Pastor John

The Heart of the Gospel: Jesus Came to Save the Lost

“The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners [who are lost].” (I Timothy 1:15a; cf. Luke 19:10; Mark 2:17. Emphasis added in brackets. RSV)

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It was a beautiful fall day. And Mother Nature was all-decked-out in her finest fall fashion – with glorious prints of bright gold, purple, and maple reds. It was also to include one of the most tender moments I’d ever experience in my years of parish ministry…

Now, nearly fifteen-plus years ago, I’d gone to visit a member of our family of First Lutheran at Dow Rummel Village (here in Sioux Falls). Ralph was now in his mid-90s. And as a former school principal, he was still known around the Village for sporting a “suit ’n tie” every day. (Sweet!) When I arrived … shortly after the noon hour … the nursing staff said they were surprised they hadn’t seen Ralph at lunch. He never missed. And he always loved to “work the crowd” with his attentive ear and sharing a few Norwegian jokes.

“Pastor John,” they said, “we don’t know where Ralph is. However, his friend, Norm has gone to look for him.” “Where is Norm now?” I asked. (Since I’d known Norm from back in my college days at Augie, when I’d worked at his clothing store. And he was likewise famous for wearing rather loud Hawaiian shirts!) The staff continued … “Well, last we heard, Norm was heading over to Covell Lake – thinking perhaps Ralph had gone over to feed the geese and then became disoriented. (Ralph had early onset dementia.) So, I began to make my way across the campus to Covell Lake, which is only a couple of blocks away.

As I approached the lake, here came Norm and Ralph … walking homeward from the banks of the lake … side-by-side. Ralph of course in his “suit ’n tie” and Norm in a bright and garish Hawaiian, floral print shirt. … Norm, with his gentle spirit, had his arm draped over Ralph’s shoulders for reassurance. And as I met them, I reached out to take Ralph’s free hand that was trembling like a leaf. “Are you OK, Ralph?” He paused, his eyes filling with tears. “I didn’t know how lost I was until Norm found me.”

***

If you know anything about the backstory of St. Paul (please read Acts 9:1-22; 22:1-16; 26:9-18; and Philippians 3:4f), he was anything but someone who considered himself lost: either existentially or theologically. He was so convicted in his own self-righteousness (using his Ph.D. as a Pharisee and knowledge of the Jewish tradition in vain attempts to cover his pride) that Paul even had himself commissioned to schlepp all over the Mediterranean in order to hunt down and persecute those who’d converted to the Christian faith (e.g. Acts 26:12).

***

And so it is, as we commence with our preaching series on the “Pastoral Epistles” of I and II Timothy (this coming weekend’s text is I Timothy 1:12-17) … that we listen in to St. Paul composing his first of two letters to a young protégé in the gospel, Timothy. It is here that Paul is confessing how it was that not until God found him (Paul) – knocking-him-off his “high horse” and eating a few “road apples” (Acts 26:14b) – that only then did Paul fully realize how lost he truly was. “I didn’t know how lost I was until [God, in all of God’s mercy] found me.”

And so, let me leave you with this question in the meantime: “Have you ever experienced a time when it was only in being found that you realized how truly lost you were?” My friends, this is the heart of the gospel that St. Paul is bringing home to us this day, as with Norm and Ralph … “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners [finding us, in all our lostness]” (I Timothy 1:15. Emphasis added in brackets. RSV).

Walking together in Christ’s love,
John Christopherson, Senior Pastor

Fire and Rain

“It is neither Caesar nor sin, it is neither death nor the devil, and it is not even God’s own Law that ultimately rule creation; but it is God who ultimately rules, and the Way in which God rules in the world is Jesus” (L. Snook; The Anonymous Christ, pp. 158-159).

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Please begin today by reading our Gospel text that is assigned for this coming Sunday (Luke 13:10-17) … which is always an excellent way to prepare your heart and mind for “being present” at worship. Now … can you see her, the poor stooped-over woman (somewhat represented by the image on this blog post)? She looks like a walking 90-degree angle. Her back is so badly bent-forward that for eighteen years (half her life) … just try to imagine! … she hasn’t been able to see the beauty of a bird in flight or the stars at night. If anything, she felt like she was “the Big Dipper.” Each step is treacherous, for she has to strain with everything she has to see but a few feet in front of her. Each step is excruciatingly painful: as though fire is literally shooting through her whole body. And so, her vision – as with her hopes – is tied to the ground, “earth bound.”

My friends, how easy it would have been for her to excuse herself from coming to church on Sunday. I mean, this was a time in first-century Palestine before epidurals, muscle relaxant medications, or orthopedic surgery … say nothing of being able to pop even a couple of Aleve tablets. But came she did. “Remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:9-10; Deuteronomy 5:13). She came to pray. To sing psalms of thanksgiving to God in spite of her terrible suffering (I Thessalonians 5:17). She came to nurture her faith by hearing … by hearing (What?) … God’s Word for her. Earth-bound though she be. Until …

Until this particular Sunday (Sabbath) morning … one of yet another torturous, feeling-though-set-on-fire-walk from her little house to the synagogue (Luke 13:10-11). And though unable to see where the Voice was coming from, God’s Word showered the fire of her pain-riddled life like a powerful, healing rain. Recall Dr. Luke’s account:

“And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, ‘Woman, you are freed from Your infirmity.’ And [Jesus] laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, And she praised God.” (Luke 13:12-13; RSV)

Come, join with this woman … and all of us who are bent-over, carrying heavy fiery burdens (you name yours) … as we are thus better “positioned” to hear God’s showering, healing, raining word for us in worship. And again, prepare yourself in heart and mind, by asking: “What does worship mean? Is it strictly about our praise to God? And where have you experienced God’s healing in your life and perhaps still feel crippled/broken? All of this, so that together – as a family of faith, yet seekers still – we can call upon God in ‘prayer, praise, and thanksgiving’ to be at work in, through, and among us for the sake of this world and all people, whom God so dearly loves – that he gave his only Son … bent over on a cross (John 3:16). See you at worship.

Dr. John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Ruth: A Matriarch in the Faith

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This weekend we continue with our second of four reflections – listening in to the oft’ barren but also breathtakingly beautiful story in the Old Testament book of Ruth. Last week we focused on Chapter 1: of identifying ourselves with Ruth’s beloved mother-in-law, Naomi – in all of the barren and empty places of her life. Recall the famine that drove Naomi’s family from their homeland in Israel to the neighboring rough ‘n tumble country of Moab. Recall also the death of Naomi’s husband and her two young sons (including one who had been the husband of Ruth). And so, Naomi was “far from home,” with the constant emptying of her life by death. Ever felt this way? … Empty, lost and alone? Not knowing where to turn …

And yet, in the midst of all this death, Naomi is embraced by life: by the steadfast love of God through one of her two daughters-in-law: Ruth. Now, if there are any verses from this amazing book of the Old Testament that you’ve ever heard before, it was probably at a wedding. And these verses can change your whole perspective of life – as you’re about to set out into the vast unknown of life, at times full of emptiness and certain doubt.

And so, upon learning that the famine has now passed, Naomi then begins her journey back to her hometown of Bethlehem in Judah. But before doing so, she turns to her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, and tells them that it would be best not to continue with her – as an old and empty, embittered woman – but to return to their homes and family in Moab. And then, then these two verses are joined as one by God’s grace, pouring into all the barren and parched places of Naomi’s life as well as ours. And Ruth says to Naomi:

“Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall become my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.”
(Ruth 1:16-17; RSV)

The story of Ruth continues to unfold this weekend, as Ruth meets us while standing out in the fields of barley – outside a “little town of Bethlehem,” at harvest time. Now it is Ruth who finds herself as a widow in a foreign land, struggling to glean some sense of life even in the midst of death. However … it is right there, out in those fields surrounding Bethlehem, that Ruth is “found” by the landowner, a man named Boaz, who now shares God’s word of grace and sacramental signs of grain for Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Come and hear these words that amazingly, gracefully wed human loss together in God’s abounding love this weekend, as we join together at worship.

… “Listen,” Ruth said to Boaz. “Your kinsman’s widow [Naomi], she’s been like a second mother to me. I couldn’t just walk out and leave her.” And he looking at her rich pastures [of faith] said: “Fine, bring the old lady if you want her.” And Ruth said: “I do. I do.”
(Maureen Duffy, from “Mother and the Girl,” Collected Poems 1949-1984)

Pastor John Christopherson

Look at the Stars!

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How long has it been since you’ve gone out under the night’s sky … and just paused … looked up, and pondered the wonder of our (or better yet, God’s) star-spangled universe? How long has it been since you’ve taken your son or daughter, grandchild, or nephew or niece, out into the grassy backyard on a late evening, pointed upwards to an infinite sea of stars, and sighed: “O, can you see how those stars form a handle? And how those other stars form a cup? Together they form a constellation called the Big Dipper? People all over the world, just like you, no matter where they live, can look up and see it. Isn’t that amazing?!” … And so we hear the amazed and praise-filled spirit of the Psalmist who bears witness for our worship services this weekend, pointing us in faith …

“O LORD, our LORD, how majestic is thy name
in all the earth! Thou whose glory above the heavens
is chanted by the mouth of babes and infants …

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which thou hast established;
what is
man that thou art mindful of him
[?] …

“O LORD, our LORD, how majestic is thy name in all
 the earth!”
(Psalm 8:1-2a, 3-4a, 9; RSV. Emphasis added.)

My friends, somehow I think we’ve lost this sense of awe and wonder in our lives – say nothing of a spirit of reverence for the One to whom we often mindlessly confess: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth” (Apostles’ Creed). What has happened to this sense of wonder as witnessed by the Psalmist? Is it gone, or has it simply been redirected or misplaced? Or, have we perhaps simply “outgrown” any need for pondering anything beyond the material of this world? “Cows jumping over the moon are simply for nursery rhymes and children.” Right? Or are we missing something here? Do you feel something missing … Some kind of “dis-connect” … Something in your life that all earthly, material stuff cannot fill … that to which Psalm 8 is trying to direct our vision?

Come and join in worship this weekend, as we together hear God’s Word for us: a Word that has the power to shed light on the various blinders and distractors of our age, in order that we might experience awe and wonder and reverence anew. Listen in to these words of another of God’s psalmists:

“The touch of the eternal reaches into every one of our lives;
and moves through and beyond to thrill the fringes of
the sunsets and its hills.
For the earth is crammed with heaven and every common
bush is aflame with God’s presence.
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes – the rest sit around
and pluck blackberries.”
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning;
Aurora Leigh, Book V, ii)

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

I and the Father are One (John 10:30)

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Child Psychologist, Dr. David Heller, begins his book Talking To Your Child About God (New York: Doubleday, 1987), by quoting a prayer. It’s a very simple yet profound prayer, written by a ten-year-old named Walt. Listen in carefully: “Dear God, I love you more than anybody else that I do not know.” (Please read this little prayer again.) I find the confusion in this prayer to be very telling of the increasing questioning in our time. By this, I mean to say there is an ever-increasing sense of separation that we are experiencing in our lives – not only geographically and physically (as families are more and more scattered to the far-flung corners of the map), but especially emotionally and spiritually (as depression and spiritual apathy are ever on the rise). And so we are searching or questing for wholeness, connectedness, oneness. People are sensing a great need for God but don’t know how to connect, or better yet, be connected.

So how does this relate to the Gospel text for this coming weekend? Listen to Jesus’ Word for you:

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow [are connected] to me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30; RSV. Emphasis added.)

“But how do I know that I’m of this family of God, one of Jesus’ sheep?” You’re hearing it right now! “My sheep hear my voice,” says Jesus. And this fact is all the more reinforced for you when you gather in worship – with God’s Word and Sacrament at the center of it all, addressing you by name – with the whole woolly lot of the other members of Christ’s flock. “And what of the last verse … where Jesus says, ‘I and [God] the Father are one’” (John 10:30)? What does that have to do with me?” you might ask. Everything! ... On this upcoming Mother’s Day Weekend, listen in again to the words of a child, from another of Dr. David Heller’s books. From a little girl named Lori, age 7. “As a little child shall lead us” (Isaiah 11:6).

“Dear God” [writes Lori]: “I know that Jesus is my friend. Since he’s your friend [Son] that makes us friends too. Right? Let’s get together and play this afternoon. You can bring all the toys you have and I’ll bring mine.” (David Heller; Children’s Letters To God, p.22. Emphasis added.)

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is calling you to gather with the rest of the flock this weekend at worship, even if … no especially if … we’re feeling “Baaaaad.”

John Christopherson
Senior Pastor