Click HERE to watch a videos of Zion sermons.
Monday, October 28 2013
John 8:31–36, Romans 3:19–28, Jeremiah 31:31–34
Let me begin by telling you a story about a time when a woman by the name of Florence Littauer was speaking at a Church Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. She told the crowd of a time when she was at a speaking engagement where she was focusing on the sinful nature of all human beings, and our need for God’s grace.
So Florence asked, “Does anyone here know what grace means?” A 7 year old girl in the front row, stood up and raised her hand. “‘I know, Miss Littauer, I know,” she said. “Grace is unmerited favor from God!”
Well, Florence couldn't believe what she had just heard. She then asked the young girl to step up to the platform with her. “Great answer,” Florence said, “now tell the audience what that means.” The little girl folded her hands and shrugged, I don't have a clue!”
Folks, I’ve been talking about grace for over 20 years here now. Preaching about it. Teaching it in confirmation classes. Explaining it in new member classes. And that little girl’s definition of grace is close to the definition that I use. The definition of grace that I use I learned from my pastor when I was in confirmation. Way back then I learned that grace is “God’s undeserved love and favor.” Say that with me, “Grace is God’s undeserved love and favor.”
And that’s a great answer if you ever have to give an answer on a quiz. But let me say that it’s one thing to know the definition – but it’s another to experience it. It’s one thing to know it. It’s another to experience it.
If you remember from last week, I told you that trust is God’s answer to worry. Trust in God is God’s answer to worry. Today I want to tell you that grace is God’s answer to sin.
Today we celebrate Reformation Day. The color for the day is red – and I’m happy to see that many of you remembered to wear red today. No big deal if you forgot. But today is the day that we celebrate the reformation of the church. We remember today a man named Martin Luther, who on October 31, 1517, started the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.
One of the things that plagued Luther was the problem of sin. More to the point – the problem of his own sinfulness. For Luther the problem was this. How do you satisfy the demands of a holy God? And what does God do with people who either cannot or will not clean up their act? And more to the point – how can God expect perfection from human beings who are totally incapable of being perfect?
If you’ve ever struggled with those kinds of questions, then I think you have a good grasp of what it was Luther put himself through. Luther wanted to be perfect. He believed that God wanted him to be perfect. Luther tried to be perfect. But let’s be real. We all know that there is no one – absolutely no one – who is perfect. There is no one who is without sin.
The Bible tells us – from our reading today from the book of Romans – “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Folks, we are all flawed. We say things we shouldn’t say. We do things we shouldn’t do. And – we think things we shouldn’t think. And in the process, we hurt people, we disappoint people. We even disappoint ourselves. And we disappoint God.
Folks, I don’t want you to think that I am beating up on you today. I’m not. I’m simply telling you what you already know. Sin is real. And the problem with sin is twofold. First, sin hurts people. Second, sin separates us from God. Sin hurts people, and sin separates us from God.
Now understand this. God’s desire for you and me is that our lives might be filled with things like love, joy and peace. But sin gets in the way. Sin won’t let that happen. Sin hurts people. Sin destroys relationships. Sin can even destroy our bodies. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. People whose lives have been broken because of sinful, destructive behaviors.
And sin acts like a prison. We become slaves of sin. Sometimes our sin blinds us to our own condition. Have you ever noticed that? Have you ever noticed how – other people – are blind to their own sin? Ever notice that? Well, don’t look now, but they’re saying the same thing about you.
But, hey! You didn’t come here today to hear me park on the problem of sin. But there is an answer. God does have an answer. Jesus says in our reading from John’s Gospel, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin…So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
When Jesus says “You will be free,” he is talking about being free from sin. Freedom from self-destructive lifestyles. Freedom from the sin that hurts people and destroys relationships.
So sin hurts people. The second thing that sin does is that sin separates us from God. That’s what sin is and that’s what sin does. Sin separates us from God. But the important thing for you to know – what you need to remember is that God loves you even though you and I are sinners. No matter where you go – no matter what you do – no matter what you say – no matter how long or how far you’ve been away. God loves you.
And God forgives. In our reading from the book of Jeremiah, God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” That’s one of my favorite verses in the Bible. “I will forgiven their sins, and remember their sins no more.” When God forgives, God forgets. Thank God God has a long-term memory issue! I am so thankful that God cannot remember my sins. So the next time you’re reading through the book of Jeremiah, I want you to circle this verse. I want you to circle this verse, because this is God’s promise to you. “I will forgive their sins, and I will remember their sins no more.”
You see, God wants you to be free from sin. God wants you to be free from the power of sin. God’s answer to sin is grace. God’s answer to the power of sin is Jesus. He is the One who sets us free.
But let me tell you. It’s one thing to know that. It’s one thing for you to know that sin is real – that sin is a real problem in your life and mine. It’s one thing to know that God paid the penalty for your sin and mine when Jesus died on the cross. It’s one thing to know that grace is God’s undeserved love and favor – AND that it is because of God’s undeserved love and favor – because of God’s grace – that God says to everyone of us this [afternoon] [morning] – your sins are forgiven. I love you. I forgive you. My Son’s sacrifice on the cross is effective for you. And I give the gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation to you because of my great love for you – because of my grace.
Listen to me very carefully – even if you think you know all about grace. Everyone of us here today needs to EXPERIENCE grace. All of us need to EXPERIENCE God’s love and forgiveness. It’s one thing to know the definition of God’s grace. It’s one thing to understand it intellectually. It’s quite another to EXPERIENCE God’s grace.
Many of you know Marla Grefrth. Marla is our choir director. She sent me a story this past week. It’s a story on grace and forgiveness from a book by Max Lucado, entitled “Grace Happens Here”. Listen! “On a November evening in 2004, Victoria Ruvolo, a forty-four-year-old New Yorker, was driving to her home on Long Island. She’d just attended her niece’s recital and was ready for the couch, a warm fire, and relaxation.
She doesn’t remember seeing the silver Nissan approach from the east. She remembers nothing of the eighteen- year-old boy leaning out the window, holding, of all things, a frozen turkey. He threw it at her windshield.
The twenty-pound bird crashed through the glass, bent the steering wheel inward, and shattered her face like a dinner plate on concrete. The violent prank left her grappling for life in the ICU. She survived but only after doctors wired her jaw, affixed one eye by synthetic film, and bolted titanium plates to her cranium. She can’t look in the mirror without a reminder of her hurt.
Nine months after her disastrous November night, she stood face to titanium-bolted face with her offender in court. Ryan Cushing was no longer the cocky, turkey-tossing kid in the Nissan. He was trembling, tearful, and apologetic. For New York City, he had come to symbolize a generation of kids out of control. People packed the room to see him get his comeuppance. The judge’s sentence enraged them — only six months behind bars, five years’ probation, some counseling, and public service.
The courtroom erupted. Everyone objected. Everyone, that is, except Victoria Ruvolo. The reduced sentence was her idea. The boy walked over, and she embraced him. In full view of the judge and the crowd, she held him tight, stroked his hair. He sobbed, and she spoke:
“I forgive you. I want your life to be the best it can be.”
She allowed grace to shape her response. “God gave me a second chance at life, and I passed it on,” she says. “If I hadn’t let go of that anger, I’d be consumed by this need for revenge. Forgiving him helps me move on.”
Her mishap led to her mission: volunteering with the county probation department. “I’m trying to help others, but I know for the rest of my life I’ll be known as ‘The Turkey Lady.’ Could have been worse. He could have thrown a ham. I’d be Miss Piggy!”
Folks, grace is God’s answer to sin. Grace is the gift that God gives: a grace that grants us first the power to receive love and then the power to give it.
People who experience God’s grace are grace-filled people. Grace filled people – the grace-given – give grace. Forgiven people forgive people.
Folks, God wants your life to be the best it can be. So today – you don’t need to be afraid of God. God’s not mad at you. You don’t have to fear the judgment seat of Christ. Our reading today lets us know that, “23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified” – in other words you are made right with God – “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”
Hey! You came here today to hear good news. Is that good news, or what? This is what we call the Gospel. Good News! This is what God in Jesus Christ has done for us. Because of what Jesus Christ has done for us – grace is God’s answer to sin. And if you can believe what I have shared with you today, and receive God’s grace by faith, then you will be free.
You will be free indeed. Amen
Tuesday, October 22 2013
Matthew 6:25-34, Proverbs 3:5-6, Philippians 4:6-8, 2 Corinthians 9:6-12
As some of you know, I was away last weekend. I had been invited two years ago to return to the church where I had been a member for the five years that I lived in Dayton, Ohio when I was in my early to mid-twenties. By the way, the name of that church is Zion Lutheran. Can’t go wrong with a church named Zion, can you!
I had been invited to return to preach last year, but I told them I couldn’t be there because I would be on safari in Africa. Sounds like an excuse doesn’t it! And I suppose that would have been funny, except that it was true. So the pastor settled for this year. That church will be 200 years old in the year 2020. So I asked if they were planning their 200th birthday celebration around the theme “2020 Vision.” “As a matter of fact,” said the pastor, “that’s exactly what we’re calling it, and we’ve already begun to plan for it.”
Well, this church – this Zion – does not yet have a 2020 vision plan, but I predict that as the year 2020 gets closer, not only will this church, but every church in the country will be talking about having 2020 vision. Those of us who wear eyeglasses wish we still had 2020 vision, right? I mean, it’s so clever, right? Well, it’s not so much clever as it is obvious.
You know, every church needs a vision. The Bible says that without a vision, the people perish. SO I want to do a couple of things today. I want to talk to you a little not so much about 2020 vision – but a 2014 vision. And then how you and I together can focus on and support that vision.
In a nutshell – let me tell you where I believe the Lord is leading us. It is one of my core beliefs that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. So one part of the vision that God has for this church is that it will continue to be a growing church. I believe God wants this church to grow. And I’m not just talking about how many people show up every week. I am talking about that, but more importantly – I’m talking about what happens in the hearts and minds and lives of everyone who comes through our doors. A church can grow in numbers – but if there isn’t also a growth in our love for God and for each other – if there isn’t a growth in our understanding of God and God’s word – then the best a church can be is a mile wide, and an inch deep. I don’t believe God want us to be a mile wide and an inch deep. I believe God wants us to grow deeper in our understanding and in our practice of what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
So what are some of the things we can expect in 2014 and beyond that will help us to keep growing? The first thing that comes to mind will be the calling of a second pastor. Once that happens we will be able to focus our energies on jump starting our Stephen Ministry and ALPHA programs, which have been dormant the past few years.
We have a great music ministry. And you know, I think we have one of the most dynamic youth and family ministries that any church could hope to have. We have a fantastic staff in Elaine and Kurt. But I’ll tell you, we couldn’t do the things we do without the many volunteers who work alongside Kurt and Elaine – just doing what needs to be done. I’m looking forward to converting our lounge area into a coffee shop that will spill out into the hallway. So I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m pretty excited about what the Lord is doing in and through this place, and where this church is headed.
So how can we support that vision? Today is our Consecration Weekend – and for those of you who are new to this church in the past year, or are here for the first time today – Consecration Weekend is something we do here once a year. This is a day that we use to consecrate ourselves to God and His church. In other words, today we are setting ourselves apart for the work of the Lord in a specific way by declaring what our financial commitment to the work of the Lord at Zion Lutheran Church – what our support of God’s vision for this place will be in 2014.
So if you are a guest with us today, you can relax. This is something we ask only of those who are members at this church.
So let’s return to our Scripture readings. These are readings that I have selected specifically for today – with a little help from our church council. Because in addition to talking about vision and consecration, I want to talk about one thing that can get in the way of God’s vision and our commitment to it. And that thing is worry.
I would guess that there’s not a one of us who doesn’t worry. Some of us worry more than others. The problem with worry is that most of us worry about things that we have no control over.
In our council meeting devotion time on Monday night, one council member said her grandmother was a great worrier. She worried about the weather. We all agreed that we can’t do anything about the weather, but if bad weather is on the way – we can take precautions ahead of time. Sure beats worrying. And yet we worry. Worry about the big things. Worry about the small things. Worry about the past. Worry about the future. Worry about our family. Worry about our jobs. Worry about finances. Worry about that test in school, or the term paper that’s due tomorrow. Worry. Worry. Worry.
Do you know what God’s answer to worry is? Anybody want to take a stab at it? It’s trust. Trust. So I asked the church council in our devotion time – what does it mean to trust? And here are some of the answers they gave.
• It’s waiting for God, but sometimes you have to take action.
• It’s hard work to learn to trust God. Sometimes life overwhelms. You want that new car. That dream vacation. A bigger TV. If only I had this one thing. Sometimes it’s hard to learn to trust God.
• Someone wisely said, “Things become easier when we come back to the center.”
• And someone else said, “Sometimes it’s two steps forward, and one step back.”
• We also acknowledged that for some it’s easier to trust God than others. For some, life is hardship and suffering.
• One person said, “For me I am so blessed, and things are easy.”
• Any someone else said, “But sometimes those who are suffering also feel blessed, and show tremendous trust.”
So we talked about trust. And then I asked what the Bible has to say about worry. And since we’re living in the wonderful world of smart phones and ipads, within seconds two people found Matthew 6:25-34 and Philippians 4:6-8.
So listen again to what Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 about worry. “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ …indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
So what does Jesus tell us what not to do? Worry. Worry. Instead, what does he tell us we are to do? That’s right. Seek first – what? The Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all of these things that you need will be given to you.” What things? All the things you need. Notice it says all of your needs. NOT all of your greeds. There’s a big difference there. God will supply all of your needs. That’s a promise. Do you believe that? Do you trust that?
Here’s the problem with worry. Worry says, “I don’t believe you God. I don’t believe that you keep your promises.” When we worry, it’s as though we are living as though God does not exist.
Now I know that that sounds harsh – because let’s face it – we all worry. And sometimes it’s hard not to worry. But I’m here today to tell you that God wants you to trust him. God wants you to trust him – and trust is God’s answer to worry. Repeat that with me. Trust is God’s answer to worry.
What does our reading from the book of Philippians tell us? “Do not worry about anything.” Do I need to repeat that? “Do not worry about anything.” Again, that’s what we’re NOT supposed to do. But what does God want us to do? “… in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Pray with thanksgiving. I like the saying, “If you worry, why pray? If you pray, why worry?” Worry never changed a thing. It’s stewing without doing. But prayer changes things. God wants us to come to him – to present our needs – again, not our greeds, but our needs – to present our needs to him in prayer.
I want to encourage you to consider what it is that God has done in your life. First, He has given you Jesus Christ. Jesus died for us so that we might have the forgiveness of our sins, and God raised Jesus from the dead so that we might have the gift and the promise of eternal life with God forever. Do you trust God to do that for you? Do you? Well then, if we can trust God to do that for us – and that is the really hard part of what God does for us – I mean, you try raising someone from the dead! If we can trust God with the hard stuff, then it seems to me to that it should be a slam dunk to trust God with the easy stuff, yes? Food and clothing, home and family, meaningful work, everything we need from day to day. Again – in our council devotions someone was quick to point out that that’s what we mean when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” It’s asking God for – trusting God for – everything that we need for TODAY.
So today, I am going to ask you to trust God. I’m going to ask you to trust God to provide you with all that you need. And then I’m going to ask you to commit – to consecrate yourself – to commit a portion of what God is giving you to the work of the Lord. To support the vision for 2014 that I shared with you earlier. I invite you to invest in what God is doing here.
Remember, the Bible talks about a tithe – the giving of 10% of one’s income to the Lord for the work of the Lord. Now I do not –and will never lay this down as a law. But I would not be doing my job if I did not invite you to consider the tithe. Now I also realize that 10% is a stretch for many. I know that. But let me ask you to consider where you are at – as a percentage of your income – and to grow one step – half a percent – maybe even one percent – just take one step towards a tithe.
I want you to know that I am at 16% of my income. It took me a while to get there, but let me tell you – it is one of the best things I have ever done. And I promise to you that I will grow in my giving in 2014. My beloved wife Nancy gives more than 20% to Crossroads Lutheran where she is a pastor. And you know what? We have never lacked for a thing. Even in those days when we were living paycheck to paycheck. We never lacked for a thing. Never.
Trust is God’s answer to worry. And God wants us to trust Him. To trust God who says, “Do not worry about your life.” To trust God who says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication – with thanksgiving – let your requests be made known to God.” And when you do that – you know what’s going to happen? The Bible says, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Do you believe that? Do you trust God to do that? Amen
Tuesday, October 08 2013
Corrie ten Boom was a Christian who traveled and lectured extensively across Europe and the United States in the years following World War II. She told the story of her travels in her book Tramp for the Lord. She was a native of Holland. During the war, she and her family were placed into Nazi concentration camps. Their crime? Hiding Jews in their home from the Nazis.
She told that story in her book The Hiding Place. But in her book, Tramp for the Lord, she wonderfully illustrates, “how after the war she met a guard who had been her captor in the Ravensbruck concentration camp where her sister had died. He came forward after she spoke at a church in Munich, and said he had been one of her guards, and reached out his hand to her, asking for her forgiveness.
“For a moment, says Corrie, she hesitated, recalling his cruelty to her sister Betsy and those around her. Then, knowing God's warning to forgive or we cannot be forgiven, and yet still not feeling the ability to lift her hand towards him, she prayed silently: ‘Jesus help me!...I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’ (p. 55).
“And as she woodenly thrust out her hand the current of God's healing warmth flowed through her and out to the former guard. ‘I forgive you, brother!’ she cried. ‘With all my heart.’
“Corrie says she never has known God's love so intensely as she did then. But she knew it was not her love, for she had tried and did not have the power. ‘But it was the power of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Romans 5:5, ‘...because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.’”
I wonder how many of us could do that – to do what Corrie ten Boom did – when someone who had hurt her deeply asked her to forgive him. I wonder.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells his disciples that if a brother or sister in Christ says something – does something – to hurt us – and then asks us to forgive them – what does Jesus tell us to do? One of the hardest things I think that we might ever be asked to do. Forgive. Jesus says we must forgive.
Now, having said that, I want you to know that forgiveness is one thing. For the person who has hurt you to regain your trust is quite another. That takes time. It’s not easy.
So is it any wonder then, that when the disciples hear Jesus say, “You must forgive,” that the very first words out of their mouths are, “Increase our faith!” Increase our faith.
In other words, “What you’re asking for Jesus is hard. We’re not sure we can do what you’re asking. We’re going to need a boatload more faith if that’s what you’re asking us to do.”
And then Jesus returns to what he has said before about faith the size of a mustard seed. This is one of five places in all of the gospels where Jesus talks about faith being like a mustard seed. And if you know anything about mustard seeds, you’ll know that they are quite tiny. They’re not very big seeds at all. So because of their size – and because Jesus compares faith to the mustard seed – we tend to look at faith as having size or a quantity that one possesses.
Well, let me go back to saying something that I’ve said before, and will keep on saying. Faith is like a muscle. You need to exercise it. And like a muscle – when I lift this dumbbell – what is going to happen – or should I say – what is supposed to happen when I lift this weight? Yeah. You would expect my muscles to grow.
So the same thing is true with faith. Faith is something that all of us have been given. The Bible says in Romans 12:3 that we have all been given a measure of faith. Now it doesn’t say what that measure is, but it is enough for you to know that you have been given the gift of faith. And may I suggest that you have been given the faith you need.
And since that is true the situation we find ourselves in is not in the amount of faith that you have – or that I have. But rather can we say that the challenge is in how we exercise or apply that faith. I think the real problem is in our heads. Our minds are telling us that we don’t have enough. Perhaps we don’t know what we already have. Or maybe we don’t trust what we already have.
Because it seems to me that if you’re asking the question, “Lord, increase my faith,” I think what you are really saying is, “Lord, I am inadequate in and of myself,” – much like Corrie ten Boom was inadequate in and of herself to forgive her former prison guard – “I am inadequate in and of my own power – in and of my own strength – to live this life you’re asking me to live.”
So let me suggest to you that the disciples need is not for more faith – that your need and my need is not for more faith – but the need to exercise that faith – to put that faith to work. And in our reading today, Jesus tells us just how we are to do that.
He tells this parable – and I’ll be the first to say that it’s a challenging parable – and quite frankly – this is not one of my favorites. Jesus compares us to slaves – I would prefer the word servant here – Jesus compares us to servants who serve the master and need not expect a word of thanks from the master for doing what we ought to have been doing all along.
So when the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord , increase our faith,” notice that Jesus does not roll his eyes. He does not chastise. But he tells them that even the tiny bit of authentic faith which they already have is more powerful than they can possibly imagine.
What we need to do is the sometimes hard work of putting that faith to work. In other words to exercise our faith – which is what you’re doing, for instance, when you forgive the one who has hurt you deeply – as difficult as that may be.
The parable Jesus told invites us to see ourselves in relation to God as servants. To exercise faith in a life well lived. The idea is that as disciples we are to see ourselves in serving roles. Whether in Haiti, or Belize, or in the inner city of Buffalo, or here at this church, or in our own homes.
SO we live our lives – we exercise our faith in service to the Lord and to others – as servants who do what we ought to have done. But let me remind you that our lives as servants do not earn us brownie points with God. No. I want you to remember that we don't earn our way into the kingdom of God. We are GIVEN a place in the Kingdom because of God’s grace –God’s undeserved love and favor – freely given to us.
Let me tell you the story about a man seeking entrance to heaven based on his good works. The man comes to the Pearly Gates and asks Saint Peter for admission. “On what basis?” Saint Peter asks.
“Well,” says the man, “I worked most recently in the world of financial management, and I labored hard to make even that realm a place where God's will was done.”
“Yes,” replies Saint Peter, “but, of course, we expected that.”
“Uh ... well, earlier I worked several years at low wages in the mission field. I tackled the causes of poverty and injustice in the Third World. I worked directly with children, families and their communities. I even helped some people escape from human traffickers.”
“We know, but that all needed to be done.”
“But look here ... I've worked hard to be faithful ever since God called me. I've kept my hand on the plow as it were and not looked back.”
“And your point is?”
The man, now clearly disconcerted, stammers, “That's all I've got! There's nothing more… but the grace of God!”
“Exactly,” says Saint Peter, opening the gate. “C'mon in.”
At the end of the day it all depends on God’s grace received by faith. The good that we would do is in response to what God has done for us. At the end of the day, there’s nothing more than God’s grace, and we – we have done only what we ought to have done.
So let me repeat that it’s not the size or the quantity of our faith that matters. It’s the exercise of that faith – of putting that faith into action in a life of service that really matters. For God’s glory, for the benefit of others, and for our own good.
It’s an exercise in faith – when we join hands with our brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with the same faith issues that you do – to make a difference in the world for Jesus Christ – simply because Jesus Christ makes all the difference in the world for us.
 Donald Deffner, Bound to Be Free, pp. 102-103.