my mother’s funeral sermon – one year later

“The Good Shepherd” (Psalm 23)

Introduction

Family and friends of Phyllis May (Horstman) Sahlstrom, we gather, grieving the loss of one we love and will miss. This is sad and sometimes people suggest that we not think about sad things but in recalling memories of times together at Sherry’s a little later we work through the grief, and as we do so, God is with us to bring us comfort.

We are thankful for the comfort of God’s abiding presence, for this has been six months filled with much grief.
 Eloise’ mother Margaret Meyerer died on Friday Dec. 12th and received Christian burial on Monday Jan. 12th.
 Karen’s father Coral Cotterell died Saturday March 21st and received Christian burial on Friday March 27th.
 Our father Elmer Sahlstrom died on Sunday May 3rd and received Christian burial on Wednesday May 20th.
 Early in the morning on Tuesday June 16th, our mother Phyllis died and went to be with her shepherd Jesus.

The obituary for Phyllis (printed in the worship bulletin) mentions that she lived for ninety-one years, earned three college degrees and had been working on a fourth degree. Two days after her death would have marked the beginning of her seventieth year of marriage to Elmer, who passed away last month. She was the proud mother of three, grandmother of six (though she asked to be called “Phyllis” rather than “grandmother” because she was determined not to be seen as that “old.”) She was the great-grandmother of four.

In eulogies we speak well of the departed. In Christian funerals we gather to worship Jesus our Good Shepherd. On many occasions I sat by Phyllis’ bedside and read the most familiar and beloved of the psalms: Psalm 23. When I visited in April, she asked me to read the 23rd Psalm again and again. This psalm was written 3,000 years ago by Israel’s favorite king, David, who as a young man had been a shepherd. It was usual practice for families with flocks to have the youngest son serve as a shepherd. As the youngest son of Jesse, David seemed an unlikely king but even as king, he never forgot that he was also a sheep and that the LORD was his shepherd. And so we read, once again, from the 23rd Psalm – the “Shepherd’s” Psalm:

I. The Guidance and Protection Provided By The Shepherd

PSALM 23:1-2 1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

The picture of the Lord God as a shepherd is found not only here, but scattered throughout the psalms (such as Psalm 74, 77, 78, 79 and 80) and the prophets of ancient Israel such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Micah wrote: 2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, …out of you will come for me one who will … 4 …shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord…. 5 And he will be their peace. (Micah 5:2, 4-5)

The prophet Micah identifies this shepherd as the eternal One who would come four hundred years later “in the strength of the Lord.” Micah is very specific. Christ’s birth would not take place in the Bethlehem of Zebulon, eight miles from Nazareth but in Bethlehem Ephrathah, six miles south of Jerusalem; home of the shepherd king, David. Near this Bethlehem, is located the tomb of Rachel – the beloved wife of Jacob – and here the prophet Jeremiah (31:15) prophesied – six hundred years earlier – that Rachel would “weep for her children” – a reference to King Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem after Christ had been born. (Matthew 2:16)

Such specifics remind us that God is aware and involved in the details of our lives, also now as we grieve the loss of Phyllis. The good shepherd takes care to provide for his flock. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” In Israel, with limited good pastureland a shepherd needs to keep his flock moving from one place to another to find sufficient food. By mid-day the sheep are getting tired, so the shepherd provides opportunity for the sheep to “2 …lie down in green pastures” not for food, but for rest after the morning’s difficult travel, “…beside the still waters” where there is abundant refreshment after a dusty journey.

…to be at rest [sheep must have] freedom from fear…. …Sheep are so timid and easily panicked that even a stray jackrabbit …. can stampede a whole flock…. As long as there is even the slightest suspicion of danger… the sheep stand up ready to flee for their lives. They have little or no means of self-defense. They are helpless, timid, feeble creatures whose only recourse is to run. (Keller)

As God grants our lives longevity our struggles increase. As in Psalm 90, though “like new grass of the morning…by evening…dry and withered. … We finish our years with a moan.” (Ps. 90:5-6) It’s thought that Psalm 23 may have been written when David was older, possibly during the struggles of the rebellion of his son Absalom. So also with Phyllis, the vigorous activity of her youth was followed in her middle years by regular walks to classes and her office at the university but in old age she saw affliction and pain, leaving her immobilized and bedridden. We find hope in the scriptural promise that after this life’s adversity and sorrow God mercifully grants his sheep eternal rest in the green pastures and still waters of Christ’s presence in heaven.

Yet we are not by nature members of God’s flock but rather lost and straying sheep. When Jesus beheld the crowds coming to hear his teaching “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36b) As the prophet Isaiah reminds us “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6a) But in Psalm 23 we read…

II. Our Need For Rescue From The Shepherd

PSALM 23:3, 4b 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4b … thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

To identify sheep as his own, a shepherd cut’s his own distinctive notch in the sheep’s ear. How do we become God’s sheep? David writes: “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.” Happening upon the phrase: “the righteousness of God” while preparing a lecture on the Psalms in 1513, Martin Luther panicked, understanding that in order to earn heaven we would need to be righteous as God is righteous. But in his letter to Christians in Rome St. Paul wrote:

10 … “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

Where then is consolation to be found at the end of our long dusty journey when life in this world has ended? Luther found words of hope in a verse about the gospel, two chapters earlier in Romans:

“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)

The green pastures and cool still waters of heaven are not found in our righteous but in God’s mercy “from first to last.” Christ’s suffering and death upon the cross has atoned for our sins. As Isaiah wrote: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

In a book written by Phillip Keller, an African sheep rancher, we learn that sheep “require…endless attention and meticulous care. (Keller) He describes a particularly helpless condition called a “cast down” sheep. He explains that such a sheep flops over on its back because of impending birth or laden with heavy wool. It can’t right itself and stand on its own feet. It lies helplessly with its feet in the air and becomes bloated with stomach gasses. In the heat of summer a cast down sheep can die within hours. The good shepherd will come to its aid, gently rolling the sheep over onto its side, rubbing its legs to restore circulation, and helping it onto its feet. Then he sheers it of its heavy fleece, often clogged with manure, mud, sticks and ticks. (Keller)

This picture of a cast down sheep aptly describes us; not merely burdened but completely helpless to rescue ourselves. Dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1,5), we have become completely alienated from God, our shepherd. But God is merciful and sent Christ to be our Good Shepherd. Of him Isaiah wrote “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6b) Our Good Shepherd Jesus “restoreth [our] soul,” taking away our debt of sin. As in Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, our Good Shepherd seeks out his lost sheep “And when he finds it…[he] joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home, [and]…calls his friends and neighbors together and says `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'” (Luke 15:4-6)

As God’s redeemed sheep, God gives us new life in God that endures beyond the door of death. Jesus our good shepherd ” leadeth…in…paths of righteousness.” As God’s rescued sheep, God’s “rod and…staff…comfort” us. A shepherd’s rod is like a club that he can use to fend off dangerous predators. A shepherd’s staff is a long stick, sometimes with a crook at the top that he uses to reach out and draw a lamb near or with the other thin end, to lay along the side of a sheep to direct it in the way it should go. As Jesus once said: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life….” (John 10:27-28a)

III. The Rescue Provided By Our Good Shepherd Jesus

PSALM 23:5 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

After feeding in the green pastures of spring the shepherd “preparest a table” for his sheep by leading the flock up the steep high mountain ridges to eat the abundant vegetation revealed following the summer snow melt until the early winter snows reappear and once again the shepherd leads his flock to ever lower elevations and ultimately to winter in the sheep pen. Through our spring and winter, the shepherd leads us sheep through the successive phases of life, providing and protecting in times of danger. When his sheep suffer scrapes and scratches while foraging near thorn bushes, the good shepherd “anointest [their heads] with oil.”

In the waters of holy baptism, our “cup runneth over.” In baptism the mercy won for all becomes our own. Scripture never describes baptism as our work or as a symbol. In baptism God is at work, promising:

Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 3:21 – ESV)

St. Paul wrote:

4 …when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us…through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on [Phyllis] generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, (Titus 3:4-6)

12 having been buried with [Christ] in baptism and raised with him through…faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13…God made [Phyllis] alive with Christ. He forgave [her] all her sins. (Col. 2:12)

When about eight years ago I visited the church of Phyllis’ childhood on a Wednesday evening and Sunday morning, she responded “Well, that’s alright, but don’t believe them!” I asked Phyllis why as a young adult she had left that church. She said, “Because there was no hope there.” In requesting Christian baptism Phyllis expressed a sure and certain hope in her good Shepherd Jesus, not based on what she had tried to do but on what Jesus had already done for her and for all of us on the cross. As Jesus said:

7 …“I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. … 9 …whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 …I have come that they may have life… 11 “I am the good shepherd. [who] … lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:7, 9-11)

Last October I had been sitting with Phyllis while she slept. She woke up and asked me to read to her. I asked her if she’d like me to read a Psalm or from the Gospels. This time she said “not a psalm.” So I read eight chapters from the gospel of John starting with these words:

JOHN 14:1-6 1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Phyllis asked me what I’d been reading, and when I told her I asked if she liked those chapters and she said “yes, I like them.” After reading several chapters I was getting tired and took a break. She looked up and said why did you stop? So I continued. When I was out visiting in April Phyllis again asked that I read from the gospels and she listened as I read almost all of the gospel of Matthew. On Thursday April 16th Phyllis received comfort in the forgiveness offered in absolution (John 20:23) and in the Lord’s supper. (Matt. 26:28)

IV. Our Good Shepherd Comforts Us With His Abiding Presence & Causes Us To Dwell With Him In Heaven Forever

Strengthened in our faith, even when we are faced with death, we confidently affirm:

PSALM 23:4a 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

Jesus our shepherd is also with us in the valleys and dark places and “valley of the shadow of death.” The travels of sheep included passing through the low shadowy areas that provoke fear. These are the haunts of coyotes, bears, wolves and cougars. The dark valleys experience sudden storms and flash floods. On the steep mountain passes there are sometimes rock slides and menacing avalanches and sudden unexpected death.

It is true that Phyllis didn’t long for death. When it was suggested last April that she might go to heaven soon, Phyllis responded: “Me? Why?” But when her thoughts turned to death, sometimes she became afraid, as we all do. Death is the great shadowy undiscovered country. Even Christ, after being raised from the dead, did not provided details of this experience. So to give Phyllis reassurance I read the 23rd Psalm and Psalm 46 that assures us “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” and Psalm 121 “1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? 2 My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” and Psalm 139:

7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

For God’s sheep, death is nothing to fear. Death is but a door way into the waiting arms of our good shepherd Jesus, to live in the joy of his presence forever. As we are assured in Psalm 23:

PSALM 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

David’s words: “and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever,” literally speak of dwelling “length of days,” and may be translated: “I shall dwell in the Temple courts for the rest of my life.” David, the shepherd king, loved dwelling near the Tabernacle. He danced when the arc of the covenant was brought into Jerusalem. Here he speaks of his joy in dwelling in God’s presence, as he also did in Psalm 27:

1 O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you,… in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.

King David also anticipated being in God’s presence later in heaven, for when his first son of Bathsheba died, David said (2 Samuel 12:23): “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” He knew he would see his son again when he himself went to be with God. Jesus our Shepherd has also prepared a place for us in heaven, which as St. Paul wrote is “better by far.” (Philipp. 1:23)

For her Master’s Thesis, Phyllis chose to write about a poem by Angelus Silesius. Phyllis noted that in this poem, death is not to be feared:

What about death? …when he dies his physical death, he is released to God for life eternal. Death is thus a liberation not to be feared. (“Angelus Silesius: Poet and Evangelist,” Phyllis Sahlstrom)

I’d like to close with some words from Phyllis, for…

Gary: When Gary was six, he reduced his intake of food to an amount his father and I considered to be under medical and legal limits. … A school nurse rang to ask if Gary ate breakfast. … Then Gary entered the University of Oregon School of Medicine where he met Karen Cotterell, and Karen took him home to her parents. … we noticed that he was beginning to grow outward…. So we doff our hats to Coral and Jean Cotterell for accomplishing what we could not, and we thank them for the kindness and generosity that went with it. (Happy Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary)

Sherry: In the beginning, we said: I hope it’s a girl! And I thought: It will be a girl. She will be mine. … She will be my friend and companion and I hers. As the years went by, I said: I realize that she is mine just for a little time and someday she will leave me. … We have made wonderful memories together and that will sustain us….

Greg: You were born at three forty-one in the cool of the morning before the August heat set in. I named you Gregory after a favorite friend of my father’s. … At six, you marched bravely off to school…. One day you drew my portrait on a piece of new, lined, brown school paper. I matted it on white in a red frame to match my red crayon smile, a happy contrast to the pale green eyes. I laugh now to see it hanging on the wall of my small den. It is my Rembrandt. The years pass too quickly. Memory of them is sweet comfort.

For Elmer:

Angels guard me where I rest,
Two by two they stand abreast,
Two more guard me where I sleep
Kneeling, praying at my feet.
Guard me always as you do.
Comfort me awhile in you.
Keep your angels near by me.
Let me now abide in thee.

(Venice, Oct. 1997)

Phyllis, by the grace of God, is with her shepherd Jesus and the angels of heaven. May each one of find comfort in the days ahead through faith in that same Shepherd until we await our time to be in his loving care forever. Amen.

Advertisements

A Tale of Two Kingdoms and Two Bathrooms

I currently live in North Carolina. If you pay attention to the news, you have been hearing a lot about our state. You may have heard that Bruce Springsteen recently cancelled his concert here and that some corporations have decided to curtain their business in our state. Even the NFL is having second thoughts. The reason? To use Shakespearean phraseology, It is all “much ado about” bathrooms.

The folks in Charlotte passed a local law that permitted trans-gender people to use the public restroom that they identified with. Our state legislature – horrified – responded by calling itself into session, annulling Charlotte’s new law, enacting “House-Law 2” that requires everyone to use the public restroom that corresponds to their birth-gender, and making it illegal for local governments to enact such anti-discrimination laws. Other southern states have since climbed onto the band-wagon.

I find all of this bewildering. I really don’t know that walking into the Men’s restroom and seeing a (birth-gender) male dressed as a woman is any less disconcerting that seeing a (birth-gender) female dressed as a man (which – frankly – I likely wouldn’t notice at all). An episode of Prairie Home Companion noted: when one is behind a toilet enclosure, who would know?

I won’t enter into a discussion about what the Bible says in this matter, since civil governments are to be ruled by reason (imagine that) rather than scripture. As Lutherans, we have taught for five hundred years that we are to distinguish between the Kingdom of God and the Political Order. We no longer live in the time when King Henry IV had to stand barefoot in the snow waiting for the blessing of the Pope. We believe in two kingdoms.

In the Book of Concord (the book that defines what Lutherans believe from the Bible), in a section called the “Apology (defense) of the Augsburg Confession,” Article 16: Political Order, we read the following good counsel:

“Christ’s kingdom is spiritual; it is the knowledge of God in the heart, the fear of God and faith, the beginning of eternal righteousness and eternal life. … The Gospel does not introduce any new laws about the civil estate, but commands us to obey the existing laws, whether they were formulated by heathen or by others, and in this obedience to practice love. It was mad of Carlstadt to try to impose on us the judicial laws of Moses. … For the Gospel does not destroy the state…and it commands us to obey them as divine ordinances not only from fear of punishment but also “for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). … God…would have them know their duty to teach that the spiritual kingdom does not change the civil government.” (Tappert edition, Fortress Press, pages 222-223)

As Christians, as believers in Christ, we understand that there is a difference between “the world” and “the church.” We do not expect the world to be governed by Christian values. It is a confusion to look to the government to uphold Christian standards, while asking for a more “enlightened” (worldly) church that is willing to erode its biblical ethics.

More serious still, by confusing these two kingdoms, people go to church for “prosperity” (or whatever else people want to get) rather than as a place for an encounter with God and his Word; to give God praise for his great mercies, poured out upon us despite our unworthiness.

Christ was not a new Moses and the world and its governments are not the church. Let government be ruled by reason for the benefit of all people; let Christ’s church be ruled by scripture; and let’s not impose the world’s values upon Christ’s kingdom.

We’re Listening to you but We’re also Listening to Scripture

This blog isn’t going to be a monthly book review but when I saw Matthew Vines’ “God and the Gay Christian” among the new e-book acquisitions at our local library, it caught my attention. After all, I was listening when the author of the book “Searching for Sunday” wrote “when our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends aren’t welcome at the table, then we don’t feel welcome either.” With Rachel Evans, as a Christian, I too want “to be known by what we’re for…not just what we’re against.” I am for people, all people, believing in Jesus and looking to him for forgiveness. I am for all people being enthusiastically welcomed into the Christian faith, regardless of their race, nationality, culture, ethnic background or personal history.

I am also for Christianity being authentic and thoroughly biblical (thus, the name of this blog: “Authentic Christianity…”). I am not among those who are of the opinion that “everyone interprets the Bible differently.” As a pastor, I really can’t remember a time when two people, after serious and careful study, actually disagreed about what the Bible says. I can recall times when people simply disagreed with what scripture says. Mark Twain wrote: “It’s not what I don’t understand in the Bible that bothers me, it’s what I do understand.”

Matthew Vines, after citing the example of the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to Galileo (and Copernicus) believing in a heliocentric (sun-centered) solar system, asks “Does new information we have about homosexuality also warrant a reinterpretation of Scripture?

As the church of Galileo’s time looked at the words of Psalm 104:5 “He (the Lord) set the earth on its foundations; it shall never be moved” they did so through the lens of the science of their day, which almost universally held to a geocentric (earth-centered) solar system. (See, for example, the book by Simon Singh, “Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.”) Careful study of Psalm 104 would have noticed in verse 3 that God “makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” This is Hebrew poetry, not a science textbook. A lesson we learn from this is that contemporary opinion should not be imposed upon scripture, in Galileo’s time or our own.

Matthew Vines is more compelling in his reinterpreting of scripture than Rev. Peter Gomes in “The Good Book.” He argues (p. 42) that ancient Greek and Roman culture had a different understanding of same-sex behavior than has been prevalent since the mid-20th century and that Romans 1:26-27 isn’t condemning same-sex relations but hedonism and self-indulgence. Yet he also notes that St. Paul’s words for homosexual in Galatians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 likely go back to (the Greek translation of) Leviticus 20:13 and that “same-sex intercourse was prohibited for the Israelites. (p. 26)

Such methods of reinterpretation are not new. When people disagree with Biblical prohibitions, they often try to limit their application, as if to say: “Sure, the Bible says no to that, but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

But this blog entry isn’t about homosexuality, it’s about authentic Christianity – it’s about listening and paying close attention to people’s concerns but also to the clear words of scripture. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 isn’t about one sin in particular. It’s a warning that those who pursue sin don’t inherit heaven, just as the author of Hebrews 10:23-27 encourages us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” and warns “If we deliberately keep on sinning…no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment….” It isn’t that some sins are too big for God to forgive but that the pursuit of sin works like acid, eroding faith, and when faith is gone, so is our connection to Christ and salvation.

Is it possible that we’re misunderstanding something in scripture? Perhaps, but any reconsideration would need to be based on careful and protracted study, and certainly not driven by personal agendas. St. Paul warned in 2 Timothy 4:3 that “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Let’s be sure that we’re not doing that.

To those who stridently disagree with some of what they find in scripture, we might ask: “Are you listening?” To those who are under the impression that the God who reveals himself in scripture is an angry God, I disagree. Instead, I find a God who cares enough to reach out passionately to everyone. But doesn’t the Creator have a right to set the standards of conduct for his creation? When we violated his law, Jesus came and died in our place to pay for our sin. This isn’t a vengeful God but one who (literally) feels our pain. In response, is it too much for us to listen, take to heart what he’s saying to us in scripture, and to try and follow even when it is hard? The alternative is to make a synthetic God after our own image, a fake religion where we set our own standards and call them “good,” and look down on those with a “literal” interpretation of scripture as inferior. Such religion, ultimately, doesn’t help anyone.

Are we listening?

Today is Good Friday, when we solemnly remember the price Christ paid for the sins of the world – your sins and mine. Today we remember what it is to be authentically Christian. It isn’t the Easter egg hunts this Sunday. It isn’t praise bands and enthusiastic sermons hawking the prosperity gospel. Christianity is a religion with a cost. Not a cost paid by us, but on behalf of us by the holy Son of God Jesus. Religion, true religion, isn’t about us and what we do nor what we get out of it. It certainly isn’t sermons that seek to be entertaining while only succeeding at being banal. True religion is about God, an infinitely merciful and kind God – God the Son who became one of us and suffered and died for us. On this day, Good Friday, we see the the love of God graphically displayed for all to see.

But are people listening to to our message? Too often I think the answer is no. And if not, it may be that the Christianity being displayed by churches today may too often not be the authentic Christianity that gives people a reason to listen. Are we listening to what they’re saying to us? We should not – must not – try and be a church that defines itself by what people are clamoring for, but we should be a church that listens and sympathetically responds. Here (below) is a brief excerpt from a book that I think people should read and listen to. I certainly don’t agree with all of her perspectives but I feel her pain and I think that she makes some valid points that we need to hear. Where we may not agree, she deserves a patient and thoughtful response. People should have an opportunity to hear the scriptural reasons for why we hold to our ancient convictions. If we don’t listen to what people are saying to us and understand how people today are viewing Christian churches, how can we respond and why should they listen?

“Millennials want to be known by what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff— biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice— but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind…. I explained that when our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends aren’t welcome at the table, then we don’t feel welcome either, and that not every young adult gets married or has children, so we need to stop building our churches around categories and start building them around people. …We can’t be won back with hipper worship…. We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained. Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. …We’re looking for Jesus…: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.” (Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church)

Winter Cold & Warm Hearts

Merry Christmas! This isn’t a belated Christmas wish, but a reminder that not everyone celebrates Christmas on (our) December 25th. For those on the Julian Calendar, such as our brothers and sisters in the Ukrainian Lutheran Church, today is Christmas Eve and tomorrow is Christmas. According to the Julian Calendar, today is December 24th.

While I was living in Ukraine, I had a blessed opportunity to preach at the church in Ivanivka during December, not long before Christmas. The weather was bitterly cold. Their church, which had been a theater under Communism, had been returned to service as a church. Pastor Serhiy Somin led his Bible class in a hymn and later led his congregation in worship. It was such a joy to be there with them.

Yet the Winter weather was very cold (dusha colodno), not only outside (notice the snow) but also inside the church. So after the Bible class when a church member gave me a cup of warm milk, it was gratefully received. I’ve never been so cold. I wore a sweater and wrapped a mylar “emergency” blanket under my robe but by the end of the worship service I was shivering and my feet were numb.

Yet my heart has never been so warm. Here in sub-freezing weather (inside and outside) was a sizable gathering of worshipers. Undeterred by the weather, they gathered with coats and shopkas (fir hats) to hear the good news about Jesus. They sang the hymns with their whole hearts, beautifully. I was moved by their dedication and zeal.

After the worship service, two ladies came up to me, wrapped in their coats and hats, apologizing for the “poor conditions” and invited me to their home for lunch. No apology was necessary. I felt so blessed to be there.  Lunch consisted of soup – chicken broth with potatoes – and a piece of bread. By the way, Ukraine – which is the bread basket of Eastern Europe – has wonderful bread! The soup was hot and delicious (dusha smachno). I was very grateful for their hospitality.

As we approached the celebration of the birth of Christ together, we shared the love of God in Christ that gives hope and warms human hearts.

Merry Christmas to our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. God bless you.

Eight Days that Changed the World

Holy Week recounts the saving acts of God, from Jesus Palm Sunday ride into Jerusalem, his Good Friday suffering on the cross as our substitute, and his Easter resurrection as proof of God’s full forgiveness and the promise of dwelling with God forever.

What we call “Holy Week” starts on the Sunday before Easter and concludes on Easter Sunday. In ancient times, the week-long commemoration of the saving events of this week were commemorated starting on Easter and continued until the following Friday. Such gathering of pilgrims to “holy sites” began already in the early second century, and so provoked a response by the emperor Hadrian, who in 135 A.D. built a pagan shrine to Adonis over the place of Jesus birth, a statue of Jupiter and an altar of Venus over Jesus’ tomb, and likewise built a structure over St. Peter’s house in Capernaum.

Unwittingly, the locations of these sites were thus preserved for Constantine’s mother Helena to discover when she made a pilgrimage to the holy land in 326 A.D., Constantine gave permission for these structures to be torn down, and apparently authentic locations were discovered beneath. Churches were constructed over these sites – and others – and were thereafter visited by an unnamed pilgrim from Bordeaux in 333 and a nun from Spain named Egeria in 381 who wrote a diary that provided a detailed account of each location visited and worship services held for pilgrims who gathered to walk where Jesus walked.

Palm Sunday recalls people laying palm fronds before Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem, shouting “hosanna!” (save, please!).

Monday recalls Jesus being anointed by Mary of the sister of Lazarus, after Jesus had raised her brother from the dead.

The Tuesday reading from Jonah foreshadows Jesus burial, where just as Jonah was three days in the belly of a great fish, Jesus was to be buried for three days in the heart of the earth.

“Spy” Wednesday recalls Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.

Maundy Thursday (from the Latin “mandatum”) recalls Jesus command to love one another as he has loved us, his washing of the disciples feet and the first Lord’s Supper.

On Good Friday (from the Anglo-Saxon word for “God”) Jesus, as our substitute, suffered upon the cross for the sins of all people.

Holy Saturday recalls Jesus’ stay in the tomb. Historically, it was on this night that Christians gathered at dusk for Easter worship that continued until dawn, when people would cry out “He is risen, he is risen indeed!” On Easter Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, assuring us that we are forgiven and that we shall be raised to dwell in God’s presence forever.

Holy Week reminds us that the Bible is more than a book of doctrine. It is God’s own record of his saving acts on behalf of a world in need of rescue.

Jesus “Great Commission” … Is it for today?

A friend was leading worship at a town here in North Carolina and preached a sermon on Jesus’ Great Commission: “Going therefore, make disciples of all nations (by) baptizing … and (by) teaching them to pay close attention to all-what-so-ever I have commanded you. For I am with you until the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) After the worship service one of the church’s members came up to him and asked him a question: “Are you saying that the Great Commission wasn’t only for the first century?” My pastor friend was taken by surprise. Where had this man heard such a thing? Jesus suffered, bled, died and rose again for all people of all time, not only for those of the first century. God has only given us two ways to bring this salvation to people of “all nations,” (1) by baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and (2) by bringing this teaching to people in every place and time. Jesus died for the sins of all people but it is through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) that a person receives this precious gift. Even faith is a gift, created by the Holy Spirit through the message (Romans 10:17) that Jesus has taken our sins upon himself, suffered and died in our place, and freely absolves (forgives) us, not because of anything we have done (Romans 4:5) but freely by grace (an undeserved gift). This message of forgiveness is entrusted to each one of us, not only to pastors. It is for each of us to “go” bring this message to all people, not only in the first century but also in our own time. Some who haven’t heard this gospel message live in far away nations and “going” may take considerable time and effort. Others here in America live in places where the gospel is rare. We need not travel great distances, but only do as the Apostle Peter encouraged us in 1 Peter 3:15 – “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and respect.” As you have freely received the gift of life with God, so also freely pass this gift on to others, that they too may have forgiveness and life with God, for it was not only something for first century believers to do, but also for you and me and all Christians until the day when our good and merciful Savior and Shepherd returns, to gather his sheep into his presence forever.

In the Hour of Death

It is the elephant in the living room. It is the thing we never want to talk or think about. It happens to all of us. For my family it has happened three times in the past six months and twice in the past two months. Death. First my mother-in-law Margaret on December 12th, then my father Elmer on May 3rd and finally my mother Phyllis on June 16th. I have never before done a funeral for a close relative and now in rapid succession I’ve done three.

This has altered my perspective and honestly I’m still recovering. I will be recovering for some time. I feel like I’ve been I’ve been hit by a car. Yes, I believe that these three are in heaven with Jesus, but they’re gone and I won’t ever see them again here. Later after the Lord’s return or after I myself have departed from this life, yes, I will see them again, but not again in this world. Until then, I will miss them.

This – once again – impacts my perspective. I’m so very thankful that 44 years ago a friend named Tony encouraged me to read the Bible. A year later I did so and it changed my life. I’m thankful that likewise my recent dearly departed heard and believed. But I come from the Northwest. Though 60% self-identify as “Christian,” only 5-8% of Oregon and Washington residents attend church. In Washington state, nearly 50,000 people die every year. That’s about 134 every day, 5 1/2 every hour, one every 70 minutes. How many of them have NEVER heard, understood and believed the gospel?

Having formerly lived and served as a pastor in Utah for fifteen years, nearly 15,000 people die there every year. That’s about 40 every day or one person every 35 minutes. In Utah County (the greater Provo area) almost 2,000 die per year, 5 per day, one every 44 minutes. Though Utah is one of the most highly “churched” states in our nation, only about 18% of Utah residents self-identify as Christian and 78% as non-Christian, if “Christian” is defined as belief in the biblical teachings summarized in the historic creeds (Apostles’ – early 2nd century A.D., Nicene – early 4th century A.D., Athanasian – circa 500 A.D.) Based on such numbers, in Utah one person dies without a true faith in Christ every 35 minutes. In Utah County, one person dies without a true faith in Christ every six hours, four people every day, nearly thirty every week, 125 every month…. Many of these people have Christian neighbors who could share the gospel with them. One of those people who could do so may be you.

Death puts everything in perspective. It’s permanent. This side of heaven or Christ’s second coming, we won’t see them again. Once death has happened, the time is up. The opportunity to share the most precious gift is gone. Christ died for the sins of all people. But this gift is only received by those who believe.

Study & Go

In an interesting and informative book by Philip L. Barlow entitled “Mormons and the Bible” (xxxvii-xxxviii) the author quotes a religious knowledge study (“U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, September 28, 1010, http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey-Who-Knows-What-About-Religion.aspx, May 11, 2012.)

The results weren’t encouraging. The church that scored highest on Bible knowledge was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called “Mormons”). Two other groups also scored near the top: atheists and Jews.

Some of this makes sense. Latter-day Saints gather weekly for three hours in contrast to the one or two hours by Protestants. They also send their teens for four years of release-time classes, totaling about 600 hours.

Confirmation in the early church took three years and roughly 300 hours. In contrast, today’s Protestant churches take teens through a double digit number of class hours and for adults this is reduced to perhaps ten or twenty. Perhaps twenty or thirty percent of church members read the Bible even occasionally and it is the exception that braves a confirmation refresher course or who frequents a Sunday morning Bible class.

Luther, in his Large Catechism, responded that people who study the Catechism once and then consider it’s pages unworthy of a repeat visit “should be pelted with dung.” I appreciate Luther’s knack for pungent memorable phrases. The Mormon Church is growing rapidly while most Lutheran Churches are not growing at all. This is not only due to the LDS army of over 80,000 missionaries, though we would do well to emulate their zeal for outreach.

The growth of the early church and the church of the Reformation was built upon a knowledge of scripture. From study of scripture comes conviction and from a failure to study God’s Word comes nothing but apathy and spiritual lethargy.

The current year of 2015 is still young. The Bible is the most marvelous of books containing vivid details about our gracious God who does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to his mercy. Why not read it cover-to-cover this year (just three or four pages per day)? Why not attend classes at church? Then renewed by God’s Word, let’s go and bring the message of the good news out beyond our churches’ walls to people everywhere, starting in our own neighborhoods.

I recall a man living in a house not more than 200 feet from the front door of the church I served in Denver. When I knocked on his door, he didn’t even know what kind of church it was! Faith comes by hearing the Word (Romans 10:17) but how will they hear if we don’t study the word and then go out and bring it to them?

The Boy Who Didn’t Came Back from Heaven

Back in Kansas they say “the shirt’s in there Mabel.” In other words, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A New York Times bestseller by the name of – The Boy Who Came Back from Heavena true story – has been flying off the shelves since Tyndale published it four and a half years ago. Now it’s being pulled from book stores because the author has admitted that the whole story was just made up. This isn’t surprising. A booklet that criticized the book for violating basic Biblical teachings was published a year later but was vehemantly criticized. I have not read either book but I have another on my shelves that was recommended by a hospital chaplain. It records stories from hundreds of people about messages from the grave that provide hope to grieving loved ones. According to this book and another that I read about near death experiences, it doesn’t really matter what you believe. The message is that clearly all of the world’s religions are mistaken.

Why are people so eager to believe every and all spiritual messages, as long as they are not from the BIble? People want a religion where no one fails to get to heaven and nobody is in error. In college I visited a church where all religions were thought to contain some truth but where theirs was more true than the others. They had great red zinger tea. But I didn’t join.

There is a reason that Martin Luther concluded that “scripture alone” is to be the basis for what we believe. He read many other books where spiritual experiences or human philosophy lead to a maze of contradictions. Only one book, the Bible, tells the truth about God and salvation all of the time. Jesus said “I am THE way THE truth and THE life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” What we believe matters, eternally. Jesus told a story about a rich man who was in torment and a poor man named Lazarus who was in heaven. The rich man asked that Lazarus be sent back to warn his living relatives. He was told that that couldn’t happen, because there was a chasm that prevented such a journey.

Being aware of that story should have been sufficient to demonstrate that The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven wasn’t a true story. The Bible isn’t only true for those who believe it’s words. The Bible will one day be found to be true also by all of those who never believed it. It is the only book that God himself has written, through apostles and prophets. If you want to know about how to get to heaven and be with God one day, read his book. In it you will find one great exception to the adage that things that sound too good to be true probably aren’t. The exception is the gospel, for the greatest of gifts (life with Christ forever) isn’t something that we earn or deserve. It is an undeserved gift paid for by Jesus and received by all who trust that they are forgiven, because of Christ, rather than by anything they could claim to have done.

Though the Bible is a best-seller, most people – including people who go to church – have never read it all the way through. Why not make 2015 the year for reading the greatest of books? The truth and mercy that you find there will give you hope.