Put Away Your Fraudulence

(A Facebook Message for Good Friday.)

My wife, Jennifer, is becoming more and more skilled at capturing images of the various birds that make their way to the feeder near to one of our living room windows. As her husband—a pastor with a mind for the visuals of language—her images are sermonic in a sense. First, they speak the Law, which is to say that as the whole world has become undone by sin, a simple reminder of this is that even a bird has to eat. Every hungry stomach rumbles. None are wholly self-sufficient. All living things need help from the outside or else they’ll perish.

But the images of the birds also speak a Christ-centered Gospel, just as Christ said they would. They are distilled moments to ponder what our Lord has so kindly urged. Look at these tiny creatures adorned with colored crowns and feathered wings. Recall that they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet the heavenly Father feeds them (Matthew 6:26). Behold a God who cares even for the simplest of his creatures. Are you not of more value than they?

Oh, yes, you are! The proof of your value is there on the cross in all of its gory detail. God has reached into this world through the person and work of Jesus Christ. And His Word is that this death was not for the birds, but rather for you.

Set aside your fraudulent self-sufficiency. Own the need of which a rumbling stomach warns. You need complete rescue from the outside. The cross displays that rescue. Go see for yourself. See the Savior die that you would live forever. It is the epicenter of Good Friday’s message for you, as even a bird at the feeder serves to remind.

Moving a Congregation toward Better Practices

(A Facebook Message Regarding Moving a Congregation toward Better Practices.)

First, Saint Paul instructs by way of Colossians 3:1-4, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

With this, there is a very real sense that as our minds are set on things above, so also we should be reaching higher. I know that as a pastor, I try never to settle my congregation in lesser pastures, but rather am doing what I can to lead them to the things above, to better things—practice, faithfulness, and the like.

But second, I recall a story that Rev. Dr. Rast told to me while I was a student at the seminary. It epitomizes the synergy of pastoral care and catechesis, and I’ll do my best to recall it accurately.

Essentially, he noted that in his first congregation, the baptismal font wasn’t exactly displayed with any level of prominence that taught the importance of the Sacrament, but rather it was put into a corner in the nave and relatively out of sight. He wanted to get it out of the corner and into the center of the nave between the pews and the chancel. He wanted it to be there, stunning as a visual, silently proclaiming who we are in Christ and the wonders of the immeasurably full access we have to the Lord’s presence by virtue of our Baptism.

Rast wanted something better for his people.

And yet to do this, he did not move the font from the corner to the center of the nave in that one singular moment, but rather moved it inches at a time over the course of several years, all the while making the extra effort to teach the people in his care the importance of Holy Baptism. At one point, if I recall correctly, he said that even after a year or so of moving the font ever-so-slowly, one of his elders moved it back to the corner.

Rast had to start all over again. Eventually, the font made it to the center of the nave. Equally important, for the people, that became the only acceptable location for the font, and not because it was thrust upon them, but rather because they’d been catechized by a loving pastor seeking to help them reach for something better.

I think Rev. Dr. Rast’s example is a good one. I’ve never forgotten it, and I certainly try to employ it.

Of course there will be those changes in a congregation that absolutely must occur immediately. Still, and for the most part, I would guess that any and all pastors seeking to be humble servants of Christ will do all that is humanly possible to approach such situations with the loving kindness that emulates the Savior to the people they are serving. They will know the people—their families, their lives, their secrets—and they’ll do all they can to shepherd them to better things, namely the forgiveness of sins on by Jesus and given so wonderfully through Word and Sacrament.

This is my practice. And for the most part (always by God’s grace, of course), it seems to work.

Now He Took Courage

Holy Week is upon us, we know that the whole church is bound toward remembering the incomparable events of Good Friday and the joyous celebration of Easter. Still, as was preached yesterday, we make our way there having first followed the Lord into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Yesterday’s Palm Sunday worship service was truly exceptional. This is true not just because we heard and received the gifts of God for faith, but because we had the opportunity to bear witness to that same faith being confessed by the five confirmands and confirmed in the midst of the Rite of Confirmation.

Were you listening to the questions being asked of the confirmands? Do you recall that I asked the question twice about adherence to God’s Word as the inerrant and inspired source of faith, life, and practice? I did this because of the current enormity of that one particular part of the Christian life as it meets with our world today. In my opinion, the confirmands answered it somewhat rotely in that moment, and I wanted them to hear the question again and to know the immense nature of its gravity. I—we—needed to hear from them that they truly confess and align to the Word of God with all their heart. The world is seeking each and every day to snatch it away more and more each day.

Further into the rite, Even as I was the one asking the questions, the words still pierced through my own heart to a sense of remembrance. I’m a long way from my confirmation, and yet part of the point is that I’d answer the questions the same way today as I did then. And perhaps most stunning are those two sequential questions that ask the students if they intend to remain faithful to the Lord, even to the point of death.

I hope the Rite of Confirmation was a chance for you to consider and ultimately do the same. There’s a reason it has been a longstanding tradition on Palm Sunday in the midst of the worshipping community.

Lastly, I wanted to share a something I wrote and shared on Facebook last Thursday. It’s the result of last Wednesday’s midweek reading of the Passion narrative, and I thought it might be edifying to you.

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I don’t know about you, but the reading of the final portion of the Passion Narrative drawn from the four Gospels is always an exceptionally moving event for me during Lent. As the one called to stand before God’s people and read it, I sometimes struggle. Every year I choke a little at certain moments, doing my best to keep the sadness from seeping over and into my voice and facial expressions. I mean, what use is a weeping clergyman in the middle of a service? Although, I’m sure it’s a sight well worth experiencing for some. It certainly has the potential for displaying your pastor’s sense of God’s Word.

Anyway, last night’s reading, which began with Jesus being assigned to His cross and ends with Pilate shooing away the Pharisees who continue to pester him even after the body of Jesus is in the tomb and the stone has been sealed, this time asking for guards to be stationed at the sepulcher lest the disciples come and steal away the body and tell everyone that Jesus arose. In between these monumental book ends, there were two moments in particular that caught my attention.

The first came by way of the phrase, “Those who had known Him stood at a distance, as also the women who had followed Him…”

Even as I kept reading, I sorted through to the thought that we are to know by these words that Jesus went into the battle of all battles completely and utterly alone. The disciples had scattered, and if any had turned back to brave the scene, they did so from a place of personal safety, a place where they could see the Son of God on the cross, but they couldn’t see the blood-soaked details, the immensity of the sacrifice as He gave Himself over in totality for the sins of the world. Even the women who had gathered near to the cross, and the disciple John, whom Jesus, in shortness of breath, gave as a son to His mother Mary, even they had moved away into the distance, unable to bear the event.

The dreadful enormity of Jesus’ cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” comes into incredible focus. The incredible pull of the scene’s gravity is felt.

The second phrase that caught my eye came a few paragraphs later. Joseph of Arimathea is unfavorably noted as not having consented to the purpose of the Sanhedrin and yet was one who kept his faith in Jesus a secret for fear of what his fellow Jews might do to him if they discovered it. We are to know by this that Joseph did nothing to defend the innocence of Jesus. We are to know that when the mocking and spitting and pummeling began, Joseph was there, but he turned away, too.

And then suddenly, just as the hope in this description of Joseph is snuffed, the tenor changes and we learn something happened to Joseph when he saw the Savior sentenced and ultimately killed. We read, “Now he took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”

Now he took courage…

Again, still standing there last night and reading to God’s people, I managed to sort through in that moment to the realization that even as the cross is a stumbling stone of offense, it is also the moment of moments situated at the heart of a message with the power to turn the world backward on its axis. Even before the resurrection could be added to its glory, it penetrated Joseph’s fear and it gave to him a valor for streaming past what would have been the Sanhedrin’s desire for an irreverent disposal of the criminal Jesus’ remains and go straight to the civil authority, Pilate, to request the body for burial.

The Sanhedrin would know what he did. The ruling civil authority already in disposition against Jesus and His followers would have his name and know who he was. His life of safety and respect and honor and comfort in the community was about to come undone.

Now he took courage…

Most merciful God, grant that I would not keep my distance from the Lord and his cross, but that it would be well known that I am a believer who fears not the principalities of this world but only unfaithfulness to the One who so faithfully won my eternity. In the holy and most precious name of Jesus I plead. Amen.

Circling the Wagons

This community—Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School—is truly a family. How do I know this? Well, first of all, and in a practical sense, when I sent out that urgent message last week about a member of this church in need of employment, I didn’t get responses of mere well wishes; that is, none among you epitomized the scathing words in James 2:16 regarding others in genuine need: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

Instead, the family’s wagons were circled in support of this church member.

Within minutes of sending the email, I received from you offers for prayer as well as viable leads. Within hours, I’d received more viable leads, several text messages, and some really generous help that could only make the person’s résumé better. By the end of the day, the email had been shared with others outside of our circles. Because of your efforts, it reached several employers willing to talk with the person and others ready to hire him right away.

Besides all of this, how else do I know that Our Savior is truly a family?

Because God says so by His word. Not only does He refer to us as members of one body, each with different roles and yet belonging to each other (Romans 12:5), but Jesus call us His brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). This is possible by virtue of our baptism into Him (Galatians 3:26-29). Having been baptized into Christ, you have become God’s children. You are sons and daughters of the Holy One, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are heirs of the heavenly kingdom. Thankfully, God has promised in Jesus Christ to work in and through you the very things you accomplished for one of our family members in need (Philippians 1:6).

I’m glad to call all of you my family. It’s a blessing of the Lord, and its one for which I give daily thanks.

Keep At It, Mom and Dad!

I love the fact that we have so many children in worship these days. Indeed, it serves the heart well.

This is true because it means that when you look around the room, you’ll see moms and dads taking very seriously the Lord’s words in Matthew 28:19-20 where He instructs and emphasizes that Christians are actually made through the two-fold event of washing with water and the Word (Baptism) combined with a regular diet of all that the Lord has given (teaching). Baptism and teaching are inseparable parts of the same mandate.

To put this into perspective, if someone were to come to me and ask that I baptize his or her child, and yet would state an unwillingness to raise the child in the Christian faith, I would say no. I’d have to. Baptism and teaching go together. You can’t have one without the other.

So, when I look around the church during worship and I see the little ones with their parents, it always makes me smile. It reminds me of the living faith that Christ gave those parents in their baptism, and it points all of us to a horizon where we see the next generation equipped to do the same.

It also makes me want to help those families with children in any way that I can. It’s one reason why we supply the pews with those Kids in the Divine Service booklets, which are designed to be a helpful resource for teaching the “why we do what we do” of the life of faith in worship. It’s also why we encourage parents to take the kids out when they get a little rowdy but then to bring them back in as soon as they are ready. Sure, every kid gets restless, and so when they decide to bang the hymnal against the pew, or shout at the top of their lungs, or run their Tonka truck up and down the hardwood pew, that can be incredibly loud and distracting and it’s a good idea to take them out in respect of others. But once the appropriate recalibration has happened, get them right back into the church as soon as possible. The little ones belong in there with the rest of their Christian family—with their Savior, Jesus Christ.

Are there other things that we can do as a community to help parents? You bet! We can be sure to give mom a hug and say, “Keep at it, mom,” or give dad a pat on the back and say, “Good job, dad.” These gestures and words make a difference. I know they helped us when our kids were smaller.

Another thing to keep in mind (and it’s something that many folks with older children already know so well) is that so often parents of little ones feel as though they are working so hard and doing all they can just to get to and keep the child in worship, all the while feeling as though as parents, they aren’t getting anything out of the service because they’re so busy with the child.

This is a very real concern, and it’s one that when I hear it, I not only do what I can to encourage the parents—reminding them that this is a very important time in their life when faithfulness to Christ in holy worship looks and feels less like something spiritual and more like riot control. Still, they are being faithful to Christ in their service, and He by no means intends to leave the parents out of the blessings being bestowed to the whole Christian family in the worship setting. With this, I also try to remind them that the Word of God is so much more powerful than we often give credit. When it comes to worship, just being there, just being immersed in the liturgy which is entirely comprised of God’s holy Word, is by no means an empty experience for the Christian. To this, in a practical sense, I try to add that for most who come to worship regularly, the liturgy gets written into the heart and mind in a way that allows a mom or dad to do mom or dad things and still receive. Because of the liturgy, the service becomes more or less memorized, and now mom and dad can follow along and be fed without needing to juggle a hymnal, ordo, baby bottle, and infant all at the same time. They become people who live and breathe the words of worship, and what better example do we want to display for our kids than this?!

Thanks be to God for the little ones in our midst. Thanks be to God for the parents who stick with it, who give it their all to make sure that their baptized children are being raised in the Christian faith. “Therefore, my beloved brothers,” Paul said, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Of all efforts in the church, perhaps the job of parents doing all they can to get their kids to and keep them in worship is most appreciated by this text.

To such folks I say: Know that I’m rooting for you, and so are many others in our midst.