I am prepared to be humbled.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Since I am retiring from full-time pastoral ministry at the end of this coming July, a call committee at our church has begun the process of preparing to call the next pastor for our congregation. That process includes asking each member of the congregation what abilities, skills, strengths, experience and priorities they would like to see in their next pastor.

I am prepared to be humbled.

Why? First of all, because I’m human, a sinner, and nowhere close to being perfect. I know that either blatantly or subtly, my weaknesses will be highlighted in the responses to this survey. The members of the congregation will frankly tell the call committee what they would never say to my face. Their wishes for the next pastor will expose my weaknesses, failures and negligence.

I’m ready for that.

Trust me, I know my weaknesses. I am very aware of all the things I should have done over the past twenty-four years at this church. My insufficiencies haunt me daily. I did not study, pray, visit, administrate, evangelize, discipline, preach, teach, counsel, participate and celebrate like I should have or could have. I angered, frustrated, annoyed, irritated, insulted, ignored, and drove away many. I did it for the money, the notoriety and my ego.

I do not deny any of that.

When this church called me to be their pastor, they called a sinner. A sinner that deserves temporal and eternal punishment, a sinner redeemed by Christ, a sinner who squeaks into heaven by the grace of God. What did you expect? A saint? A super-hero? Someone you could look up to?

I never wanted you to look up to me. I wanted you to look to Christ. He’s the one who was obedient, he’s the one who was crucified and he’s the one who rose. He’s the one who will meet your hopes, expectations and dreams.

Me? I’m just me. And I am grateful I got to be your pastor for these last twenty-three or four years. What a gift.

Just take a walk

I don’t get to see many fall colors on trees in Florida, so this one just kind of jumped out at me when I was walking Sam. The palm trees and the pine trees keep their green year round. But this tree’s a trifecta. I’ve never seen a tree like this one with three vivid colors simultaneously on display. I wish I knew what this was. I’d get one for my yard!

It is so easy to miss the creative work of God that frames my walks around the neighborhood. I stroll through a museum of his handiwork many times each week. Green lawns, flowering shrubs, towering trees, familiar neighbors walking their dogs, storm clouds off in the distance, the vivid clouds of the sunset, the first few stars in the evening sky – all testimonies of the God who created heaven and earth – and me.

So grace can look like a tree covered in color, making me stop and look and take a picture. You want to catch a glimpse of grace? Just go for a walk.

“What is grace?”

Busted. A student in my confirmation gently raised her hand and asked, “What’s grace?”

I toss that word around like it were obvious to everyone. Guess what? It’s not.

  • “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
  • “Stephen, full of grace and power” (Acts 6:8).
  • “We are justified by his grace as a gift” (Romans 3:24).
  • “Grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
  • “You are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).
  • “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” (1 Cor. 16:23).
  • “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor., 12:9).
  • “By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5).

I could go on and on and on. All those verses roll off my tongue like lyrics for a top forty song. My point is, if you’re a Christian and you like to toss around the word “grace,” you better have your elevator definition ready for anyone who asks you, “What is grace?”

My simple answer: when you get what you don’t deserve. A good grade when you really didn’t study all that hard. A close parking spot on a busy shopping day. Another chance to get it right. Forgiveness. Oh, yes, especially forgiveness. No one deserves that. But someone paid dearly so you could have it.

How about some grace?

So, if I weren’t a pastor and I went to a church somewhere, what would I expect of the pastor?

I think that’s a heck of a question, one worth asking from time to time when I wonder where my time went. Am I doing more than I need to do? If so, then why? How much time am I spending on unimportant tasks? Why am I doing that?

OK, here is my list. Yours may be different, but that’s OK.

I would expect the pastor to proclaim God’s Word to me. Preach the word. What is God saying to us through his word right now? I expect that the pastor has studied and prepared some good news for the congregation from scripture.

I would want the pastor to be a regular person. Wife, kids, hobbies, joys and frustrations. If I stop by his house, it’s not perfectly kept. If he comes to my house, he’s right at home.

I would want the pastor to baptize, marry, and bury those whom I love. In those very special, emotional moments, please remind me that God is a part of those moments, too.

I would want the pastor to project grace. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do or how to do it. I already have plenty of people in my life who do that. But grace is hard to find. Maybe the pastor can bring it.

That doesn’t sound too tough, does it? Yet, when you are the pastor, you feel like everyone expects a whole lot more from you. You feel like everyone is expecting you to

  • make the church grow
  • keep the kids engaged
  • attend any and every meeting
  • bless things (crocheted prayer shawls, bibles, necklaces, urns, bricks, cross necklaces…whatever)
  • keep the church sanctuary at a comfortable temperature
  • go after those people who don’t even want to be a part of the church
  • make people behave better
  • tell people how they ought to vote at election time
  • visit people in the hospital who didn’t tell you they were in the hospital because they thought somehow you knew
  • perform a funeral for someone who never came to church but was a pretty good person most of the time
  • conduct a wedding for a couple from out of town who wanted to be married on the beach because you live at the beach
  • remember who can’t drink wine, eat gluten, or likes to drink from the common cup

I don’t know if everyone really expects those things. It’s just that I think people expect those things. We should be able to reach a compromise here. If you expect grace and I expect grace then I can let go of many expectations and simply give you the best gift of all. Grace!


alejandro-salinas-189861A few years ago I wrote this in one of my journals, a prayer prompt of sorts: “So, where are we going today, Jesus?”

I had been musing about following Jesus as his disciples did. Following meant you would go where he went, see what he saw, get yours hands dirty in the reality of life, and be blown away by what he could do.

In a way, it’s like shadowing Jesus on your first day as a waiter. He’s the waiter, the one who serves, so you tag along and learn what the job entails. You quickly learn that some people are very nice, while others are just nasty. Some are very demanding and hard to please. A few will leave little or no tips. Others will care and be very generous. But no matter what, you do your best to serve, to listen, to smile, and to forgive. You encounter the very best and the very worst of the people in this world.

Or it’s like riding shotgun with Jesus. But not only will you get to watch and listen, but you’ll get your hands dirty, bloody and scarred, You’ll experience first hand just how creation had fallen and how far God goes to redeem it. You’ll be delighted when you find faith and dismayed when you don’t. It might take you by surprise, but for the Messiah, it’s just another day at the office.

If you want to see Jesus at his best, you need to be where the world is at its worst. You need to tag along or ride shotgun into those places where grace is needed and grace is often found. Want to pray a powerful prayer? Just begin by asking, “So, where are we going today, Jesus?”

Paths of grace: Gratitude

(Transcription of Sunday, August 27, 2017 sermon.)

August 27 cover picSo here we are talking about gratitude and it’s not even Thanksgiving!

Maybe you think I’m pushing things a little too fast, but I think this is good. By the time November comes you’re going to be so occupied thinking about travel, celebrations, food, family gatherings and all the things Thanksgiving involves that it’s really hard to focus. Everyone is telling you how much you’ve been blessed and how you should donate to people who don’t have as much. So much gets lost in all of that. But now here at the end of August we’re not worried about any of that. We can take a good close look at the path of grace our Lord leads us down today, that path of gratitude.

Using the word of the week, I want to ask you this question: “What is that eclipses gratitude in your life?” What is it that casts a shadow over your thankfulness? You wouldn’t think we would have to ask this question. We have so much. We have so much wealth, so much food so many clothes, we have nice homes to live in. There are so many things to be thankful for.

But you know how it works. You only need to see one person who has something that you don’t have or one person who you thinks looks better than you do or one person who seems to be having a better time than you are, and you are a little bit jealous. And now you’re not content. You wish you had what they have or you could do what they can do or you look like they did. Suddenly, that blocks the things that we should we should be thankful for. Just like the moon blocks out the sun and all of a sudden you can see very clearly the corona around the edge. Things like jealousy, greed and covetousness get in the way and suddenly we see what we’re really like. We’re not nearly as thankful as we probably should be.

And I know that bothers you. I know that grates against you. It really bugs you when somebody is not thankful. When they don’t seem to be grateful for the things they have or the things you’ve done for them.

I love the story of grandparents who loved to send gift to their grandkids for birthdays and holidays. But they never got an acknowledgement that the gift had been received. No phone call, no text, no thank you, nothing. Finally they decided we’re not sending anything else until they get some kind of feedback. You’ve been there. There are people you know you want to grab by the scruff of the neck and say, “Why you ungrateful little…” (You can finish that sentence as you please.)

So we know this is a problem. It’s very interesting that the path of gratitude our Lord reveals and leads us down doesn’t take us past pantries filled with food or garages filled with cars or homes filled with things. No it takes us in a whole different direction. The path we’re going to follow today is a very interesting story from the Old Testament that has to do with the ark of the covenant.

You can read more about this in 1 Chronicles chapters 14-16. The ark of the covenant was that very special chest that God had commanded Moses to build. It was fairly big, covered with gold, gold angels on top, with poles in it so the priests could carry it everywhere they went. Inside was the tablets of the law, a jar of manna, the staff of Aaron (he was to be the high priest for God’s people.) And so they carried that chest with them. It was a reminder that God had come to be with his people.

He was living in the midst of them. When they arrived where they were going to stay they set up the tabernacle around it, the ark was in the holy of holies, the presence of God filled that place and they knew that God was going to take care of them, provide for them and lead them, a very real powerful reminder.

So we’re going to jump into the story at a time after God’s people have come into the promised land after the time of the judges but before they have a king. During this time, Israel as Israel tended to do was always fighting battles with the Philistines. That’s their classic enemy. All kinds of skirmishes all kinds of battles. They could never quite get the best of them.

One day they had this great idea. We’re going to take the ark of the covenant into battle with us. We’re going to take the presence of God with our armies and then we can’t lose. We’re going to have God right there to win the battle for us. It didn’t quite go as they planned. In fact, they lost that battle and they lost the ark of the covenant. The Philistines actually took it, captured it and took it back home.

What a great trophy to bring back home! So they take the ark home and they put it their temple of their god, Dagon. So now they have this statue of their pagan God and they have the ark of the covenant right next to it.

That didn’t work out they way they thought. Every day their priests went into the temple and the statute of Dagon had toppled over. It happens often enough that pieces start breaking off. The hands break off and the head breaks off and around the place where the ark is everyone is getting sick. Everybody’s got these tumors growing on their body. The Philistines finally said we can’t take this anymore. We’ve got to get rid of this thing. It’s killing us. Nobody wants it because they know it’s bad news. They decide they are just going to send it back to Israel.

They put it on a cart, hitch up a couple cows, crack the whip and it’s on the way down the road. Imagine that you are one of the tribes of Israel, working in the field and here’s a cart with the ark of the covenant just walking it’s way back to Israel. They didn’t know what to do with it. So they put it in someone’s house, in a place called Kiriath-Jearim. It’s there for a while.

In the meantime, God’s people insist on having a king. You’ve got King Saul and then King David. David has consolidated the nation of Israel and they have a capital city of Jerusalem. David says, “We’ve got to bring the ark to Israel. The ark of the covenant has to be in Jerusalem.” They send for the ark of the covenant. They put it on a cart, hitch up some oxen and they are going down the road. Now their roads aren’t as nice as our roads. Lots of potholes, rocks, it’s pretty rough going. The oxen are slipping, the cart is rocking back and forth, and the ark starts to fall off the cart.

A man named Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark, and drops over dead. You don’t touch the things of God. You don’t get near the mountain where God is. You don’t get near the ark, unless you are one of the priests. You just don’t mess around with a holy God. Understandably, David is afraid and angry. He leaves the ark right there, in a guy’s house. His name of Obed-Edom.

While the ark is in his house, he is blessed. His flocks are growing, his fields are abundant, everything is good for him.

David goes off, and he is still waging war agains the Philistines. But David does it differently. Everytime David goes to battle, he first talks to God. He inquires of the Lord. “Should we go into battle?” “How should we fight them?” “Is this the right time?” God would say, “Yes, go into battle, you’ll win the victory.” David does. So he learns over the next few months that he can trust God. That God is going to protect them. That God is with them in a very real way. He has learned that he needs to deal with God on God’s terms, not his own.

So we’re going to get the ark and we’re going to bring it to Jerusalem, but we’re going to do it the right way this time. We’re going to have a better cart, and we’re going to fix the road and there’s going to be priests involved who are supposed to handle these things. And they get it back to Jerusalem. It’s a marvelous celebration. It’s an amazing day. There’s music, there’s a parade. David is dancing for all he’s worth as they bring it into Jerusalem.

And that is when David appoints thanksgiving to be sung in the Old Testament lesson today. He orders the people in charge of the music

Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually! Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered (1 Chronicles 16:8-12).

David is commanding that thanksgiving be given to God because of his wonderful presence and power and protection among the people.

In the Psalm today we hear a similar command for thanksgiving.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. 

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever! (Psalm 30:4-5, 11-12)

Listen to that. The motivation for gratitude has nothing to do with clothes, food, possessions, houses where they lived, anything that they had or didn’t have. Their entire motivation was God who showed up and turned their lives around, so that they enjoyed his gracious favor. He turned their sadness into gladness. And that is what led them down that path of gratitude.

Now for us, it’s not all about the ark. Now it’s about Jesus, who is the ark of God’s presence and power and everything that God is for us. You could say that it was the ark who typified who Jesus would be. In Jesus all the law is fulfilled. In Jesus we have a great high priest who goes on our behalf to God. We have Jesus who is the bread of life. Everything that was in that ark is in Jesus.

And Jesus takes the anger of God on the cross for just a moment, that one short time, so that we might have God’s favor and forgiveness for a lifetime. There was mourning when they wrapped up Jesus and put him in the tomb. But in the morning, there was joy, when they discovered that he was alive. Suddenly we realize that Jesus has come to turn everything around. There’s going to be struggles. There’s going to be sadness. There’s going to be pain. But he’s the one who brings the dancing, the gladness, and the praise and everything for which we give him thanks.

In fact, Jesus himself is the one who leads us down that path of gratitude. When he fed the 5,000 with just a few loaves and bread and fish or when he fed the 4,000 in the gospel today in Gentile territory with just a little bit of food. Or when Jesus sat around the last supper with his disciples with a little bread and wine. He gave thanks. Not because there was a whole bunch of food there. But because the presence of God was there to save his people. And he was it. He was the one who was there to save.

And that’s what motivates us to be grateful and to give God thanks. That’s something that never changes. Everything else in life changes but that never does. Our Lord comes, he comes to us, so that our lives are filled with gratitude. That’s why we stand for the holy gospel. Our Lord is talking to us. We kneel at the altar. This is our Lord coming to us to save us. That’s why we pause at the font and we remember the new life we have in our baptism, and the new clothes he gives us, clothing us with gladness.

That’s what the path of gratitude is all about. Jesus took that path to come to us, so that we too can follow him down that path of gratitude.


My children’s sermon, with a scale model of the ark of the covenant.


Paths of grace: Love

August 20 cover pic

(Sunday, August 20, 2017 sermon — 1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Even though the church tries to makes a lot of noise, it seems like no one is listening. We work hard to communicate spiritual truths and church activities in every way we can, from social media to texts to phone calls to plain old letters in an envelope with a stamp. Yet it doesn’t seem like anyone is paying attention. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard, “I didn’t know anything about that!” How can that be?

And even though we have learned so much in all of our different Bible classes, I wonder how much actually sinks in. I witness those who never miss a class struggling with the same worries, doubts and sins as those who have never been to a Bible class in their lives. How can that be?

So many give generously, even sacrificially of their time, abilities and even wealth in the context of the church and our life together. Yet where has it gotten us? The needs are still so great. We don’t seem to be making any progress. In fact, it seems like we’ve lost ground. There seems to be more hungry, more hurting, and more lonely than ever! How can that be?

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul knew then what we experience now. Something is missing. He wrote

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

The missing ingredient is love.

It happens. It happens to the best of us. Yes, it happens in the church. Jesus mentioned that when he spoke to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2. He said, “I know how hard you’ve worked and all that you’ve done.” “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:2,4). Did you hear what was missing? Love.

What’s the difference between making a lot of noise and actually saying something? Love. What’s the difference between knowing and believing lot of things and actually being something? Love. What’s the difference between giving generously and sacrificially and actually doing something? Love.

If love is missing, we’ve got a big problem. Jesus called that church in Ephesus to repent and come back to where they need to be. Loveless noise, knowledge, faith and sacrifice is sin for which we much seek forgiveness.

How can that be? How can we be doing all the right things and yet still be so far off the mark?

Well, if we aren’t motivated by love, then we must be motivated by something else. So what is our motivation? Why do we do the things we do?

In our context, we want to grow. We want more people to come to our church. We want to be bigger. Why? Because we want to be solvent. We need the cash flow. (And I want a paycheck.) Plus, we want to be as big and popular as the other churches in town. We want people to notice us, so that more people will come, and we’ll have more volunteers to do all the things that need to be done. When you boil it down, our motivation is greed, selfish ambition and pride. All of which Jesus said we should be careful to avoid.

Loveless motivation amounts to nothing. No wonder no one’s listening. No wonder we’re not getting anywhere. Something’s missing. Love.

I guess we better figure out where we dropped the ball. We better go back and learn from Jesus what it means to speak and learn and believe and give with love. We are blessed to have a Savior who shows us that path.

When a rich young man approached Jesus with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told him to obey the commandments. When the young man insisted he had kept them all, Jesus looked at him, loved him, and said, “You need to sell what you have.” (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus’ words were simple and challenging but also came from a deep love for that man. Jesus knew what that man was struggling with and cared enough to call him away from that into a different relationship with God.

When Jesus was in the upper room with his disciples, before his prayer in the garden and his arrest, he washed their feet and spoke prophetically of what was to come. He said that one of them would betray him, another would deny him and they would all desert him. Yet through it all, “he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). His teachings, his insights into the kingdom of God, his humble service, and his predictions of what would happen to him, all came from the one who loved them with an everlasting love. He knew how hard it would be for them, and he wanted them to know that when things got crazy, his love would always be there for them.

And then Jesus gives up all he had, humbled himself and gave up his life on the cross. It is the single greatest expression of love ever. No other expression of love compares. Period. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Jesus leaves no doubt how he feels about the world and about you and about me.

That’s why Jesus isn’t just more noise in this world. His words are different. His words make us pause. His words make us listen. His words stick in your mind. His words prompt us do things differently. His words are infused with love.

Don’t you find it interesting that the wisdom and the words of Jesus are woven into our literature, conversations, music and news? Without realizing the source, even unbelieving people speak of loving your neighbor. They advocate doing to others as you would have them do to you, They will insist that you not judge others. They speak of a city on a hill. Jesus said all those things. And because his motivation was a love for the whole world, his words speak powerfully in many contexts.

That’s why Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is so powerful. It expresses a love that defines who God is. It defines our relationship to God. It gives worth and meaning to our lives. You might not think your life is all that significant. But he does. His great love speaks loud and clear about the treasured possession you are.

If love is missing from the things that you do, there is only one who can supply that critical ingredient. Christ’s love alone makes our efforts meaningful and effective. That is exactly what happens when we gather for worship. This is where we hear of God’s great love for us and the forgiveness of our sins. This is where we remember in our baptism that we are his dearly loved children. This is where we to eat and drink the sacrament, Jesus’ great gift of love to us. This is the place and this is the time when our lives are infused with love.

You know what happens when you infuse your water or your olive oil or your vodka with different flavors. It makes a big difference, doesn’t? What will happen when our lives are infused with God’s love? It makes an amazing difference.

For one thing, you won’t just hear what God has to say, but you’ll do it. Jesus said, “If you love me you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). Our love for God is expressed in following Christ’s example, that is, conforming our lives to him and his word. When we do that, our message isn’t a bunch of noise. The world is watching, and when they see that his words mean something to us, that we believe them and we trust him enough to do them, it makes an impact.

Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Love for others is a powerful message to the world of who we are and what he has done. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). The gospel is seen and heard in the love-filled life of his church.

When our lives are infused with love, even the smallest things we do are not a waste of time, but have great meaning and worth. Lives infused with his love are aligned with God’s plan and purpose that “all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4)

There will be times when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. Spinning your wheels. Spitting in the wind. Wasting your time. When that happens, come back to these verses, and listen as God reminds you what’s missing: love. Confess your lovelessness, and hear his words of forgiveness. Pause at the font and remember that you are his dearly loved son or daughter. Kneel to eat and drink his loving sacrifice for you. And be infused once again with the gift of his love. On this path of love you can be confident that you’ve got something important to say, you make a difference and you have much to offer.



One of those Sundays

It was one of those Sundays.

  • I lost my focus and then my place, stumbling over words I’ve spoken dozens of times introducing a baptism.
  • The organ got stuck on a note right in the middle of a hymn.
  • The microphones popped and rung throughout the service, with a little feedback tossed in.
  • Most of the kids wouldn’t come up for the children’s sermon.
  • My sermon, though well-prepared and practiced, just didn’t inspire. (I wasn’t even inspired.)

Yeah, it was one of those Sundays.

Of course, every other church gathered for a smooth, inspirational and flawless worship experience. They always do. At least, that’s what they (my heart and soul) tell me.

The reality?

  • A beautiful little girl was baptized and welcomed into the church.
  • A whole bunch of her non-churched family and friends clearly heard the gospel, some for the first time.
  • We all feasted on God’s grace at the Lord’s Supper.
  • We got to meet Zac, Emma and Sophia (Zac is my nephew, a second year seminarian at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN who our church supports.)
  • There is another Sunday on the way. I’ll get another chance. I always get another chance.

That’s grace. And it’s free. So I think I’ll talk them (my heart and soul) into camping out there for a while.

An awkward interruption

One of the great things about being a pastor is that you never lack for new experiences. I’ll close out the first month of January with one I had today that was partly humorous, partly embarrassing, and a little sad.

It began as a traditional visit to a member in a local nursing home who was recovering from some surgery and receiving an assortment of therapies. After some introductory conversation about this and that, it was time for the sacrament. Bread and wine were put in place, scripture read, and it was time for the words of institution.

As I am almost exactly halfway through the words, a medical assistant steps into the room and interrupts with a rather personal question for the patient. We didn’t quite hear it the first time, so she repeated it using very descriptive words, got her answer, and disappeared.

While all this is happening, I’m thinking, “Is this happening? Doesn’t she what we’re doing? Do I need start over? How embarrassing is this?” I simply picked up where I left off and Christ’s words transformed a not-so-holy situation into holy ground just like they always do. Afterwards I was reminded that Christ didn’t mind being in a world or among people who didn’t recognize him, respect him, or understand what he was all about. And he still doesn’t mind. His grace still works in humorous, embarrassing, sad, painful, and sinful situations. That’s probably why some call it “amazing.”