Simple Gifts, Amazing Possibilities: Giving “Passing the Buck” A New Definition

“For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted them his property; to one he gave five talents [“equaling a hundred years wages’], to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more.  So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more.  But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. … Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. … He who had received the one talent cane forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so, I was  afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.’  But his master  answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant. … you ought to [at least] have invested my money with the bankers [with a modest interest].  So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has made ten talents. …
And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness …” – 
Matthew 25:14f; RSV

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 Indeed. This is a troubling parable.  It’s one of four concluding “parables of judgment” in Matthew’s gospel, which Jesus teaches his disciples – just a few days before he suffers death on the cross [for our sake]. It doesn’t deliver what we expect. But while it alarms us (and it should!), it also brings us into serious reflection on what it means to be a true disciple. One who lives between Christ’s first advent and his second advent/coming.  Matthew’s gospel makes it repeatedly clear that the life of discipleship is costly, it means taking serious risks (cf. II Samuel 24:24).  Moreover, this “Parable of the Talents” [see Arland Hulgren’s excellent commentary, The Parables of Jesus, p.271-281] is not about what must be done in order to be saved or on repaying a debt, but on responsible ministry and mission in light of the Master’s/Jesus’ return.  As St. Paul would also remind us: “We have this treasure [i.e. the gospel of Jesus Christ] in earthen vessels [i.e. us!] (II Corithians 4:7). The grace in this parable – as it always is – comes up-front, in the form of the gifting of talents to ALL of the servants. The question remains … “Are we, especially in modern mainline Protestantism – that is waning in the winds of increasing religious pluralism, moral relativism, secular humanism – say nothing of personal complacency and messed-up priorities … “O, I’m just so busy” BUNK! – also like the servant sitting over the talent buried in the ground, not risking and not gaining or sharing, cuz we’re ‘afraid’?” (Which if you think deeper into this parable, the servant sounds a lot like another man who had all kinds of excuses and “passes the buck” … or should we say, “buries it.”  Cf. Genesis 3:9-12, 23.)

Let me leave you with this thought … in this season of Thanksgiving … and for you, among the family of First Lutheran Church, a time for tithing and pledging for ministry and mission’s sake … consecrating anew the many, many amazing talents (in all kinds of forms) that God has given us -  yes, the One from who ALL blessings flow.  We who are in Christ have an enormous, uncountable, unimaginable treasure – in Jesus and his saving love for us, and all people! The only “catch” with this treasure is that the only way to keep it is to give it away.  (Remember the song “The Magic Penny” we sang in Sunday School or Grade School?)  Then it comes back – doubled, tripled, and quadrupled in the form of others who will love Jesus with us.  So give.  Invest in the kingdom of God.  Not because you have to, but because you get toGive like you give to your children, because you love to see them healthy and happy. Tell others, like you tell stories of your favorite novel or vacation or your grandkids – without reserve or shame, like you can’t help yourself.  Give like you’ve been given to: when God sent his son to die on a cross for us.  Who can imagine such a gift? The litmus test of truth is with those who give abundantly in return – “whatever the gift may be.” Yes, to those of us … all of us, to whom much no, EVERYTHING has been given.  Thanks be to God!  From whom all blessing/talents flow … See you this weekend in praise and thanksgiving to God …

John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Are You Prepared?

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“Be Prepared” is the way the Boy Scouts remind themselves to be ready, on the lookout, set to do their duty at any moment. Do you have the right skills? What equipment will you need? Better get prepared! Bring matches, but learn to start a fire without them. Carry a sleeping bag, but know how to build a shelter if needed. Be prepared for anything.

But can you prepare for anything and everything? Goodness knows we try. When all our plans fail and our fears overtake us, we are left wondering where to turn.

This week in worship, we hear from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. This is the earliest Christian letter in the Bible, where we get to hear the early challenges to faith in Christ. It seems that even those who believe in Jesus are dying, suffering and experiencing the troubles of the world. Jesus doesn’t seem to be very good protection from the struggles of life. There is no Jesus shield around churches that keeps the problems of the world away from us.

God’s encouraging word, however, is that we are not saved by our preparedness. For even those who have died are safe in Christ. The trials of the world may overtake us, but the good news of Jesus Christ gives us hope – a great hope that even death itself cannot take from us.

See you this weekend,
Pr. Lars Olson

The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Upside Down

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When you were young, did you like to stand on your head? I know I did. There was something about it that made life a bit more lively. Grass hung in front of my eyes like Tarzan’s jungle. Trees grew “down” not “up.” The house seemed in danger of falling-off our corner lot. And the sky was a blue lawn that went on forever. For as long as I kept my balance I could dance on the clouds with my high-top Converse tennis shoes – while birds and planes flew under my feet. So, looking back on it now, some 50 years later, I’d sum-it-up this way: I liked standing on my head cuz it made me see old things in a new way. A world where trees grew-down and houses might fall-up. Where anything seemed possible. Blessed are the upside-down in life.

As I studied and listened to the gospel text for us this weekend (Matthew 5:1-12), it came to me that Jesus might have said to all those folk, sitting there on the northwestern shore of Lake Galilee. “OK, everyone. Before I share a beatitude/blessing, I’d like for you all to roll forward and stand on your heads.” Why?

The reason for Jesus saying this is because that’s exactly what he was about to do for them. Jesus was turning the known world upside-down … with what is basically a “transvaluation of values” (cf. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Beyond Tragedy, p.197-213). He was turning the world and all of its “ertly” values (Martin Marty) upside-down – including power, strength, wealth, or even health – in order that those who’d been buried at the bottom-of-the-heap suddenly found themselves closest to heaven; while those who thought they were king-of-the-hill found themselves flat on their backs, looking-up … now, perhaps for the first time, wondering. Hmm?

Jesus’ beatitudes turn us upside down so that we can begin to see that those who’ve been bruised for their faith (might this be you?) are not the “sad ones” but the “glad ones” because they’ve found something worth being bruised for – “for righteousness sake,” for Jesus’ sake (Matthew 5:10). That those who are merciful are simply handing out what they’ve already received in abundance (John 10:10) … You know, the world looks rather funny upside down; but maybe that's just how it looks when Jesus begins to plant our feet in heaven (sub specie aeternitas).  Turned upside down by the only One who really knows which way is UP!

I hope to see you “turning-up” and maybe even “upside-down” (!) at worship this weekend.

In Christ’s enfolding love, always …

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Forgiven… 

“One little word will fell him….” from A Mighty Fortress is Our God ELW #503

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All of humankind seeks relief from the burden of sin. Whether you experience this as sickness, stress and worry, or even death; we go through life often trying to placate ourselves in other things to find just a moment of relief.

Five hundred years ago, the Roman Catholic Church had used these feelings of oppression to profit from. Johann Tetzel, a charismatic Dominican friar, was sent throughout Germany to utilize the fear of God’s wrath in order that the church may raise money. Tetzel sold indulgences, a certificate stating the remission and forgiveness of sin. One might even purchase this great gift for someone else. In essence, the indulgence stated that God’s grace and mercy could be bought, nullifying the cross of Jesus Christ. It is in response to the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, on the castle church door, effectively starting the Reformation.

The message of the Reformation is that Christ has claimed you as His own, died for the remission and forgiveness of your sins, and raises you to new life. Sin, death and the devil do not have a final word over you, Christ does… and it is just one little word, for you… FORGIVEN!

Come, gather in worship and celebration this weekend as a family of faith. We welcome guest preacher Dr. Steve Paulson, professor at Luther Seminary and world-renowned Lutheran theologian as he will proclaim God’s Word for us that it may come through your ears and take residence in your heart in faith. 

Jeff Backer, Intern Pastor

“First Things, First: In Jesus’ Name”

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One of the classic films of our time (right up there with Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman) that really nails our human condition – in all of its angst and superficities of self-centeredness – is Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). A subplot in the story surrounds a stressed-out, Rolaids-popping, high-powered TV producer, who lives in Manhattan. His name is “Mickey.” As a big-time hypochondriac, Mickey has convinced himself that: “I’ve got this brain tumor the size of a basketball!” When his bluff is called by his doctors in ordering a brain CAT scan, Mickey tries to calm himself by saying: “Hey, everything’s going to be OK. I mean, you’re in the middle of New York City for heaven’s sake. This is your town. You’re surrounded by people and traffic and restaurants.” But the dark humor here is that these things are not all that reassuring. Mickey then embarks on a crazed quest to find true and lasting meaning in life. His job and the big bucks and all kinds of stuff just aren’t cutting it.

For the person watching the film, there’s the realization that the need for meaning is not a biological need. Neither is it a psychological need. It’s a religious need; a matter of ultimate concern in our lives; of what finally and truly matters most; where our first priorities ought to be. It’s a thirsting of the soul. The poignancy and dark humor (much like something out of a Flannery O’Connor novel) reach their climax in Mickey’s New York apartment – where he’s just returned from shopping …

The camera lens closes-in … on a darkened kitchen area … where Mickey slowly begins to unpack a brown paper bag – setting each item gently on a small table. The first thing he unpacks is a crucifix, looks at it and then sets it down. Next, he reaches in the brown grocery bag and pulls out a Bible. But before one can even ask the question: “Maybe Mickey has found the answer to his search for lasting and true meaning …” He pulls out a huge jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise from the bag, and then quickly tops-off-the-pile with a loaf of Wonder Bread (cf. John 6:35). As you can well imagine, at this point in the film, the audience is rolling in the aisles with laughter. However, in spite of all the humor, this is a very serious and telling commentary about us modern folk. Right?

Now … the voices that challenge Jesus in our Gospel text for this coming weekend, from Matthew 22:15-22, are the same kind of angsty, nervous voices that seek to entrap and entangle us; voices of 21st century Pharisees and Sadducees. Voices of legalism and authoritarianism recouched in terms of conditions and success. “You must do this, first. No! You must do that, first!” Jesus silences such voices by pointing-out all the Wonder Bread and Mayonnaise of worldly things that we’ve piled on top of what is most important – that which is most needful (cf. Luke 10:42), namely, God’s Word for us. Come and hear this Word anew, for you, this coming weekend at worship.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Read Matthew 21:33-46

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In the Gospel text for this week, Jesus continues to address the question asked by the chief priests and the elders of the Temple, “By what authority…..” He offers yet another lesson based on the allegorical vision of God and his kingdom as a vineyard, but now shifting the focus away from inspecting the fruit of the vineyard, but focusing on the tension that arises between the owner of the vineyard and the tenants/workers that tend to the vineyard. It is very easy to understand whom the characters represent in this parable, even so much that the text ends by saying, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”  However, this parable reaches right into our lives and our relationship with God, and it names us as well.

When we read that after the owner has sent multiple servants to deal with the tenants, only to have them beaten and killed, he sends his own son, “because they will respect him.” We find that absurd! Why would the owner do that? It does not make sense. It is completely unexpected. They reject the son, take him, and kill him, expecting to receive the son’s inheritance.

This is exactly what God did in sending His only Son into the world. Jesus Christ brought the fruits of the kingdom with him, which is God’s amazing grace and mercy, so that God’s people would know his goodness, and what do we do? We kill him, we push Christ out of our own lives, rejecting him again and again, rather than repenting and turning to him.

Is Jesus Christ the cornerstone of your faith? Without Christ, the wall of faith tumbles. Though we reject him time and time again, God gives us the Son’s and His inheritance just the same. Though it is absurd, we get more than we expect or can even imagine.

Come to worship this Sunday and receive the fruits of the kingdom which Christ gives of himself.

Jeff Backer, Intern Pastor

Jesus' Parable of the Wedding Banquet

Read Matthew 22:1-14

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Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a wedding banquet that a king throws for his son. Think of the food! Imaging how lavish and wonderful the celebration will be. Dancing, music, dessert will flow like water in a flood. It will likely be the party of the decade, perhaps the century. Who wouldn’t want to be there?

Well, according to Jesus’ parable many have been invited but they refuse to come. Maybe they are too busy with other things. Maybe they just don’t like the king. Perhaps they have nothing to wear to such and event and keep their distance because they feel inadequate. Whatever the reason, those invited reject the king’s invitation. Jesus concludes the parable with this haunting phrase, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” What could he mean? What is the difference between being invited and being chosen?

In the midst of these questions, along with the anger and irritation they cause, it is easy to forget that Jesus sees the kingdom as a grand party and a place of rejoicing with the Son who has finally chosen a bride to give his life to. Come and hear more this weekend in worship and Bible classes!

Pastor Lars Olson

By what authority …?

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“And when [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” [It’s important to note the context for this question which is prompted in the previous verses, 12-17 – when Jesus had, the day prior, overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple and healed the blind and lame.] (Matthew 21:23) 

To a large degree, deep inside, the question of the chief priests and elders is ours as well … is it not? It’s the question of all humanity at bottom – especially in our age marked by increasing ambiguity and plurality, with its seeming cultural answer of relativism (You know, “Whatever!”) or even disingenuous indifference (You’ve heard it: “It is what it is.”) There is a longing in the human spirit for ultimate authority. To be in touch with, or know that which we can finally trust.

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Now hang-in there with me on some brief but key historical highlights of this quest, for understanding the matter of authority. … The ancient Greeks sought for it in eudaimonia (e.g. Aristotle’s “happiness” or “well-being”). The Medievalists’ thought of auctoritas or “authority” in terms of power (e.g. Duns Scotus’ potestas absoluta). Or later, philosophers like Immanuel Kant, during the Enlightenment (1685-1815), thought of authority in terms of reason – with their battle cry: “Dare to think [for yourself]” (sapere aude). And in our own time, authority has become invested in Science and Technology (where techne or Scientia, in terms of “technique,” has replaced sapientia or “wisdom.”)

From infancy we’re raised on various authorities. Authority permeates our lives. We accept it. We reformulate it. We reject it. And still, even in our rejection, we presuppose it. It’s vital for our lives, because authority marks where we place our trust. But where, in whom or what do we place this trust of ultimate authority? We ask the question of authority because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re so unsure of our own – or our constant disappointment by the authorities around us. Just consider the political authorities in America in 2017.

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Between now and this weekend, I’d like for you to read the Gospel text from Matthew 21:23-32, and ponder these two questions: (1) “What is the meaning of Jesus’ distinction between an authority “from heaven or from men” (see v.25a)? Is this reference to “heaven” just some easy cop-out to some pie-in-the-sky? … And (2) “Is either brother in the parable that Jesus tells, in vv. 28-31 our Gospel text, really obedient to the father’s request? Is there another son, somewhere in this Gospel text who is, and how so?” Perhaps the matter of authority, real and lasting authority, comes down to a matter of obedience. What thinkest thou?

In the meantime, God’s grace and peace …

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

A Funny Thing Happened in Bible Study…

I write this blog post on Wednesday afternoon. Today in Bible Study*, sixteen participants and I had a great discussion of the Gospel text appointed for this Sunday, Jesus’ “Parable of the Generous Landowner.” In this story, a landowner goes out early in the morning to hire day-laborers to work in his vineyard. After agreeing with them on the usual daily wage, he puts them to work. Then the landowner goes out again at 9:00 and hires on another group, agreeing to pay them “whatever is right.” Again at noon and 3:00, he goes out and does the same. Finally, at 5:00, he goes out and tells those who have not yet been hired to also go into the vineyard. At the end of the day, in a surprising turn of events, all of these laborers are paid the same wage. Of course those who were chosen the earliest and worked the longest have a complaint against the landowner, to which he responds: “Are you envious because I am generous?” So it is with the kingdom of heaven, Jesus teaches us. “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In Bible study, the participants and I began envisioning that scene of day laborers, gathered together in one spot early in the morning, each hoping to engage in a day’s work for a day’s wage.  It’s a scene that plays out all over the world, of course, including Sioux Falls. We imagined the relief and satisfaction that the early hires must have felt – knowing so early in the day that they would get the very thing they had hoped for – a day’s work, and a day’s wage.  In this moment, the work that awaited them was received as a blessing! We imagined the tension building for the others who were idle as the day wore on. “This is not a fun kind of idle,” we realized, as the feeling of hopelessness and desperation would certainly set in for those who weren’t hired. They were preparing to go back to their homes, to their families, with…nothing. How very sad! What a tough day it must have been for those fellows, only to have it turned around by the surprising invitation and astonishing generosity of the landowner. Of course, those who found their joy early in the day realized that the others had received equal pay, and that’s when their work (which had once been a privilege) quickly turned into a burden. Has that ever happened to us in daily life, not to mention Christian life?  You bet… and that’s what the sermon will be focusing on this Sunday as we hear once again of a God who is generous, and always gives us more than we deserve.

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But I have to tell you, a funny thing happened today in Bible Study. One of the participants, Gene, couldn’t stop thinking about those day laborers. He wondered if day laborers in Sioux Falls began each day with enough to eat, to keep them going through a big day of work. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” he said, “if the church could show up with doughnuts for these workers?” “Well, yes,” I replied to Gene. “That is a very fine idea!” Heads around the room nodded in agreement. At the end of the study, Gene and four others – Betty, Doris, Barney, and Gloria – began making phone calls and plans, and as I write this, three cases of “First Lutheran water” (supplied by our Intern Pastor Jeff Backer) and dozens of doughnuts (funded by the pockets of these enthusiastic Bible study participants) are being delivered to People Ready on 37th and Main, where workers on Thursday and Friday morning will be treated to a surprise breakfast hosted by these friends of First Lutheran Church.

Will this become “a thing” in weeks to come? Who knows! Maybe it will become “a ministry,” or maybe it’s just a beautiful act of love and generosity that emerged from a really great Bible study.  Either way, witnessing a group of Christians make surprising, unusual plans to bless others in the name of Jesus fills me with hope and joy – and reminds me of the surprising, amazing, generous God we serve.

And, if this idea sparks something generous in you, send me an email, and I’ll put you in touch with someone named Gene, Betty, Doris, Barney or Gloria. 

Blessings,
Pastor Katherine

*Did you know that we have an open Bible study that meets every Wednesday at 10 am? It’s held in the Gathering Room of our church, and the pastor who’s preaching on Sunday leads a discussion among a lively, diverse group of participants on the coming weekend’s assigned text. It’s a really great opportunity that some call our congregation’s “best kept secret.” Since no Bible study should be a SECRET, I thought I’d take this opportunity to promote it now.  Anyone is welcome to attend anytime.

The Cost of Forgiveness

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There’s probably no greater blessing, but also burden in life, than forgiveness. By its amazing healing power, forgiveness can bring wholeness back to hearts that are brittle, and … broken. Forgiveness brings healing because it has a divine quality to it.  “To err is human; to forgive is divine” (Alexander Pope; An Essay on Criticism).  Trouble is // news-flash! // we ain’t divine. At times, to be honest, it’s near impossible to forgive, no matter how much the anger might be killing us, eating-us-up from the inside. As American author, Anne Lamott sardonically zings us with her typical dark humor: “Not to forgive is like your drinking rat poison, and then waiting for the rat to die” (Traveling Mercies, p.134). And so it is, that St. Paul’s and Jesus’ cruciform Word (cf. Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-33) breaks in upon our stubborn-breaking hearts in our Scripture lessons for this weekend. “Therefore,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to …”

Peter’s suggestion of forgiving one’s neighbor 7x (see Matthew 18:21) is not as gracious as it might first sound. Deep down it reveals the natural proclivity in each of us to cut-off the flow of forgiveness after a designated time. Think for example of such expressions: “If you do that just one more time…” Or, “After what he did?! Let him go to …[Omaha]?” Or, “Buster, that was your last chance!” You see, Jesus’ answer, “Not seven but seventy times seven” – does not simply lengthen the times of having to forgive, as if 490 is the cutoff point. Rather, Jesus stands Peter’s question on its head. He answers Peter and us in such a way that the premise on which the question is asked is wrong. Forgiveness isn’t a mathematical formula.  Forgiveness doesn’t end. 

Why? Because forgiveness has its source in God. It doesn’t end because we’re never without debt to God for the grace he gives us – day by day. This is why we begin each Saturday Vespers or Sunday morning worship with the “Order for Confession and Forgiveness.” (It’s not optional.) As Martin Luther explains: “Each day we are in need of being reborn, of experiencing God’s healing touch of forgiveness – [that healing touch which comes to us] in the sacraments, in worship, in prayer, as we gather round God’s Holy Word for us. It’s the greatest treasure we have to share with one another as a Christian community” (LW 35:12, 21; cf. LW 40:26f). Forgiveness received is forgiveness given – without ceasing … 

O yea, and what’s the picture of the Schwinn Spider bike about? “Come and hear” (John 1:39a, 46b)… this weekend, in worship. In the meantime, God’s grace and peace to you.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Love Does No Wrong

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Jesus' great commandment comes to us this weekend from Romans 13. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is one of the most well worn verses of all scripture. It is used as a guide by Christians to remind us of our duty to our neighbors, and it is used by non-Christians to remind us of our hypocrisy. The simple truth of the matter is that love of neighbor is commanded, but it is never complete. There is always another neighbor to love. There is always another action so that "love never ends" (1 Corinthians 13:8) until one has given away everything for another.

Given everything? Every single thing? Your time, energy, interests, reputation? All the things that make you you? Yes, all of it. This is what fulfilling the law looks like. Forgetting all about you and thinking only of the needs of others. It shouldn't take us too long to realize that love means our death, and then to realize exactly what Jesus does in loving us. He gives his whole, entire life to us; his kingdom, his righteousness, his goodness, his perfection. 

The gospel, therefore, is not a demand for you to love better. It is the simple, unbelievable message, that in Jesus Christ, God has loved the world - not to be your example, but to be your new life. Love one other, not because it is owed, but because in Christ you no longer need any of the things that make you you. 

Pastor Lars

What Is Good

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“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” (Romans 12:9)

“What’s good?” is one of my favorite greetings, even if it is a bit too casual for someone of my age to pull of on a daily basis.  It’s a nice alternative to the somewhat tired, “How are you?” 

There are many things in our community and world right now that are not so good.  Even and especially in the midst of such realities, we should regularly ask ourselves, “What’s good?” So now, friends of First Lutheran, I turn that question on you.  If you were to make a list of things in your life that are good right now, what would make the list?  Maybe your list of “what’s good” includes a well-producing garden, a rewarding volunteer role, a peaceful living situation, a beloved animal companion, or cherished relationship. 

In this weekend’s reading from Romans, St. Paul urges us to “hold fast to what is good.”  “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” describes a Christian’s orientation to the whole of life, even in the face of suffering, evil, illness, and disaster. 

Regularly reflecting on (and giving thanks for) the good in our lives and world is a rewarding spiritual discipline.  However, many things in life that we experience as good can appear on – and disappear from - that list at any moment.   One good gift always remains – God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.  No matter what we gain or lose, suffer or experience, achieve or destroy, God’s love and grace has been given to us as a free and everlasting gift.  And that is what is always good.

Please join me in this simple prayer:
Good and gracious God, fill me with gratitude for your love in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

God’s peace,
Pastor Katherine

p.s. Those affected by Hurricane Harvey stand in need of your prayers and help. Learn about what Lutheran Disaster Response is doing on the ground using this link. Give, pray, and be part of the efforts to "contribute to the needs of the saints (and) extend hospitality to strangers." (Romans 12:13)

A Cross Before A Crown

Having a Mind of Christ 

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers [and sisters], by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice. … Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God …” (Romans 12:1, 2; RSV)

“[As Jesus and his disciples entered the district of Caesarea Philippi, with all of its natural splendor and economic wealth] … Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes,  and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you [with all of your popularity and power]. … [But after correcting Peter,] Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:21-22, 24; RSV

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These two texts for this coming weekend, as we continue our study of St. Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome … joined together with this passage from the “hinge chapter” (Jack Kingsbury) of St. Matthew’s gospel … beg the following kinds of questions: “What is this matter of ‘a living sacrifice’ of ‘non-conformity’ and having a ‘renewal of your mind’ – not only in the time of the early church but in ours as well – that St. Paul is referring to? And why is it that Peter and Jesus get into such a heated exchange?  What’s at stake here? What does it mean for us today, to ‘deny ourselves and take up Christ’s cross and follow him’?”

To begin with … Is it not that our role as Christians, as the people of the Cross within this world with all of its pressure to conform, precisely what Jesus said it was: to be salt, yeast and light (Matthew 13; cf. St. Paul’s echoing voice in Philippians 2:5-11). Our Lord’s metaphors for his community of witness were all of them modest ones: a little salt, a little yeast, a little light.  Hmm? And yet Christendom has tried to be great, large, magnificent: from Cathedrals to mega-churches, from powerful Curias to TV evangelists, from gunboats to China to opportunistic political lobbying. Christendom tried and thought (note the past tense) itself the object of God’s expansive grace; it forgot the meaning of its election to sacrificial and transformational responsibility.

Today, we are constrained by the divine Spirit of God made manifest in Christ, to rediscover the possibilities of … hmm … littleness (‘oft expressed in a spirit of humility).  We are to decrease in order that the saving Gospel “good news” news of Jesus Christ may increase. But we cannot enter this new phase without pain (“God forbid, Lord!” Matthew 16:22). For truly we have been glorious in this world’s own eyes and terms. It seems to many of us a humiliation that we are made to reconsider our destiny as “little flocks.” I mean, how in-the-world can St. Paul confess: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10)?!  Is he out of his “mind”?! And can such a calling of Jesus be worthy of the servants of him who is the Sovereign of the Universe?! Yet, if that Sovereign be the One who reigns from the cross, could any other calling be thought legitimate? 

See you at Saturday Vespers or Sunday morning …
In Christ

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor 

Disobedient Mercy

"The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). That is St. Paul's emphatic conclusion to any questions that may arise about backsliding, rejecting God's will, or even feeling sin hanging around you. Whatever trials, accusations or guilt you are experiencing, trust that when God gives a gift and when God calls you through the gospel, God did not make a mistake and is not looking for a reason to drop you out of his kingdom. God gave you, sinner that you are, a gift and calling without any chance of taking it back. That's what irrevocable means.

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But why then do we continue to experience these troubles? In the strangest turn of events in the entire Bible, we hear what nobody could have expected. God imprisoned, bound, and held us in disobedience in order to show his mercy toward us (Romans 11:31-32!). This means that it is not God's will that we all be perfectly obedient, good little girls and boys. But rather, knowing our disobedient hearts, God's will is done when he has been merciful to us. That is nothing short of amazing.

And what is more, is that God will show mercy to sinners no matter what. So he is always showing mercy to the wrong sort of people. How else could it truly be mercy?

See you in worship,
Pastor Lars

Control

Control.

This little word embodies our struggle to find our way in the world. The more we try to maintain control, the more we struggle when we lose it. Narcissism runs rampant in our culture; trying to control every outcome.  But what happens when we lose control? Where do we turn? We also want to try to control who is in, and who is out.

The apostle Paul writes in Romans 10 that those who try to maintain control of their own faith, and especially of their own righteousness, will struggle to do it. When we believe that we can live up to the demands of perfection as laid out by the law, and expected from those around us, we are dependent on maintaining control; and because it is demanded since birth, who of us has really done this?

Paul says that it is impossible, nor necessary for those in Christ. And how do we hear of this great relief? By someone telling us His word of promise, and claim us in Christ’s name. What Paul is demanding is for each of us to tell those around us of the good news of Jesus Christ. That Jesus is in control and the he has the final word over you and your life.

Come to worship this weekend to hear Jesus’ claiming word for you, a word so near to you that it is on your lips, and in your heart!

Jeff Backer, Intern Pastor

The Choosy God

Being chosen is a distant second to being the chooser, but it is still better than being completely ignored. The only thing worse is to be chosen and then un-chosen. Any kid on the playground can attest to it, and big kids being drafted to professional sports can too. You want to be selected first, but if that doesn't happen you just want your name to be called. But what happens if the chooser chooses you, but then suddenly says, "I meant the one next to you." That's devastating.

St. Paul has been arguing that God is the chooser, and that he has chosen you in baptism. He chose the unrighteous (the old you) in order to make you righteous (the new you) simply because he chose you. He sent a preacher to choose you in baptism, to take you away from sin and death and give you forgiveness and life. That's his choice for you. But now comes Romans 9 along with the questions: "Didn't he choose others first? What about the Israelites?" 

Just how choosy is God? Has he turned his back on his "chosen people" because they rejected Jesus? If so, will he not just choose the best Christians and un-choose the rest? Can God just choose to ignore his previous choosing? No. God is faithful to his promise. Each one. Every choice. Always keeping his promise.

More Certain Than the Sun

Ben Franklin once said that, “the only certainties in life are death and taxes!” If we really think about it, there are very few certainties that we can count on. It is pretty much assumed that the sun will rise and the sun will set. This does not mean you can actually see the sun every day, because it could be covered by clouds, or obstructed from view, like in a forest. But we still see its light, and most days, feel its warmth. The sun is there; we can count on it.

The apostle Paul wrote his letter to the people in Rome who had come to believe in Jesus Christ. Though Paul himself had not yet traveled to Rome to establish a church there, he writes to them in what Luther calls “the purest gospel proclamation in all of the New Testament.” Chapter 8 from Romans is where we can hear the promise from God that is more certain than the sun rising, and because he gave His Son to claim those whom he has called through the gospel, it is even more certain than death, because Jesus has even overcome that “certainty.”

We are called and claimed through the gospel as God’s children, adopted … chosen to be a part of the royal family along with Jesus as the firstborn. Join us for worship this weekend as through the witness of St. Paul, we proclaim the certainty that nothing … absolutely nothing in all of creation (because God created ALL!) can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus! Amen.

Inarticulate Prayer

Romans 8:12-27
“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but [the] Spirit [of God] intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words”  (Romans 8:26; RSV)  

Have you at times in your life, known this witness of St. Paul of “sighs too deep for words”? Times when you just flat-out collapse, failing to find words to bear the heavy freight of life’s struggles … Times when you just come to the end of yourself? … A time when someone asks you to pray, but you don’t even know where to begin? … And so, what strange comfort it is to hear that even the esteemed Apostle Paul confesses such times when he himself – like us – doesn’t know how to pray. We think that ease and fluency at prayer comes with great spiritual achievement and intense faith. But here, one of Christendom’s greatest representatives witnesses how he finds it impossible at times to pray as he ought. (In this our summer series on the book of Roman, think back a couple of weeks, where St. Paul also creates “solidarity of faith” with us – confessing the civil war of failed will-power that goes on within us every day. Cf. Rom. 7:15f.)

“With sighs too deep for words …”  Inarticulate prayer. 

So, what is the Bible teaching us here? What is St. Paul “unloading”? … Could it be that the truest prayers do not easily find words? Could it be that prayer that bubbles-up to fall “trippingly from the tongue” is neither rooted very deep nor ascends to much effect? The truth is this: the more real the need to pray, the harder it is to express that need. Jacques Ellul, the 20th century French theologian has perhaps the best one-word-definition for prayer: “Help!”“With sighs too deep for words …” 

My friends, if there is any one theme that binds all of Holy Scripture together, from Israel’s family tree in Genesis to St. John the Seer’s vision of the future in the apocalypse of Revelation, it is this: that bios (“life”) can only be understood fully in relation to Theos (“God”). In this relationship, there’s often little language but a sigh or a cry. As a mother interprets by some secret wisdom of her own the meaning of her child’s feeble cry, and hears that cry before anyone else … so God looks into our hearts and understands the need for which we can find no words. As St. Paul counsels us: “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:15b-16). 

And as children of God, come join us for worship this weekend, as we hear again God’s Spirit speaking to us through St. Paul witness as well as in the well-beloved assurance of the Psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

The Spirit is Life

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Romans 8:6 (NRSV)

I want more life and peace – so why can’t I just set my mind on the Spirit? Daily I am pulled between “the things of the flesh” and “the things of the Spirit.” Or as St. Paul said in our reading from Romans 7 last week, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (v. 15, 19)

If St. Paul struggled mightily, in his call to follow Jesus, what chance do I have? O Lord, what will end this struggle within me?

Would more maturity allow me to follow Christ more devotedly? That is, wait a few years and the struggle will be nonexistent? I don’t think so. I’m turning forty this year, so there’s no denying anymore that I am an actual adult. Although I have a little more self-control than the days of my youth, the struggle between the flesh and the mind is as real as it ever was.

Would more money free me from earthly cares and desires and help me follow him more single-mindedly? Pretty sure that would just cause me to struggle more between the spirit and flesh, so that’s a no. Would more free time allow me to achieve a Spirit-based mindset? Well, if how I use my free time now is any indicator, I’d probably find a way to squander that too. What about more sleep? Would that help me in this struggle? Real talk: as someone who has only had a handful of uninterrupted nights over the past ten years, I’m going to mark this one as a maybe.

No, the struggle isn’t ever going to end as long as I am in this body. In other words, the struggle will actually kill me. But here’s some amazing news: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)

Christ dwells in me – that’s not something I have achieved, it’s the promise of my baptism. That knowledge leads me on through the struggle. Knowing that I’m surrounded on every side by the support of a Christian community, like the one we’re in together at First Lutheran, encourages me too. And we have the gift of the promised Spirit among us to “help us in our weakness” and daily forgive our sins in the name of Jesus Christ. Yes, the struggle is real, but God is greater!

See you in church,
Pastor Katherine

The [Ongoing] Struggle of Faith

The [Ongoing] Struggle of Faith
Pugnat Fides
(Romans 7:7-25a)

This coming weekend, we will be tackling a classic text in our ongoing summer series on Romans, where St. Paul the diagnostician absolutely nails what we so often experience: “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  And this experience is especially exacerbated for the Christian, because we think, “Hey, if I’m baptized … I’m free from sin … and I’ll be like this amazingly wonderful and perfect person.” Not! But why not? What’s going on here?!

In his recent work entitled, Lutheran Theology (which is basically a biblical-theological analysis of the book of Romans) … my cherished friend and theologian extraordinaire of now some four-score-and-more-years … Dr. Steve Paulson leads us into this discussion of: “What’s going on here?" with the following observation:

"Fresh up from the water and preached word of baptism, united with Christ in his death and by faith in his resurrection, one expects the full glory of God (the Hebrew tikkun when all creation is mended and Israel is rectified). But instead of glory, the baptized immediately endure a spiritual attack fiercer than before! Who could have anticipated the justification of sinners did not end life’s struggles, but started it? What other struggle is left in life once sin is over? The legal [self-help] schemes’ struggle is conceived as a ladder of perfection that sinners seek to climb, but faith’s struggle (pugnat fides) is to listen only to Christ’s promise against all contrary experience – and [as we all experience] nothing is more contrary than death. … If baptism worked, shouldn’t the law be silent and ‘I’ be without sin? No. The difficulty is that the law is right; sin remains after baptism – and we feel it. Does this not put the lie to Christ, or at least to church teaching on baptism? This is the [heart of the matter] of Chapter 7 [of Romans] (p.170-171, 174)."

 So, what is the concluding response to this our question, placed in the voice of St. Paul at the end of Chapter 7: “Wretched person that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). And … what is this "promise of Christ" – contrary to all experience, even death – that we should constantly be reminding one another, and listening to, as a Christian family? Come and give a listen this weekend at Saturday night Vespers and again come Sunday morning worship. We’ll also be drawing upon the sage, J.R.R. Tolkien and his famous Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring story for some illustrative “fire-power.”

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor