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Monday, February 27 2012

Mark 1: 12-15

          Many years ago a king had one beautiful daughter. She had many offers of marriage, but she couldn't make up her mind. A romantic girl, she wanted a man who would love her more than he loved anything else.

          Finally, she devised a way to test the love of her suitors. An announcement was made and sent throughout the kingdom that on a certain day, there would be a race. The winner of the race would marry the princess. The race was open to every man in the kingdom, regardless of his position. All that was required was that the man had to profess to love the princess more than he loved anything else.

          On the chosen day, men rich and poor gathered for the race. Each professed wholehearted love for the princess. They gathered at the starting line, prepared to run the course of many miles that had been marked for the race. Each man was told that the princess waited at the finish line. Whoever reached her first could take her as his bride.

          Just before the race was to begin, an announcement was made. The king, they were reminded, was a wealthy man with treasures gathered from all over the world. Not wanting any man to run in vain, it was announced, the king had liberally scattered some of his finest treasures along the course. Each runner was welcome to take as many as he liked.

          The race was begun. Almost immediately, the runners began to come across great gems and bags of gold. There were necklaces and pendants and jewel encrusted cups and swords and knives. One by one, the runners, princes and paupers alike, turned aside to fill their pockets and carry off what treasures they could. Blinded by the immediate promise of wealth, they forgot the princess and all their professions of love.

          All except one! He pressed on, ignoring what to him were trinkets when compared to the incomparable beauty of the princess and the prospect of gaining her hand in marriage, finally crossing the finish line.

          Folks, I want to talk to you today about making choices.  I think you will agree with me that – for the most part – life is all about making choices.  And hoping that we will make the right choices.  Hoping that our children will make the right choices.  Learning how to choose and to make the right choices. 

          The challenge, of course – a challenge that always complicates matters – is always this thing called temptation.  We can’t get away from it.  We can’t ignore it.  What we need to do is to learn what to say or do when it pokes its ugly head into our business. 

          Our Gospel reading today from Mark’s gospel is short and to the point.  Jesus is driven into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil.  But I want more.  I want to know just exactly what those temptations looked like – and how Jesus was able to make the right choices.  Since Mark does not tell us the details – we have to turn to either Matthew or Luke.  

          All together we are told that Satan tempts Jesus three times – to turn stones into bread – to jump down from the pinnacle of the temple – and to bow down and worship Satan whereupon Satan would give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world.  But what we find is that Jesus does not give in – indeed the worldly allure of fame, fortune and power cannot get him to do what is wrong.  And in the end, Jesus says to Satan, “Away with you, Satan!  Get out of here.  Scram.  Put an egg in your shoe and beat it!  For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

          You see, Jesus recognizes the wrongness of these temptations – and fights back.  Jesus resists by reminding Satan that God alone is to be worshipped.  God alone is the one who shows us the way to true joy, happiness, and peace.

          Now the challenge for us is to recognize the slick and cunning and alluring dynamics that the three biggies throw at us.  And you know what those three biggies are, right?  The three biggies that really are the source of what tempts us?  The devil, the world and our own sinful desires.   What’s so alluring about the temptations that these three throw at us is that they try to get us to think that by giving in we will be happier.   

          “Go here – do this – get that – and you’ll be…happy.”  However, the choices we make always have consequences – wouldn’t you agree!  When it comes to making choices – there are always consequences. 

          Two weeks ago I shared with our 8th and 9th grade confirmands – we are currently going through the seven petitions of the Lord’s prayer – and two weeks ago we talked about the part of that prayer that says, “And lead us not into temptation.”  I talked with them about the consequences of making choices.  And I told them, “If you always make bad choices, the consequences will always be bad.  If you always make good choices – if you always make the right choices – you might get good consequences.” 

          Now that doesn’t sound too comforting, does it!  Doesn’t sound too encouraging at all!  But the only chance we have of getting good consequences from our choices – good consequences for our lives – is to make the good – the right choice in the first place.  I know – not always an easy thing to do.  But it also means learning to recognize a temptation.  It means learning to say no to the temptations that would lead us away from God – away from Christ – away from the church.  Recognition is half the battle.  

          In 1988 a Guideposts magazine carried the story of an old Indian legend.  Listen!   “Many years ago, Indian youths would go away in solitude to prepare for manhood. One such youth hiked into a beautiful valley, green with trees, bright with flowers.  There he fasted.  But on the third day, as he looked up at the surrounding mountains, he noticed one tall rugged peak, capped with dazzling snow.  I will test myself against that mountain, he thought.  He put on his buffalo-hide shirt, threw his blanket over his shoulders and set off to climb the peak.  When he reached the top he stood on the rim of the world.

          “He could see forever, and his heart swelled with pride.  Then he heard a rustle at his feet, and looking down, he saw a snake.  Before he could move, the snake spoke.

          “‘I am about to die,’ said the snake.  ‘It is too cold for me up here and I am freezing.  There is no food and I am starving.  Put me under your shirt and take me down to the valley.’

          “‘No,’ said the youth. ‘I am forewarned.  I know your kind.  You are a rattlesnake.  If I pick you up, you will bite, and your bite will kill me.’

          “‘Not so,’ said the snake.  ‘I will treat you differently. If you do this for me, you will be special. I will not harm you.’

          “The youth resisted awhile, but this was a very persuasive snake with beautiful markings. At last the youth tucked it under his shirt and carried it down to the valley. There he laid it gently on the grass, when suddenly the snake coiled, rattled, and leapt, biting him on the leg.

          “‘But you promised...’ cried the youth.

          “‘You knew what I was when you picked me up,’ said the snake as it slithered away.”

                   We need to recognize dangerous temptations when we see them.    When it comes to making a choice we need to know what we’re dealing with before we are tempted to pick it up.    So we can be taught – lectured – by someone else.  We can be given examples – both good and bad – but ultimately we are the ones who need to learn how to make good choices.  And may I suggest to you that experience – as much as anything else – it is experience that serves as the best teacher when it comes to learning how to make the right choices. 

          Listen.  “A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.  ‘Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?’

“‘Two words.’

“‘And what are they, please?’

“‘Right choices.’

“The seeker was fascinated.  ‘How does one learn to choose rightly?’

“‘One word.’

“‘One word!  May I have it, please?’ the seeker asked.


“The seeker was thrilled. ‘How does one grow?’

“‘Two words.’

“‘What are they, pray tell?’

“‘Wrong choices.’

          There is a certain irony here, isn’t there!   Too often we grow the most – we learn the most – after we have made the wrong choices.  We get the experience we need after we needed it the most.  We become wise – we gain experience – at least that is my hope – when we are tempted to make those wrong choices.  So even though we will not always make the good – the right choices – may I encourage you to learn from the choices that you do make.  Otherwise, if you’re like me – you’re going to end up making the same mistakes over again – and learning the same lessons over again.

          And what I hope we learn is this.

1.     Where are you when bad choices are made?  Avoid those places.

2.     What people are you with when bad choices are made?  Avoid those people.  And consider that maybe what you need is a new group of friends.

3.     In the time of testing – when temptations would want us to make wrong choices – what I hope we learn is that God does give us the faith and the strength we need to trust him to get us through – and more to the point – to rise above whatever temptations – whatever challenges come our way.

          With God’s help and by God’s grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – we can learn to say no to temptation.  Not always easy, I know.  I’m not saying this is easy.

          But when it comes to making choices, we can learn to say no to those things that would lead us away from God – learn to say no to those things that would set themselves up in the place of God – that would set themselves up as a false god in our lives.  Those are places where temptations to sin want to take us.

But please know this – and this is so important – that when we make the wrong choices – when we give into temptations to sin – that there is mercy, peace, pardon and forgiveness from God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 


So remember that you are loved.  You are forgiven.  May our choices lead us to trust God – that in the time of temptation – God will be there to get us through – and to help us to rise above.


Posted by: AT 10:11 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, February 21 2012

Mark 9:2–9

          That’s quite a story I just shared with you from Mark’s Gospel, isn’t it!  It’s called “The Transfiguration.”  Jesus is on a mountain top.  He has taken with him three of his disciples, Peter, James and John.  And there Jesus is changed.  We like to say that he was transfigured – transfigured into dazzling light and brilliant white. 

          This moment – can we still call it a Kodak moment? You know – Kodak isn’t in the picture taking business anymore.  Anyway– it was a Kodak moment – meant to show Peter, James and John – the glory that once belonged to Jesus before he came to earth – and the glory that would soon be his again – after his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven.  And of course, along with Jesus were two Old Testament heroes – Moses and Elijah.

          But what I want to focus on today is the voice.  The voice.  And I’m not talking about the TV show where talented singers display their singing abilities for certain celebrities.  No I’m talking about THE voice – the voice of God the Father – the voice that comes from a cloud and speaks directly to Peter, James and John, and says, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

          The Father identifies Jesus as His Son, and then tells these disciples to listen to him.

          And that’s what I want to talk about today.  Listening to Jesus.

          Now – you don’t need me to tell you that there are a lot of voices out there today competing for your attention.  There are a lot – just a lot of distractions out there. 

          For instance – how many times have you been driving your car – and looked over to see someone talking on their cell phone – or heaven forbid – texting on their cell phone – while driving.  Now – how many of you have ever used your phone – talking, texting – whatever – while driving?  That’s OK.  No need to raise your hands.  But I plead guilty.  I have talked – never texted – but there have been a few occasions where I took a phone call while driving.  Not good.  Not good, I know.  And quite frankly, I do not do that anymore.

          No.  When driving a car – we need to stay focused on driving. 

          So when God the Father says “This is my Son, whom I love, listen to Him,”  it seems to me that that’s what we should do.  Stay focused, and listen.  Because this has always been the Christian’s primary task – to listen to Jesus.  And there are lots of reasons why.  Not the least of which is that – I am convinced of this anyway – but not the least of which is that Jesus shows us the way to the Father.  Jesus shows us a better way to live. 

          But we’re distracted.  Like the person who talks or texts while driving, we’re easily distracted.  There are a lot of other voices out there trying to get our attention.  Voices that would lead us away from Christ – away from God – away from the church. 

          For instance, there are New Age philosophies out there that want you to believe that you are somehow divine.  You can see some of these folks on TV.  I’m thinking of people like Wayne Dyer.  Now, I don’t disagree with everything Mr. Dyer has to say.  But when I heard him talk about “The divine within you,” I recognized immediately that he was not talking about the Holy Spirit.  He was saying that we are divine – that we are gods.  We have to be careful which voices we listen to, and ask ourselves, “Is what I’m hearing consistent with the message from Jesus Christ?”  We need to listen to what Jesus has to say.

          Now, it’s no accident that Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus.  These two heroes of the faith had been spokesmen for God in their day.  When the people of God listened to them they were listening to God.  But they also had to tune out the distractions.  They had to learn to listen to God too.  So when Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus it is a reminder to the disciples that just as God had been with the heroes of the faith in the past, God would be with them in and through the person of Jesus Christ.

          Now, I am currently reading through the New Testament, and just finished the Book of Hebrews this week.  One of the verses that always catches my attention when I read this book is right in the very first chapter, the very first verse. 

          “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, [prophets like Moses and Elijah] but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,…”            Folks, we need to tune out the distractions and listen to him.

          But I know – I know – listening isn’t always easy.  If we’re going to listen to Jesus, then it seems to me, that we need to learn what it means to listen. 

          I like a story told of King Edward VII.  His grandson, Prince David, had a good relationship with his grandfather. Still David was a child, and adults in England during this period, particularly royalty, were not known to listen to children.

          At dinner on one occasion little David tried to get his grandfather’s attention. He was reprimanded immediately for interrupting the king’s conversation at table.  So the young prince sat in silence until given permission to speak.  When he was allowed finally to address his grandfather, he said, “It’s too late now, grandpapa.  There was a caterpillar on your lettuce, but you’ve eaten it.”

          I think King Edward should have listened to his grandson, don’t you?  Sometimes it pays to listen to friends, to family, to co-workers, to fellow students – and yes – sometimes even to children.

          But I’m afraid we’re not very good – well, not always very good at listening.  And you’ve heard as often as I have that there’s a reason why God gave us two ears and one mouth, right?  It’s because God wants us to spend twice as much time listening as we do talking.  But you know what?  It could very well be that God gave us two ears and one mouth because listening is twice as hard as talking. 

          And yet, I have to agree with Paul Tillich, a well-known theologian from a few decades ago who once wrote these important words, “The first duty of love is to listen.”  The first duty of love is to listen.

          And that’s especially true ladies when listening to your husbands.  And men.  Let me tell you what you already know.  I learned this myself early on in my marriage.  I learned that I cannot listen to my beloved wife Nancy – and read the newspaper at the same time.  I thought I could!  I really believed I could.  But the clear message I was giving her was that what she was telling me was not important.  And more to the point, I was sending a clear message that she was not important.

          Folks, we need to listen to Jesus.  Because –let me tell you – when we say we listen – but we’re interrupted by some distraction – what we’re telling God is that either we’re not interested – OR – something else has our attention.  Or – maybe it could be that we just don’t want to listen.

          I don’t know.  But I have to stand with Peter when he says, “Lord, to whom shall we go.  You have the words of eternal life.”

          If ever there were a reason for us to listen to Jesus – it is because Jesus has the words of eternal life.  God wants us to listen to Jesus. 

          Listening to Jesus is not a matter of not being able to hear him.  You can hear him.  Anybody can hear him.  But listening requires a choice.  Listening requires a choice of where to place your attention.  

          I’ve got just a few minutes left, so let me state that we can hear Jesus speak to us today, and we can choose to listen.  If the first duty of love is to listen – then we need to spend time listening to Jesus.  And by the way – if you’re relying on a weekly 12 minute sermon from me each week to do the trick – then let me tell you – you’re going to be starving.  I thank you for listening – but what I have to say is an appetizer.  Our primary responsibility is to listen to Christ.

          And quite frankly, there’s no other way to say it.  First – and of course foremost – Jesus speaks – he still speaks to us today through his Word.  Just open your Bible to the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – the first four books of the New Testament.  And just what does Christ have to say to us that we need to hear? 

·        He may want to talk with us about how we are treating family members or co-workers or friends.

·        He may want to talk to us about our discipleship, about our faithfulness to the church.

·        He may want to talk to us about some undesirable behavior that has crept into our life.

·        Or he may simply want to offer us encouragement as we live our lives.

·        And I can guarantee you that Jesus will tell you just how much the Father loves you.  How much Jesus himself loves you.  And that he wants you to find a place with him both now and in eternity forever.

But we need to listen and we need to trust him. Hey!  Today’s reading might just be the beginning of a listening adventure for someone here today.  “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

          Are you willing to take that step? Are you willing to fulfill the first duty of love to listen with your ears – with your eyes – with your heart?

          I know we all need someone to listen to us.  And if you’re like me, you don’t like it when other people don’t listen to you.  Imagine then, how Jesus feels when we don’t listen to him.  But we need to listen.  We need to listen to Christ – and we need to trust what he says.  Not only are they great words for the living of this life – but eternity hangs in the balance as well.

          So listen to him.  Listen to him and trust and believe.  For Christ does indeed have the words of eternal life.  Amen

Posted by: Pastor Randy AT 01:55 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Wednesday, February 15 2012

Mark 1:40–45

          This past week on both the Today Show and NPR radio, I heard a woman being interviewed about a book she had written describing the French way of child rearing.  One of the things that I learned is that the French have four magic words that they teach their children, whereas we here in the United States have two magic words – please and thank you.  French parents teach their children please and thank you, but they also add hello and goodbye.  They do this because they know how important it is for them and their children – for all of us, really – to be in close contact with other people.

          Another method of the French way of child rearing is to pause for a few moments before picking up a crying baby in a crib, to see if it the child will calm down on its own.  Just a few moments.  Apparently French parents do not pick up their babies at the first cry, and neither do they allow them to cry for however it long it takes until the baby stops on its own.

          I found that interesting, because I came across another study this week.  The Memminger Institute in Topeka, Kansas once had a fascinating experiment.  They identified a group of crib babies who did not cry.  Babies cry because they instinctively know that this is the way to get attention.  Crying is their way of calling out.

          These babies, however, came from homes where their parents let them cry for hours on end and never responded.  Do you know what happened?  The babies eventually quit crying.  It is almost as if they had learned that it was not worth trying.

          So the Memminger Institute came in for an experiment.  They got some people from retirement and from nursing homes, and every day these people held these babies and rocked them.  The object was to get these babies to start crying again.  And you know, it worked!  These babies connected with these folks who held them and rocked them.     Physical touch had made the difference.

          This is not a sermon on child rearing, but a sermon on the touch that comes from Jesus.  I think we can all agree that whether we’re talking about babies or adults, we know that healthy, physical touch is important.  However, as important as physical touch is there is another kind of touch that is even more important.  It is spiritual touch.  This is that special touch that influences and impacts the lives of people, and leads to transformation.

          The telephone company some years ago had a slogan that you may recall: “Reach out and touch someone.”  Do you remember that one?       Well, I couldn’t help thinking about this when I read in our Gospel lesson today that that’s what Jesus did.  A man comes to Jesus with leprosy, and Jesus reaches out to the man and touches him.  The man is healed.  His leprosy is gone.

          Thankfully, in our day leprosy has almost everywhere been wiped out.  It is a curable disease today, but in Jesus’ day it was the most feared of all diseases.  It is a disease that is highly contagious.  So much so, lepers were not allowed to live in their own towns or villages – their own homes!

          So naturally, lepers were avoided. They were outcasts of the worst kind. And that’s where we find this particular man with leprosy in our Gospel reading today.  He is an outcast, living without hope.  No hope that is, until one day Jesus comes walking by.

          The Scriptures tell us that Jesus healed many people.  Sometimes he just spoke a word.  Sometimes people were healed just by touching the fringe of his garments.  But here, Jesus touches the man.  He does more than just heal him.   He touches him.  Jesus touches the man when no one else would.  Please do not overlook that.  This is a touch that we should not forget.

          You see, if Jesus was willing to reach out to touch someone who – quite frankly – was untouchable according to the social standards of his day – then it seems to me that Jesus is also willing to reach out and touch each one of us as well – willing to reach out and touch you no matter where you are – no matter what you’ve done – no matter how long you’ve been away. 

          And that goes for our family members – our friends – our neighbors – who have removed themselves from the faith community.  Maybe they grew up in a loving, Christ-centered family.  Attended church.  Professed their faith in Christ Jesus, but for whatever reason – have chosen to live as outcasts from the faith community in which they were raised – or where they may have once been a part of. 

          I am here to tell you that Jesus does not give up on them and neither should we.    

          You see, it is His desire to reach out – and to touch – to touch all who are hurting – all who live without hope – all who have wandered away – all who have yet to experience his loving touch for the first time.  Jesus wants to reach out and touch them.  There is no one – no one who is an outcast in the eyes of Jesus.  There is no one in this room who is an outcast in the eyes of Jesus. 


          And there is not a one of us today who is not in need of the Jesus touch.  And let me tell you – that’s exactly what Jesus desires to do. When Jesus touched the man with leprosy, we are told that Jesus was “moved with pity.”  Jesus was moved with compassion.  And it is with that same pity – that same compassion – that Jesus reaches out and touches you.

          Let me share a story about Michael Wayne Hunter who was put on death row in California in 1983, in San Quentin Prison.  After his third year on death row something happened.  One day he was getting ready to spend time exercising when the guard said, “You're going to miss Mother Teresa.  She's coming today to see you guys.”  “Yea, sure,” he said.  A little later he heard more commotion about it and thought it might be true.

          Another guard said, “Don't go into your cells and lock up.  Mother Teresa stayed to see you guys.”  So Michael jogged up to the front in gym shorts and a tattered basketball shirt with the arms ripped out, and on the other side of the security screen was this tiny woman who looked 100 years old.  Yes, it was Mother Teresa.

          This hardened prisoner wrote about his experience.  He said, “You have to understand that, basically, I'm a dead man.  I don't have to observe any sort of social convention; and as a result, I can break all the rules, say what I want.  But one look at this Nobel Prize winner, this woman so many people view as a living saint, and I was speechless.”

          Incredible vitality and warmth came from her wizened, piercing eyes.  She smiled at him, blessed a religious medal, and put it in his hands. This murderer who wouldn't have walked voluntarily down the hall to see the Warden, the Governor, the President, or the Pope, stood before this woman, and all he could say was, “Thank you, Mother Teresa.”

          That day was a turning point in the life of Michael Wayne Hunter.  This San Quentin Death Row prisoner was cleansed by that experience. Life changed. Suddenly there was meaning to it.  So drastic was the change a new trial was set and the death penalty was not sought.  The verdict was guilty on both counts of first degree murder but a new sentence was given: Life without the possibility of parole.  

          Prosecution did not seek the death penalty because Mr. Hunter was now a model prisoner and an award-winning writer.  He is one other thing: A testimony that Christ still is willing to heal, still willing to touch the untouchable, and to make us whole.

          Through a woman name Mother Teresa, Jesus was able to touch Michael Wayne Hunter, and turn his life around.  Now, I know, you and I will never think of ourselves as being in the same league with Mother Teresa, but if Jesus has touched your life, does it not make sense that we too should reach out to others with the healing touch of Jesus? 

          Sometimes all it takes is a handshake – or maybe even a hug.  Who among us couldn’t use a hug once in awhile – or maybe even every day?  Or a listening, compassionate ear.  A touch.  Whatever it is – never underestimate the power of healthy touch. 

          And one more thing.  Since Jesus could not pass by people who were hurting – they in turn could not help talking about the wonderful things he had done for them.  And the more they talked, the more of their friends came to Jesus as well.  Jesus simply cared so much, and people who encountered him were so touched by him they simply could not keep it to themselves even when he told them to be quiet.

          Remember what I said earlier.  That in addition to the physical touch, there is a spiritual touch – that special touch that influences and impacts the lives of people, and leads towards transformation.  Folks – I am here today to tell you that Jesus wants to come to you – speak a word of grace and forgiveness to you – and most importantly – to touch you today.  To touch you at the point of your need – no matter what it is.   And once we have been so touched – whether it is a physical touch or a spiritual touch or both – once we experience the love and the joy and the compassion of Christ – then it seems to me that we cannot keep it to ourselves.  We cannot keep it from the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely. 

          That’s our job.  That’s our calling.  And to do so in the name of Jesus.  It is the compassionate – it is the caring thing to do. 


Posted by: AT 01:55 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email

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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

PO Box 235
Clarence Center, NY 14032
Phone: 716-741-2656

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