All posts by shepsrq

12th Sunday after Pentecost

12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 12, 2018
“Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked”; Questions about Heaven

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we continue my monthly sermon series called “Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked.” Today we tackle the topic of Heaven.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
Heaven is one of those topics that everyone is interested in. Everyone. 2 months ago when I introduced this series, I basically said, “Here you go, kid. Take this piece of paper and write down any question you have.” And so you did. 11 questions – more than 35% of all 30 questions submitted – involved Heaven in some way. Now, you realize that this is like shaking your Christmas presents under the tree, right? We have some good information to work with, but we won’t fully know all the answers until the day we open that glorious, eternal gift and everything will be revealed. So…let’s get started.
First, some questions about entering heaven: “When we die, when will we enter Heaven?” “When we die do our souls immediately go to Heaven or do we ‘rest’ until Judgment Day?” “Why does the Bible say some will go to heaven right away but others will ‘sleep in the dust’ until called? (Daniel 12:2).”
As we Lutherans believe that Scripture teaches that at the moment of death the souls of believers enter the joy of heaven (Luke 23:43; Acts 7:59; Rev. 14:13), while the souls of unbelievers at death are consigned to “the prison” of everlasting judgment in hell (1 Peter 3:19-20; Acts 1:25). The departed souls remain in heaven or hell until the Day of Judgment, when they shall be reunited with their own bodies (Matt. 10:28; John 11:24; Job 19:26). The Lutheran church has always rejected as unscriptural the idea that the soul “sleeps” between death and Judgment Day in such a way that it is not conscious of heavenly bliss. Regarding the verse from Daniel 12, Daniel is supporting what we believe as Lutherans that at the end of the age, the dead shall rise and those who believe rise to everlasting life and those who do not believe are banished to everlasting contempt. Daniel is being poetic; the actual soul is long since departed, and the mortal remains wait “in the dust” for the Last Day at which time final judgment will be rendered.
We DO NOT believe your soul lingers here on earth for any reason including getting stuck as a ghost or being sent to an intermediate state like purgatory. In the moment of death the souls of the believers enter the joy of heaven. Jesus said to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Stephen said in the hour of death: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). On the day of the final judgment, the redeemed souls in heaven will be reunited with their own (now glorified) bodies and will begin to enjoy the bliss of heaven in both body and soul (John 5:28-29; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15). What age will that body be? What will that body look like? Will my new, glorified body have a belly button? Don’t know…the Bible doesn’t provide those answers and I cannot speculate because I have nothing to work with. I know it will be newly glorified and free from sin…that’s it.
The question was asked “In 2 Corinthians 12:2 it reads ‘I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was caught up to the 3rd heaven’ What is the meaning of levels of Heaven?” When Paul uses the phrase “3rd heaven,” he is using terminology known and used by the Jews in his day. In the next verse, Paul says the man was “caught up into paradise,” which Paul equates with the “3rd heaven.” The word “paradise” is a Persian loanword meaning an aristocrat’s private park, like Ca’ d’Zan, the winter home of John Ringling here in Sarasota. The Jews in Paul’s day believed God took the Garden of Eden and placed it into heaven, which is where the souls would go. “3rd Heaven” is not a mid-level Heaven between the 2nd and 4th floor/level. Instead, it is a term synonymous with “paradise;” Paul is referring to the place where the beauty and perfection of Eden will be restored and never end. In most other cases, the Bible simply refers to this perfect place as “Paradise or Heaven.” There are no levels as such; it’s all good!
Now, questions about our loved ones: “When you die, will you be back with your family?” “Will we recognize our loved ones when we get to heaven?”
Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, both of whom had died. Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man to hell. Yet, while in hell, the rich man could see and recognize Lazarus in heaven (Luke 16:19-23). Noted Bible scholar Francis Pieper explained that Jesus’ Transfiguration provides strong evidence that people who go to heaven will recognize each other. “At the transfiguration of Christ,” he wrote, “the disciples knew Moses and Elijah, whom they had never seen before.” Looking at the Transfiguration, Pieper concludes, “those who die in Christ and go to heaven will know one another.” If Pieper says so, that’s a BIG deal. He literally wrote the book on Christian Dogmatics…all 3 volumes. The Last Day will include not only the joy of seeing Jesus return, but also that we will have a joyous reunion with those who have already died in the faith (1 Thess. 4:14). Awesome, right?
Someone asked “If you have been married more than once, do you go with the first spouse?” I believe the intention of this question has to do with our relationship status in heaven. Whom will we be married to in Heaven? Regarding your relationships, Jesus said in Luke 20: “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain…the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (34-35). Marriage was given on earth to point humanity to the ultimate loving relationship – our relationship with God and for the procreation of children. In Heaven, we will perfectly be in a relationship with Him and marriage will no longer be needed. We cannot grasp what it will be like to no longer be married or given in marriage after 50+ years of marriage, but in Heaven marriage doesn’t exist. You will know your spouse, but you will not be “married” to them as we know it now.
And now, the big finish: “How (do we) address suicide with loved ones and friends as it relates to faith.” Again, I think the intention is what do we say about the soul of a person who commits suicide? Every life is precious to God and should be precious to us. Life is a gift given by God and is to be taken by God and Him alone. Regarding death by suicide, our Synod does not have an official position regarding the eternal state of individuals who have committed suicide. Since the spiritual condition of an individual upon death is known only to God, one must proceeded cautiously in making judgments in this regard. Especially important in such situations is the state of mind of the deceased and whether the deceased was aware of what he/she was doing. Is suicide always an act of unbelief, which alone will damn a person? I would say “no.”
Does this answer all your questions about Heaven? No way. But we know that Heaven is the ultimate, most wonderful gift for us when we die, a gift secured by your faith in your living Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is the topic of next’s week sermon.

11th Sunday after Pentecost

11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 5, 2018
(Lamentations 3:22-33)
“Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked”; Questions about Suffering

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Today I begin a 4-week sermon series called “Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked.” Today we tackle the first topic of suffering.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
Hey…no one can call me a coward! I could have buried these questions or ignored them or saved the toughest for last; I’ll start with some of the toughest questions. Yeah, there were only 2 questions submitted about suffering, but I think everyone will be interested in the answers. Today our topic is “suffering” and here are the questions (paraphrased) to be answered: “I have experienced so much (that’s) negative and at times I have quit caring about me and my future. How can I have solid faith amid such a cruddy past?” and “Why is God not answering me? (Does my) continuous suffering means he is punishing me? What is his will in my life?” See what I mean?
As people, as Americans, as Christians, we talk about suffering often, for it is a significant part of everyone’s life. When Christians talk about suffering, we always tell of how God uses our suffering for our good (Romans 8:28). Others may laugh at that notion, but that is the truth we confess knowing it’s easier to confess than actually live in that promise.
We don’t talk very much, though, of how to endure suffering. Don’t get me wrong or have the wrong impression; this is not a how-to sermon that is so popular in other circles, where we’re told that with certain 4-5 steps, all can be made better and God will smile kindly upon us. Not always. This is a sermon on what we do when we, as God’s people, are brought into suffering and what our attitude and understanding are, to see/find the good in our suffering, and how we try to discern God’s will – His plan – for our lives. Is suffering an indication that the “plan” has gone amiss?
I am going to try and answer today’s questions using verses from Lamentations. “Lamentations!” you might wonder, and I recognize it’s a very sad and gloomy book, but Lamentations shines a lot of light on these questions.
First of all, Jeremiah – the assumed author of Lamentations – reminds us of three things while we suffer in our lives. First, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (3:22). That’s good to remember when life gets tough; God doesn’t hate us one day then love us another. His grace and love is unconditional, unending, and perfect even when our lives seem less-than-perfect. Secondly, God’s mercies are “new every morning” (3:23). Every day is a new chance for God’s mercy to extend and make the day, situation, or life better. That doesn’t mean that it will be healthier and happier automatically, but the hope is always there!
Jeremiah goes on in verse 26: “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Wait quietly? Who does he think he’s kidding? Wait quietly? But doesn’t God see how bad off I am? Doesn’t God care how uncomfortable I’ve become? Doesn’t He know how lonely I am? Doesn’t He know how anxious I am about my past and my future? Why me, God? I want some answers here, God! Now…does that sound like waiting quietly? Not so much. One of the first lessons they teach in Mass Communications is that you cannot listen if you’re always talking.
As the people of God, we are encouraged here in Lamentations and elsewhere to show silent, godly endurance and patience. If we’re not waiting quietly, how can we hear what God has to say to us? If our complaining and moaning and grumbling is non-stop, when do we have the time or opportunity to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10)? The nightmares of grief and pain and trouble that we experience TEACH us something…they teach us to throw ourselves wholly upon the Lord our God and wait for the good that is yet to come! We will never hear God’s comfort if we’re always groaning.
And let us not forget, we have a God that was willing to do this Himself for us first. Lamentations 3:28-29 read “Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope.” Also, consider Isaiah 53:7 – “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” Jesus would later fulfill Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s words: “And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer” (Mark 14:60-61, NIV). Even in the face of His own suffering that led to torturous death, Jesus remained silent. What an awesome example!
And in His silent sacrificial endurance, Jesus Christ gave His body and blood that you will not have to. He gave all that was needed for the forgiveness of our sins and life everlasting. He endured the suffering of hell itself that you might be spared that pain because you have eternal salvation through faith in Jesus. Jesus’ suffering was for a reason…and our suffering is for a reason, too.
Today’s questions want to know how to deal with the difficult life God has provided. Your life isn’t difficult because of God; it’s difficult because of SIN. The answer is He doesn’t provide a difficult life for us; He provides a “forgiven” life for us. We suffer for a reason. Not for punishment; God’s punishment against sin was poured out upon Jesus at the cross. We suffer because God allows us to suffer to draw us closer to Him. Job 36 tells us “(God) delivers the afflicted by their affliction” (v. 15). In other words, GOD IS AT WORK IN OUR LIVES WHEN WE SUFFER! When you are down to nothing in this life, God is clearly up to something! God does not choose for us to suffer; He chooses for us to be loved, to be forgiven, to be His own people in and through Baptismal faith.
Consider Romans 5, that great familiar passage which I have cited many times, teaches “we rejoice in our sufferings (how counter-cultural!), knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (v. 3-5). Just imagine…your suffering ultimately produces hope. God allows you to suffer in order that you would be drawn closer to Him. Only an Almighty God can pull that stunt off!
It is my prayer for you all – not just those 2 folks – that you will know in the midst of your own trials and tribulations – whatever they may be – that the promise and hope that God provides through His love and grace is far greater than anything you may be asked to endure. May you always draw strength from the hope that is yours in, through, and because of Jesus.

10th Sunday after Pentecost

10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 29, 2018
Mark 6:45-56
“Who is Pushing the Swing?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the first half of the Gospel lesson from Mark 6 involving Jesus, the disciples, and the boat.

My dear friends,

Children love to swing; that is a universal truth. Who doesn’t? There’s nothing like it. Thrusting your feet toward the sky, leaning so far backward that everything looks upside down. Swinging on the swings is great! Recently I went to Okeechobee for my granddaughter Abbey’s birthday party and even though it was a hot/humid June day, the three of my grandkids wanted to swing on the swings; little Eli just LOVED it! Children just love to swing, right?
I learned a lot about trust on a swing. As a child, I only trusted certain people to push my swing. If I was being pushed by people I trusted (like Dad or Mom), they could do anything they wanted. They could twist me, turn me, stop me mid-swing…I loved it! I loved it because I trusted the per¬son pushing me. But let a stranger push my swing (which often happened at family re¬unions or down at our cabin in NE), and it was hang on, baby! Who knew what this newcomer would do? When a stranger pushes your swing, you tense up and hang on in fear.
Most of us now, because of our age and the condition of our bodies, wouldn’t even THINK about getting onto a swing. I’m a lot closer to 60 than I am to 6 and I fear what a trip on the swing might do to my back and knees these days. The fear of the unknown, and what might happen, that’s what keeps us off the swing. We are afraid to get on because we’re afraid about what might happen especially if someone else pushes. And just who is “pushing your swing” these days? Joy or worry? Peace or apprehension?
Let’s talk for a moment about fear, about confusion, about anxiety, shall we? In today’s Gospel lesson we get all 3 and then some. Jesus sends the disciples into the boat to go across the Sea of Galilee towards their next destination, Bethsaida. The disciples quickly find themselves in an anxious and difficult situation. They are trying to row, but the wind was against them not to mention it’s now the middle of the night (4th watch or 3-6 AM). The disciples are exhausted and on edge. The conditions, the wind and waves, are no match for Jesus though as He simply walks on the surface of the water in the dark. Much has been made over the years about verse 48 and the phrase that Jesus “meant to pass them by.” There are lots of theories as to what that might mean, but that’s not what I want to focus on. I’m more interested in the disciples’ response.
In verse 49, the anxious, afraid, wet, and exhausted disciples look out into the night and things quickly go from bad to worse. They see Jesus, but they think He is a ghost or apparition; the Greek word is the same word from which we get our word “phantasm.” Should we be surprised that they fail to see Jesus? Mark reminds us that they also didn’t understand what had just happened in the feeding of the 5000 (6:52), so why would they recognize Jesus now? In much the same way, we too rarely see God walking past in our lives or we fail to recognize His bountiful, blessing presence for us amid the storms of our life. But that can be a different sermon for a different day.
They see this frightening image and they, as Mark specifically wrote, “were thrown into confusion.” Mark doesn’t use the word for “fear” as Jesus will in verse 50. The boat may have been pushed by the wind, but the disciples are being pushed by confusion and fear. To maintain the imagery from earlier, it’s like they have no idea who is pushing the swing. Jesus, however, calms their fears by climbing into the boat and telling his closest followers, “Take heart. Do not be afraid. It is I,” or in Greek, Jesus calls Himself “I AM,” His divine name. in response, the disciples are “exceedingly amazed,” and they keep rowing with now-calm waves, but also still-hard hearts.
We live in a stormy world. Morality and common sense are at an all-time low. Everyone is always offended by someone else. Love for God and neighbor are long-forgotten, out-dated concepts. Families are coming apart at the seams because of sin and sinful behaviors. Not only that, but everywhere one takes the time to look, private storms of sin occur. Family struggles with illness, death, and grief, strained marriages, broken hearts, lonely evenings. Fear and anxiety abound. People are doing their best to hang on in this tense, confusing, and anxious time we live in. Fear, it seems, has taken a hundred-year lease on the building next door and set up shop. Oversize and rude, fear is unwilling to share your heart with happiness, so happiness complies, packs up, and leaves. Do you ever see the two together? Can one be happy and afraid at the same time? Joyful and afraid? Confident and afraid? No. Fear is the bully on the playground who gets you on the swing and does terrible things. Fear may fill our world, but it doesn’t have to fill our hearts.
Fear never wrote a symphony or love poem, negotiated a peace treaty, or cured a disease. Fear never pulled a family out of poverty or a country out of bigotry. Fear never saved a relationship or marriage. Fear never drove a church’s ministry. Courage did that. Faith and hope did that. Love did that. People who refused to cower to their fear and anxiety did that.
Paul wrote in 2 Timothy that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (1:7). What was it again that Jesus said once He got in the boat? “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Know when else this same encouragement is given? In both Matthew 28 and in Mark 16, the angel tells the women who have come TO THE EMPTY TOMB to not be afraid. Why not? Because Jesus is risen from the dead, that’s why. Don’t you see? We are Easter people, and that doesn’t mean we only worship 1-2 times a year. We are sin-forgiven, baptized, redeemed children of God. We are people of hope, not fear. We are people of grace, not anxiety. We are people of love for God and neighbor, not worry. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross and because of the now-empty grave, we are driven by the power of God and His life-giving Word, faithful love, and self-control and not the confusion and fear the world tries to lay on us.
Friends, especially in these difficult days we remember who is pushing the swing. We put our trust in Christ Jesus. God in Christ won’t let us fall out of the swing. Don’t be afraid to take a risk for the kingdom: share the Good News of the Gospel with that neighbor, invite that friend to church, make that life-changing decision, challenge your financial giving, stop that destructive, addictive behavior, get into God’s Word on a daily basis.
I end with the same question I started with. Who is pushing your swing? In the right hands – the pierced hands of our Lord Jesus – you can find joy and love and grace and hope and peace…even in the worst storm of fear and anxiety.

9th Sunday after Pentecost

9th Sunday after Pentecost
July 22, 2018
Jeremiah 23:1-6
“I Made it Through the Reign”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is the first lesson that was previously read from the prophet Jeremiah.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

This is a story that my fellow non-snow-bird Floridians will understand. I was driving back from Orlando recently and I approached Sarasota around that 3:00 PM time frame. Everyone who spends their summer in Sarasota knows what happens around that time every day this time of the year. I could see the dark, nasty clouds to the south rolling towards Sarasota and about the time I got to University Parkway, it was like someone ripped a hole in the sky: constant lightning, booming thunder, and an onslaught of rain that can only be described as “torrential” battered all of us unfortunate enough to be on I-75 when it hit. It took almost 20 minutes to get to Bee Ridge Road, which is normally about a 5 minute drive. It was some of the worst driving conditions I have seen in almost 40 years behind the wheel. I couldn’t exit I-75 fast enough.
When I think about making that awful drive through the rain, I remember a popular song from 1980 performed by Barry Manilow, “I Made it Through the Rain.” It’s a song about a guy who made it through more than the dampness of being caught outside in a rain storm. The “hero” of the song persevered through dark and lonely days, and was able to make it through the “rain” or the troubles and hassles of life with the help of others who also endured.
Well, today as we reflect on the lesson from Jeremiah 23, we can also remember that song title “I Made it Through the Rain,” but change “R-A-I-N” to “R-E-I-G-N.” The prophet Jeremiah lived at a time when there was poor leadership among the people – REAL poor leadership – and God through Jeremiah had some very serious and harsh words for those in positions of leadership. On the flip side, He also has something to say for those on the other end of the reign of a poor leader – to the harassed and helpless flock under the leader’s care. God promised the flock that there would be rest; they would be rescued from the reign of hapless shepherds and given the safety and peace that they need.
Jeremiah lived at one of the most difficult and trying periods for the Israelites. He was a prophet during the divided kingdom – a kingdom that was only ½ a kingdom since the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been smashed by the Assyrian empire. But even before the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the Israelites experienced some pretty terrible reigns from some pretty terrible kings or shepherds. A simple of reading of 1 and 2 Kings reveals a hit list of kings who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord:” Nadab, Baasha, Zimri, Hoshea, Joram, Jehoahaz, Jeroboam, Omri, Ahab, and Manasseh, all who were particularly naughty. These kings were awful; they reigned contrary to the will of God. Jeremiah proclaimed, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (verse 1).
Yet, God does not say that the sheep will rise up and overthrow or impeach the shepherd. He doesn’t shout “#Resist”! No, He desires that we keep the Fourth Commandment. But then, what do we do about those who abuse power? We resist unlawful government; we obey lawful government. Above all, we obey God, not man (Acts 5:9), and rather than rise up, we trust that it is God who bestows punishment on the shepherds for what they have done. “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the LORD (verse 2). That is exactly what God did. When His judgment came, it was complete; “torrential” you might say. King Zedekiah, the illegitimate king of Judah, was raining a horrible reign down on the citizens of Judah when God used the Babylonians to come and take both a now-blinded Zedekiah and the flock away into exile. It looked like all was lost. The City of David…gone. Temple…gone. The Davidic line from which the promised Messiah was to come…that looked like it was gone also.
However, this was not the end. For God also promised through Jeremiah, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture…I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified” (verses 3-4). Just as the evil shepherds had scattered the flock, God promised He would intervene and restore the good remnant. How? “I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land” (verse 5). God only needs a branch, a shoot, a stump, to bring about the oak of righteousness (Isaiah 61:3).
That is exactly what God did. God’s people were restored. The exile of the Israelites from Jerusalem – the City of David – lasted from 586 BC until 538 BC or only 48 years. The people returned to Jerusalem and eventually rebuilt the temple and the city wall. And the restoration didn’t end there.
Into the restored kingdom, Jesus Christ, the Lord Our Righteousness, came just as had been foretold, to bring restoration and healing for His people. Sinful people needed more than homes, a temple, and city walls. All people need to be restored in our relationship with our sinless and holy God, and that is what Jesus did. He took all of our sins, all of our disobedience, all of our uncleanness and our lack of righteousness, and took it upon Himself and allowed it to be nailed to the cross. Because of Christ and His righteousness which is given to us, we have forgiveness of our sins, the promise of salvation, and the hope of eternal life even amid torrential rainfall.
Is the world around us a peaceful, perfect place? No. Are we free from bad leaders and poor shepherds? No. But has the Lord Our Righteousness lived and died for us? Yes. By His death and resurrection, do we have the forgiveness of sins, the peace that only God provides, and the promise of eternal rest and restoration in heaven? Absolutely. We may have to put up with a little rain from time to time and feel uncomfortable and unpleasant, but that’s is nothing when compared with the glories yet to be revealed to us when the Good Shepherd calls us to dwell eternally safe in the house of the Lord forever, for then we will have truly made it through the rain.
It’s good to be back home with you, despite the rain. Amen.

7th Sunday after Pentecost

7th Sunday after Pentecost
July 8, 2018
Mark 6:1-13
“I’m Going on Vacation (?)”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is the Gospel lesson from Mark chapter 6 as was previously read with an emphasis on verses 7-13.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

This might be really dumb to say, but…next weekend I won’t be here. There…let the chips fall where they may. I know they say that “when the cat’s away, the mice will play,” meaning that if the usual pastor isn’t there, people are more likely to skip church. DON’T DO THAT! Don’t be excited to skip church because I’ll be gone. Be excited to come to church because I’ll be gone! Next week Pastor Steve Hess will be here; someone with a new style, a new approach, a new way to explain biblical texts. Check it out!
I won’t be here because I am going on vacation to that exotic travel destination that is Lincoln, NE. I’m going to Lincoln to visit my mom and brother and generally to “chill” for a week. To get ready I had to buy a plane ticket and get a new suitcase and I’m sure that, in a couple of days, I’ll pack all my stuff and triple-check my itinerary and then make my way to the Sarasota Airport. I am sure that if you were going on this trip (hey…who doesn’t dream of going to Nebraska), or any vacation, you would so the exact same thing. You’d make reservations, you’d have your travel plans made, you’d have a suitcase packed, ensure you have your cell phone charger, and plenty of money to get there and back.
Now, compare our vacations with the trip on which Jesus sent the Twelve in today’s text from St. Mark. Their trip was a little different from a family vacation, and as a matter of fact, their trip is less like a vacation and more like a mission trip…which it is. We can confidently say that Jesus doesn’t send us out to live each day like we’re on vacation, but He daily sends us on trip…a mission trip.
Like the disciples being sent, the preparation for our trip is not so much to pack lightly as it is to pack rightly. Can you imagine going out on vacation with nothing more than the possessions on your back? I doubt that many can. While much has been made of this list from Mark 6, this list is not the main point of this text. Our Lord is not teaching about how to do mission or what to take, but He is teaching about the character of the mission; you go as you are taking with you the important thing. Most people are so interested in the list that they forget the most important thing! Jesus gave the disciples power over the spirits; He gave them the Word of God. We also are sent with the powerful Gospel fully relying on God to provide our daily needs.
“Packing rightly” for mission work teaches total dependence on Christ. Very few people would set out on an extensive mission trip without taking at least bare essentials: food, a map, luggage, money, etc. Most would not even think of going off somewhere for an extended stay without the stuff you need. But here, Jesus instructs His disciples to “take nothing for the journey except a staff” (v 8). This was not intended to ignore their daily needs, or to be a mandate for all future missionary trips. But on this particular occasion – the 1st time sending His disciples out – there is something that Jesus wishes for ALL His disciples to learn: total dependence on Him. He who sends them out will provide for them what they need.
This also might be a dumb thing to say, but when you pack for vacation, do you pack everything you own? Duh, of course not. But wouldn’t it be handy if you had access to all your stuff so you were prepared to deal with anything that might arise? True, but we can’t possibly know all that lies ahead on our life’s journey. Life is full of the unexpected; the only consistency is life’s inconsistencies. With all that we experience at various times in our faith journey, one item of equipment is always essential: the Word of God. The disciples were given the commission of Jesus, the work of the Holy Spirit which is the power of God’s Word, and a walking stick…that’s it! Minus the walking stick, we are given much the same; the powerful Word that Christ by His cross has redeemed us – that Word proclaimed among us, poured over us, fed to us, then to be shared by us on our spiritual “vacation,” our perpetual mission trip through life.
Jesus doesn’t offer an idealistic description of what the disciples can expect on their trip. In fact, he’s very up-front and admits there will likely be places that will not welcome them or listen. When that happens, they’re not to let it squash their continued journey, but to “shake the dust off [their] feet” (v 11) and go on. In ministry and in discipleship, reception will not always be favorable, especially in our current cultural climate. Sometimes people will be openly hostile. Interestingly enough, the context of the sending of the 12 in Mark 6 following this text is the narrative of the events leading to the death of John the Baptist. This is no coincidence. Mark is showing what the result can be for those who bring the message of the Gospel to a very unreceptive audience!
It may not always be easy to proclaim Christ crucified and risen for the world’s salvation, but devotion to the task and its message rather than devotion to comfort for those who bring the message. Knowing that, sometimes we are content to let someone else do this mission work and not run the risk of rejection ourselves. How can we honestly pray for the mission of the Gospel in this world if we are unwilling to make sacrifices ourselves to help in that task? How can we expect to reach others when we seek shelter behind stained glass curtains? When Jesus calls us, He sends us out…out there…not to hide in the safety and comfort of “in here.” Mission work is no vacation; He does not promise protection and we don’t always get to choose how and where the journey will go. Answering the call to serve others is risky business, but ignoring it or scorning it is even riskier for those who are perishing eternally without the call to repent of their sins and to believe in Christ Jesus.
Nevertheless, there will be times, the Lord assures us, when the reception will be favorable. As the Lord had commissioned them, the disciples “drove out many demons and healed many sick people. These activities were real demonstrations of the restoration of all things that Jesus would secure by His death on the cross and victorious resurrection from the grave. Satan and sin are overcome; health is restored when God and man are reconciled. The Word of God does perform its function to bring people to repentance and receive the Good News of God’s mercy for them in Jesus Christ. The Gospel message changes heart; the Gospel changes lives. Mission work is not a vacation; it is an ongoing, joyous adventure with eternal consequences.
Bon Voyage, my friends, and enjoy your time next week with Pastor Hess! Amen.

6th Sunday after Pentecost

6th Sunday after Pentecost (B)
July 1, 2018
Mark 5:21-43
“When It’s Time To Go Home”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, our great Triune God. The sermon today is based on our Gospel lesson from Mark 5.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Valleyfair is a 125 acre amusement park located in Shakopee, MN and is currently the largest amusement park in the upper Midwest featuring more than 75 rides – 8 of which are thrill rides with very high barf indexes, I mean, thrill indexes. I know this because I have been there many times. During my time there, which is very much like visiting one of the amusement parks in Orlando, I realized that spending a day at an amusement park is parallel to life and the life experience. Let me explain.
Spending a day at Valleyfair or a Seaworld or Cedar Point in Ohio or Worlds of Fun in Kansas City or Six Flags St. Louis or any of the Disney parks or any amusement park is at lot like life: there is only one gate to get it, it requires a lot of physical effort, you do a lot of waiting, you do a lot of walking, the food is expensive, there are things that make you joyful, there are things that make you cringe, and you’re really tired by the end. But there is another connection I made, and it’s very appropriate for today. At Valleyfair and other theme parks, when it’s time to go home there is only one gate. One. Everyone comes in the same way…and everyone goes out the same way. So also in life there is only 1 gate; Jesus Himself said so regarding Himself in John 10; He IS the gate: the gate of life, the gate of death, the gate of life after death. And we see that visibly today in the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Today we learn 2 truths: (1) Faith in Christ Jesus – the Lord of both life and death – changes how you and I live our lives, and (2) it gives us hope as we approach the end of our life; hope for when it is time for us to “go home.”
At a theme park or any large gathering of people, you see quite a cross section of people. So also, in today’s Gospel lesson from Mark 5, we get a good cross section of what people thought of Jesus. He is seen as and called a Teacher (5:35). Clearly He is seen as someone who could really heal or (1) he wouldn’t have been approached by Jairus; and (2), the woman suffering from a bleeding issue wouldn’t have wasted her time on another doctor (5:26). But you know what else? There were also some present who saw Jesus as a fool. When He tells the mourners to “beat it” because the girl is only sleeping, they laugh at Him (5:40). Teacher, Healer, fool. Quite a mixed response to Jesus and His way of doing things, and people’s attitude and opinions about Jesus changed their behavior.
Well, that’s also what we continue to observe in this world. Now don’t get me wrong. There are many people who see Jesus for who He is and live life accordingly. Large gathering places like Valleyfair and Disney theme parks are opportunities to see what kind of impact Jesus and faith in Him makes. It was “Lutheran Youth” day once when I went to Valleyfair and the kids from various youth groups were evident with their matching t-shirts and appropriate levels of dress and language and behavior. But when people regard Jesus as someone other than Lord and God, that’s when you see an immediate, drastic change. I observed levels of clothing – and lack thereof – that wouldn’t be appropriate for adults let alone teenage girls. Some of the most foul language I have heard in a long time caused me to look around wondering “who let wounded pirates in here?” Turns out the words came from the mouths of two girls who could have been no older than 15. The point is clear. Having an up-close and personal saving faith in Jesus changes us…or at least it should. Why? He is the Son of God come in human flesh for the forgiveness of OUR sins. Mark made that very clear in the opening line of his Gospel: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1 ESV).
Faith or no faith, death is the exit gate that every person must face. There is nothing that I or anyone else can do about it; that is the reality of the human life experience. You start dying the moment you are born. That is the inevitable consequence of sin. In today’s Gospel lesson, we know nothing of the girl’s faith. Her father Jairus believed in Jesus, though. Even as a public figure (a synagogue ruler was a lay person who took care of the building and ensure services were offered), he was willing to fall at the feet of Jesus begging Him to help because of his daughter’s impending death. Was that seen as an appropriate action by a public figure? No, not really. But for a father whose daughter’s death is imminent? Of course. Jairus’ actions are acts of faith knowing that death was near for his daughter; there was NO time for pomp, pageantry, or politics. So, Jesus raises her from the dead.
Physical death is not the end. The eternal Son of God has conquered death not only for Jairus’ daughter, but also for you and me, for he has paid for the sins of all. He died our death and has promised to raise us up again on the last day. Our death too will be but a sleep. Awakening from it through His word of power, we shall live with Him forever. And remember, Christ did not raise Jairus’ daughter in secret. There were 5 witnesses, 3 of whom were His disciples. His victory over death is no secret here any more than it was a secret after Easter as Jesus showed His resurrected self to many people many times to show the world He is alive. Having a living faith in a living Savior changes life. It impacts the clothing choices we make. It causes us to re-think how we speak, behave, give, love, serve, and work.
May I ask you all a question? We are a low tech church (words, water, bread, wine) caught up in a digital, high-tech world. The rate of change is so rapid that no one can keep up and that’s causing a lot of social angst. So how do people respond? By attaching what they DO know: traditional institutions and beliefs that get swept past by all the changes. Nearly every trace of God seems to be vanishing or has vanished from our society, and yet here we are…still obedient to Christ. Why? Because we have faith. Because we believe. Because we too have heard Jesus say “Do not fear, only believe” (5:36). We come because we have hope. And we know that when it’s time to go home, there is only a single gate through which we pass by God’s mercy and grace and opens into the land of glory – the sweet by and by – where we shall meet on the beautiful shore that is heaven.
Have a happy 4th of July everyone.

4th Sunday after Pentecost

4th Sunday after Pentecost
June 17, 2018
Mark 4:26-34
“It’s What Seeds Do”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of God our Father and our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson read earlier from Mark chapter 4.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

The sun rose on another early June morning chasing away the soft coolness of the night and promised a day with comfortable sunshine without oppressive humidity. It would be a perfect day for any outdoor activity: going to the beach, checking out a farmer’s market, golfing, going for a walk or whatever outdoor activity a person loves to do to relax. But not for Ted. Not today. Ted woke up with a clear purpose knowing exactly what needed to be done.
You see, Ted had spent the previous day planting his garden. Ted had spent the last month selecting his seeds for his vegetables, he had carefully spaced the rows to allow the tiller room, and he had lovingly watered in each seed the day before with a mixture of perfectly-blended water and Miracle Grow. Planting had gone without a hitch. Ted jumped from his bed that following morning and raced around the garage to his newly-sown garden spot just chomping at the bit to get all the necessary work done and turning the corner he saw…nothing. His garden looked the same way it had yesterday when he left it. None of the seeds had produced any vegetables. But Ted had done everything right! Where were the vegetables?! Disheartened, Ted fired up his garden tiller and worked all the soil up in hopes that next year the harvest would be better.
“What’s wrong with this Ted guy!” you might think. “He didn’t give the seeds enough time to grow! Doesn’t he know any better? Seeds don’t mature overnight; they need time to mature…it’s what seeds do.” I hope that you do think that, and will remember that in another 10 minutes.
Mark chapter 4 is the “parable chapter” in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus had recently concluded the healing portion of His ministry, and now comes the teaching aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus leads His disciples to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and a large crowd follows (4:1). So that everyone could hear, Jesus sits in a boat and pushes out a bit. He then told a series of parables and in today’s Gospel lesson we heard two of them.
Both parables for our consideration today are “Kingdom” parables, that is, Jesus is teaching a heavenly truth about God’s kingdom through human stories; people may not have readily understood the reality of how God’s kingdom worked, but they understood about sowing seeds. When Jesus is talking about “Kingdom” He doesn’t mean a physical territory like a garden spot or a farmer’s field. The “Kingdom” Jesus speaks of is wherever and whenever people are governed by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Therefore, the Kingdom was there for His hearers, but it is also here, right now, and there is more “Kingdom” to come (2nd petition of Lord’s Prayer).
In both kingdom parables something amazing is taking place – seeds are growing. We are part of generations that have witnessed tremendous advancements in technology, medicine, and science, which causes us to take for granted the miraculous mundane. I am sure that most farmers could tell you the inner working and anatomy of a single seed: coat, embryo, epicotyls, and so on. But what gives the seed its capacity to grow? What makes that seed grow? It is God, isn’t it? Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3, “…neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7 ESV). That verse is about faith, but it is also literally true in terms of seed growth.
That process from Paul is absolutely true and be believe it, we trust it, and we even explain it…and how quickly we forget it. As sinful seeds when we don’t see growth in our own lives, we panic. When things go the way that we don’t want them to, we fail to trust the true Gardner – the One who provides all growth. God has provided an ordered sequence in which seeds grow because that is what seeds do: seed, sprout, blade, ear, full grain (4:28). That is the way that God has created the seed to work, the way He ordains seed growth, and the way in which God provides the harvest.
As sinners we are bewildered at times by God’s grand plan for our maturity within His kingdom even while we are in the midst of it. When we don’t see the growth or maturity we expect in life, we are like Ted and we want to grind everything up and admit failure. God has a plan for forgiven sinners – for you – and you will not always recognize that. That’s what seeds do; they don’t always “get it,” but they are equipped to grow – to be built up – until they reach the point of full maturity that God has for them. It is true with corn, cucumbers, Chicory, and children.
God’s ways are often hidden – veiled – in ways we fail to recognize and never expected. He works through thorns and nails. He works through a cross. He is at work in water, in bread, and in wine. The spiritual growth that you and I experience – our maturation growth process – happens because of Christ Jesus crucified and risen again for our forgiveness and salvation. That redemptive act is the soil in which we are planted so that we can grow and reach maturity and produce the fruits of faith.
Your maturity in life and in faith is a divine process. Seeds need time to mature; it’s what seeds do. You’re not always going to see overnight progress or results. So, we patiently endure whatever God’s process is for us so that we can reach that intended maturity and produce a worthwhile harvest for Him. Of course there are going to be things that happen that we don’t understand. But we don’t have to understand to grow; we grow because that is what God does to us and through us. As His people – His seeds – we live by faith not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). God’s purposes for your life and fulfilled even when you have little proof to go on.
The harvest is coming. But until that time, be open to how God is maturing you and those around you. It’s a process with an ordered sequence; don’t get discouraged if you don’t know “why” God is doing this or that. Trust in God’s maturation process for you. Be patient in that process; give God time to facilitate your spiritual growth. Celebrate your growth and produce a bountiful crop for Him, because that’s just what seeds do. And for crying out loud, please don’t go home and till up your flower gardens or vegetable gardens or relationships or careers or hope. Give it time, just as God is giving you time to mature and produce fruit for Him and His glorious, eternal Kingdom.
Happy Father’s Day. Amen.

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 10, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15
“Hide and Seek…With God”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the First Lesson read from Genesis chapter 3.

My dear friends,

What was your favorite board game growing up? I may depend on what decade you grew up in, although some games are timeless. For me, my favorite games were “Stratego” or “Risk”. “Sorry” and “Life” were close seconds. How about your favorite outdoor game as a kid? Again, for me…too easy. “Kick the Can.” It’s been a LONG time since I’ve played “Kick the Can.” It isn’t often that we think of our relationship with God in terms of a game. Indeed, to say that someone is trying to play games with God would almost sound blasphemous. And yet today we will think of our relationship with God in terms of the most basic of games…hide-and-seek. Doesn’t get any more simple than that.
In the Genesis 3 text we find Adam in the Garden of Eden hiding from God in fear because of his sin. Uhm, yeah…wouldn’t you? Adam, the first man, becomes representative of all mankind, in trying to hide from God. Just imagine if God Almighty Himself came strolling in here today looking for YOU, wanting to talk to YOU about that secret sin that only you and God know about. Where are you going to hide? Under the pew? Under the pew cushion? Good luck with that! There is nowhere – NOWHERE – to hide from God and His knowledge of your sin, even though we want to hide in recognition of the sinful things we’ve done and our unworthiness and shame.
One of my favorite books (I have 3 copies for some reason) is “The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis. The book is a series of letters from one demon – Screwtape – to his nephew demon Wormwood. Wormwood is working on a young man to turn him away from God, and the idea of holy fear is a favorite weapon of Screwtape. Screwtape writes to teach his nephew that a certain kind of guilt is healthy and beneficial in making mankind aware of the need for God’s grace and forgiveness. The trick, however, was for Wormwood to take this guilt and make it debilitating for “the patient’s” relationship to God, making the guilty patient feel completely unworthy and that the situation is hopeless and therefore permanently turn from God. The good news in The Screwtape Letters is that their tactics don’t work on the patient. God still finds the “creature” and they are found in a faith relationship much to the disappointment of Screwtape.
Adam hides from God because of his nakedness and the shame that goes with it. Before the fall into sin, nakedness symbolized human innocence. Adam and Eve had nothing to hide, either from God or from one another. Nakedness was not an issue…for anyone because there was no fear, no shame. But after the fall into sin, fear and shame took over and nakedness came to symbolize human rebellion and alienation from God. Would you want to stand naked before God? Allow Him to see all…know all? Talk about guilt and shame!
But before we throw in the towel and try to stay hidden in our own guilt and shame, we remember that in His grace, God seeks Adam. God calls out, “Where are you?” Wait…what? Why would God ask where Adam is? Doesn’t God know? Of course God knows…He’s God. God wants Adam to know that He wants to find Adam; God doesn’t desire that Adam stay lost forever, but that he knows God is seeking for him. Thankfully, God does not abandon us in our sin and guilt any more than he abandoned Adam in the Garden. In our sin we want to hide; He seeks us out in love. Like the Good Shepherd that He is, God came searching for his lost sheep, Adam. What God did for Adam did not depend on Adam’s worth, merit, works, accomplishments, or conduct, but solely by grace.
Remember how I said at the start of the sermon that the most basic of games is hide-and-seek? If you’re it, you’re not hiding. You’re seeking. The opposite is true as well. If you’re not seeking, then you’re hiding. It is as simple as that, but it does take both. In the same way, God’s grace is hidden under its opposite and it takes both. Divine grace is hidden under our sinful sorrow. Divine compassion is hidden under our sinful grief. Divine goodness is hidden under our sinful misfortune. Divine, holy, steadfast love is hidden under our earthly fears. Divine mercy is hidden under our daily troubles. Divine peace is hidden under our sin-laden anxiety. It’s no wonder that Martin Luther once said, “God is known in suffering.”
Today’s First Lesson from Genesis 3 has its own first – the first Gospel proclamation. The first Gospel promise is hidden in the veiled promise of verse 15: “I will put enmity (hostility/animosity) between you (serpent/Satan) and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall (crush) your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The battle lines are drawn between the offspring of the woman – Jesus – and the offspring of the serpent – the devil. The devil will strike the heel of Jesus when Jesus dies on the cross – a painful but temporary wound. In the April 2018 edition of the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, researchers found a 2,000 year old skeleton in northern Italy who had lesions that passed through the ‘entire width’ of the heel bone, suggesting death by crucifixion – a process that literally “bruised the heel.” By His crucifixion, Christ crushes the devil’s head, symbolizing his power. As a result, there is no reason to hide in our naked shame any longer. The cross is the symbol of Christ’s victory over sin and death, which is OUR victory. Our clothing before God is no longer a flimsy fig leaf, it’s the blood-soaked wood of the cross and unoccupied grave clothes. What a glorious garment!
And so the game of hide-and-seek with God continues. God wants us to come seeking him in his Word. What is more, God wants to be found where He promises to be…in His Word and the Sacraments!
I can remember playing hide-and-seek with both my young daughters and now my granddaughters who, when I took too long to find them, would make little squeaking noises to give themselves away. If you were playing hide-and-seek competitively (which IS a thing), you might wonder “what’s wrong with these kids? Don’t they know that the idea of the game is to remain hidden?”
But…is it really? The joy in hide-and-seek is not in staying endlessly hidden, but instead comes in being found! A hiding child wants to be found! And so does God! God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding making it so obvious that He is found in His Word and in, with, and under the bread and wine – and so gives Himself away. God simply can’t resist clearing His throat to bring us more quickly unto Himself! And oh my friends, what joy there is to be had being found by and with God!
And so, ready or not…here we come!