“This Has Got to Stop!”

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The famous have fallen in 2016. Not just one at a time, but in bunches and clusters. Famous, ground-breaking, best-selling musicians have passed away. Well-known, high-profile actors and actresses have died.

The toll from just the past week includes pop star George Michael, iconic actress Carrie Fisher, and just one day later, Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds (a famous actress in her own right, though not to the younger crowd).

Much angst and ink has been spilled over these and other deaths in 2016. People bemoan the end of an era, the loss of one’s childhood, and collectively wail, “This has got to stop!” As in, “2016, you’ve been so mean. You’ve taken away so many important people. You need to go away. You need to stop!”

One question: does merely saying/posting/protesting, “This has got to stop!” end the fact that famous people – and many, many more not-so-famous people – die all the time? All. The. Time. Every single day.

Well, folks are about to get their wish. 2016 is nearly over; 2017 is almost here. Not much will change. More famous people will die. And so will many, many more not-so-famous people who probably mean a lot more to you personally than Prince or Alan Rickman. Perhaps even people you actually know and care about personally, people with whom you’ve lived and cried and laughed. People you’ve held. People for whom you’ve prayed.

It may be a pitfall of the preaching profession, but I suspect that many others have this same thought when a celebrity dies: Did that person believe in Jesus Christ? Did he or she die in faith? In the end, this is all that matters.

May I offer another take on what’s “got to stop?” Here’s what needs to simply go away in 2017: People depriving themselves of God’s blessings. What? Who would do that? Why? How do people deprive themselves of God’s blessings? They stay away from Word and Sacrament. When people keep themselves away from God’s Word, they choose to deny themselves blessings God wants them to have.

How does that stop? Here’s a call to action, in the form of a prayer: “Lord, help me to be in your Word daily, and to make worship a priority. Lord, lead me to take your Sacrament regularly.”

Something else that’s got to stop? People depriving others of God’s eternal blessings by not telling them the good news about Jesus. When we refrain from speaking about sin and grace, about God’s love in Christ, we’re not dispensing the greatest gifts we have to give. “Help me, Lord, to reach out to others with your saving Word.”

Time won’t stop until God says it’s time. Neither will death. But for God’s people, death’s bark is worse than its bite. “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:57) God bless you and yours in 2017.

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom…Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” (Psalm 90:12,14)

9-11 + 15

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8:46 a.m. A moment in time that will never be forgotten.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001. New York City. 9-11 is date in history that forever changed our nation and world.

8:46 a.m. was the moment the first terrorist-guided airplane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 450 mph. The second impact, at the South Tower, occurred at 9:02 a.m. This devastation was witnessed live by millions thanks to video and television cameras now trained on the scene. Further impacts into the heart and soul of this country took place at the Pentagon and in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

Hundreds died instantly. Thousands more struggled to survive by evacuating the towers before they collapsed. Tens of thousands made it. Thousands did not. The South Tower collapsed first, at 9:59 a.m. The North Tower followed its twin to the earth at 10:28 a.m.

Even as we remember the images and impact of that day fifteen years ago, a new generation of children has been born that did not live through that day. The youngest among us at that time do not remember. Since that time, war and terror have been a constant, ever-evolving theme in our nation’s daily life. Since that day, we’ve also struggled with natural disasters and economic collapses. Currently, we’re enduring an unsettling political season unlike any other. We’ve endured challenges and difficulties (and blessings!) in our personal lives as well.

Another moment in time: 3:00 p.m., and shortly thereafter, 29 A.D. On a hill just outside the city of Jerusalem. A moment in time that will never be forgotten. A moment in time that transcends all else. A moment in time that gives us hope and a future. A moment in time that enables to do more than just remember – it enables us to look forward.

Hanging on a cross, Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” And moments later, he breathed his last. For a short time, anyway. At Easter dawn the Lord Jesus forever altered the history of the planet by bursting from the tomb – alive and powerful. In control.

Viewed separately, September 11, 2001 and other moments of terror and challenge are intense moments of devastation and loss. With the empty cross and the empty tomb in our sights, however, they are mere moments in time under the control of our merciful Lord.

We do not deserve anything from the hand of the Almighty Lord, but he has been merciful and gracious to us beyond comprehension. As a nation, we have not responded to God’s mercy these past fifteen years with anything resembling faithfulness. And yet, by God’s expansive grace, our nation remains. As individuals, we also acknowledge our failings as well as God’s forgiveness and love.

On this day, fifteen years later, may we as a nation – and as individuals – respond to the Lord’s mercy with faithfulness and love and truth.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:1-3, 10)

Do You Have Enough Room?

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Do you have enough room in your home?  Seems like most everyone would like more space. In the Arizona desert where I live, space is at a premium because there are very few basements.

A couple of statistics to share: In 2013, the average new home in the U.S. was 2679 square feet. Forty years ago, it was 1660 square feet. That is, wait for it, 1000 more square feet. Meanwhile, the average family size has been shrinking: 3.01 persons per household on average in 1973 to a new record low of 2.54 persons per household in 2013. Houses are getting bigger, families are getting smaller. Add these facts together, here’s the bottom line: the average amount of living space per person in a new home has almost doubled in the last forty years.

So…Do you have enough room? Would you have room for one more person in your home? The Person I have in mind doesn’t take up a lot of space, but he does take considerable commitment. I’m taking about Jesus, of course. Is there room for Jesus in your home and family? More importantly, is there room for him in your heart?

Grab a glass jar and fill it with rocks. One jar represents one life. Yours. Mine. Life is full, isn’t it? Full to the brim, full to overflowing for many. The rocks in the jar represent some of the things that make for a full life: Family, Work, Schedules, Sports, Recreation, Hobbies, Relationships, Facebook/Social Media time, Netflix binging, Shopping. All the spaces get filled in with so many other minor tasks and events. What’s in the jar of your life? Chances are, it’s quite full.

Anything missing? Quick check: is the Word of God there? The Word and presence of Jesus as an afterthought doesn’t work very well. We try to put it/Him in there, but there’s no room.

Isn’t that how it is for so many, how it can be for us? Life gets so full that there’s no room left for Jesus to fill us with his Word and love and mercy and grace and power. How can we make sure that there’s room for Jesus, that he and his Word are filling us? Make it a priority. First things, the most important thing, the one thing needful (as Jesus said to Martha in Luke 10) must come first!

Do you have enough room? Do you have room in your home and in your heart for the One who not only fills the universe, but who fills our hearts completely? Make room. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Life offers up all kinds of rabbit trails, countless “squirrel” moments, all sorts of things to worry about, all kinds of things to distract.

But you, fix your eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). Gaze upon Jesus with such intensity that nothing distracts. Like a sailor setting course in the storm, or a runner pushing toward the finish line, fix your eyes on Jesus. Fix your eyes and heart on his cross, his resurrection, his life, his Baptism, his body and blood. That’s where life is. That’s where forgiveness is. That’s where he is…for you.

Fix your eyes on Jesus. Make room for the One who made room for you.

Candidates and Christians, Don’t Do This

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On the morning after the Presidential election, half of our country is disappointed while the other half is elated.

Not this year. According to daily polls and countless conversations, it appears that a significant majority of our citizens will be disappointed no matter who wins the election. Unfavorability ratings for the two major candidates are well above 50%. This is an election unlike any other, at least in my lifetime (I cast my first vote 32 years ago, in 1984).

There is one thing that candidates, and Christians, do every election cycle that they shouldn’t do. It’s been done since the birth of our nation, and it will continue to be done until the end. But it shouldn’t be done.

What is it? Candidates, and Christians, often attach the imprimatur of God’s blessing to their campaign and candidate of choice. Scripture is quoted, and prophecies are produced to show the country that Candidate A (or B or C) is God’s man/woman for the office of President.

Dozens of emails have arrived in my inbox and many more conversations have reached my hard-of-hearing ears asserting that various Scriptures point to a certain candidate as being the only one who can “save America.” Why? Well, essentially because God says so. Candidates and their supporters hold up Bibles at rallies and blandly quote Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount to prove divine sanction on their campaign.

Especially offensive is when Scriptures are quoted to indicate that they apply to a specific candidate. One that makes the rounds every four years is found in Proverbs 29:18a – “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” All candidates have a “vision,” but do they have the Lord’s vision? This is the clear context of this passage in Proverbs.

The prophet Isaiah gets a political workout every cycle, it seems. A staggering misuse of the Bible arises out of Isaiah 40:28-31. This is the wonderful passage that speaks of not growing tired or weary, of gaining strength, and soaring “on wings like eagles.” The entire passage refers to the LORD God, the Messiah, the Savior. A passage like this – read it, please, in its context – does not refer to any political candidate. Not now. Not ever.

Candidates and Christians, don’t do this. There is only one Lord and Savior. There is only one Messiah. And it’s not you or me or Candidate A or B or C. That “office” is already filled by King Jesus.

I’m not going to tell you how to vote. But I will encourage you to vote. As a citizen (and as a Christian), it is your responsibility to be involved in the process. Study the issues, examine the policy proposals, scrutinize past history, and understand the moral issues that confront our country. And then, with a heart of faith in God and love for country, exercise this gracious freedom entrusted to us by the One who actually gives us strength and enables us to soar on wings like eagles.

Even as he tells us where to place our trust, Isaiah tells us where NOT to place it: “Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?” (2:22)

During these final weeks leading up to the election, let’s not lose our heads, nor our faith. The Psalm writers got it right: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” (Psalm 146:3) “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in humans.” (Psalm 118:8)

4 Lessons from 25 Years in Ministry

Back on July 7, 1991, I was ordained into the public ministry. I’ve served at two different churches in two entirely different locations in the country. When milestones occur, it’s good to refocus and recalibrate. It’s important for all of us, no matter what we do, to keep God not just in the picture, but at the center of everything. I’ve been jotting down some lessons learned in my 25 years of ministry. It’s a pretty lengthy list, but I’ll keep it short and share four of them with you.

  • It’s not my work/ministry, it’s God’s. One of the ways I express that is to ask that my name not be put on the church sign. It’s not my church, it’s God’s.
  • God’s Word is a daily necessity. When I look through sermons from my early years in ministry, I find myself saying it’s good to be in the Word 2, 3, 4 times per week. I’m embarrassed by that now. It needs to be every day. Every day. The battle for souls and the fight for faith is a fierce as ever. And worship must be a priority. One thing that’s changed just over the past decade is families come to worship less often. Ten years ago, the typical family with kids here was in church 2-3 times per month. Now, it’s maybe once a month. Often, less. Come on, moms and dads. Every one of us. Do we really have anything more important to do than to hear the Word of our gracious God and worship him? God’s Word is necessary. Every week. Every day. For daily life and eternal life.
  • When someone in our church family is hurting, the shepherd hurts too. I’ve come to understand the whole shepherd/sheep analogy in a very personal way. When a member is feeling rejection, illness, grief, loss, your pastor feels it too. Certainly not as deeply as the person going through it, but I’m stunned at times by the depth of emotion that accompanies pastoral care. Or when a member is rebelling against God’s Word, disinterested in the things that really matter, or leaves for bad reasons, it hurts the shepherd. I know I shouldn’t, but I do tend to take those things personally. It hurts, I’m concerned about that person’s relationship with Jesus, and in the end I can only ask God to work in that person’s life.
  • The world changes, but the Gospel never changes. It’s breathtaking, really, the changes in our world. Just in the area of knowledge, consider this: a typical weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than a person would encounter in a lifetime in the 17th century. Mind-boggling. And with the proliferation of the internet and digital information, the sum total of all human knowledge now doubles every 12 months. Six years ago, it was every two years. A century ago, it took 50 years. Again, right now every 12 months. Soon, experts tell us…every 12 hours. Again, mind-boggling, but how much of this is essential for eternity? The Gospel of Christ doesn’t change. Ever. The need for repentance, Law and Gospel, sin and grace never changes. You and I know these truths. They are timeless. They are eternal. They are sharable. We must share these truths at every opportunity, with urgency. Because forgiveness and life in Christ are what truly matter.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

update

It’s been nearly two years since I posted at this site. Why? Several answers to choose from…

  • Life
  • Busy
  • I really don’t know

All three of the above apply.

But I’m ready to jump back in. Stay tuned, and God bless!

Sermon for September 28, 2014 @ Deer Valley Lutheran’s 35th Anniversary: “What Should ‘Church’ Look Like (Acts 2:42-47)

In our little corner of the kingdom here at Deer Valley, we’re celebrating 35 years as a congregation. 35 years ago, Deer Valley met in a middle school cafeteria with a table for an altar, a cross set on that table for decoration, and folding chairs on a very noisy floor. Everything had to be set up and then taken down, and just about everyone had something to do. Every week. You know what else that little group of 30 people had? The Gospel, the Word of God. Today, Deer Valley Lutheran has an entire campus, two freshly-painted buildings, technology upgrades. Very few people have to do anything to get ready for worship, everything’s all set and ready to go. Most of us just show up, stay for an hour, and go home. Much has changed, but one thing hasn’t changed: we’re blessed to have the Gospel, the Word of God.

This is a good time to pause and ask, WHAT SHOULD “CHURCH” LOOK LIKE? There are a lot of opinions out there, and in here. Everything from building style to music preferences to use of technology to sermon length is debated out there, and in here. God has not set down a divinely inspired order of service or building blueprint or sermon length guidelines. But he has given us direction. The early church does offer some descriptive principles to apply today. Let’s bypass the options of so-called experts and mega-church models and consider the Holy Spirit’s point of view. After all, he created the church with explosive, unstoppable power. That power is still at work today. In light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, What Should “Church” Look Like?

As we examine the early church in Acts 2, four “Ms” guide our study. The first is Message. The Christian church in Acts was a church with a message. They didn’t send out flyers promoting their new soccer fields or announcing that bounce houses would be available the day of the Easter egg hunt. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (v. 42) They didn’t just causally take in the apostles’ teaching and say, “Maybe I’ll attend a Bible study…later.” They devoted themselves to it, literally, they constantly attached themselves to the Word of God. They took it in as if their very life depended on it. And it did.

What was the apostles’ teaching? The teaching of Jesus which he himself gave to the apostles and the teaching about Jesus – the Gospel. Earlier in the chapter, on the great day of Pentecost, Peter preached a sermon in which he detailed Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection using Old Testament prophecy to show that he was in fact the promised Savior. He summarized with these words: “Be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (v. 36)

“You.” You crucified Jesus, You have sinned. This is rather personal, even harsh. Necessary? There were some Jewish leaders there, but to put this on all the people, to put the death of Jesus on you and me – isn’t this going just a bit too far? Not in the least! Whose sins were on Jesus’ shoulders? The world’s, of course, but the ones that concern you and me most are your and my own: impatience, harsh words, selfishness, lack of attention to spiritual priorities/Word, doubt, fear, worry. It’s a list impressive in both length and depth, breathtaking in its creativity, eternally damning in reality.

When someone realizes the true nature and impact of sin/rebellion against God, what’s the reaction? “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, Brothers, what shall we do?’” (v. 37) Regret, despair. The answer? Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (v. 38,39) The Gospel is not a message of self-improvement or a bunch of nauseating platitudes, “You can do it, hang in there, God don’t make no junk.” It’s a message of grace, pure grace – God’s undeserved love and mercy for you. God has saved you in Christ, given you the free gifts of forgiveness and life through faith. Jesus Christ lived for you/died for you/rose again for you. He did it, not only for you, but for all. This was the message proclaimed 2000 years ago. This was the message proclaimed 35 years ago at Deer Valley’s first service. 1,820 weeks later, the same message is proclaimed. Law and Gospel, sin and grace, Christ crucified and risen again…for you.

Next up: Mood, which is determined by the message. One word expresses the mood of the early church, and the ideal for the church of every age: κοινωνία. This is a Greek word that means “fellowship, unity, participation, sharing.” “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” This fellowship/togetherness had two deeply embedded qualities: 1) Joy – expressed by “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (v. 46b,47a) 2) Compassion – “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (vv. 44,45)

κοινωνία/Fellowship was more than coffee and rolls after worship. They enjoyed one another’s company, prayed for one another, looked out for each other. Now the church has always struggled with this. Even churches described later in Acts and throughout the New Testament had significant challenges/conflicts; the apostle Paul had to write letters and make visits to tend to those problems. What’s here in chapter 2 is the Holy Spirit’s ideal for us.

35 years ago, Deer Valley had this, no question. Not perfectly, of course, but there was κοινωνία/fellowship/joy/compassion. There weren’t as many people to look after back then. But they cared about each other, looked after one another. The church today should have that too. Make no mistake – we do, but we can use more of this: more joy, more compassion – which comes from spending more time together in the Word, more time centered on Christ.

The third characteristic of church from the Holy Spirit’s point of view: Mission. Jesus very clearly stated the church’s mission just before he ascended into heaven. Luke’s version: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Matthew’s version is also quite familiar: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19,20a)

Deer Valley family, do you recall our church’s mission statement? Preach God’s Truth, Teach God’s Love, Reach All People. Preach, Teach, and Reach. May I be honest? We’ve got preach and teach down. This is what we do. Worship, Bible study, Law & Gospel preaching and teaching. I don’t mean we’re perfect, or that we can’t offer more opportunities. This isn’t a prideful thing, it’s a “we’re thankful for God’s mercy and grace” thing.

How are we doing with the Reach? As a congregation, are we going and making disciples by baptizing and teaching? Are we serving as witnesses wherever the Lord leads us, especially right here in our church’s community? What do you think would cause the Holy Spirit to be excited, if we can speak of the Spirit in this way? A meeting, a couple of meetings, a whole bunch of meetings? Or moving, as in moving with the Gospel, going out to people rather than just waiting for them to come here? Deer Valley Lutheran church family, are we meeting or are we moving?
• Jesus never said, “Location, location, location” is what matters in regard to the Gospel and ministry activity. He said, “Go! Witness! Reach out!”
• Like many churches all across denominational lines, we have struggled with finances in years past quite possibly because we have struggled with our mission/purpose. Churches that build buildings for ministry often allow their ministry to be consumed by buildings.
• When seeking to reach younger generations – I’m thinking, people who are 35 and under, together with their kids – technology isn’t the answer. Oh, screens, phone apps, blog posts and twitter hashtags can certainly help connect socially, but to reach them we have to do just that, reach out and go, rather than expect people to come here on our terms, when our doors are open.

Meeting or moving? Sitting and waiting for something to happen or going and making disciples? Everything our church does – in the view of the Holy Spirit – should serve the Gospel, serve people with the Gospel. May God enable us to continue to faithfully preach and teach that we may aggressively reach as many people as possible as often as possible in as many ways as possible while there still is time.

Last of the M’s, last of the principles we glean from this picture of the early church: Means, how the church grows. The early church grew – 3000 in one day, the day of Pentecost. We’re not guaranteed that kind of growth, we’re not even guaranteed any kind of visible growth that can be seen. But we do have the Spirit’s guarantee that the Word works and that God grants faith and increase in his Kingdom as he sees fits. It’s his doing.

The very last verse here: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (v. 47) We can do a lot of things – paint the buildings, upgrade audio/video, reseal the parking lot, put a nice sign out by the road, even add more staff – but here’s the bottom line: God is the one who adds people to his church. God is the one who causes a church to grow by means of his Word, and we’re right back where we started, on the message of Christ crucified and risen again.

The apostle Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 3 – “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (vv. 6,7) That’s the Means, God’s power, the Spirit’s work. Then he says “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (vv. 10,11) It starts with Message

Message, Mood, Mission, Means. The early church had it in abundance. Deer Valley had all of these in abundance in our early days. And we have them all right now, to varying degrees, 35 years into our congregation’s history. But consider this: What does a typical 35 year old’s life look like? A typical 35 year old tends to find himself/herself settling down some: Married, a couple of kids, a mortgage that could choke a horse, increasing responsibilities and obligations, the simple life long gone.

Deer Valley Lutheran is 35 now, and we’ve picked up some of that typical baggage: debt, a mid-life spare tire of apathy, a loss of focus and enthusiasm for mission that younger churches typically have. Let’s reverse this, beginning now. Not just leaders, everyone. When I arrived here 17 years ago, I came from a young mission church in northwestern WI that was only six years young; I’d been there the entire six years, and it was my first congregation. That church had put up a building and seemed to be set for ministering in a county that had 14,000 people; about 5,000 within a five mile radius of the church.

The numbers and opportunities are a bit different here. How many people to you think live within a five mile radius of Deer Valley? Close to 200,000 people…and many of us live more than five miles away. Consider also that only 38% of people in Maricopa County actually attend church on a regular basis. The field is ripe for the harvest. When I arrived, we had this building and a double wide trailer for Sunday School where our Ministry Center is now. At that time, I thought of Deer Valley as a mission church with all kinds of bells and whistles. Now, our bells have bells and our whistles have whistles. We are so blessed with facilities and people and resources and gifts and talents and, most importantly, the Gospel.

Preach and teach? We’ve got that. We’re doing it. Reach? Let’s go. Let’s reach out. Souls are at stake. Seize opportunities. Friendship Sunday a month from now, each one bring one, or why wait – bring someone next weekend. Trunk or Treat, then the Living Nativity in December. How about the next round of Bible studies in January? Got unchurched friends you want to invite but think that going to a church building might be too intimidating for them? Offer to host, invite your friends, and we’ll send someone to lead the study (Deacon, myself, or another leader).

35 years of amazing blessings are now in the rearview mirror, and ahead of us – if we are willing and ready – are incredible ministry opportunities to be seized and acted upon. What should church, this church, look like? Blessed by the Spirit with message, mood, mission, and means – Deer Valley’s next 35 years will be a whirlwind of reaching precious souls with Jesus’ love and forgiveness.

Pastor Stephen Luchterhand, Deer Valley Ev. Lutheran Church (WELS), Phoenix, AZ