brings meaning and hope and promises untold to the vanity of this life. Keep your eyes on the horizon, and keep your faith and trust in him. Amen.