St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
The 3rd Sunday of Easter - C
Text: Acts: 9:1-20
Subject: Being called and/or chosen for "ministry"
Predicate: is totally out of our hands. God chooses, calls and uses who he wants how he wants and there is little we can do to resist him.
A few years ago, a chruch research bureau surveyed pastors who decided to leave the parish ministry to find out what major problems or frustrations contributed most to resigning their calls.
As you might expect, many resaons were given. But several concerns were mentioned more frequently than others. And one of the most frequently mentioned frustrations was how "difficult it is to effectively teach confirmation classes in today's world."
Now I am certainly not ready to throw in the towel and resign my call. I DO plan on being around for quite a few years. The board of pensions tells me that my projected retirement date is October 1, 2015! And that sounds fine to me.
But, I CAN understand the results of that survey. With no hesitation, I can honestly tell you that teaching confirmation IS usually the most challeging thing on the schedule here at St. John's each week.
Every Monday from the beginning of September to the end of April, Pat Gohr and I sit down with 20 junior high school students, many of whom would rather be someplace else, all of whom are exhausted after a full day of school, and we try to help them learn what it is that all Christians believe, and what it is that the we who are Lutherans believe.
We try to get a basic body information across to the kids through workbooks and lectures. We try to help them to see how faith is important in their lives. We try to bring the kids along to the point where they will be active and productive members of the chruch and the local congregation after their confirmation.
However, when confimation Sunday draws near, I often wonder if all our work has been for naught.
For example, this year's class had the lowest "class average" on the final exam of any class since I've been teaching confirmation. Half the class was unable to write or recite the Lord's Prayer from memory on their first try. Even more did not know the Apostle's Creed. Some couldn't tell me that Holy Communion and Baptism are the two sacraments that we celebrate in the Lutheran Church. A few have had haphazzard attendance records at church and Sunday school for the last two years.
Actually, every single student in this year's class has fallen short of perfectly fulfilling ALL the requirements for confirmation. If we decided to follow the "letter of the law" to determine a student's readiness for confirmation, none of you would be here today.
But here you are. I have agreed to confirm you and the congregation has voted to allow your confirmation to take place. Despite your short comings and failings, in a few minutes YOU WILL participate in the rite of confirmation.
So, what is going on here? Is Pastor Heykes just a softy? Is the word being circulated among confirmation students that, "It doesn't matter whether you do the work or not, EVERYBODY gets confirmed at Morgan?
You may be tempted to think so, but the reality of the matter is that none of us is here today by virtue of what WE ARE CABABLE OF DOING, or BY VIRTUE OF WHAT WE HAVE DONE!
From the creation of the universe, to our faith in God, to our membership in the church, it has been the power and grace of God alone that has made everything happen.
Now in terms of confirmation, I do believe that the assignments and requirements are important and that you are better prepared for affirming your faith if you are well prepared and know what it is all about.
But ultimately, what is most important, is the fact that God himself has brought you here today to stand up infront of all these people to confess your faith.
And not only has God brought you this far, but God may very welll have other plans instore for you in the future.
God may want you to take on a fairly easy task such as teaching Sunday School. Or God may have bigger things in mind. God may want you to be a leader in the church. God may want you to be a pastor. God may want you to give up your life for sake of the gospel. God may EVEN want you to be a confirmation instructor some day!
And if God does, God will not made the desicion on the basis of how well you did in your confirmation studies. Nor will God make the decision on the basis of how good of a person we are. Keeping the commandments is important, but believe it or not, God does not select workers for the Kingdom of Heaven because they are less sinful than everyone else.
The truth is, that if God knows that you are the right person for the job, and if God really wants you, he has the power get you. And there is nothing you can do but say, "Yes Lord, I will do you will!"
That is what today's first lesson from Acts is all about.
In the earliest years of the church, everyone knew about a Pharisee named Saul.
He was probably the most zealous anti-christian alive. He believed his mission in life was to identify every Christians in the world and turn them away from their faith in Christ. He would stop at nothing to accomplish this task.
Fear, intimidation, death threats, imprisonment, torture, and even murder were Saul's tools of the trade. His techniques were similar to the Gestapo or KGB or secret police that various 20th century governments have used to oppress their citizens.
Saul would first seek information about people. Then, if he found out that a person was a Christian, (or even if he merely suspected that they were), he would have them arrested and imprisioned in Jerusalem. And it didn't matter if the suspect was a man or woman. Saul could even stoop so low as to arrest a husband and wife and forcibly remove them from their home and children.
And, in extreme cases, such as the time Stephan dared to boldly preach against the pharisees and other religious leaders, Saul gave his permission and approval to a murderous mob who hurled stones at Stephan until he died.
In the late 30's and early 40's, during the first decade after Christ's resurrection, if anyone deserved God's temporal and eternal punishment, it had to be Saul. He was mean. He was evil. He was the number one enemy of Christ!
And yet, when the time came for God to call a missionary to carry the Gospel to the gentiles, who did God choose?
God chose Saul!
Who can understand the mind or ways of God?
Certainly none of us! On the surface it makes no sense. Out of all the people in the world, including many who were kind and loving and faithful Christians, God looked down and decided that the man who had devoted his entire life to stamping out every last Christian, was the perfect choice to be the first missionary to non-Jews from Jerusalem to Greece, and all the way to Rome!
And not only did God pick Saul for this job, but God was successful in turning Saul from a viscious persecutor into a caring pastor and effective evangelist.
In the text from Acts we hear how God used his awsome power and majesty to change Saul's mind and convince him to serve the church.
Saul was traveling to Damascus when a blinding light from heaven flashed all around him. It was a vision of the resurrected Christ. Jesus even spoke to Saul, identifying himself, and then telling Saul to go into the city where, "you will be told what to do."
When the bright light faded, Saul discovered that he was totally blind. All he could do was to allow his companions to lead him by the hand into the city. Then he waited to find out what would happen next.
A few days later, the Lord appeared to a disciple of Christ named Ananias. The Lord told Ananias to go find Saul and place his hands on the eyes of Saul to restore his sight.
Ananias was reluctant to go. He had heard about Saul and knew about how Saul persecuted Christians. Ananias was afraid that once Saul's eyesight was restored he would resume his quest to imprison all the Christians in Damascus.
But the Lord said, "GO! Saul is my chosen instrument to carry my name to the gentiles."
So Ananias went, and did as the Lord commanded. When he placed his hinds on Saul's eyes, something like scales fell from them and Saul could once again see.
And then, an even greater miracle occured. Saul repented of his persecution. He was baptized into the Christian church. He spent several days being instructed by the disciples. And at once he departed and began to preach that, "Jesus Christ IS the son of God." //
Now to each of you who is a member of this year's confirmation class, and to all the rest of us gathered here for this special occassion, the story of the conversion of Saul clearly lets us know where we stand in relationship to God.
We may think that we've really accomplished something because we've "been confirmed."
Or we may think that we've really gotten away with something because that silly pastor let us be confirmed even though we never memorized the "Office of the Keys."
But what is really happening today, is that the Lord is calling us to be his servants. And in particular the Lord is calling you 9 young people who are sitting here in the front row, nervously waiting to step up to the altar.
And when you step up to the altar, it is your turn to give God your answer.
That's why, in the end, it really doesn't if you've perfectly fullfilled every last requirement. And it really dosn't matter that you've all mis-behaved more than once during our class sessions over the last two years. You may have given me a few more gray hairs, but I'll just have to live with them.
Because confirmation isn't a you and me thing. And it isn't a fulfilling ALL the requirements thing. And it isn't something you do for your parents. And you don't do it because it's tradition.
Confirmation is an encounter between you and God in the presence of the congregation, that in many ways is similar to the encouter Saul had with Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Confirmation is God calling you, as his chosen instruments, to help share his name from here near Morgan to countries on the other side of the globe.
I hope and pray that each of you will willingly respond to God's call by saying, "Here am I, send me," and then putting the skills and talents God has blessed you with to work for his kingdom.
But also, know full well that the God who can stop a man like Saul in his tracks, and convert him to faith in Christ, is powerful enough to change the course of your life too. AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
The 6th Sunday of Easter - C
Text: Acts 14:8-18
Subject: An encounter with God
Predicate: can happen through our encounters with people, but will we realize it?
This morning, I want to tell you about something that has happened to every pastor I know. It has even happened to me three or four times since I was ordained. And I am certain that it will happen many times again.
It usually happens when the pastor is not expecting it, but yet it never really surprises us when it happens. It usually brings a smile to our face when it happens, but it also requires a gentle correction so it never happens again.
What I'm talking about is a case of mistaken identity.
For you see, every now and then, a young child, usually a toddler between 2 and 3 who comes to church regularly, sees his or her pastor and says something like, "There's Jesus!"
I recall stopping in to see a family several years ago and the youngest child announced my arrival by saying, "God's here!"
Now, despite the fact that there is something appealing about being called God (since we probably all dream about what it would be like to be being almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing and eternal), the truth is, all of us, including those of us who have been called and ordained as pastors, are just human beings.
As much as I'd like to be God, I am NOT God. I am, and always will be, Paul Heykes, a man who just happens to have the job of serving as Pastor here at St. John's of Morgan.
And yet, even though it is clear that I am not God or Jesus, and even though it is important that I carefully help the child to understand that the pastor of the church is just a person who works in the church, there IS a profound wisdom in the young child's case of mistaken identity.
Because even though we are human beings, it is possible for the presence of God to be expressed through our lives and our ministries. Through an encounter with another person, it is possible for someone to have a direct encounter with the word and love and forgiveness and even with the almighty power of God,
That's what happened in the first lesson we heard today.
St. Paul and St. Barnabas were on a missionary trip, traveling from place to place, preaching the Word of God that Jesus is the Risen Lord, and healing people of various infirmities.
When they were traveling through the region that is known as Turkey today, they came to a town called Lystra, and Paul and Barnabas decided it would be a good place to preach the Good News.
Now it just so happened that a man who was crippled and unable to walk since birth, was sitting in the town square that day. And he listened to Paul preach about the Resurrection of Jesus.
At some point during his sermon, Paul looked at the lame man and he could see that this man had the "faith to be healed."
So, Paul said, "Stand up on your feet!"
And with these words, the man literally JUMPED up! For the first time in his life he was standing! He was healed of his lameness. And he began to walk around.
Needless to say, such a miracle caught the attention of the rest of the crowd who was there listening to Paul's message. Immediately they began to say to each other, "The gods have come down to us in human form!"
They were convinced that Barnabas was "Zeus", the king of the gods, and, since Paul did all the talking, they were convinced that he was "Hermes," the official messenger of the gods.
The word of their great miracle spread through the town like wild fire. Soon everyone was coming to see the "gods" who came down to visit the people of Lystra. The priest at the temple of Zeus even brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas.
Now in addition to the miracle of making the lame man walk, there was another reason why the people of Lystra were so anxious to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods.
A part of the legendary history of this region was a story about a time when Zeus and Hermes came to earth in disguise. According to the legend they traveled about looking for someone to give them food and a place to stay. However, wherever they went, no one extended their hospitality to the visiting "gods."
By the end of their trip, out of thousands of people in the region, only one man and his wife shared their food and home with Zeus and Hermes. And so, in retribution for the way they were treated, the gods wiped out all the people of Lystra, except the one couple who was hospitable.
Now even though this was just a legend, most of the people living in Lystra believed it was true. And once the word spread around town concerning the great miracle Paul and Barnabas performed, everyone was determined to show the utmost respect and hospitality to them, lest the wrath of the gods be kindled and the city and its inhabitants destroyed.
But Paul and Barnabas were not some kind of gods. They knew full well that they were regular human beings like you and I.
As soon as they heard that the people were making plans to offer sacrifices and worship them, they returned to the town square and rushed out into the crowd.
At the top of their lungs they shouted out, "Why are you doing this? We are only men, human beings, just like you! We are messengers, bringing good news to you. Turn from these worthless things to the living God, the God who made the heavens and earth."
According to the Bible, even with these words Paul and Barnabas had a hard time keeping the crowd from worshipping them and sacrificing to them. //
Now even though this is clearly a case of mistaken identity, I think the crowd was on the right track when they believed that the miracle happened by virtue of a godly power.
The only thing was, instead of happening through the power of some imaginary pagan gods, the lame man was able to walk through the power of the one true God.
And, instead of Paul and Barnabas actually being a couple of pagan gods, Paul and Barnabas were in fact the servants of the one true God.
Though Paul and Barnabas were regular human beings, the word they spoke when they preached was the word of God just as if God was actually there speaking to they people of Lystra in person.
Though they were just two ordinary men, when they healed the lame man, it was just as if God himself reached out and touched the crippled legs to restore strength and vitality to them.
Though we, like the people of Lystra, may find it hard to believe at times, the truth is that presence and love and power of God is most often experienced through the ministry of another person.
Those of us who serve as pastors are acutely aware of this.
You've heard me say before, and you'll hear me say it again, that when I step into the pulpit to preach the words I speak are not the words of Paul Heykes but the Word of God himself. When I sit down to write my sermons I believe it is the power of Holy Spirit that directs my mind and hand to bring you the message that God wants you to hear this week.
In a similar way, when I make a pastor call, such as visiting a parishioner in the hospital, there is way in which the presence of God enters the room when I do. Again, not that I am some kind of god myself, and not even because I have a special or better relationship with God, but because when we do the will of God, and when we serve in the name of God, God enables us to carry the presence of God to the places we go and the people we meet.
That's why I say that there is a profound wisdom in the young child's enthusiastic proclamation that, "God's here." The child must learn that the pastor is a person, but at the same time, the child knows what is going on when a pastor does his or her job. The child knows that the pastor is bringing the presence and word of God to the people he or she visits.
Now those of us who are clergy must constantly be aware of all this. We have been called to the vocation of ministry. It is our JOB to minister in the name of God and Christ and we do it daily.
BUT, IT IS NOT THE EXCLUSIVE TASK OF PASTORS!
Everyone who has been baptized has ALSO been called to serve in the name of our Lord.
I remember a line in the baptismal service that was used at our congregation back in Appleton. In his words to the parents of the newly baptized child the pastor would always say, "The Christ first known by your child will be the Christ seen in you!"
Martin Luther was saying the same thing when he instructed the members of his congregation to be like "little Christ's to everyone you meet."
For the truth of the matter is, that all of us who are Christians, all of us who are a part of the body of Christ, all of us, can bring the presence of God to everyone we relate to.
Every kind word we speak, every act of mercy we do, every word of encouragement we share and every prayer we pray, is a way in which God is there for someone who needs hope and love and forgiveness. //
By the power and grace of God may each and every one of us be aware of this. God works his ways through the ministry of his people. God is present to others, through us.
And when our time of need comes, may God keep us mindful of this too, so that we can experience his presence through the ministry of others.
We may be mere human beings, but when we come in service in the name of Christ, it is right and proper to say, "God's here!" AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
The 7th Sunday of Easter - C
Text: John 17:20-26
Subject: Unity in Christ
Predicate: is based on what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, not on who we are or what we can do.
Let's start by getting a little exercise this morning. I'm going to name some personal traits that may describe you. When I do, I want you to stand up. Listen carefully.
Will everyone who taught or helped with Sunday School this year, stand up, and stay standing.
Will, all the children under age 12 who have brown eyes, stand up, and stay standing too.
Now, all the students who go to school in Pulaski district, stand up.
Next, everyone who works or lives on a farm, stand up.
Will everyone who is retired, stand up.
Everyone who has blue or green eyes stand up.
Will those who attended school in Oconto Falls or Gillett stand up.
Will all the women and girls who are still seated stand up.
And finally, will all the men in attendance today, please stand up too.
Great. It looks like everyone is standing. Thanks for your cooperation. You may be seated. //
Now what I was trying to demonstrate with this little exercise should be fairly obvious to all of you.
Though I'll admit that my categories were somewhat arbitrary, the fact that only a portion of the congregation was able to stand each time I named a new attribute clearly illustrates that we are a diverse group of people.
We vary from one another in age, sex, education, vocation, ethnic heritage, political persuasion and even in the way we practice our religion.
The truth is, each one of us has very little in common with the majority of the people sitting under this roof today.
If you were limited to establishing your closest friendships with the 429 members of this parish, you would be lucky to find a half a dozen people who share the common interests and values that are at the root of an enduring friendship. It is even possible that there are no other people in this congregation with whom you could strike up a friendship.
But despite our diversity, here we are - most, if not all of us in attendance, members of St. John's Lutheran Church of Morgan.
So what is it that brings us all together?
Other clubs and organizations only attract people with a common interest. Only golfers join the golf league. Only snowmobilers join the snowmobile club. But every kind of person imaginable joins the church. How come?
Another little exercise will help answer this question and help us to better understand the nature of the church.
Get ready to stand up again, when I name an attribute that applies to you.
Will everyone who has been baptized, please stand up.
Interesting. Everyone here is standing. In fact, everyone here stood up at the same time.
So we do have something in common. There is something that unites us together as one. Despite our diversity, a common thread has drawn us together. Despite our differences, we are one by virtue of our baptism into the Christian faith.
Please be seated again.
Now I want to spend a few minutes this morning talking about the way in which we are unified under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
For one of the most vexing problems in the Christian church, and one of the harshest criticisms leveled against us by skeptics, is the fact that we are a fragmented and divided religion.
I don't even know how many denominations of the Christian church there are in the world today. I did a quick count off the top of my head and came up with 16 major denominations. Many of the major denominations can be subdivided in to sub-groups. And on top of that there are 1000's of small Christian sects and independent churches.
Now one thing we can say for sure about all these different Christian churches, is that we don't always see eye to eye in matters of faith.
We have different styles of worship. We organize and govern the church in different ways. We understand and practice the sacraments in different ways. We even disagree on how to interpret the Bible, and as a result our understanding of the Gospel differs from many other Christians. In another denomination, the sermons I preach every Sunday here at Morgan could very well be condemned as "heresy."
It would be nice if these differences were the kind of variety that we sometimes call "the spice of life." Unfortunately, our attitude toward Christians in other denominations, and their attitude toward us, has often been one of prejudice and hatred.
For example, this is painfully obvious in the celebration of the sacrament of communion.
When Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper he intended it to be a meal that unites all of his followers, and that nourishes their faith, and that assures them that their sins are forgiven.
But today, members of one denomination are usually not welcome at the communion table of another denomination. Even within our Lutheran fellowship, there are other synods that will not allow us to join them at the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ.
And one of the other synods just wrote a letter to our church warning us that if we share communion with the United Church of Christ, or the Presbyterian church, or the Reformed Church in America, then inter-Lutheran relations will be harmed as a result.
Many of us have experienced the church's divisiveness within our families too. I know of husbands and wives who have never communed together because one belongs to this church and the other belongs to that church.
Last Wednesday I heard a talk radio show dealing with "mixed marriages." Several of the guests and callers told of how they became totally estranged from their parents and other family members because they happened to fall in love and get married to someone of a different Christian denomination.
It all reminds me of something my pastor told me when I was in confirmation class. He said he was going to give us some advice for when we started dating. I expected a lecture on the 6th commandment and a warning about engaging in premarital sex. But instead he told us, "When you start dating, what ever you do, DON'T DATE CATHOLICS!" //
How can this be? What has gone wrong? Why is there such a deep division between people who worship the same Lord?
Especially since we know that it is the will of Jesus Christ that all of his followers be "one."
As we heard in our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus said, "I pray. . .that all of them may be one. . .May they be brought to a complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
In a single word, the root cause of all the divisions in the Christian Church and the animosity we feel toward those who are different than us, is SIN.
In the original language of the Bible, the word sin means to miss the target. So, if Jesus' will that we all be one is the bullseye, that means the way that people have practiced the Christian faith has been a scattering of arrows.
No one, not a single person, nor any denomination has hit the bullseye.
Oh we may try, but every time we take aim, the Devil is there whispering in our ear. His number one trick is to convince us that we are the only person or only church that has it right.
And then, we fire our arrow (that is we practice our faith). No matter how poorly we do, the devil tells us what a great shot we are. He convinces us that we hit the bullseye. Without even looking at the target we believe the devil. And we never take time to notice that in fact, our shot has missed the target completely and is stuck in the dirt way off to one side or the other.
Not only has the devil convinced us that we are on target, but he has also convinced us that those other people and those other churches are horrible shots. He has convinced us that if THEY try harder then they will hit the bullseye like us, and then we will be "one."
Like Adam and Eve trusted the serpent, we believe the devil's deceitful message. And instead of drawing closer together, we are driven further apart.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Even in a diversity of denominations, we can be the one, holy, catholic (that is universal) and apostolic church that Christ so earnestly prayed for.
The first thing we must realize is that there is nothing that we can do to make us "one."
To think that a few adjustments in our thinking will ever bring us together is to place our trust in human flesh. It is to trust ourselves and place ourselves in the place of God. It is a violation of the first commandment.
Instead it is the power of the Holy Spirit that makes us one. In fact it is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to believe. As Luther wrote in the small catechism, "The Holy Spirit has called us to faith and keeps in faith, and in the same way the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps is united with Jesus Christ in the ONE TRUE FAITH!"
The next thing is for us to realize that the "oneness" that Jesus was praying for has nothing to do with human designed organizations or structures.
Though it might be nice for there to be only one, universal Christian church, the fact that there are different denominations doesn't affect the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for.
What Jesus wanted the world to know is that God so loved everyone, that he sent his son to die for all people, so that every single person might be forgiven of their sins and in turn blessed with eternal life.
Jesus does not expect us to act alike or to think alike. Jesus doesn't even expect us to like every one else in the world (though he does expect us to love them). Jesus knows that God has blessed us with unique personalities. Jesus knows that we have been raised in different cultures with different values and traditions.
But the fact that we have been baptized into the body of Christ means we are "one" in a way that is far greater than any of our differences.
And Jesus desires that since we are one church by virtue of our baptism, we should not fret about other denominations, but strive to proclaim the Gospel to those who need to hear it.
We could even go so far as to say that the diversity that so often divides us, is actually a part of God's plan. For when we apply our differences in a positive way, there are many more opportunities to touch many more people with the Gospel than if there was only one "right way."
So my friends, rejoice in who you are, and respect who your neighbor is.
And most of all, remember that though we are a diverse lot, we are one in our baptism and one in our faith and one in our commitment to Jesus Christ and the good news that God loves us and saves us. AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
All Saints Sunday
Text 2 Timothy 2:8-13
Subject: God's integral faithfulness
Predicate: remains there for us even when we are unfaithful thus assuring us that when we die, we die with him and therefore will also live with him.
No one in their right mind wants to suffer.
And so, we'll do just about anything that we can think of to avoid suffering.
Now some of the things we do to avoid suffering are good and honorable. They are a proper use of our God-given creative abilities.
For example: we've made all kinds of progress in the field of medicine. Many diseases that used to cause all kinds of pain and suffering are now easily treatable.
Appendicitis was often fatal before the development of modern surgery. Now it can be taken care of with a quick operation and a one or two day stay in the hospital.
Years ago, smallpox killed millions and scarred others for life. Now it has been completely eradicated from the face of the earth due a worldwide program of vaccinations.
On the other hand, many of the things we do to avoid suffering are not quite so honorable. Many of our decisions and policies are at their root selfish. Often our goal is to avoid personally suffering - even though the trade off is the fact that someone else suffers instead.
The temptation to think only about ourselves is particularly common at election time. Popular political wisdom says that when people go to the polls to mark their ballot, by and large they vote their pocket book.
Though the individual who votes this way may personally benefit, it is possible that society as a whole, and large blocks of people within our society, may suffer as a result.
Statistics indicate that over the last 20 or 30 years the gap between poor people and those in both the middle and upper income brackets has steadily increased. In other words the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
And the poorer the poor are, the more they suffer. They don't have enough to eat. They live in slums of decrepit buildings. They die younger. They do not receive as good of an education as they should. And since they have very little hope for any improvement in the future, it's not surprising that drug addiction and crime are rampant among the poor of our society.
Now I don't have a surefire plan to change things around. And I certainly do not want to endorse a particular candidate or party from the pulpit.
But, as we who are Christians participate in the democratic governance of our nation, it is IMPORTANT to give lots of thought to the fact that everyone is a partner in this world that was created for us by our God.
We need to think about Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
And, to the best of our ability to discern the outcome, we should support the policies and candidates that strive to minimize the suffering, and improve the lives of all citizens.
It's not easy these days when virtually EVERY candidate tries to distort the position of their opponent. But it is our challenge never-the-less. //
Now another way in which we may someday be tempted to compromise ourselves in order to avoid suffering is by denying our faith.
The sin of denying our faith is called apostasy. In the eyes of the church it is one of the most serious sins that a person can commit. At one time it was even considered to be an unforgivable sin. There are historical records about "Christians" who refused the sacrament of baptism until they were on their death bed so that there was virtually no chance of committing apostasy.
Now most of the time when a preacher starts talking about denying one's faith, we want to cast the discussion in terms of life and death. Right away we want to leap to the question of martyrdom.
I guess that's understandable. Martyrdom is dramatic. It pushes the discussion to the extremes. It puts the matter standing steadfast in our faith versus denying our faith in into black or white, suffering or comfort, life or death, terms.
Often times when we try to think about the strength or weakness of our faith, and whether we would deny it or not, we visualize some evil person or government official interrogating us. We are given a choice. "Recant your faith, blaspheme your God, and then we let you go free. OR, remain firm and committed to the Christian faith and then we imprison you, and torture you, and finally we will kill you."
Well, there are clear historical records that tell us that this has happened to many people.
But the chances of it happening to us are slim.
More likely, we will be confronted with the temptation to deny our faith in much simpler and less threatening ways.
For example, a group of teens may start teasing someone, calling the victim of their taunts a "Jesus freak," or a "chruchboy."
Will the youth who was made fun of defend their faith? Or will they turn the other cheek? Or will they say something like, "I don't really believe all that junk. I just go to church 'cause my parents MAKE ME!"
Their life may not be on the line, but it might feel like it.
You see, being accepted by our peers and being a part of the group is important to all of us, and especially to young people. Being rejected and shunned and the loneliness that results from it can feel terrible. And in some cases it can even lead to death! Feelings of rejection and depression and loneliness are often contributing factors to the soaring teen suicide rate in our country.
And incidentally, though I just used an illustration from the teen years, the same principles apply to people of all ages.
Once I was in a nursing home to lead worship, and as an elderly gentleman wheeled himself down to the service, some other men watching TV called out to him asking, "George, what are you? Some kind of religious nut?"
George didn't deny his faith though. He kept right on rolling to the chapel. //
Now, all this talk about avoiding suffering and denying our faith is inspired by today's lesson from 2 Timothy.
The lesson is a portion of a letter attributed to St. Paul as he was held prisoner in a Roman Jail. One of the main purposes of the letter is to call and inspire Timothy (and any others who might also read the letter) to remain steadfast in their faith and ministry.
Using himself as an example, Paul proclaims that even if one suffers as a result, it is still vital to remain faithful.
One reason it vital to remain faithful is that your personal salvation is on the line every time your faith is challenged. In the last half of the lesson Paul quotes a verse from an early Christian hymn. The third line says that, "If we disown the Lord, the Lord will disown us."
That is something that Jesus also taught. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said that, "If anyone denies me before others, I will deny that person before my Father in Heaven!
And Jesus linked our actions to our faith when he told us that our failure to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give water to the thirsty and so on is the functional equivalent of denying him. What ever we have done, or not done to the least of our brothers and sisters, we have done unto Christ himself.
If we have treated others badly, then we've treated Christ badly. On the judgment day Christ will be within his rights to say, "Away from me you evil doers!"
But our personal salvation isn't the only thing at stake if we deny our faith. Paul made it clear that our faith is ALSO for the benefit of others!
In other words, it is because we believe, and because we work to proclaim the gospel that other people will be saved.
When we face the challenges that come our way, and endure the suffering that these challenges often bring, then other people will obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.
Paul told Timothy that Paul himself would endure "everything" for the sake of others and their chance to hear the gospel and be saved.
Paul encouraged Timothy to be prepared for the same thing.
And as we hear this lesson, we must realize that we are called to do the same thing.
Now it doesn't matter if the challenge to our faith is life threatening or trivial. If we deny our faith the result can be devastating in either case. Others may follow our lead and deny their faith too. Or people who could potentially become Christians may forever miss the opportunity to be saved.
Finally, though the avoidance of suffering may be the temptation that leads to denying our faith, Paul encourages us to face what ever suffering comes our way with the sure confidence that God, and not pain or suffering or death, will have the last word.
Paul says, "Here is a trustworthy saying. . ."
And in capsule form he reminds us of the promises of the gospel.
If we die with Jesus, we will also live with him. (Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we shall too.)
If we endure the challenges that we face we will reign with the Lord. (We shall become a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.)
And what if we slip? What if we have our doubts? What if we deny our faith?
The consequences, though serious, are forgivable. For even if we are faithless, the Lord will remain faithful. The Lord will persevere in his mission. He will offer us the chance to repent. He will forgive our sins, even the sun of apostasy.
Because God's ultimate goal is that EVERYONE hears the gospel, and that EVERYONE has the chance to be saved. AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 18:1-8a
Subject: Continuous prayer
Predicate: is a matter of faith and not "getting" what we ask for.
There is a town in Massachusetts where the unemployment rate has been in the double digit percentage range for quite some time.
And at the Lutheran church in that town there is a woman who pleads for understanding each week as she departs from worship.
The woman has been unemployed for a long time. And she prays about it constantly. She is looking for an answer. Any answer.
A new job would be nice. Or perhaps the opportunity to train for a new career. But what she really needs, what she'd really settle for, is a simple sign that God has heard her prayer.
In desperation she repeatedly asks her pastor questions like, "Why should I bother coming to church?" and "Why doesn't God answer my prayer?"
Now I don't think this woman is an exceptional example that I just happened to read about in a pastoral journal. The truth is, when you look around the world today, the plight of this woman is not unusal. Rather, it seems to be the norm.
Her situation is but one manifestation of the unjust and troubled world we live in. And the lack of a concrete answer despite her persistence in prayer is the experience of many, if not most of the people who pray to God.
Think of all the prayers prayed by and on behalf of the native black population in South Africa. The evil system of aprtheid denies them some of the most basic of human rights. So you would think that God would be so angry at the people responsible for this unjust, institutionalized prejudice that it would only take one prayer for him to unleash his wrath to eliminate the evil and suffering immediately.
Instead, despite the billions of prayers we've prayed, the change that is needed is coming discouragingly slow. And many people continue to suffer and die in the mean time.
Or think of all the prayers prayed on behalf of the people who are starving to death in Somolia and other regions affected by the terrible famine on the continent of Africa.
No rain is in sight. The desert continues to expand. And food sent for the relief of the people often ends up being hijacked by corrupt officials who sell it at inflated prices to amass riches for themselves while children die.
You would think that after one prayer about this desperate situation God would blow more favorable weather toward the drought sticken lands.
Instead, it looks like as many as 4 million people could die over the next year or so.
And think of our own personal life stories. I know that many of us here have prayed for our health and safety, and the health and saftey of loved ones.
And yet accidents have happened, and diseases have struck.
You would think that if God was really good, if God really loved us, and if God really heard our prayers, then all it would take is but one prayer to put that cancer into permanent remission, or to grant safe travel down the highways.
Instead, 50,000 or more die on the road each year. Many more are disabled. Cancer, heart disease, AIDS and a host of other illnesses refuse to release their death grip and our loved ones die.
In the face of these kinds of situations, it isn't suprising that people wonder about prayer.
We wonder if it does any good to pray?
We wonder if God is deaf?
We wonder if God even cares? //
Now, out of all the gospels, the Gospel according to St. Luke says more about prayer than any of the the other four.
Like Matthew, Luke tells us about the time that Jesus taught the "Lord's Prayer" to his followers. But unlike the other gospels, Luke makes a special effort to show us that regular prayer, and special prayer at important times and at decisive moments, was a part of Jesus' devotional and spiritual life.
Only Luke notes that Jesus prayed when he was baptized. And that Jesus prayed right before calling the 12 disciples. Luke tells us that Jesus prayed when he asked the disciples who they thought he was, since he couldn't turn toward Jerusalem and the cross unless they realized he was the Messiah. Luke even tells us that right before teaching the Lord's prayer, Jesus was praying.
Luke also contains more parables about prayer than any of the other gospels. And one of those parables is our text for this morning.
It is a story about a corrupt judge who didn't fear God, and who didn't respect people.
And it is a story about a widow who was seeking a just settlement against her opponent.
Now, we have absolutly no idea of what kind of problem the widow was faced with. But it must have been serious because she was relentless in her persuit of justice. Despite the judge's initial refusal to make a judgment on the matter, the woman kept returning again and again and again.
Finally, even though the judge admitted out loud that he could care less about God and God's will, and that he could care less about the troubles of an insignificant widow, he decided to grant her justice.
According to the parable, the judge said, "Because this woman keeps bothering me, I'll grant her justice so she doesn't wear me out by continually pestering me.
Now at first, this might seem to be a very discouraging parable.
For we see the woman's constant pleas for justice representing the prayers that people pray to God. And we see the judge representing God himself. And most importantly, and most disouragingly, we see the prayers of the woman being answered concretely and dicisively, specifically because of her persistence.
For many people, a quick reading of this parable will leave them with feelings of inadequacy, or abandonment.
They may think that they haven't prayed enough, or that they haven't used the right words, or that they don't have enough faith in God.
They may think that God has forgotten all about them.
They may even think that God has rejected them! //
But the truth of the parable is that a person who prays, and especially a person who prays persistently without losing heart, will be heard by God.
For Jesus compares the corrupt judge to God by telling us that if a judge like that man will grant justice to the persistent woman, how much more so will the God who loved the world so much that he sent his son to die for us, be ready to grant justice to those who pray day and night.
What we need to be cautious about is that the answer we envision for ourselves may or may not be the answer that God gives in the present time.
For one thing, God's justice is an ultimate justice that may not be fully apparent until the judgment day, even though the decision has been made and the outcome determined in our present and in response to our prayerful cry, "Lord have mercy on us."
And secondly, the answer to our prayers, though not exactly what we envision for ourselves, is more likely than not to be way more than we ever expected.
Because ultimately, prayer is about faith.
That we take time to pray is an expression of our faith and trust in God. Our persistent prayers are a way of keeping the first commandment and thus proclaiming our faith. For when we pray to God we are actually saying that we have no other Gods before us and that our trust is in God and God alone.
And since prayer is so intimately connected with faith, I believe that when we pray, the one answer that God always gives us is a renewed and strengthened faith.
Now at the same time God is answering our prayers with the gift of faith, the devil is trying to trick us into thinking that God hasn't heard us because the EXACT thing we prayed for didn't come to pass.
But Christ wants to reassure us through this parable that God does hear our prayers. God really does care about us. In some way, God will answer all our prayers.
And Chriat wants us to know, that above everything else, God is constantly at work in us and around us to increase our faith.
When God gives faith in answer to our prayers, God is giving us what we need for the long term. It may be nice to have our short term needs taken care of and our selfish desires granted. But as Jesus said, "What good will it be for a person to gain the whole world if they forfiet their life?"
And, when God gives faith in answer to our prayers, God is giving us what we need to endure all the strife and suffering that comes our way.
So, my friends, pray, and keep on praying.
Ask for what you need. Ask for what you want. Most of all, remember that the very fact that you pray is an expression of your faith.
But don't be discouraged by what you don't get after you pray.
Instead, rejoice in what God does give in great and generous measure.
Faith! And more faith!
Faith to endure the suffering so rampant in this world. Faith to trust that God will grant us a peace that passes understanding. Faith to beleive that God's justice WILL prevail for all etenity.
And faith that will bring us at last to the kingdom which has no end. AMEN!