Sunday, September 26, 2010

1 Timothy 3:1-7 - "Check Engine Light"

18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, September 26, 2010

I didn't finish writing out the manuscript for this sermon, so what I present below is the outline plus a rough draft.

I. Check Engine Light
• Check Engine Light
• Tempted to ignore the Check Engine Light of 1 Timothy

• Why do you think I was tempted to skip this text?

II. Image: Car Into the Shop
• Check Engine Light
• Diagnosis
• Repair

• God’s Word lights up the warning
• God’s Word gives the spiritual diagnosis
• God’s Word repairs the soul

III. Check Engine Light is On Today
• God’s Word lights up the warning

IV. Pull into the Garage - Diagnosis
• Important at this stage, just six weeks into being here, important for you to know that you can check me on these things

• God’s Word gives the spiritual diagnosis

V. Repair with Gospel
• Of course, come to me gently, come with Gospel

• God’s Word repairs the soul

VI. Image: Car Into the Shop
• Check Engine Light
• Diagnosis
• Repair

• God’s Word lights up the warning
• God’s Word gives the spiritual diagnosis
• God’s Word repairs the soul

VII. Check Engine Light on for Congregation
• So many of these things listed in 1 Timothy reflect what kind of congregations we want to have:

• So it’s a “Check Engine Light” for all of us, to check how we as a congregation are representing Christ

• God’s Word lights up the warning

VIII. Pull Into the Garage – Diagnosis
• Check Engine Light

IX. Congregational Repair with the Gospel
• And when we don’t represent Christ well, there’s forgiveness, hope, repair

• My role: bring you God’s Word—
God’s Word sounds the warning
God’s Word gives the spiritual diagnosis
God’s Word repairs the soul

X. Specific Diagnosis: Reputation with Outsiders
• Check me on these things

• Especially check me on whether I have a good reputation with outsiders

• We’ll talk more about this next week as we start Consecrated Stewards and talk about what it means to be salt in the world

• Why is it so important for pastors to have a good reputation in the community—whether with Christians or non-Christians?

XI. Repair with the Gospel
• God’s Word repairs the soul

• Pray for me as I go out

• Forgive me when I don’t represent the congregation well,
forgive me for not always representing Christ well

XII. Specific Diagnosis for Congregation: Reputation with Outsiders

• If the list in 1 Timothy in some way reflects what kind of reputation we want our congregations to have, then why is it important that our congregation have a good reputation with outsiders?

• What ways are we failing at that?

XIII. Repair with the Gospel
• God’s Word repairs the soul

• Pray as we go out

• Forgive us, Lord, when we don’t always represent you well

XIV. Image: Car Into the Shop

Rough Draft
How many of you go to the auto mechanic as soon as the “Check Engine Light” comes on in the car? How many of you ignore the “Check Engine Light”—at least until the car makes some funny sounds? How many of you aren’t sure what a “Check Engine Light” is?

Well, I was tempted to ignore a “Check Engine Light” this week—the kind that’s in today’s reading from 1 Timothy. It’s kind of like a pastoral “Check Engine Light.” In the passage we heard today Paul explains to Timothy and us the qualifications for someone to be a pastor.

The pastor “must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect….He must not be a recent convert….He must also have a good reputation with outsiders.”

That’s quite a list, and it’s definitely a “Check Engine Light” for a pastor, a wake up call, an alarm sounding that says, “Check your life, check who you are, check what you’re doing if you’re going to be a pastor.” It’s a reminder that I need to check to make sure these things are present in my life, a reminder to check the oil, check the tire pressure, test the brakes, and fill the tank with gas. It’s a reminder to live my life in a way that honors God, a life that honors my family, that honors the people around me.

Which is why I almost ignored this “Check Engine Light,” almost ignored this text, because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to find out the answer, I wasn’t sure I wanted to think out loud with you about whether there’s a problem in my life, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted the sermon to be about the need for me to have all of these qualifications.

But at the very least, I realized that it’s important for you to know these qualifications, to know what to expect in me as your pastor, and to know that if something from this list is missing then you are my “Check Engine Light,” you are the ones that can call me on my actions, you are the ones that can hold me accountable.

If I am ever rude to you, you don’t have to accept that. You can tell me—gently—that I’m not being respectable like 1 Timothy calls me to be. If I am ever not teaching God’s Word in a way that helps you, you don’t have to just be quiet about that. You can tell me that I need to change my way of teaching.

So as much as this text from 1 Timothy is a “Check Engine Light” for me as a pastor, you also have a role to play. You are armed with this text so that you can hold your pastor accountable to these words. I need you to play that role. As much as I am here as your pastor to hold you accountable to the faith, to hold you to the faith as you go out and live your life, as much as I am here to call you to follow Jesus, you as the congregation are here to hold me accountable. I can’t just do whatever I want. And I can’t just do whatever you want. We’re held to the Scriptures, held to God’s way of doing things, held to God’s mission for His people—which is telling everyone that they can have salvation in Jesus as a gift because of God’s love.

So you’re welcome to check me on these things, to check to make sure that I’m using my time wisely for pastoral acts, to make sure that I’m acting in a way that reflects Christ in all that I do.

You’re welcome to check me on these things, but when you find me in error, find me not reflecting Christ, please come to me with Gospel, come to me with words of forgiveness and hope and healing in Jesus Christ.

I mean, that’s the key anytime that any of us see the “Check Engine Light” go on, anytime that we need a spiritual check-up, may that check up come not just with the news of what we’ve done wrong, how we’ve sinned, but may it also come with Good News, the news that we can be forgiven and healed and saved from our failures.

When you think about it, every week when we worship we’re seeing that “Check Engine Light,” seeing God’s Word and seeing our sin, every week we confess our sins, but that “Check Engine Light” doesn’t stop there, doesn’t just tell us where we’ve gone off track, it comes with this great hope that we can be forgiven for our sins. It’s Confession and Absolution, it’s admitting our sins and being forgiven, both things happen in this worship, both things happen in this spiritual tune-up garage. Spiritually we are diagnosed and repaired. We get the diagnosis of our sin, and we get repaired—forgiven, renewed, and sent back out on God’s road.

So you’re welcome to check me on any of these things in this list of qualifications of a pastor, you can check me on any of them, but if you’re going to come and tell me that the “Check Engine Light” is on, if you’re going to tell me to pull into the service bay and put the car up on the lift, if you’re going to diagnose some sin in my life, all I ask is that you bring the Good News to the repair station, bring the news of forgiveness and healing, bring the hope in Jesus Christ.

I ask that of you, because that’s what I’m asking of myself. I don’t want to just bring you here to tell you that you’re broke down. I also want to tell you how God repairs you, how He saves you, how He gives you salvation from your sins.

So you can check me on any of those things listed in 1 Timothy. In fact, I’m asking you to keep me accountable, keep me in line, but one that is especially dear to my heart is towards the end of the list when Paul says that a pastor “must also have a good reputation with outsiders.”

This doesn’t mean that a pastor needs to be the popular, cool pastor in town; it’s not that kind of reputation.

What it means is that the community-at-large, whether Christians or non-Christians, must see those Christ-like qualities reflected in the pastor. As a representative of the congregation, as a leader of the congregation, the pastor must reflect the heart of the congregation—to be like Christ.

Now if that’s not a tall order, a very bright, insistent “Check Engine Light,” I don’t know what is.

But that’s especially on my heart. How can I represent Bethel Lutheran Church in the community, represent the congregation well? How can I help the community to see that Bethel Lutheran is a caring, Christian community that is concerned about their spiritual lives? How do I lead this congregation into the community to tell others about the Gospel that we know and love and trust?

Since I’ve gotten to Bethel in August, I’ve been very intentional in trying to meet community leaders like the Mayor of Gurnee, our County Board District representative, business leaders through the Chamber, and I’m looking for other ways to meet people in the community. As I go to each of these meetings, I’m very conscious that I’m representing not just myself, not just Bethel Lutheran, but also Christ. I go as a witness, an ambassador, a representative of Christ. And I need that “Check Engine Light” to go on to take me back to God’s Word, to take me back to check to make sure I’m reflecting Christ in the things I say and do.

And if I ever don’t represent Christ well, and I’m sure I don’t always do it very well at all, then I need His forgiveness, I need His love and mercy to wash over me. And I need your forgiveness. When I don’t represent Bethel Lutheran very well, I need your forgiveness and mercy in Christ.

Of course, maybe saying all of that is a “Check Engine Light” for you, for this congregation. Are you concerned about how the community sees us? Are you concerned about having a good reputation with outsiders? Are you eager for the community to see us reflecting Christ, coming to know His Gospel through us?

Perhaps you know it matters, but you just want to make sure that I’m here to care for the congregation, too. And of course, I am. I am your pastor. I am here to care for you spiritually, to lead you into lives of discipleship, to urge you forward as followers of Jesus. In fact, this week I started the process of visiting every household in the congregation. It’ll take me awhile, it’ll take time, but it’s valuable. I look forward to getting to know all of you through my visits. We’re sending out invitation letters in small batches, so please be patient with me as I work my way through the membership list. But I see visiting the congregation as a crucial step in being your pastor….

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Psalm 113 - “Seated with Princes”

17th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, September 19, 2010

(Outside of the rear doors of the sanctuary).
Have you ever realized the incredible thing that happens when you come in these doors? By all accounts, we should be left out here, standing outside the sanctuary. If God is our King, and we are His subjects, then the sanctuary is His throne room. If we are His subjects, and what poor subjects we are, if we are His subjects and He is our King, well, we really shouldn’t dare just waltz right into His throne room.

Haven’t you ever watched a BBC show about royalty or a PBS movie about kings and queens? Haven’t you ever read about what it was like for people to approach the King? I mean, if you’ve ever heard anything about kings, you suddenly realize that no one, no one approaches the king without being invited. You don’t simply walk into the throne room. You must be invited. In fact, there’s a lot of steps to go through before you’re able to approach the king.

(Walking into the sanctuary)
First, the king must invite you into his court, into his inner circle. Let’s say that’s like being invited into the sanctuary here. If you are a noble or have found favor in the king’s eyes, he invites you into his court. But once you’re there, you’re still only there at the king’s invitation. He can ask you to leave the court at any time. It’s all about the king and his wishes.

Even so, even if you’re in the king’s court, you still don’t approach the king without an invitation, you don’t expect to have an audience with the king, a conversation with him, let alone expect that you can ask the king for anything, unless he grants this to you. Unless he invites you to see him and make a request. If he invites you, then you’re able to come before him. And that’s like approaching the altar. (walking up to the altar)

God is our King, we are His subjects, the sanctuary is His court, and when we approach His altar, we are having a conversation with the King, making requests of the King.

(hurrying back to the sanctuary doors) But remember we wouldn’t dare just walk into the king’s court without being invited. That’s why it’s so incredible what happens every week here in worship, every week we walk into the court of God (walking up center aisle from back), every week in worship we approach the altar of God, the throne of the king, making requests and talking to God. This is an incredible thing that happens every week, an incredible privilege, and God has invited us to be here, to be in His court, to have an audience with Him, to approach Him with confidence. We’ve been invited here.

This is what Psalm 113 means when it says,
Who is like the LORD our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
with the princes of their people.

Who is like our God who takes us, raises us up and seats us with princes? Who is like our God who invites us into His court, invites us into audience with Him, invites us to make requests of Him?

There is no god like our God, no god who invites people to come into His presence despite the fact that we aren’t very noble, we aren’t the kind of people who should be in the royal court of the holy and righteous God.

It’s like I was saying last week: we are a bunch of sinners. That’s who we are. And we need to admit that we’re poor and needy, we’re spiritually distant from God and His ways, we’re nowhere near living up to what it means to be in God’s royal court. We lie to one another, we gossip, we talk behind each other’s backs, we pick fights and we basically are just dirty beggars.

And kings don’t invite dirty beggars into their court. Kings don’t allow dirty beggars to ask them for things.

You and I, we shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be in God’s court. We shouldn’t be approaching God’s altar. We shouldn’t expect God to hear our requests, to hear our prayers.

And yet here we are. . .here we are, because God stoops down, reaches down, comes down to the ash heap, comes down to the spiritual beggars, comes down to us and raises us up to his court, to his throne room. He brings us up and has us sit with the princes, sit in the royal court. You and I are dirty beggars, but God treats us like nobility. The King of Kings has invited us to sit with the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.

In fact, God gives us what He has. He is enthroned on high, He sits on His throne high above—and He raises us up to His level, raises us up to His throne, raises us up to be with Him.

Psalm 113 is pointing out this great turn of events, this incredible event that’s made possible by God’s grace, mercy, and love. We have a King that lifts up His subjects, lifts us up to be with Him, lifts us up to be seated with the princes.

And Psalm 113 is designed for worship and praise, and it gets us to stop and take a look around, to stop and realize where we are. It’s like saying, “Do you realize? Do you realize what God has done for us? He’s reached down from way up high and brought us up from way down low. He’s brought us way up high to be with Him and now we’re in His royal court. Do you realize what’s happened? Do you realize why we’re praising God today? We’re praising God because here we are in His presence and we’re safe and secure and forgiven and free and alive.”

So I want you to remember what a privilege it is to enter this place of worship, this sanctuary. I want you to remember that what is happening in the spiritual realm is that God is inviting the dirty beggars into His royal court.

I want you to remember that the only reason you can come before God is through His grace, mercy, and love. The King of Kings has invited you to come into His presence, to come right up to His throne, to be here with Him. The King of Kings has invited you to sit with the Prince of Peace.

And it’s not only in this space that this reality is true. Wherever you are, you are in the presence of God. Wherever you are, whether at home or at work or at school or on the tollway, wherever you are you have been invited into God’s royal court, you are part of His court, you are His noble subjects.

And it isn’t because you’re so great and special and noble and royal. No, you’re dirty beggars, but God has invited you in. God wants you to be here. You’re here at His invitation and His invitation is the only thing that matters. Don’t worry about what other people might say about you—they’re not in charge of the royal court. Don’t worry about what you might tell yourself about being unworthy—you’re not in charge of the royal court. God invited you to be in His court, and that’s all that matters. He made it possible, so take a look around, praise God for where you are, and rejoice that He’s made you to be like one of the princes.

I know a woman who is known for bringing people into the church to experience this transformation of Christ, but boy, would people talk, act like she had no right bringing those people to church. Routinely on Sundays she fills up her van with kids from the neighborhood, teens who are troubled, teens who are searching, teens who have had really difficult lives, she invites them to church, gathers them on Sunday morning, and brings them with her to worship.

Now some of these teens when they first come to church are reluctant to come into the sanctuary, but that doesn’t stop this woman. She encourages them to come worship, she encourages them and supports them and helps them take those steps inside that holy space.

And when they enter, she marches them right up to the front row. She’s not going to let them hide at the back. She wants them front and center where they can hear God’s Word, where they can pay attention to what’s being said, where they can find out what Jesus has done for them. These teens are truly experiencing what it means to be invited into God’s royal court.

Before that experience at church, these teens have often felt left out, felt like they couldn’t possibly come to God, felt like they’re too bad to ever be in church, but that doesn’t stop this woman. She knows that God takes all of us, all of us dirty beggars, takes all of us just the way we are, and He brings us right into His royal court, seats us with the princes, invites us to the feast of the kingdom. Whatever other people might think, that doesn’t stop this woman from bringing these teens to church where they can hear about the love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. She knows God’s tremendous invitation, she knows God has done something incredible for us, she knows that God took a big step when He invited any of us into His royal court, and so this woman, for her, it’s a natural step to invite all of these teens into the royal court, too. She’s God’s instrument. She’s helping these teens to see that God wants them in His royal court, at His altar, at His side, with Him forever.

Knowing that God has invited us into His royal court, knowing that He has seated us with princes, knowing that the King of Kings invites us to sit with the Prince of Peace, well, that changes our lives, changes how we view the world and the people around us. It means that everyone around us can be royal and noble, can be invited into God’s presence. It means that we all have been lifted up by God. It means everyone is invited into His royal court.

I pray that Bethel Lutheran will be a place that is safe for every poor, dirty beggar, a place that is safe for everyone person, a place that is safe for every person who might have felt like they don’t belong. I pray that Bethel Lutheran is that kind of place, because that’s the kind of message we preach and teach, the kind of message we learn from Scripture passages like Psalm 113. I pray that Bethel Lutheran can be a place where people realize that they, too, have been invited into God’s royal court.

And I pray that we as God’s people can go out into the world with this message, go into the world sharing this Good News with people who are feeling like spiritually they are just dirty beggars. I pray that we can share that hope with people around us, invite them into a faith that welcomes them with open arms because our God welcomes us with open arms. The King of Kings has invited you to sit with the Prince of Peace.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

1 Timothy 1:12-17 - “Welcome to Our Sinner School”

16th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, September 12, 2010

(Five volunteers are asked to come and hold up poster boards with these words on them):

Welcome to our Sunday School.

(After a moment, switch the “Sunday” sign with a sign that says “Sinner”).

Welcome to our Sinner School.

After all, that’s what we have, isn’t it? We have sinners teaching sinners. Sinful teachers leading sinful students. From our little children all the way to our adults in Bible study, we have sinners gathered to learn from other sinners.

Welcome to our Sinner School.

I thought about putting this on the sign out front of church. I wasn’t sure how comfortable y’all would be with that. The big sign out of Bethel Lutheran Church saying, Welcome to our Sinner School. Would that have been OK? Anybody a bit uncomfortable with the idea?

So I didn’t put it on the sign, but believe me, I got the idea from Scripture, from the reading today from 1 Timothy. Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, a young pastor, and Paul shows humble honesty. Paul calls himself a sinner, the worst of all sinners. And I figure if Paul can be humble and honest about himself, then certainly we can do the same thing.

Welcome to our Sinner School.

Maybe you’re not convinced yet. Maybe you’re not so comfortable calling our Sunday School a Sinner School. Maybe we should talk about this a bit before I go putting it on the sign out front.

(Volunteers can sit down).

Let’s go back to the letter to Timothy. Paul wrote the letter to encourage Timothy who was pastor in Ephesus, but remember Timothy was Paul’s student, his helper. Everything Timothy learned about being a leader in the church came from Paul. In fact, Timothy was in Ephesus as pastor because Paul asked him to stay there. Timothy had been traveling with Paul, but Paul said he needed Timothy to stay in Ephesus, to take care of the church there.

So you got to remember that Timothy must really look up to Paul, must treasure every word that comes from his teacher, so when this letter arrives, Timothy must have been overjoyed to hear from Paul.

Paul starts off the letter with some instructions, but he quickly kind of interrupts himself with the section we heard today. He interrupts the instruction and says, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service.”

OK, so far so good. Paul is simply thanking God that God made him to be who he is, made him to be a missionary and servant of Jesus. But then Paul has to continue and say, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” Why’d Paul have to go and bring that up? Why’d Paul have to mention his past when he persecuted Christians, spoke violently against Jesus, and had Christians killed?

I mean, if I’m Timothy getting a letter from my teacher, my mentor, I’m so excited to share his words with everyone, and then I start reading these words. . .and I’m embarrassed. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to think of my mentor as someone who spoke lies about God, who persecuted others, who is violent. We kind of like to keep our mentors on a pedestal, thinking that they’re somehow better than the rest of us.

But here Paul is showing his cards, Paul is admitting who he was and who he is. He goes on to call himself the “worst of all sinners.” This is a humble honesty, the kind of humble honesty that might make us uncomfortable, the kind of humble honesty behind calling today the beginning of Sinner School. Are we really ready to go there with Paul? Are we really ready for that kind of humble honesty?

Are we ready to admit that we are starting our Sinner School today? Are we ready to admit our Sunday School, our High School Bible study, our Adult Bible studies, our preschool, are we ready to admit that all of our Christian Education classes are sinner classes, led by sinners for sinners? Are we ready to put ‘Welcome to our Sinner School” on the church sign out front?

Maybe not, but maybe that’s because we haven’t yet remembered everything Paul said to Timothy. Paul didn’t just admit that he was a sinner. Paul didn’t just admit his violent past. There was a reason Paul could have such humble honesty. There was a reason that Paul wasn’t afraid to admit that Timothy had gone to sinner school, that Timothy had learned how to be a pastor from a sinner. There was a reason Paul was willing to be so honest.

Paul says, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

That humble honesty of Paul, admitting that he was the worst of all sinners, well, all that means is that he was admitting that he was saved by Jesus. It means admitting that what Jesus did on the cross covered his sins. It means knowing that there is salvation, eternal life for him. It means being fully confident in what Jesus has done for us so that there’s no reason to hide our sinfulness. There’s no reason to hide our sinfulness because Jesus forgives our sins. Jesus gives him the freedom to be humbly honest.

So there’s no reason for Timothy to be embarrassed that Paul had a violent past. No, instead, Paul’s humble honesty just shows what Jesus came to do—save sinners like Paul. Paul’s humble honesty, therefore, is our way of life, our way of living as Christians, because we don’t have to pretend to be something we’re not. When we admit we’re sinners, we’re admitting that we need Jesus, we’re admitting that what He did for us on the cross and in His resurrection, well, that’s exactly what we need.

So our lives are characterized by humble honesty, characterized by freely admitting that we’re sinners, freely admitting that we’ve got a sinner school, that we’re a gathering of sinners in this place.

I mean, I know that might confuse people outside of the church, they might get confused if we call this a sinner school, but maybe they’d also realize that we’re humbly honest, we’re not trying to be something we’re not, we’re not here because we think we’re good enough to be here, we’re here because we realize we’re not good enough.

We’re here because we need Jesus, we need His forgiveness, we need to be saved from our sins. We’re here because we realize we need something, someone besides ourselves. We’re here because we can’t do this by ourselves. We’re here because we need Jesus. We’re here because Jesus invites us to come to Him as we are—warts and all. Jesus invites us to come and receive forgiveness and know the promise of eternal life. Jesus gives us the freedom to be humbly honest.

In a couple of weeks our Elders together with the Board of Evangelism are going to spend an evening trying to make phone calls to every household in the congregation, a way to encourage people, to see if people have needs, but mainly just to say, “We’re thinking of you.”

Makes me think of a man I knew in a previous congregation, we’ll call him Bob, and Bob had a heart for going to visit people who hadn’t been in church for awhile. Now to go and visit someone who hasn’t been coming to church, now that can be a tough conversation, but Bob had a gift for it. He said that sometimes people would say that they didn’t come to church anymore because the church is just a bunch of hypocrites. They got turned off because they knew how these people lived during the week and it just drove them nuts that then these people would show up in church on Sunday. No, they didn’t want to go to church with a bunch of hypocrites.

And you know how Bob responded? When somebody would say the church is a bunch of hypocrites, Bob would, “You’re right. I’m a hypocrite. I’m a hypocrite. I say one thing about God and following Him, and I do another. And for that I need God’s forgiveness.”

I imagine there was an awkward silence there; it’s awkward to have someone be so humbly honest. That’s the humble honesty we’re called to have. That’s the example we learn from Paul. We learn that following Christ means admitting how much we need Him and His forgiveness, how much we don’t live up to His standards. Following Christ means admitting that we’re hypocrites. Following Christ means admitting that we have a Sinner School. Following Christ means admitting that we fall so far short of what God wants that the only hope we have is that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Jesus gives him the freedom to be humbly honest.

So we move forward today, so we celebrate the start today of our Christian education Today we commission our Christian education leaders—our Sunday School teachers, our preschool staff, our Bible study leaders, our Board for Christian Education, and everyone involved with Christian education here at Bethel. We commission this people, set them aside to do this work, and ask God’s blessing to go with them.

The commissioning that we’ll use today comes from these words from 1 Timothy, including asking the leaders to admit that they, too, are sinners.

Of course, if I emphasize that they’re sinners, maybe you’ll start thinking that you don’t want them teaching our children or you don’t think they’re qualified to lead an adult Bible study. Maybe these Christian education leaders, these Christian education sinners shouldn’t be commissioned today. Maybe they’re the wrong ones.

But when I say that they’re sinners, I’m not putting them down, I’m not chastising them, I’m not saying they’re the wrong ones, that they’re not good enough to be leaders.

Instead, when I say, “Welcome to our Sinner School,” and when I say that this is a place “where sinners teach sinners,” I’m comparing our Christian education leaders to Paul, the Apostle Paul, St. Paul, the great Christian missionary. I’m comparing our Christian education leaders to Paul and finding them to be very similar. Very similar indeed. Like Paul, they lead with a humble honesty, an honesty about their own sinfulness, a humility that says they can only serve as leaders because God has made them leaders. Jesus gives him the freedom to be humbly honest.

And whether you are being commissioned today as a Christian education leader, or you are another kind of leader or servant in the congregation, or if you are a Christian in your neighborhood or your family or your workplace, think about what Paul is teaching Timothy here, think about how it also teaches us about what kind of Christian we’re called to be. We’re called to have a humble honesty. We’re called to go forward admitting that we’re sinners, because then we’ll also admit that we need Jesus for salvation.

You know, on my laptop computer I have a bunch of stickers. One of those stickers says, “Another Failure.” It comes a band called Andy Friedman and the Other Failures. So if you’re a fan, you’re another failure. I like the band, but even more than that, I like the sticker because I’m OK with admitting that I’m another failure. I don’t live up to God’s standards. I’m a sinner that needs to be saved by Jesus Christ.

And what we learn from Paul today is that there’s freedom in Christ for us to be humbly honest, to have another failure stickers, there’s freedom to admit that we’re sinners and need to be saved by Jesus. There’s freedom to say that we have a sinner school and are a gathering of sinners. There’s great freedom, because Jesus has indeed saved us. Which leads us to sing words of praise, to sing a doxology with Paul, to sing a hymn of praise for what God has done in our lives.

So Welcome to our Sinner School. Welcome to this place where we have humble honesty. Welcome to this place where we know we need Jesus and where we proclaim that He loves us and forgives us and saves us. Welcome to this place where we sing a doxology, sing a hymn of praise like Paul, sing a hymn of praise not thanking God that we’re sinners but thanking God that He still uses us even though we’re sinners.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 - “Hold Fast”

15th Sunday After Pentecost (Year C - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, September 5, 2010

I love to ride my bike, and only timing conspired to keep me from joining one of the Bethel Bike Hikes this summer. I’m looking forward to next summer when I can make a point of joining them for exercise and fellowship.

I love to ride my bike, but nothing like the guy on the front cover—riding a full-sized bike sideways off a jump. I prefer to keep both wheels on the ground, but I sure appreciate someone who can take a bike, launch it off a jump, land again, and keep riding. I’m not daring enough, but it’s pretty cool watching people who are that daring.

And helping that guy on the front cover do those tricks are some foot straps specially designed by a company in Brooklyn. They’re called Hold Fast. Hold Fast makes foot straps for these kinds of bikes—fixed gear, full-size trick bikes. On their Website they explain the birth of their company this way:

“We founded Hold Fast because we couldn't find any toe clips that could stand up to the rigors of fixed gear freestyle riding. After breaking countless clips and straps, we decided to design and make some ourselves. Only after many months of street testing by some of the best and burliest trick riders on the scene, did we feel that we had a product worthy of the name Hold Fast. We believe these to be the finest foot straps made.”

These foot straps are handmade in Brooklyn, and aside from their uses in all kinds of extreme biking, these foot straps make an excellent picture of what faith is.

As Moses says in today’s reading from Deuteronomy, “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” Hold fast to the Lord.

Like a Velcro foot strap that keeps your foot in place when you’re flying through the air on your bike, faith holds us fast to the Lord no matter what kinds of jumps launch us into the air. It’s that Velcro strap that keeps you from flying off in all directions, from crash landing, from losing grip, from losing your ride, your bike. It’s that Velcro strap of faith that keeps you attached to the Lord, keeps you from crash landing because you lost your grip on God. In other words, the Velcro strap—the Hold Fast foot strap—that’s faith. You are the rider, and God is the bicycle.

Staying on the bicycle—that’s being a disciple of Jesus, that’s being a follower of Jesus, someone who hangs onto Him, someone who holds fast to His teachings, someone who doesn’t let go of Jesus even when you’re flying through the air, even when the landing looks like it’s going to be rough, even when life is throwing you in all sorts of directions, being a disciple of Jesus means staying on that bicycle. Like Moses said, “Choose life, and hold fast to the Lord.”

So you’re the rider, God is the bicycle, and faith is those Hold Fast foot straps keeping you on that bike. And life, unfortunately, throws you plenty of jumps and pitfalls and barriers and other things in your way. You’re holding fast to God through faith, and sometimes it seems like everything in your path is trying to throw you off.

What’s been trying to throw you off the bike lately? What’s been trying to get you to let go of God, because that’s really what Moses is talking about here. He’s talking about the choice between life and death, between truth and lie, between the true God and false gods. What’s tempting you to let go of God and choose something else to believe in? What might make you jump off that bike and choose something different?

I mean, God has promised that if you ride with Him, if you hold fast to Him, then you’ll have life, He’ll get you through the pitfalls, He’ll be your source for life and salvation, but really, what makes it hard to stay with Him? What tempts you to choose something else? What’s got you reaching down to undo those foot straps and get off that bike?

Perhaps you’re not sure if God’s really going to be able to get you through this time, you’ve been going through something pretty difficult, something you can hardly start talking about without crying or yelling or both, and you’re just not sure that God’s going to get you through. You hear all of this talk about people trusting in other things to get them through life, you know, celebrities and their psychics, self-help people and their books, spiritual people and their crystals, you hear all of this stuff, and you think to yourself, “Maybe I ought to try something like that. Maybe there’s another answer out there.” You find yourself reaching down towards those foot straps, thinking about getting rid of faith in Jesus and moving onto something else.

Perhaps you find yourself in that moment when you’ve just forgotten what it means to be strapped to your bike, why it’s important, why you need to have faith in God. You kind of go through each day without much thought about God, and you figure you’re doing alright by yourself. You kind of forget how much you need those straps to keep from crash landing. You notice your friends and coworkers and other people around you don’t seem to have those straps, don’t have that faith in Jesus, and at least from the outside, they seem to be doing alright. So you start to reach down and undo those straps, undo that faith, leave the bike behind and try doing it by yourself.

Whatever the reasons, we’ve all been there—whether it was years ago or just this week, we’ve all had those moments when we thought about undoing those straps, undoing that faith, getting off the bike and trying to go out on our own. We’ve had those moments, we’ve been there, we’ve been tempted, we’ve struck out on our own because we’re disappointed in God or because we think we can do it by ourselves, and when that happens, when we’re done with the Hold Fast foot straps, when we’re done with faith, well, then we’re in that place that Moses describes.

Moses says, “But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.” And that’s a very big crash landing, my friends, a crash landing that leaves you broken and laying on the ground and wondering just how you’ll ever recover. It’s a crash landing that gets you questioning again just why you walked away from God in the first place.

I remember once in high school watching Oprah, and she had someone on the show talking about the power of crystals. You know, you rub a crystal, and supposedly it has power to heal and give you good energy and all of that. Well, I mean, I was a Christian, believed in Jesus, but high school is a tough place sometimes. I was needed a little extra encouragement, so I guess I thought I’d give it a shot. But I didn’t have a crystal, so I found a smooth rock that I had kept from a trip to Lake Superior. I figured it must have some power, too.

Well, I put that rock in my pocket, and the next day at school when I was getting worried, I’d reach into my pocket and hold onto that rock. I held fast to that rock.

And you know what? Nothing happened. Nothing good happened anyway, but boy, holding onto that rock kept me from holding onto Jesus. My faith was shaky, I was confused and wandering. That rock wasn’t helping me face the troubles of life. In fact, it just made me all that more nervous and scared as I walked down the halls of school. I was starting to undo the Hold Fast foot straps, leave the bike behind, starting to go out on my own.
As soon as I realized what I had done, I went back to God and realized He was the only One who could get me through the challenges of life, He was the only One who offered life and salvation, He was the only One who could support me in the scary days in those hallways.

And here’s how I picture how God got me back to Him: I’m standing, and God reaches out, picks me up, puts me on the bike, and closes those foot straps around my feet. He does it all. He brings me back to Him. He makes it so that I hold fast to Him. I had wandered away from Him; that’s my fault. And then I was back with God, and He gets all of the credit for that.

So before we get too far in thinking that maybe we supply the faith, that maybe we are the ones who do such a good job keeping our feet on the pedals, before we go thinking that we create the faith that keeps us connected to God, remember those Hold Fast straps are handmade in Brooklyn. And your faith was handmade, too—handmade by the Holy Spirit in the spiritual realm.

When Moses is talking about making that choice between death and life, when he is urging the people to choose life, to choose God, to make the choice to follow God’s commands and hold fast to Him, it can sound a lot like it’s up to the people, it’s up to us, it’s up to our actions to make sure we have life and faith in God.

But that would go against everything else we learn about God from other places in Scripture, places that teach us that being a disciple, being a believer in Jesus comes to us as a gift from God. Faith is a gift; faith is created by the Spirit in our hearts; we can’t boast because it’s not our action; we’re saved by Christ alone not by what we do.

So what is Moses saying? Doesn’t it sound like we are the ones who hold fast to God? Is the picture really of someone riding a bike and doing tricks without foot straps? Who needs Hold Fast? Who needs faith? We can do this by ourselves, right?

Well, it could sound that way if we don’t take everything Moses said into account. Faith could sound like our action if we don’t go back to verse 6 of chapter 30. There Moses says, “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”

In other words, the Lord will change, shape, convert your hearts, so that you may love God with all your heart and with all your soul. The Lord will create faith in your hearts. The Lord will cause us to believe. The Lord gets all of the credit for our faith in Him. Hold Fast foot straps are handmade in Brooklyn, and our faith is handmade in the spiritual realm, handmade by the Lord Himself.

When you find that you’re standing by yourself, when you’ve gotten off the bike, or just when you’ve found yourself thinking about undoing those foot straps, don’t set yourself up to think that it’s up to you to get back on the bike, it’s up to you to hold fast, it’s up to you to muster enough faith to get through another day.

No—remember that faith is a gift from God. Faith is God’s doing. Faith is what God does in our hearts by His Spirit. God works on your heart. God does what’s necessary in your heart so that you may love Him and obey Him and respond to Him with your life.

When you find that you’ve wandered away from the faith, instead of trying to bring yourself back, ask God to do it. Ask God to pick you up, put you back on the bike, and close those Hold Fast foot straps around your feet. Ask God to draw you back, bring you back to Himself, and give you faith in Him, a faith that holds fast to Him and His Gospel and His teachings.

So maybe you’ve crash landed because you thought you could do it by yourself. God forgives you, picks you up, and sets you riding again. So maybe you’ve been toying with trusting in some other kind of ride, some other kind of faith. God forgives you, draws you back to Himself, and straps your feet on the pedals again. So maybe you feel guilty for wanting to walk away from God. He forgives you through the cross of Jesus and gives you that faith that helps you trust and believe in that forgiveness. So maybe you feel like you’re flying through the air and there’s no way you can possibly land safely. God is the One who will hold you fast to Himself, hold you fast through faith in Him, will work in your heart by His Holy Spirit.

You are the rider, and God is the bicycle. And God has given you a handmade pair of Hold Fast foot straps, a handmade faith that keeps you with Him.