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Merry Christmas All Year Long

Merry Christmas Everyone! This is Pastor Phil! 

We have 5 rescue dogs at home, from small to big, also from 18 years old all the way to 3 years old. It is quite a furry menagerie! Every year we wrap Christmas presents for them filled with dog treats and chewies and give them their presents before we start opening our presents.

The puppies all get super excited! This year, we kind of extra filled all of the doggie presents with treats and the puppies went to town on them. So much so, that about an hour later they were all passed out all over the living room in a food coma. 

One of our rescue dogs, a 6-year-old Jack Russel that some of you have met, we named Merry Christmas. We have a blast every Christmas saying, “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas!!!” Merry Christmas is also a pretty stubborn pup and wants to wander around the yard staring at the air rather than come inside when we call her. In the middle of the summer, you can often hear us yelling, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” in the backyard more like a cuss word when she won’t get her butt in the house. I’m pretty sure the neighbors think we’ve lost our minds yelling Merry Christmas in August! 

But what if we did that, for real? What if we shared (not yelled) Merry Christmas, every month and every day of the year? Not only during those last few weeks of December but we felt free to share a very Merry Christmas to the nice lady in the check-out lane on May 15th or even October 31st? Yes, people would look at us like we’re a few stripes short of a candy cane, but why not? 

I think a lot of it would have to do with what we mean by, “Merry Christmas!” 

Like, when I’m in my backyard in July, yelling Merry Christmas, I’m not talking about that holiday we celebrate on the 25th of December every year. When we say Merry Christmas as Christians, even in December, we’re not completely talking about the winter event that is only about presents, eggnog, and little guys with green hats and pointy ears that only happens in December. Those things might be part of what we mean, but what we are really saying, and celebrating is what the word itself actually means- Christmas, the Christ’s Mass, or the Cristes Maesse.

The word Mass is used often in Catholic theology and refers to Holy Communion and the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood. (There is a lot more to this and the differences in Catholic and Lutheran understandings of Holy Communion, but this is sufficient for our point today. If you have questions about it, ask me sometime). The word mass itself likely derives from the Latin, missa, or the: dismissal, sending, or you even could say colloquially, mission. The word merry likely comes from Germanic origins and is related to mirth. So, cheerful, celebration, and joyful are all appropriate synonyms.

You put that all together and when we say, Merry Christmas, as Christians what we mean is, the celebration of the sending of the Christ or the celebration of Christ’s mission into our world. 

That is what Christmas is all about. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).  

When we say Merry Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s mission to come into our world of sin and darkness and be our light. 

When we say Merry Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s mission to become one of us so that He might die as one of us for us, so we might live and become like He is through grace and faith. 

When we say Merry Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s mission to bring the love of God to us so that we might know the love of God in us. 

When we say Merry Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s mission to adopt us so we can become Children of the Heavenly Father and live eternally in His family with all of the saints. 

These, and so much more is everything we mean when we say Merry Christmas. 

So, when we share Merry Christmas to the people in our world, we are sharing the Good News that God came to us to love me and you and to bring me and you to be with Him through faith. Why not say that, every day, and every month, of every year, with everyone. A very Merry Christmas in February, June, and July. Celebrate Christ’s mission for you and me. 

Like the Christian author, Charles Dickens wrote at the end of a Christmas Carol, “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, every One!”

Though, if you don’t want people to look at you funny in July, instead of Merry Christmas, you can always say Jesus loves you and God bless. Though you still might get funny looks. But that’s okay. 

So, I know this isn’t a praise song or a hymn but it’s a fun song that goes with our theme today!
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Darkness with Light

I was walking last night with Shiloh around the town square and we were enjoying all of the festive lights strung across the light posts, buildings, and the Christmas tree in the gazebo. It was pitch black all around us, but it felt a little like daylight with the twinkling lights all around. 

Take some time, if you haven’t yet, and drive around the neighborhoods, park your car, turn off the headlights, and spend some time enjoying the simple and elaborate displays of lights around you and how they lighten up the darkness with the bright glow of Christmas.

When the Christmas lights come on, it’s not that we are fighting the darkness with the light; rather, we are revealing what is in the darkness with the light so we can bring healing, and even love, to those things covered up by the darkness. 

Let me explain. I’m thinking of a version of the Christmas Carol with Scrooge singing “I hate people…because people hate me!” I have my own song. I hate plumbing and I’m absolutely sure plumbing hates me. My brain, for whatever reason, just isn’t wired to get it no matter how hard I’ve tried and my friends who really do know plumbing just kind of laugh at me and shake their heads. Honestly, we’ve gotten to the point where they tell me, “don’t touch anything, just call us first!” After I’ve gone about unintentionally destroying the plumbing project once again, my friends get under there and fix the mess I’ve made and I’m holding the flashlight so they can see what they’re doing.  Because you really can’t see what you’re doing under there without some light to work with. If you don’t have some light, you’re just bashing stuff around and guessing what goes where. This seems obvious. 

But we go bashing around our own lives without light way too often. We stumble around in the darkness of our lives and our world. Often, it’s our sins and hurts, addictions and pain, that we keep hidden in the darkness because we don’t want anyone to see it. Then we wonder why we can’t get it figured out or find some healing for the hurt because we’re just bashing stuff around and guessing what goes where. We also do this with each other. We see the people around us through the darkness of sin and our own hurts and fears. We don’t open up to each other but keep all of our secrets in the dark and then we wonder why we’re not getting anywhere with each other except bashing each other in the head. 

We end up trying to fix what’s in the darkness in the dark and don’t get anywhere by doing it. We have to turn the lights on to reveal what’s hidden by the darkness with the light so we can bring healing and love to those hidden places. This is what our Heavenly Father has done for us in Jesus on that first Christmas night. 

The Christmas story from a heavenly perspective:

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:9-12)

Our Heavenly Father loved us so much that God did not leave us in the darkness to bash ourselves about in it, nor did our Heavenly Father come to fight our darkness. No, on Christmas Day our Heavenly Father sent the Light of the World into the darkness of our lives to reveal what was hidden in the darkness so healing could come. 

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light…” (Ephesians 5:8)

In our brokenness we were hidden by the darkness of sin, blinded by the darkness, without any way of knowing how to fix what was broken in our lives. But Jesus comes with His light and reveals us and our brokenness. It’s not comfortable, but neither is plumbing, and the work still needs to be done. Jesus brings his light to show where the healing must occur and then does that healing with His own hands, both within us and for us. 

As Jesus lightens our lives and heals our hurts with His love, we do the same for each other. Again, we don’t do this stumbling around in the dark bashing stuff around. No. We have a much better way to live and care for each other. Not in the dark, but in the light of Christ. By shining the light of Jesus’ love on each other and actually seeing each other, hurts and everything else, through the light of that love alone. Because it is only in the light of Christ that we can see each other clearly and share the healing love of God with each other. 

It is this light that we celebrate that was born on Christmas Day. 

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For Us and Through Us

In our Gospel reading today we have the account of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary. 

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26-38

The Angel Gabriel announced that she would conceive and bear a son while she was still a virgin and that her son would be the Messiah, Jesus, who would save His people from their sins. Mary would carry the Gift of Christmas within herself for our salvation, not only for our salvation, but for her salvation. 

I was thinking that I often pass over that reality because Mary is such an integral part of the Christmas story that I tend to forget that the birth of Jesus was for her salvation as well so that she could know God’s love through Jesus. Gabriel’s announcement of salvation for the world was done both for her and would be accomplished through her. 

To carry the Gift of Christmas could not have been an easy task for Mary. She was a mom; being a mom is not easy in and of itself. She would have other children later with her husband, Joseph. There were hardships normal for the time she lived in and, at the very, very worst of times, she saw her own son beaten and crucified. 

But carrying the Gift of Christmas was also a joy for Mary to bear. Especially in his ministry, as she really saw what it meant for Jesus to be the savior of the world and to be her savior. To have faith in Jesus grow in her own heart and life and to share that faith with her family and children, like James, the half-brother of Jesus, who would write the epistle of James, lead the Jerusalem church through persecution, and be martyred for his faith in Jesus. Mary’s faith in Jesus would carry her through the hardships normal for life and, at the very, very best of times, she would see her own son resurrected from the dead and ascend into Heaven. 

What an amazing life Mary lived. Throughout it all God was able and faithful to strengthen Mary to live out the life she was called to live. To carry the Gift of Christmas so that salvation might be given both for her and through her. 

In your baptism it was announced that you are now in God’s family and have received salvation through the gift of the Holy Spirit living within you and the promise of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Through the hearing of God’s Word, faith has worked within your heart and life. At the point of your salvation, you were called to carry the Gift of Christmas in your life and this is done both for you and is also accomplished through you as well. 

Just like Mary, you and me as God’s children are called to carry the Gift of Christmas in our lives. This is done for us so that we might know God’s love through Jesus and be saved. Unlike Mary, I think we are more familiar with that part. But God’s story of salvation is also accomplished through us. We carry Jesus wherever and to whomever we go. The hope of Jesus’ salvation is shared through our words when we tell others about Jesus and the hope that we have. It is shared when we live lives filled with hope and forgiveness. It is shared when we fall and don’t live as we are called to, but we run back to Jesus for forgiveness and love and we show others through our failings what it means to be forgiven and unconditionally loved. 

To carry the Gift of Christmas in our lives is not always easy. We are constantly threatened by sin, death, and the devil, by temptations and hurt all around. To live the life we are called to live, both in our righteous actions, and to come to Jesus in our brokenness is not easy. Some days it is easier to say to that mountain, move over there, then it is to say, I forgive you, or I love you. But God is able and faithful to strengthen you to live out the life you have been called to live. 

But carrying the Gift of Christmas in our lives is also a joy to bear that is unlike any other joy. You and I have been given the best Christmas gift there can ever be–the gift of salvation, eternal life, and a hope that carries us through all that life here and now brings. It is the only message that can save a human life and give a hope that never dies. To share this message is a joy as well because it is the best gift we can ever give to the people we love in our lives. 

In Jesus, what an amazing life we have been given to live, with our sister in Christ, Mary. Just as God was faithful and able to strengthen Mary to live out the life she was called to live, our God is faithful and able to strengthen you and me to live out the lives we have been called to live. To carry the Gift of Christmas so that salvation might be given both for us and through us this Christmas, and all year long. 

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From Weakness to Strength

We’re supposed to be happy during the holiday! We should be having fun during Christmas!

The holiday season is filled with supposed to be’s and should be’s. You are supposed to be happy during Christmas. You should be having a great time during the holidays. You shouldn’t feel sad or depressed during this season. You should have the Christmas spirit (whatever that means)! You’re supposed to be enjoying yourself and acting like someone in a Hallmark movie! You should have the perfect present. You should have the perfect decorations. You should have the perfect tree. You shouldn’t be a Scrooge. 

That is a lot of supposed to be’s and should be’s to try and meet up to. A lot of expectations. We try. We try so hard do it. We plaster a plastic elf smile on our faces. We go through the motions and the rituals of the season. We pretend like nothing is bothering us and like everything is as it should be in the world this Christmas. We try so very hard to fake it till we make it, but it only ends up making us feel like we are dead and empty inside. We want to, or we want to want to, be like the people on the Christmas cards and we try so very hard, but…

We’re just not strong enough. 

That’s okay. If there is anything I really, really want you to take from this meditation it is that it’s okay to not be okay this holiday season. All of the supposed to be’s and should be’s can be okay in their proper time and we might someday find ourselves to something sort of like them. But those aspects of the holiday season are not necessary for Christmas to be Christmas and in fact can often get in the way of us really seeing Christmas for what it really is. 

Let me give you an example. Have you ever been frustrated that the stuff you wrap a present with can often be as expensive as the present itself? I mean, if you go all out with a special box, the shiny paper, ribbons, bows, and a card, you can spend a lot on the stuff that is meant to be ripped apart and thrown away! Sometimes, if you’ve got someone who’s really, really good at wrapping (not me), the present looks so nice you don’t want to open it. You just let it sit there and admire how sparkly it is. But if you get over the sparkly and you finally rip open the package, the present inside is so much better and wonderful and bright that you completely forget about the sparkly wrapping you were so entranced by earlier. 

Christmas is the same way. All of these supposed to be’s are like the wrapping on the Christmas present. When they work, they can be great and fun and sparkly. But if we get so caught up in the wrappings and trappings of Christmas, we can miss completely the present of Christmas. Because, in the end, the wrapping is meant to draw the eye to the present, not be the present itself. The wrapping is meant to be ripped up and thrown away to get to what matters most. The present.  

The present of Christmas is Jesus. Jesus came to a poor family, in a humble stable, among animals and guys in the field just trying to make it by. Jesus did not expect on his visitation to be greeted with shiny or glittery things, with fake smiles or empty bank accounts. Jesus came into the weakness of our reality and our lives to be our strength. 

Jesus does not expect fake smiles and glittery things and strong attitudes from you this Christmas either. Jesus came into our weakness so he could be our strength. 

This Christmas, you don’t have to be strong. That’s not what Christmas is all about anyways and it is certainly not what the present of Christmas, Jesus our Savior, expects from you. No, you can relax and rest in the presence of the present of Christmas and let him be strong for you. 

Because that is what Christmas is all about. 

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

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What makes Christmas, Christmas?

It’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas! 

I was thinking that last week when we had the snowstorm blow through. It’s not even technically winter yet and I had to pull out the snowblower! But the snow really started to put me into the Christmas Spirit! We got our tree up, decorations out, and stockings hung by the fire with care. 

The snow’s gone for now, but the lights are out and the shopping is almost done for us (yay!)! And it’s still feeling a lot like Christmas. But what does that mean, “it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas,” anyway? What makes Christmas, Christmas? 

Maybe, it’s the lights and the decorations that make Christmas, Christmas? I mean, they look so festive with reindeer and grinches and blow-up baby yodas all around. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always feel like Christmas. The string of LED lights this year didn’t work so well and we went through three different strings of lights before we could light up our wreath. As we were driving home from a friend’s house last night, there was a poor blow up Santa that was supposed to be standing tall, but had fallen down and was blowing across the yard. It doesn’t seem to matter how much we want them to; the decorations all fall limp, and the lights all go out eventually. The lights and decorations are not Christmas, but they can point to what Christmas is all about. 

Maybe it’s the presents that make Christmas, Christmas? In 2019 American consumers alone spent 1 trillion dollars and over 15 hours on Christmas shopping. The iconic picture of Christmas is a prettily decorated tree with presents festively wrapped, stacked neatly underneath. Whenever someone sees a picture that looks like that, they think Christmas. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always feel like Christmas. The presents are eventually all opened and sometimes forgotten just as quickly. The wrapping paper is all gathered up and put in trash bags or thrown into a fire. There is a reason the return lines at department stores all around the country are enormous the day after Christmas. The presents are not Christmas, but they can point to what Christmas is all about. 

Maybe it’s Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, the reindeer and the elf on the shelf, that make Christmas, Christmas? Nothing quite says Christmas like the jolly old guy and Rudolph flying through the night to deliver presents to nice kids (but not naughty). I’ve even heard that the Elf on the Shelf has even taken to texting some children if he can’t sit on their shelf because of COVID. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always feel like Christmas. Like, why is Christmas always in trouble? Almost every single Christmas movie out there has something to do with Christmas being threatened once again. Even the tradition of Santa Claus is one way that we honor the Christian Pastor Saint Nicolas who cared for the poor, widowed, and children during his ministry. Even Santa and the elf on the shelf are not Christmas, but they can point to what Christmas is all about. 

All of these Christmas things are fun, but they don’t make Christmas, Christmas. Christmas is more secure than that. Sometimes decorations don’t get up or we don’t have the heart to put them up at all. Sometimes presents become more stressful than they are worth or we miss the people who we used to buy presents for that aren’t with us anymore. Sometimes, it feels like Santa isn’t going to come and, if he does, he’s bringing coal that year because it’s been a rough year and I haven’t been very good. 

What would happen if it was all taken away: the lights and the decorations, the presents and Santa, even the Elf on the Shelf, and every other thing you can think of that makes it feel a lot like Christmas? Would it still be Christmas? Well…. It might not feel like Christmas, to be honest with you. If we take all of those things away it might not feel like Christmas at all, it might feel kind of empty and plain. But would it still be Christmas? Of course, it would. Isn’t that what the Grinch and Cindy Lou learned after the Grinch tried to steal Christmas? 

Because what makes Christmas, Christmas happened on a night 2,000 years ago. There weren’t any trees or decorations, there weren’t even any presents (those came about 3 years later), and there definitely wasn’t Santa (he wasn’t born yet) or Mrs. Claus, or the Elf on the Shelf, or anything else that makes Christmas feel like Christmas. There was a baby born to a virgin and watched over by a carpenter with angels in the sky and shepherds watching their flocks at night. That first Christmas day and every Christmas day, what makes Christmas, Christmas is that baby in the manger, called Emmanuel, God with Us. Baby Jesus. Christ in Christmas. God with us in Jesus never changes so Christmas is still always Christmas, even if everything else goes away. 

What makes Christmas, Christmas? Jesus.

That’s an important lesson for all of us to learn this Christmas. Not just for Christmas, but for ourselves as well. It’s not about the lights or the presents and it’s also not about the clothes or the truck, the house or the job, or even the shape or size of the body (even if you look like an Elf on the shelf or Santa or something in between). No, what makes you, you? What gives you worth and meaning, that can never be taken away from you, is the baby in the manger, Immanuel, God with us. That will never change. 

So, what makes you, you and Christmas, Christmas, even if it doesn’t always feel like it? Jesus. 

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Advent Coming

How we come to someone or respond to someone can go a long way in how that situation plays out. For example, if someone is ticked off and comes at the other person really hard, the tendency is to respond hard and to push back. Of course, that doesn’t get anybody anywhere, just hard edges and hurt feelings. 

But it can play out a different way. First, if someone is upset and they push really hard, if the other person can respond in a tone of gentleness and respect, there is an opportunity to diffuse the situation and allow the other upset person to calm down. It’s certainly not easy to do this and it often goes against our initial instincts, but when we make this choice, we create a space for something healthy and good to occur. The same is true in how the situation starts, if the person is upset and they react out of those feelings, maybe with sharp words or a harsh tone, the tone for how that conversation is going to work out is often set and it usually doesn’t work out well for anyone involved. But when that person is upset, if they can pause and get some perspective, often they realize that the situation isn’t worth being so upset over, and they can either let it go or calm down enough to talk in a gentle way. 

Scripture is filled with these same thoughts.

Romans 12:19-20: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Matthew 5:21-24: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:43-45b: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven”

How you approach a situation can make all the difference in the world.

Then you have, Matthew 1:18-23:

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

The season of Advent and the word itself means the arrival of an important person, or especially in this case, how God comes to us. The way that God comes to us is unexpected to the say the least. When we think about all of the ways that God could come to us, as a little baby is not one of them. Especially when we remember our sin and brokenness and how we treat each other and God so often in this world. Just remember what we talked about, how it is so natural for us to come at each other with anger and hurt feelings, all yelling and sharp edges. How, so often we live in this world as if God did not exist. In a world lived like that, God could have and would have had every right to come at us in His visitation with hard edges and judgement. But that wouldn’t have accomplished God’s purposes. 

John 3:16-17: ““For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

Romans 5:8: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

The goal of our Lord’s Advent was our salvation. To come to us in gentleness and mercy, as one of us, so we might know the love of God for us. Because God comes to us in this way, it is an invitation to let down our guard, soften our hearts (and let them be softened as well) and be embraced by our God’s love. 

There is also a second advent, a second coming, when this part of the creation story comes to an end and God comes to His creation in judgement. 

Revelation 19:11-16: “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh, he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”

This second Advent is a different kind of coming. God coming in justice to end the reign of sin, death, and the Devil forever. 

But for those found in Christ Jesus, there is no judgement and God does not come at us hard or with sharp edges. No, in Jesus God only comes to His people in love and mercy, like the baby born in Bethlehem. 

Luke 2:10-11: And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

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Hardship with Gratitude

I’m pretty sure this meditation is going to sound crazy to start with, but please stick with me. 

We can be grateful for the hardships in our life.  I’m going to say that again. We can be grateful for the hardships in our life. 

First, what I’m not saying. When I make that statement, I’m not saying the old phrase, “something good will come of this.” That phrase is completely inappropriate for many reasons. Often, when tragedy occurs, on the other side of the experience we will use that experience to help and relate to others that have experienced tragedy as well, but that’s not guaranteed, and it doesn’t make the tragedy and less tragic. 

Nor am I saying that this hardship is, “God trying to teach me a lesson.” Again, like the last one, can we take and learn life lessons from the experiences of hardship in our life? 

Absolutely. 

But is our Heavenly Father deliberately pushing our buttons or sending plagues from heaven to teach us something? We would be hard pressed to justify that apart from a specific divine revelation. Mostly, hardships are resulting consequences from actions within and without are control. That is often where the life lessons are learned. 

Instead, I’m thinking about the peeling off process that seems to occur throughout life. As we go through life, both for young and old, the different layers of life are pulled away by hardship. Whether it be finances, health, physical body, house, career, family and friends, each of these layers that we have covered ourselves with all will eventually be peeled away from us until there is nothing left but simply “me.” 

Why we can be grateful for the role of hardships in our life, the peeling away of all of the layers, is that for the Christian when we are left with nothing but simply “me,” it is never just me, but “we.” That is, my Heavenly Father and me. At the end of our earthly journey when all of the peeling has been accomplished through hardships, we are left with One who can and never will be peeled away from us and who holds us secure even when everything else has fallen away. 

What is so beautiful about this reality is that everything that is found in our Heavenly Father is held secure as well, all of the saints who have gone before us, love, hope, beauty, joy, relationships, friendships, loved ones. All of these are held secure as well and so we never lost them when they were peeled away, they were simply relocated to our future yet to be lived. 

As our Heavenly Father’s dearly beloved children, this is why we can respond to hardship with gratitude, knowing in faith that each peeling away is leading us closer to our eternal home. That so many of those peels, those parts of our life that are found in God, are not lost to us but are held for us secure in our future. 

From Romans 5:3-5: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

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Darkness with Light

Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving!

Shiloh read our morning devotions today be our kids started working on their homework. The passage was from Philippians 4:6. “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

I silently thought, how hard is that passage to follow right now?! I certainly know that our difficulties with COVID are not the only stressors that anyone has ever felt. Like, I’m thinking about the Nuclear Scare, the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, with kids being taught to hide under their desks if the alarm went off. Like hiding under a desk would do anyone any good if a nuclear bomb hit. That constant state of anxiety and wondering what will happen next wears people down. Hope, patience, and endurance all run really thin. 

That’s not much different than what we are experiencing. The deluge of information, often conflicting information. People that we love and trust telling us different things. Hopes for a vaccine but fear about the vaccine. I had a conversation with someone today who told me the vaccine was a government conspiracy that would have nano-bots in it to track people across the world. It’s information overload with little feeling of knowing truly who or what can be trusted. It doesn’t help that we have gone through and are going through a contentious election cycle. 

Then we hear these words to pray with thanksgiving. How does that work?

I think as often, perspective is important. I can’t tell you how many people are convinced we are in the end times right now because of the political craziness and pandemic. Here’s an interesting tidbit about the way the Bible describes when the last day will come. Take a moment and read Revelation Chapter 18, the Fall of Babylon. Here is an excerpt, “And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore…” What we find in the description of the last day is that everyone will actually be feeling good about themselves, buying and selling, living a life secure as if they don’t need God or as if they are god. When people are the most secure in their sin is when it seems the God’s Word describes the end of this creation will come. 

So that tells us, that what we are going through, has been gone through before and will be gone through again. Our brothers and sisters in Christ made it through the pandemic of the 1900’s and we will make it through this as well. 

So, the question really is, how do we make it through the craziness well? That is where this passage from Philippians comes into play. Confronting the craziness does not come by accident but on purpose. Praying often and well with thanksgiving for all the goodness in our life and the very fact we have life itself will go a long way to securing and stabilizing our hearts and mind in the security of our Savior Jesus. Be in worship. Pray and be with your Church family as often as possible in whatever ways are possible. Read your Scripture. Practice your faith. Combat darkness with light, evil with good, fear with hope, anger with love, and pray with thanksgiving. 

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Keep Praying for our Leaders

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil-

Even with the results of the election being called-ish, it doesn’t feel over. No matter who you voted for it doesn’t feel like there’s any real winners in this election. There are still counts, recounts, legal battles, and it all feels like the hanging chad debacle of 2000 with Gore and Bush. And of all of the millions and millions of dollars spent, countless words and posts, unmitigated resentment and anger, what was it all for anyways, really? In 20 years how much will it be remembered? Was it worth the hurt, anger, broken relationships and even broken lives that were spent on it? 

But the issues and the fate of the country!

All of that is important. But wait, and this is hard to hear and even hard for me to say. The United States of America will not last forever. Our wonderful country will one day be no more. The same is true of Russia and China, Africa and the United Arab Emirates, Scotland and Germany and any other geo-political institution in existence. Empires have risen and fallen, and empires will continue to rise and fall, from the beginning of our history to the end of creation, this is true. Our country, like our own lives, and the institutions that we enjoy and are a part of are all part of this temporal existence and will come to an end, sooner or later, in our lifetimes or not. None of this remains. 

Consider this passage from Pastor Peter’s letter to the church in 2 Peter 3:8-13.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

I love that question Peter asks of Christians: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” How do we answer that? 

First of all, the word “dissolved” is really important. It comes from the Greek work λύω, which means to unleash, unbind so something no longer holds together, and release what has been held back. When God’s Word uses this description, it’s not so much a picture of utter destruction, but of undoing. For the knitters and crocheters out there. Like pulling on the end of the yarn and watching all of the work dissolve in your hand.  This image does not give us the idea that this creation is bad and will be destroyed or punished. Instead, this is a good creation which will be undone so that it can be remade into the new creation God has planned for us. This also means that you and me and the people around us are not bad—but are part of God’s good creation as well. 

Next, taking that information that what we live within, from the institutions, to our country, to our planet, to all of creation, all of it will one day be undone by God and remade into something new. Knowing that what kind of life are you to live as Christians and God’s children here and now? Probably, one of the most important aspects of that statement is perspective. What in this election season was worth killing, dying, threatening, hurting, injuring, or estranging other people for? In 100 years or 1,000 or maybe even a month or two, how much will it matter when compared with eternity? There has not been one government, power, authority, or election result in all of history and there won’t be in any of human history that will threaten God’s plans for Creation and His beloved Children. Not one, ever. 

So, how are we to live?

  • First, trusting our Heavenly Father, who has held creation from the beginning and will continue to hold it until it is renewed. Nothing will get in God’s way for the Redemption of creation and His people. 
  • Second, in trusting our Heavenly Father, don’t get confused about what matters most here and now, especially at this time during American politics. Instead, recognize that all (and any) of our elected officials are people, just like us. They are not God, they cannot change God’s plans, they are not anyone’s Savior. They are sinful broken people like we are sinful broken people, just like you and me. So, the same command to love each other as Christ has loved you, applies to them and especially to the ones you don’t agree with. 
  • As Christians, pray for all of our elected officials. Both previous and current and the ones to come. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior…” I Timothy 2:1-3
  • Finally, love each other. 

I had a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago who was frustrated with how much she couldn’t be involved in. She has a couple of kids and one on the way, working full-time and trying to catch glimpses of her husband every so often. Social activism, the environment, her Church, and politics are all really important to her and she was frustrated that she couldn’t be involved like she used to be. She was also afraid she was setting a bad example for her kids by not being as involved anymore. After talking a while (and, yes, I have permission to share this story), I pointed her to her kids and asked, what’s going to make the biggest difference in the world, if you’re (a) at a political rally or (b) at home with them reading them a story? 

            The only one who really can change hearts and minds is Jesus, but we can be and are called to be His hands and feet, his representative to all people, to share and show what His love looks like because it is His love that will remain when everything else is undone.

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After The Finish Line

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil! 

Imagine for a moment a time in your life when you had to wait for something or someone. Maybe it was a race you were running, and you were just halfway through and it didn’t feel like you would ever make it to the finish line. Or maybe it was waiting for that next grade in school to happen, like 6th grade, 8th grade, High School, or college. Maybe you were waiting for that engagement or that wedding day to come, and it felt like it was going to take forever to get there. Maybe it was waiting for a child to be born and that expectation that feels like it’s never going to end. Life is filled with these moments and I want you to take one of those moments and remember what it was like when the expectation was over, and the moment finally arrived. 

You felt a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment. Maybe just the thought of FINALLY! You were filled with joy and surprise. You strangely didn’t feel any different at the moment, but life had irrevocably changed. Maybe it wasn’t what you expected at all. 

Then, life changed. In small ways, big ways, unexpected ways, and completely new ways, life after that moment changed completely and there was no going back. 

For a human life, the end goal is life after death. Death is not the end or the goal, but the line that is crossed from one stage of life to the next. Like the finish line at the end of the race or the breeching of the baby’s crown during birth, death is that transition from one reality of life to the next. 

When a human life crosses that line and moves to the next stage of life, they have moved to a new journey and a new adventure, still of course connected to the people in their past and formed by the life they lived, but it’s still a new journey and a new adventure, and life for them (and us) will never be the same. 

We who are still on the first side of that finish line don’t get to see what they are experiencing: the journey, the excitement, the adventure, the beauty, the life lived beyond death. It’s hard to imagine, sometimes to even believe that’s it’s real, that life after death—but that’s only natural. Just remember those before times in your life, before the finish line, before the next chapter, before the birth. That future after the finish line so often felt completely unreal, like it didn’t even exist, or you couldn’t even imagine what it might be like. But then it came, and you couldn’t remember living any other way. Just because we are on the first side of the finish line does not make life after the finish line any less real, we simply haven’t experienced what that part of life is like. But they have. On this All Saint’s Day we remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who have crossed that finish line and are even now experiencing the adventure, the beauty, and a life they get to live out eternally in God’s presence. 

For us, it is an end to a way of living, but for them it is a beginning to a new way of life. When we think about our loved ones who have passed into Glory, we look at the loss and our own loss in that change. But, today, take a moment and look at the victory they have won at the finish line. Life is not easy, and the race is hard. This life is filled with dangers and temptations, illness and brokenness, hurts and pains, and so much that throws a life off course. It’s not easy living this life. It can be so, so hard. But when they make it, when they cross that finish line and receive their crown, it is a reason to celebrate the hard-fought victory that they are now living in. We, their loved ones, who are on the sidelines watching them run the race and finally, through blood, sweat, and tears, cross that finish line. We cheer for them. “Great job” we cry! “You made it!” “Congratulations!” “We’ll see you on the other side. Don’t worry we’ll be there soon.” It is a celebration of another life that has entered life. 

Here’s the image. Watching my children when they were learning to walk was so much fun. The rolling, crawling, holding on to furniture, driving their little toy fire engine, and then finally, walking. Me, with my arms outstretched, and them with their little toothy grins, wobbling into my arms. Best feeling ever. 

For our Brothers and Sisters in Christ, they are the children finally being embraced by their Heavenly Father’s loving arms. After rolling, crawling, holding on to furniture, driving their little toy fire engine, walking, running, and then flying into their Father’s arms. Wow, can you imagine the joy they feel at that moment as their Heavenly Father embraces them and welcomes them to their next chapter in life. Best feeling ever. 

See what great love the Father has given us in naming us the children of God; and such we are. For this reason, the world does not see who we are, because it did not see who he was. My loved ones, now we are children of God, and at present it is not clear what we are to be. We are certain that at his revelation we will be like him; for we will see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him makes himself holy, even as he is holy. I John 3:1-3

For now, we cannot see past the finish line at the joy that awaits us, but our brothers and sisters in Christ are already living in their new life and see their savior Jesus, face to face. While it is a time of change and loss for us on this side of the finish line, it is also a time of celebration, congratulating our loved ones who are on the other side of the finish line and are enjoying the life they have been given. But a time for us to look forward to our own moment past the finish line and that life to come that is so hard to imagine now, but which we will get to fully live afterwards.

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Forward to Jesus

So, Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.          

John 8:31-36

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil!

I learned a life lesson years ago when I was struggling so hard to make a major life change and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I kept feeling like I was leaving something, and I was, both the good parts and the bad parts of the experience, but I didn’t want to feel like I was making the change because I was running from something. Probably, a character fault in me, but I have been known to be stubborn to a fault. I just couldn’t bear with the idea of walking away; it went against my nature. A very wise pastor who was mentoring me at the time turned my perspective on its head. He helped me to see that in reality the reasons I was leaving were not because I was trying to leave something but because I was going towards something. Going towards something necessitates change and leaving things behind but it’s not the primary reason for the change. Going towards something is. 

So, this has become a rule in my life whenever I’m contemplating a change. I never want to be going away from something but going towards something. 

Our Gospel reading today has this almost bizarre conversation between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders about freedom and what real freedom actually means. Jesus is rightly accusing the religious leaders of being slaves. They retort that they are children of Abraham and have never been slaves of anyone. The reason this statement is so bizarre is that one of the pivotal moments in Jewish history was their slavery in Egypt in YHWH’s rescue of them in Exodus taking the people to the promised land. Slavery and freedom are the whole point of the Passover meal they shared in every year. These were the religious leaders of the Jewish people in the Jerusalem temple and they had the blindness and the audacity to say they had never been slaves of anyone. This blindness led to their greater blindness to the slavery that Jesus was really talking about. Slavery to sin. This slavery to sin starts with a broken relationship with God, trusting self and not trusting God, and it leads to the visible sins like arrogance, greed, pride, and avarice. 

In the conversation they were looking back to what they thought made them special and gave them special privilege in God’s eyes, being children of Abraham and Jewish, but Jesus wanted them to let go of that false image, let go of their pride which was holding them in bondage to sin and to look forward to Jesus and where God was leading them to with Him. 

Fast forward in time about 1500 years when a young Catholic monk was hammering what is called the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The institution of the Roman Catholic Church had very much lost its way. It had stopped looking forward to Jesus and was always looking back. Looking back to its power, to its authority in this world, to its riches and wealth and because it was always looking back to what they felt made them special and privileged, they had stopped looking forward to Jesus and where Jesus was leading them to. Looking back really held them in bondage to sin and they did everything they could to hold on to that past, including hurting the people of God by telling them lies just to get money from them. When Martin Luther posted those 95 Theses on the church door starting the Protestant Reformation, he was calling the Roman Catholic Church to stop looking back to what was holding them in bondage to sin and to once again look forward to Jesus and where God was leading them to be with Him. 

Fast forward to our own lives. It is very easy for us to hold on to the past and what is behind us. Sometimes it is the things that we have lost along the way. The people in our lives, the positions in our lives, pride and prideful thoughts of the past, even the painful past parts of our lives. We can’t get anywhere looking back too hard because we can’t see the walls we’re running into ahead of us. Looking too hard behind us holds us tightly in bondage. 

For the good things in the past, continuing to walk forward often feels like we are abandoning or forgetting those people and places. If we just hold on to the past, then they won’t be gone. But life does move on and holding on doesn’t work, it just makes us feel stuck. Looking forward and moving forward isn’t abandoning the past but it is honoring the past, the people and the places, and building upon their legacy into the future. 

For the bad things in the past, it often feels like we are still held by them, habits and hurts, and they won’t let go and sometimes we don’t know what to do with ourselves if we didn’t have it in our lives. Unfortunately, we can get used to hurtful things as well. We can get so caught up in trying to stop or let go of the hurt that we forget to look forward to where we are trying to go. Moving forward by definition moves the hurtful things in the past behind us. 

Most importantly we look forward with Jesus because Jesus is our future. Yes, Jesus is our past through his life, death and resurrection on the cross. Yes, Jesus is our present living in that forgiveness earned for us on the cross and Jesus everyday with us through faith, here and now. But I think we forget sometimes that yes Jesus is our future. Jesus is our prize and our goal. Life eternally with Him and all the saints is where He is leading us too. When we keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus our future, it makes our path today so much clearer. 

To serve God as a pastor was a call on my life I felt since I was very, very young. I didn’t know everything that would and could entail, but I felt it in my life. Of the different things that God used to place that call upon my heart was my first pastor, Pastor Buck. He was a bear of a man, at least to little me, and every Sunday he would always give me a big bear hug and scratch my teddy bear’s head. For me, that was my earliest thought of what it meant to be a pastor and it still defines the role for me today. Because I had that in my life so early on, that future was a guide for me. It’s not that I didn’t make stupid choices in life but knowing where I was going made clear many choices in my life. Those choices would fit into two categories, is this compatible with my future or not. That was it and if it wasn’t I could let it go of it because I was moving forward towards my goal. 

For every Christian, the same is true. Jesus is our future. Life with Him and all of the Saints is prepared for us. Knowing where we are going makes clear our choices of today. Those same choices fit into two categories, is this compatible with my future with Jesus or not. That’s it. If it’s not, we can learn to let go of it and keep moving forward. 

Close with a verse from Hebrews 12 that exemplifies this thought. 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.

Jesus is our future. We move forward together towards Him. 

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Do They Belong to Me?

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Matthew 22:15-22

“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” My wife will often tease me with this phrase. Tonight, we were at an outdoor Halloween party and she stole my glass of cider with a grin saying, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine. 

Apart from the dynamics of marriage, where the appropriate answer is “yes, dear,” this is a pretty common mindset all the way around. What’s mine is mine is pretty obvious and widely believed. My stuff and my people and my life is all mine to do with how I want to. But the part, “what’s yours is mine” seems to be pretty common as well out there. This most often comes out in how others talk to each other and about each other’s lives on social media, gossiping, protesting, and assuming the worst about others. It is like other people lives, reputations, intentions, and futures are all fair game and can freely be smeared and tarnished when someone feels like it. 

It all comes down to a question of ownership. What someone feels entitled to or feels like they can freely do with it what they want.

In our Gospel Reading today, the question again was all about ownership. The pharisees were trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would upset the crowds or get him thrown into prison. They had become jealous of His teaching and felt threatened by His Words. They believed that the temple/their church, belonged to them, not to God. They believed the people they were meant to serve belonged to them and not to God. They believed that their positions as religious leaders belonged to them and made them important, not God. They believed the money they received in the temple belonged to them, not to God. They even believed that Jesus belonged to them and they could do with Jesus whatever they wanted. Because they believed all of this belonged to them, the money, people, position, church, Jesus, they felt free to do with it whatever they wanted, lie, manipulate, hoard, slander. 

So, Jesus, speaking in a way that doesn’t give in to their schemes, answers their challenge by saying, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I’ve heard this statement repeated as a blanket statement, for the division between church and state, paying taxes, and the right to bear arms. But this statement isn’t a simple one liner that is just said and that ends the conversation because it’s never that simple. Instead, this statement is meant to make us think and really struggle and strive with this question of ownership. 

First, notice Jesus doesn’t say what you should do with YOUR money. He doesn’t start from the assumptions like the Pharisees did, that the money already belonged to them and they had to figure out what to do with it. No, instead, it is all of this belongs to higher authorities than you, Caesar and God, it isn’t yours to begin with at all and it isn’t yours to decide what to do with. That decision has already been made–you just have to follow through on what they tell you to do with their stuff. 

This point then has some intrinsic implications. If it all belongs to either Caesar or God, then none of it belongs to you. You would be considered a caretaker of their property and one who is meant to manage and administrate it in a way that is in accordance to how they, Caesar or God, said it should be done. But none of it belongs to you. 

Then the question goes much deeper because the Caesar was considered a god and divine. At their deaths, their divinity was confirmed, and they were worshipped and sacrificed to like any of the other gods in the Roman pantheon. So, the question becomes, who is God, and who is God to you, who does it really all belong to, and who are you going to follow and worship with the stuff you are a manager for. 

That statement that Jesus makes is as timely today as it was then; and we are asked to contemplate and struggle with it as well. “Therefore, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Possessions is often the topic we talk about the most, but I really would like to talk about people. 

Who do the people in our lives belong to? Ourselves, or to Caesar and God? (Don’t worry, I wrote to Caesar and God together for now, we’ll get to that). Do the people in our lives belong to us at all. That is a hard one. We say all of the time, my kids, my wife, my husband, my boyfriend/girlfriend, my friends, my family. But we get into all sorts of trouble thinking that way, don’t we? Especially when we want the other person to behave a certain way, or to live a certain way, or for their lives to turn out a certain way. Even with our kiddos. We can want the world for them and for them to be happy but ultimately their lives are their own. We can only do what we are responsible for, being the kind of people we want them to have in their lives, but they ultimately have to live their lives. When we don’t recognize that and we try to force our desires on them, it never works out well. 

So, if the people in our lives don’t belong to us, do they belong to Caesar or to God, that is to the God of this World or the God who created all things and loves us. The difference between the two is stark. You know how the world is out there and how people treat each other. So often it is dog eats dog, trample the other person down, if they get in the way of your happiness, drop them like a hot potato. If we believe that not only the people in our lives but the strangers in the store, our co-workers, and the lady at Walmart belong to the God of this world, then that is how it looks. How many people out there believe that and treat each other accordingly. 

Or, if we believe the reality of what God’s Word teaches us, that all things belong to our God who created us and loves us so much that He sent His son to die for us. Then we will look at each other with the eyes of Jesus Christ, who sacrificed everything on a cross for you and me and we will live to learn to love each other as our God has loved us. Each every one of those people out there in our world belong to our God and our God has commanded us to love them as we have been loved by Him. The same is true for us, we belong to our God who loves us as well. Treat yourself and each other as God has so lovingly cared for you. 

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Secure through the Changes of Life

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil!

When my family lived in New Jersey, our family planted a tree in our front yard. For us, it represented a lot of really good things like God’s blessings that saw us through the long years of schooling, the excitement of our first call into parish ministry, our first home, the birth of our children, and the next step of our family’s journey together. We were so thankful for God’s work in our life and we wanted to plant a personal, little memorial to those blessings. When we planted that beautiful little tree, we had no idea what we were doing. We looked up YouTube videos, talked to the guys at the nursery, read articles, but—you know—we really didn’t know. But we tried, and we planted that little tree, we watered it, got one of those gator bags to put around it, fertilized and loved it. Then the storms came. 

Our little community in Jersey was hammered by 2 hurricanes and a derecho (a crazy windstorm, with straight, horizontal blasts of wind). I remember watching from our front window when the last hurricane came through and our little tree, really no thicker than a 1×4, was slapping against the front yard, time and time again. I lost count at 100 slaps. When the storm finally passed and we looked at the devastation left in the aftermath, there was our little tree, standing tall and proud, storm tossed and missing all of its leaves, but standing tall. Yesterday, I looked up my old house on Google Maps and saw our tough little tree. Not so small anymore, it’s taller than the house with big branches and a wide trunk. It made me smile. 

Our reading today is from Philippians 4:4-13, it is the last part of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi from prison. In his final words of encouragement, he directs the church family to remember where their security comes from in every circumstance and held firmly by that security to approach their relationships with each other and the world with compassion, gentleness, and love.  He begins,

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice” (vs. 4) 

My poor little tree in New Jersey got the living lights knocked out of it in that last storm, but it stayed rooted throughout. My little tree was not holding itself down but the depth of the hole, the dirt, the gator bag, were all holding it down and keeping it secure even though it was getting whipped around like a ping-pong ball. That solid core of strength is how our Savior Jesus holds us. Jesus does not change. Jesus’ love does not change. Jesus’ security does not change. With Jesus in your life, there is this part of you that is unchanging and can never be broken. It is like a heavenly foundation. Even though our lives can often feel like my little tree in Jersey during the storm, being whipped around every which direction, there is that unchanging heavenly foundation that is holding us secure. What is so beautiful about this heavenly foundation is that even when our earthly bodies finally give way in the storms, our heavenly foundation is still holding all that we are, our heart, our soul, our spirit, in the heavenly realms with our savior. Everything else will be torn away but who we are, secure in our Heavenly Foundation, will always remain. 

It is really that Heavenly Foundation given to us in Jesus that any other conversation has to start at because it is the foundation that you build upon that makes or breaks the house that you live in. The house that we are being built into is a spiritual house with the foundation of Christ.

“You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 2:5).

As a living house we are the very real bricks and wood that are bound together and because of that we must interact with each other. Gone is the notion of being a personal Christian living alone in the woods, just me and Jesus. That’s not how Jesus made us to be His Church. As a Church, we are already joined together in community, whether we like it or not, because that is how Jesus wants His people to be and how we will be for all of eternity with Jesus in the Heavenly Courts. So right here and now, as a family of faith brought together by Jesus, how are we to live together? 

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” (vs 5)

That word, “reasonableness” may not be very clear in the intent that Paul is trying to make in the Greek language. Let me read to you from Strong’s Greek Lexicon the different ways this word ἐπιεικής is translated. “Gentle, mild, forbearing, fair, reasonable, moderate, seemly, equitable, yielding, in the sense of truly being fair by relaxing overly strict standards in order to keep the “spirit of the law.” Take a moment for yourself and look at those words what kind of mental images come to mind? What does it look to be gentle? Maybe like how you would hold a baby in your arms. Maybe with the attitude of intentional caution I had because I am such a big guy and I don’t always know my strength, to be that much extra careful in how I handled my babies. Or maybe it is with the confident gentleness that I saw with Shi who seemed like she knew exactly what she was doing with the babies but that didn’t make her any less cautious or gentle. What does it look like to be yielding? Choosing your battles maybe. Or, maybe, letting other people win. Or realizing, not with a sense of resignation, but a sense of clarity, there are very, very few things worth holding a hard line on in this life. Maybe a handful at most, probably not even that many. Everything else can be, for the most part, all good, changeable, and flexible.

These are the words our God has given to us to describe how it is we are to treat each other as the family of God built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. 

As we look to the world around us. There is so much competition and striving to be winners and make other people losers. It is easy for us to get caught up in all of that whether it’s politics or our faith. We can look at the world with a sense that it’s either us or them, whether we are winning or losing. But why? Everything belongs to the Lord and any culture can’t touch that reality or the security we have in our Heavenly Foundation. Fighting just makes us look weak and like we’ve got something to lose, when we don’t. Instead,

“if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (vs. 8b).

There are so many good things in our world that we can lose sight of in the tug of war, but all of that goodness comes from our God and we can choose to focus on the good instead of the bad and lift that good up, even if we don’t always agree with the person or the place that goodness is located at. 

All of this can only be done in the secure Heavenly Foundation we have in Jesus which holds us tight, through all of the storms of life. 


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As if… Jesus in the Flesh

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil.

Shiloh and I spent some time in Mexico when we were in college to work with a Christian mission team to build an orphanage for handicapped children. We were working with a local pastor and his family. They taught us how to make homemade tortillas on a cast iron press. The food was amazing! 

We had chapel every night together. Their sanctuary was a pole building with a tin roof that we slept in afterwards. The pastor and his wife led worship and played for us on his guitar. One night he played a tune and sang in Spanish. It took a moment to realize what he was singing. I actually started humming the tune before I knew what it was. Amazing Grace. We sang in English while they sang in Spanish, and we all sang the same hymn to our same savior bringing us together as the same family. We were worlds apart in terms of language and culture, but we were brought together and made family by someone greater, Jesus our savior. 

In our reading today from the book of Philippians, Pastor Paul is writing to his church family in Philippi. At this writing Paul is in prison for preaching the Gospel and he can’t physically be with them. The church family in Philippi has sent money to support Paul and written to him but that was all they could do in that situation. In his letter back to his church family, he writes the words of a common hymn sung at that time, much like Amazing Grace for us today. 

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11

Paul shares these words with his Church family to remind them of what has brought them together and continues to keep them together despite differences and distance. The Church in Philippi was primarily Gentile and in Europe while Paul was a Hebrew and from Israel. That alone was difference enough to keep them apart from the very beginning. But it was through the preaching and teaching of Jesus Christ that first brought them together and drew them together to become family. Jesus is the one who holds them together no matter what it is that separated them. 

Paul then writes what the result of this unity in Jesus, that makes them family, brings about in their common life together. 

So, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy… (Philippians 2:1

Paul is stating here what the church family in Philippi already knows be true and has experienced for themselves. Maybe, though they needed a reminder of the goodness that they have in Jesus to refocus their thoughts on the good instead of the bad, on what unites them instead of what separates them. Encouragement that they have been given all things in Jesus and can now face the day and the struggles in their life with courage. Comfort from knowing that their sins are forgiven, and Jesus gives healing in their life. Participation in the very Spirit of the Eternal God through the gift of Baptism. Affection and sympathy for each other knowing that they are forgiven sinners in need of God’s love together with other forgiven sinners in need of God’s love. 

Reminded of these blessings Paul then expects certain behaviors to be exhibited from them towards each other in response to the love given to them. 

complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:2-4a)

Look to the interests of your brothers and sisters in Christ first counting them as more important than yourselves and in that way, no one will be in need or go without. Recognize that each of you are on the same team in Jesus, brought together in faith, with the same goal, the preaching and teaching of the Good News of Jesus and sharing in all of the gifts He has given. Be like Jesus in your words and actions and treat each other not only as Jesus would treat them but with the same respect you would treat Jesus with if He was in the flesh with you today. Remembering the words that Jesus said,

“‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

These truths hold true for a church family brought together by Jesus’ love and forgiveness 2,000 years ago in a city in Europe as today in a church family brought together in Monterrey, Mexico and in a church family brought together in North Jackson, OH or wherever our Lord has brought your Church family together at. It is Jesus who has brought us together, holds us together, and keeps us together no matter where you and I live. It is in response to Jesus’ love that we live like Jesus and treat each other as Jesus has treated us and treat each other as we would treat Jesus in the flesh. 

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Nothing

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil!

I remember losing a job I loved. I was a good manager with good employees doing good work, until the rug got pulled out from under us. It was a corporate decision and they were moving in a different direction. That was it.  Afterwards, family and friends would share with me this sentiment, “something good will come from this.” 

That phrase, something good will come from this, is one of those loaded phrases that we use when we don’t know what else to say and we want to be helpful and encourage someone. Sometimes it can be helpful but oftentimes it simply feels like someone is just twisting the knife, even if they are well meaning. 

I believe, that this phrase can be helpful when it is reminder of our own resilience and strength. In many difficult life situations, we can make the best of a bad situation. We learn how to adapt and grow, how to use what happened for good, for ourselves and for others. However, it’s not guaranteed that something good will come from this. That really depends on us and what we do with it. Maybe a better way of saying that phrase is with a question: “what am I going to do with this situation?” or even better, “how is God calling me to respond to this situation?” 

But, apart from that, I actually really don’t like using that phrase, because when you’re on the receiving end of it can feel like sucker punch to the gut in an already lousy situation. 

First, the phrase itself, “something good will come from this.” What does that actually mean? Some anonymous good will come from some anonymous place to even the balance from this bad situation. It’s just all too vague and out there to really be of any hope or use for someone going through a tough time. I can’t tell you how many people I have counseled over the years who have said, “I’m still waiting for the good to come from this,” after a horrific situation that happened years before. We can even feel like someone is saying, “it’s good that this bad thing happened because something good will come from it!” Honestly, how lousy is that!

There are of course the situations where this phrase is completely inappropriate. A sudden death, a horrible illness, a natural disaster, a tragic accident. You would never want to say “something good will come from this” to someone suffering heartache and loss like this. I have family and friends in Alabama right now that are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sally and all of the damage that it caused. That phrase would be not be appropriate to share with them right now. Instead, now is a time for love, prayers, and any physical support they might need. 

As Christians, we have a far better hope and promise that has been given to us, that goes way beyond the generic and dubious, “something good will come from this.” We have a promise from our Heavenly Father that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) 

“for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) 

This promise is so much better and so much more important for us to receive, to share, and to hold dearly to our own hearts, because…

  • First, this is not some vague promise that somewhere, somehow, someone, is going to bring something good out of the bad. This promise is very specific in who is bringing us His goodness. Our Heavenly Father is the one who is doing the work and our Heavenly Father is able to do so much more than we can ever do ourselves. This is our God who created the Heavens and the Earth with a Word and who sent his Son to die for us for our salvation. Our Heavenly Father can do so much more than we can even ask or imagine. 
  • Second, the good that our Heavenly Father promises is not a vague promise of a generic good that may or may not happen and we might not even realize it if it does. No. The good our Heavenly Father gives to us is already prepared for us with Him because of Jesus. This good is our salvation and the promise that we will always be safe with our God and nothing can ever take that away from us. We are also promised, that on the last day God will take all that has happened in all of creation and make it into something new, the New Heavens and the New Earth, where there is only God and his creation, without pain, or suffering, or loss, ever again. That is the very specific promise our Heavenly Father has given to us because of His great love for us. God will work all things together for our eternal good with Him and nothing in this life can change God’s love and promises for those that are in Christ Jesus.

That is why in a few verses later, God’s Word reminds us of this truth.

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32) 

What then can we say to the hurt and brokenness all around us? What can we speak into the hurt of our own lives and the hurt of those around us? Because of Jesus, if God is for us, who or what could stand against us. In Jesus, we already have all things given to us, eternity with God and all the Saints gone before us. Who or what could ever take that away from us? No one, ever. 

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) 

In Jesus, as His people, it is this solid promise and this sure good from our Heavenly Father, that we stand upon, even when the winds destroy and the people hurt and the illness eats away, there is nothing that can stop God’s promises from being fulfilled in our lives, nothing. 

For those who love God all things work together for His good for us.

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Jesus and those little political signs

Hello church family, this is Pastor Phil. 

If you drive through any local neighborhood, you’ll find those little, plastic political signs skewered into your neighbor’s lawns. With each sign that person is declaring who they think would be the best person for a political office. You can actually make a game out of locating the signs. 2 points if two yards next to each other have the same political sign. 3 points if the yards next to each other have different political signs. Bonus! You get to wonder what kind of conversations they have with each other or if they just glare at each other on their way to work in the morning.

Any other day, not during election season, all of these houses would basically look the same. Just neighbors and friends living in the same community. But during election season they become something different. Sometimes if they have the same political sign in their yard that you prefer, they become allies, reassurance that you’re right in your choice, and maybe a tally you keep in the back of your head of how your choice is doing by counting how many of their signs you see. But, if they have a different political sign in their backyard those same neighbors become the competition, become those people, become the subject of conversation wondering how they could promote and vote for them—don’t they know what they’re like! 

Suddenly and not very subtly, friends and neighbors become oddities and enemies to each other. Instead of Bob with his 2 young daughters and a wife that passed away from cancer last year he becomes a crazy, socialist liberal that you feel like you have nothing in common with. Instead of Jen, the older lady down the street who lives alone, she becomes a crazy, capitalist conservative that you feel like you have nothing in common with. All because of a plastic sign planted in a neighbor’s yard. 

But wait, someone says, those signs matter! Capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, and all those other ism’s. They matter to our way of living. Great atrocities have happened from this or that way of governing. It matters to me! 

Sure! It is good, right, and healthy to have those conversations. To discuss the pro’s and con’s, of this way of governing or that way of governing. To talk about what works and what doesn’t work and why you feel that way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with promoting your beliefs on the subject and popping little plastic, political signs in your yard if you want to or canvassing for your preferred politician or discussing why you believe the way you do. When we have those kinds of healthy conversations other people can weigh what is being said, look at the pro’s and con’s, and make up their own mind from there. That’s how this whole thing works. 

But when it becomes personal and everyone who doesn’t feel the same way that I do is a lunatic or a fraud, when Bob and Jen down the street stop being Bob and Jen and become that crazy this or that, then nobody wins. We all lose, and we all lose our sense of what matters most. 

There was a sermon illustration I heard as a young man in worship that stuck with me to this day and felt relevant to our meditation. I don’t remember all of the details of the story, like who the chaplain was or which world war it occurred in, even though those details were all shared (I’ve never been very good about those things). But the heart story began at the end of a battle between German and Allied soldiers and the dead and dying we’re scattered all across the tiny village. A Christian chaplain from the Allied soldiers recounted ministering to the dying and giving last rites when he came upon a German soldier bleeding out and muttering a phrase over and over again. Vater unser im Himmel, Vater unser im Himmel. 

There was nothing the Chaplain could do for the man’s body, but he could offer succor for the man’s soul. The chaplain, not knowing German, held the man’s hand and completed the words of the prayer in his own language. “Our Father who art in Heaven.” Later, that chaplain would recount in his journals, how strange a moment that was, when just moments before that man was vehemently trying to kill him and his men and his men we’re trying to kill him, and now he was holding this man’s hand, praying these words, Our Father. Our…Father. 

Pastor Paul in our reading today from God’s Word teaches us: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (You can read the whole section from Romans 14, here)

The ideological movements that were causing rifts and fractures among the relationships in the church at that time were about eating meat or not eating meat, about sacred days and when to observe them, among many other ism’s that were pitting them against each other. Like today, it had gone beyond healthy discourse to making it personal, and personally attacking others for their beliefs. In doing so, they had lost themselves and forgotten that whatever the other person believed, it was not their place to confer condemnation upon them for those beliefs. Each person had the same judge and master, that is the God who created them. 

The same is true for us in this same political environment as it was thousands of years ago. Whatever political sign is promoted by our neighbor in their front yard, it is not our place to condemn them with our thoughts, words or actions. It is not Christian and not right, to call them crazy this or crazy that. In the end, in November, whoever is elected, it is our Christian duty to honor that person in office, just like it is our Christian duty to honor the person who is in office now and was in office before and will be in office after. Whether president or neighbor, we all have the same judge and master, the God who created all of us, and each of us will be held account to that same judge. 

Thank God, that the God who created all of us, doesn’t not come at us like we come at each other. Instead, God comes to us in Jesus, and speaks words of forgiveness and mercy for each one of us, no matter our political ideologies or what it is we feel really strongly about at the moment. The words we receive in Jesus, are words of love and peace and reconciliation, for everyone. As people, who share the name of Jesus as Christians, it is these same words of mercy and grace that we are called to speak clearly to each other, no matter the sign in their yard. 

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What Comes Next

Hello church family, this is Pastor Phil-

This past week my grandmother Fran, called my wife and I to come out to her barn because we had left a few things out there from our move. Give you a little background. When my family moved to Ohio from NJ, we had decided to merge our household with my mom’s and become a multi-generational family under one roof. Honestly, this has been one of the best decisions we have made and has worked very well for all of us. But it did have its difficulties, especially with stuff. When you merge households like we did you end up with 2 blenders, 2 toasters, 2 dining room tables, 2 couches, 100 bookcases (we’re a family of avid readers). All of the stuff multiplies and gets to be way too much too handle, especially all at once. So, one of our solutions was to store the majority of our household from NJ in a loft in my grandmother’s barn and sort through it gradually. Which we did and were able to move, sell, or give away the vast majority of it. 

Now, it’s been about 7 years since that and “out of sight, out of mind” happened. I think I fooled myself into believing that we were all done, and all of the stuff was handled. But it wasn’t. When Grandma Fran called and asked what we wanted to do with the stuff left I thought maybe it was a box or two that went unnoticed. Boy, was I wrong! It’s not a storage unit’s worth of stuff, but it is definitely way more than we want to deal with. Seeing the stuff again I vaguely remembered saying to myself years ago, it’ll be fine, we’ll get to that next week—7 years later! 

It is exhausting how much time and energy we put into our stuff in this world and it makes you wonder if all of that effort is worth it. Looking through the boxes and furniture there were things that we really did want to keep. There were also things that we re-discovered. Items that we forgot about and were glad to have back but didn’t really matter all that much one way or the other. Then, there were honestly were things we just didn’t care one way or the other about. All of it was all jumbled together. That’s probably what made us run away screaming the first time, it was all just too much to deal with. Add to that, sitting in a barn loft for a few years now, some of the stuff was damaged and we have to figure that out too. 

But that is the way of all things. None of the stuff lasts, ever. It all goes away. It all gets destroyed. It all turns to dust eventually. If it doesn’t turn to dust in our lifetime, it will all go to someone else and rot away on them.  Knowing that, with complete certainty, this is how it works, why do we spend so much time, energy, and wealth on stuff? It’s like we’ve been fooled into thinking that all of the stuff and things of this present time are the main event. Like this world and all that comes with it is what we have been waiting for and now that we have it were trying so desperately to hold on to it. But we can’t. It all goes away. 

For us, it’s too easy to lose sight of what our Heavenly Father has prepared for us in the future because our vision is too filled with the stuff of right now. 

Pastor Paul in Romans 8 writes it this way. “For, I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That word Glory is amazing and hard to grasp for good reason. It describes an experience and reality that is beyond words and comprehension. In the book of Revelation 21, the beloved disciple John is given a glimpse of the city of God in the New Heavens and New Earth. Hear his descriptions of the glory of the City of God and what it will be like for us. 

It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal (11). 

The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass. (19-21)

It wasn’t that the city of God is made of these things, amethyst, pearl, and gold; but John chose the most precious and glorious things of this world just to give us a taste of the glory that awaits. For us, the main event of life is not right here and now, but it is the glory of what our Heavenly Father is bringing to us is that we are eagerly waiting for. 

Not only the glory of God’s city but the glory of what our lives will be like in that city. (Revelation 21:1-4)

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death nor mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Just think on the glory that those words describe, an existence where things like death, mourning, crying, and pain have been completely taken away! This is what our inheritance is as Christians and it is what we are eagerly waiting for. 

On my wedding day, in the chapel at Concordia St. Paul I remember waiting for the moment when my bride would come through the doors. I was a nervous wreck. I vividly remember wringing my hands over and over again, just waiting and waiting for that moment. When it happened, yes I cried because she was (and is) the most beautiful woman I have ever known. But what I was waiting for and so excited about, wasn’t the wedding itself but the marriage. Our life together is the main event not the ceremony. The marriage was simply the door through which that would happen. 

This life that we are living right here and now is not the main event. It’s like trying to live for the wedding ceremony and not the marriage. We spend so much time and energy on venues and wedding halls, dresses and tuxes, decorations and food that you might think that the wedding ceremony is what it’s all about. But it’s not. Like I tell every couple whose wedding service I conduct. It’s not about the wedding, it about the marriage. The wedding is simply the door through which that will happen. 

Our life together with Jesus, that is filled with indescribable glory, is what we are eagerly waiting for. With Jesus it is a life more precious than the most precious of stones and a life where death and pain are no more. I can’t wait to get there, and I hope you can’t either. This life and yes even death are simply the door through which that will happen. 

It is only when we recognize that our eternal life with Jesus and all of the saints is the main event is when and only when we can properly appreciate the life we have here and now. Just like with the wedding ceremony. If we get lost and start to think it’s all about the wedding ceremony—the candles and crinkly stuff and cute signs from Hobby Lobby and the cake, we will be very disappointed because all of those things eventually will end up in Grandma Fran’s barn and someday all go away. But if we believe fully in our hearts that what is to come is what matters most, the marriage, the life with Jesus forever, then we can freely enjoy the candles and crinkly stuff and cute signs from Hobby Lobby and the cake, for what they are. Just a little taste, a teaser, of the glory that is coming.

If we live for right here and now, we will always be disappointed. But if we live for the glory Jesus has prepared for us, we will never be disappointed!

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Jesus Never Quits

Hello church family, this is Pastor Phil—

Today’s gospel reading, Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23 is by far one of my favorite parables and teachings of Jesus because it sheds such a realistic light on the different ways that we respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ. This parable tells us so much about our own human nature, about the people in our lives, and about the nature of our savior Jesus. 

The parable itself is simple. You have a farmer who seems to have lost his mind. This farmer is taking handfuls of seed. Not just any seed, but precious, expensive seed and walking around town just throwing it anywhere. Throwing it on the grass, on the weeds, on the parking lot, and yes, some of it lands in freshly tilled and earthy soil. It seems like such a waste. But then Jesus explains the parable. The seed in the parable is the Gospel message, the good news of Jesus Christ’s salvation earned for us on the cross. The farmer is God spreading good news of salvation found in Jesus to the whole world through His Word and His people. Jesus then shares all of the different reactions that the human heart has to hearing and receiving the Good News of Jesus. 

The first group of people are you and me. When we receive God’s word in faith and we celebrate the amazing news of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life that is given to us freely in Jesus Christ. It is the best news ever. It means our sins are forgiven and we are free from that guilt. It means we have absolute hope and certainty in the future, no matter what comes next and when we die, we will live eternally with Jesus. Not only with Jesus, but with all of the saints who have gone before us, and we will never be separated again. Embrace that amazing word from God and let it fill you with indescribable joy. Be the fertile soil that has received the good news with joy and watch your trust in the good news grow! 

But let this parable be a cautionary tale for you as well. I call the examples of the different soils and different human hearts that receive the good news but let the trials and temptations of the world choke out their joy and their faith, simply “don’t be that person.” It is a warning for all Christians, that sin, death and the devil and all the distractions of the world are actively trying to choke out your faith and steal your joy. As a Christian, be wise and realize that there are powers in this world that want to steal your joy and want to rob you of eternal life. Guard that gift you’ve been given like it is the most precious gift in the world, because it is. When the world tries to steal your joy, stick with Jesus and hold on no matter what. 

The next group of people are the people in our lives. I think the most important take away from this parable for you and me is that we are not in control of how the good news of Jesus takes hold in a person’s heart. We see clearly that Jesus never forces anyone to receive the good news of faith but allows the hearers to reject and fall away from that gift of faith. We love the people in our lives so much that we want them to know, receive and have the same joy in Jesus that we do. But we cannot control how the gift of faith is received or what is done with it. That’s not within our power, never has been. Our job is to keep spreading the Good News through sharing God’s Word, through preaching and teaching, through love and forgiveness, and trusting Jesus. 

Because the final person this parable reveals about their nature is Jesus. That is what I love about this parable the most is that it shows how Jesus’ love is extravagant, and it never stops.

This past week we’ve had to get ready for contractors to work on our basement. For years now there was a slow crack spreading through our basement wall facing the backyard. This past year, we don’t know exactly what caused it to be so drastic so quickly, but that crack became a rupture as 2/3 of the wall is now leaning into the basement. It’s expensive but we have to get it repaired. What is so disheartening about this whole thing is that when we moved here 8 years ago, we spent thousands of dollars and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to renovate and finish the basement for our family. Yesterday, I tore down the wall Shi and I built for our master bedroom and we ripped out a huge section of Phil’s bedroom. When the contractors are finished, most of the basement is going to have to be redone. 

It all really sucks, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I imagine that’s a tiny, tiny fraction of how God may feel when the Good news falls on soil that doesn’t receive it. Time and time again the work is put in for a human life to be saved, and time and again something happens, and it feels like all of the hard work is torn down. Or when we ourselves allow the pressures of the world to break down our own hope and the work done in our life starts to crumble. Or when we work so very hard for a loved one to hear and know the good news of Jesus and it seems like it is rejected time and again. It is feels like a sucker punch to the gut—but this is where the love of Jesus shines through. 

In the parable, Jesus doesn’t stop. Weeds, heat, birds, broken walls and hardened hearts, Jesus does not stop spreading the good news of Salvation. Not one time, but Jesus keeps at it and keeps going over and over and over and over and over again. That is how great the love of God in Jesus is, that Jesus never considers any one of us a lost cause—but keeps working in us and on us. Because it is eternity that we are dealing with what does it matter if it takes 70 years for the good news of Jesus to take root in a human heart when that human life will have all of eternity to celebrate what Jesus has done for them. 

But, let that not be said of us, that it took 70 years for the good news of Jesus to take hold. Because, right here and right now, the good news of Jesus saves us from so much unnecessary hurt and pain and gives to us a joy that fills us no matter what happens around us. No, it is better to receive it now and to live with hope knowing that no matter what happens, Jesus never quits, on our loved ones or on us. 

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Freedom in Christ

Hello church family, this is Pastor Phil- 

Our reading this Sunday is from Matthew 11:28-29 (you can read the whole chapter here!)

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Near the beginning of the Coronavirus Quarantine, my daughter, Emma, got pretty sick with an upper respiratory illness that started to go into pneumonia. All of our immediate family are asthmatics and we tend to get upper respiratory problems a lot but, considering what was going on at the same time, we really wanted Emma to get checked out and treated. We tried to get Em in to see her primary care doctor, but because her symptoms met some of the conditions on the COVID-19 checklist, they sent us directly to the triage unit at the ER for COVID. Now, she got treated, she didn’t have the coronavirus, and it all worked out well, until… 

we received the bill for the ER visit. Our health insurance company decided to not pay the bill for the ER because they said it wasn’t an emergency and we were charged the full amount. With all of the xrays and bloodwork she had done you can imagine how much that “amount you owe” was! You know how heavy something like that is and it was weighing me down. It was another bill demanding money we didn’t have. So, I called my health insurance company and explained the situation. Honestly, I was expecting and preparing for a long-drawn out battle like these things usually end up being; instead, when I talked to the rep she was compassionate and understanding; she said she felt so bad for what happened to us and having the claim denied just made it worse. She told me what to do and said, “Don’t worry. It’ll be taken care of.” You know what? It was. I did what she told me to do, our claim was accepted, and the final bill was much, much more reasonable. I went from having this huge burden weighing me down to feeling at peace and free. 

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

When Jesus says these words from our Gospel lesson today, He had just finished preaching and teaching throughout the cities in the region and in many of those places Jesus was rejected. Standing on the hillside, Jesus cries out to those cities, “woe to you and your people” because of what you have done to yourselves in continuing to reject the Good News of Jesus. 

It is as if Jesus was in a boat in the ocean and all of these people were drowning in the water all around Him. Jesus kept throwing out lifeline after lifeline to the drowning people weighed down by the weight of the water, but instead of grabbing hold of the means of their salvation, they kept tossing the lifeline away and yelling, “No thank you Jesus, I’ll do it on my own.” 

The ocean is the weight of sin and separation from God that all of humanity is drowning in because of our lives and actions. God loves His creation, us, so much that He didn’t just leave us to drown in our sin and be separated from God eternally, but came to us in Jesus to save us from our sins and bring us back into an eternal relationship with our Heavenly Father. So, Jesus cried out to them, “You don’t have to drown eternally under the heavy weight of your sin, I am here to take that weight from you.” 

When we’re drowning under the weight of our sin, we can’t free ourselves. Back in my 20’s I used to go white water rafting as often as I could, down the Pyle, Gauley, and New rivers among others. I have a story about being thrown from the raft and doing my best Wiley Coyote impression, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Like often happens on rafting trips, you do fall out. I remember vividly one day on Gauley I was thrown from the raft and stuck upriver while the raft kept going. I put my feet up in front of me and floated down the river until I caught up with them. By this point I was so tired and water-logged that when I got to the raft, I couldn’t pull myself in, no matter what I did, so my crew grabbed hold of the back of my lifejacket and hauled me in. They did for me what I absolutely couldn’t do for myself. 

That is us weighed down by our sin. Just look around us today and we see the results of sin in our lives and in our world. Look at all of the ways that people try to improve themselves, whether through religion or self-help, and everyone ends up at the same place, simply hoping and wondering that they did enough, but always sure that they didn’t. That is why what we are talking about is Jesus and what He does for us. Jesus took all of that weight of sin upon himself on the cross so we wouldn’t have to bear that weight eternally. In faith, Jesus takes that heavy burden of sin from us and gives to us His gift that He earned for us, salvation and eternal life.

In faith in Jesus, we are freed from the weight of sin and given salvation; Jesus lifts us up during every weight that the world puts upon us. There is a story about the late evangelist Henry Moorhouse and his little daughter who was paralyzed.

She was sitting in her chair as he entered the house one day with a package for his wife. Going up to her and kissing her, he said, “Where is mother?” “Mother is upstairs.” “Well, I have a package for her.” “Let me carry the package to Mother.” “Why, Minnie, dear, how can you carry the package? You cannot carry yourself.” With a smile on her face, Minnie said, “Oh, no, Papa; but you give me the package, and I will carry the package, and you will carry me.” Taking her up in his arms, he carried her upstairs — little Minnie and the package, too.

Despite every burden that this world puts upon us, we, as Christians, we do not carry the weight alone, but Jesus carries us through this entire life until we are in our eternal home, where every weight and burden is lifted from us and we are given the free and easy gift of eternal life to carry forever. 

Here is the praise song that Pastor Jody shared with us last week 😀
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Forgiveness + Freedom = Responsibility

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil-

Our reading today is from the Gospel lesson, Matthew 10:26-28

“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”

“It’s your fault. No. It’s your fault. You’re not doing it right! What’s wrong with you!” 

Unfortunately, those words are very, very easy to say. 

It seems to be what I am hearing most often in the fighting around us right now over culture and race. For, whatever side someone seems to be taking about the issues, what is said most is that all of the problems in the world are someone else’s fault. Society, institutions, different kinds of people from who I am, even God. It’s all someone else’s fault that these things are happening. 

If you’re not as angry or ticked off as everybody else is on the topic of the moment, then you’re told you’re wrong, too, and it’s all your fault and if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. The solutions is whatever someone thinks should be be at that moment and, if you don’t agree, then you’re a horrible person. 

But it is so easy to say those words and to blame someone else for when things go wrong. You and me, we do it just as easily as anyone else. I know I hear that voice in the back of my mind when something has gone wrong and I had a hand in it going wrong. That voice in the back of my head wants to blame someone, anyone, just not me. 

We blame God. Why did this bad thing happen, why did this person get sick, why all of the injustice in the world? “God, it must all be your fault.” It’s easy to blame God because He doesn’t come down and smite us with lightning if we do, even when we deserve it, because that’s not how God works. 

But when we do this, when we blame everyone else, we’re missing the point. If it is everyone else’s fault and never my fault, then I can be angry all I want at the other person and demand that they change but never feel like I have a responsibility to change my own ways and how I am living. 

It is hard to take responsibility for our own actions because we’re scared to face the reality of our own mistakes. We know we can’t go back in the past and fix them. We’re scared our actions might actually say something about us that we don’t want to hear. 

Then we hear these words of Jesus and they are not comforting or encouraging either— “for nothing is covered that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known.” Jesus says it clearly: the things about us that we don’t want anyone to know about, that we don’t even want to acknowledge ourselves, that we try to blame everyone else for–all of it will be uncovered and revealed. Nothing will remain secret.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done

Revelation 20:12

This passage describes the last day, when Jesus comes back with all of the angels and all of humanity is there before the throne of God and all actions are revealed. When I was younger I actually I heard a sermon on this passage and imagined it was like a drive-in movie theater and everything I did was put on the movie screen for all of humanity to see. That is a terrifying thought. But that is the reality of what these passages say–nothing will be hidden; everything will be revealed. God means everything. With that kind of transparency, how can anyone ever hope to be saved or to pretend that our broken actions were someone else’s fault when it is up there on the movie screen for everyone to see. Your personal responsibility would be very clear and there would be no excuses. That is why it is so hard to take responsibility for our actions because they speak against us and there is absolutely nothing, nothing we can do about it. We, and we alone, have earned separation from God by our own actions. It is not God’s fault, or our neighbor’s fault, or anyone else’s fault but our own. 

But God, our Heavenly Father, doesn’t leave us like this, without any hope. God came and took all of the punishment for our sins upon himself. That is why Jesus died on the cross to suffer so we wouldn’t have to suffer eternally. It was not God’s fault, but God took the punishment anyway to save us because of His great love for us. By doing this, God provided for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves: a way to be saved, not by our own actions because we could never do enough to make up for the wrong, but by God’s actions for us in Jesus. When we believe and trust in what Jesus has done for us, we are saved. 

It’s like, on the last day, when all of our actions are up on that big movie screen, Jesus covers them all up with the most beautiful, purest white that you have ever seen, and then the words forgiven are written on the screen.

When we are forgiven, we can feel free to take responsibility for our actions because they don’t have the same damning hold over us anymore. They are no longer a death sentence like they used to be, but moments that we must learn and grow from, knowing that we are free to do so because God does not hold those things against us any longer and we don’t have to either. 

When those hurtful moments come back to haunt us, in our dreams and in our lives, we realize we’ve grown now, and we’ve learned not to blame others but to take responsibility for our actions. But we do that with a sense of peace knowing that we can leave all of those things in the heart of Jesus who died for us and move ahead in life as forgiven people who are free from the bondage of the past. 

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Same Life, Same Need, Same Savior

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil-

Our reading today is from the Great Commission, Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16-20

It feels like in our country we’ve gone from one bout of craziness to the next, from coronavirus to pandemic and lockdown, to violence and looting in the streets, and calls to defund the police from elected officials. Speaking out for beliefs in the public forum and working to bring about cultural change is a protected practice in this country, unlike in other countries where that freedom of speech is harshly put down.

But it feels like everyone has to have an opinion on the topic right now. I can’t tell you how many companies I may have used once or ones I have no idea how I got on their mailing list have sent me “open letter” emails telling me they’re not racist. It’s even everywhere on the tv and cable right now. Just like when the COVID pandemic was at its height and everyone had to say how “we’re all in this together” and now they really want to make sure everyone knows their company isn’t racist, without anyone asking. I do wonder why we don’t have open letters or protests every time a police officer is killed in the line of duty. 

Since these protests have begun, US secret service agents have suffered broken bones when bottles of urine and rocks were thrown at them. An officer in Philly was run over by a car. Police officers across the country were stabbed, shot, and killed. Of the 800,000 some officers in this country, almost all of them just trying to do their job and get home at night, are getting brutalized because the actions of a very few who are being used as an excuse and a justification to hurt them. But attacking the many men and women who are trying to protect us should be just as wrong and reprehensible as the way that man died. If you go online to the officer down memorial page (https://www.odmp.org/search/year/2020) and just look at the pictures of the men and women who have died in the line of duty just this year, you will note they all come from different backgrounds, race, and color. Just like the man who died in the street, but no one is protesting for them when they get killed. 

So, instead of teaching respect for every life, we are seeing violence, looting, and outright murder in the name of “change” that might make some feel powerful and strong but all they are doing is ruining businesses, stealing lives, and destroying families. Currently, at least 18 people are dead in this country as a direct result of those protests.

I appreciate what Martin Luther King Jr. said about this— 

“In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.” 

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. December 11, 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture

When you see mob mentality, looting, burning, and murder, that’s never really about peace but about a twisted version of vengeance and a plain old excuse to do the horrible things “I want to do.” 

But all of these protests draw people who feel like they should be out there and speak their voice. They feel like they should retaliate and take out their aggression on others, even if the people they’re hurting have absolutely nothing to do with what they think they’re angry about. People feel seriously pressured to put out their “open letters” and make a statement, but what are they really supporting and why suddenly now? Everyone feels pressured, like they have to say something—but say the right thing, or they might get yelled at and hurt if they have the wrong opinion. 

This idea of mob revolt and violence, of course, is not new, but is as old as humanity. During Jesus’ ministry in Israel, the rioting and violence was all based on the occupation of the Roman Empire in Israel. Those mobs were called the zealots and they violently protested the Roman Empire in their country. They looted, murdered, burned and took out all of their anger on everyone else, even their fellow countrymen if they thought they had the wrong political ideology. Men called the Sicarii carried tiny daggers in their cloaks and would stab people and soldiers in public and run off. It was a powerful movement as well like the movement we’re seeing now, and everyone was forced to have an opinion and if yours wasn’t the right opinion for the person you were talking to, you were likely to get hurt as well. 

It was against this backdrop of mob mentality, violence, looting, burning, and murdering that Jesus’ ministry and the education of His disciples all took place. It was in the context and culture of outright murder and political unrest that Jesus taught his disciples these truths about the kingdom of God and what it meant to live as a Christian. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Luke 6

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

Matthew 5:43-48

Then today in our reading-

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” 

All nations include those people we don’t like and those who don’t like us, and anyone who is considered an enemy. Unfortunately, the draw of violence, violent rhetoric, getting caught up in it all, has always been there for humanity and will always be there as long as we are here. But the results are always the same—murder leads to murder, death to death, hurt to hurt, pain to pain. At least 18 dead, good men and women in uniform severely hurt and killed, countless others brutalized does not make up for, make better, or lead to positive change. It never will. 

When Jesus taught his disciples and us today, it was not in a sterilized environment, but in the midst of the political and social upheaval and violence. Yet Jesus taught another way—the way of peace and righteousness. This is the way that values every life, no matter their color or their uniform because every life is precious and worth caring for. This is because of the love that God has for each and every life. 

God didn’t choose the path of violence against us when we were His enemies, when we spoke against God, or insulted His ways and His name. God didn’t just wipe us all off the planet and forget about this whole humanity and creation thing. God chose to meet the hurt of our world by taking all of that hurt on himself. That is what our savior Jesus did for all of us, without exception. He took the worst of the violence, and the mobs, and bore it all on the cross. 

In Jesus, no longer can we ever argue about Black Lives, All Lives, Blue Lives, or any other life matters, because all life is equally in need of the salvation that comes from Jesus and all life is equally loved by Jesus. In Jesus, we are all the same, with all of the same need and the same answer to that need in the one Savior, Jesus. Same need, same savior, same love, same life. 

This is the Way Jesus has called his people live, to spend our lives not caught up in the rhetoric and anger or violence of the moment but in teaching and preaching to every person, no matter who they are, both our common need and the answer to that common need in Jesus alone. 

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A Beautiful Life

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil-

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

John 7:37-39

What matters most is who we’ve touched with love and who has touched us. 

When all is said and done, it is our relationships that matter the most.

There are two ways of living:

One is the age-old tragic story of a person who spends all of their time in achieving, whether that be professionally or financially. To achieve that success or simply to keep chasing after it when it always alludes them takes so much time and so much effort. There are sacrifices that are made to chase that dream. Family and friends are sacrificed, time with the people who love them is given away. The moments turn to years turn to decades and who knows whether the goals are met. Maybe success and lucrative finances are finally achieved, or maybe they remain that ever-elusive dream that never comes to fruition. That life is now coming to a close and all that is really wanted is a second chance for all of those lost moments to be with the people who aren’t with them anymore. They are left empty-handed at the end.

The other is also the age-old beautiful story of a person who spends all of their time in loving. They may still be successful financially and professionally, or not, but it in the end that doesn’t really matter. They find that way to live true to what matters most, that is, embracing the people in their lives and loving them deeply. This way of living also has sacrifices. Professionally and financially they may or may not have achieved all they could have achieved, but who cares. People aren’t always easy to love, but it is worth it in the end. Their time and energy and heart and desire are all truly spent loving the people in their life and building those relationships in deep and meaningful ways. The moments turn to years turn to decades and the people they love and are loved by are there with them. Some came and went; there are hello’s and goodbye’s, but the love is still there. That life is now coming to a close and all that is really wanted is the best for those people whose lives have been so interconnected to theirs. They are rich and fulfilled at the end. 

When all is said and done, it is our relationships that matter the most.

Unless someone is foolish and doesn’t learn from the lessons of the past, of these two ways of living, there is really only way to live—that is the life of loving deeply and building beautiful relationships. Because relationships and love are what make us rich and fulfilled in life. This is true, as well not only simply from practical experience, but because it is how our Heavenly Father created us to be. 

God, as he has revealed himself in Jesus and through His Spirit, has revealed to us the deepest of mysteries in all of creation. God is love.

God is love. 

I John 4:8

Love is only found in relationship because Love has a giver and a receiver. Because God is love (I John 4:8), then within who God is, is relationship: the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Love eternal, given from Father to Son to Spirit. Perfect and complete love is in the eternal nature of God. 

Because the heart of all of creation, the meaning of life, the center of all things, is God, and God is love, then the goal of fulfillment of we are who God’s creation and people is love. When we are sharing in that love with each other, giving and receiving, that is when life is at its most perfect and beautiful. We know this to be true. We’ve experienced it in our lives. We are our best and at our best when we are loving each other and being loved. When we are doing this, we are participating in the very nature of God and fulfilling the design of creation that God laid out for us. 

Because God is love, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, loves us and brings us into His love in a way that we couldn’t ever do for ourselves. God gives to us the gift of His Spirit inside of our hearts. The Holy Spirit of God that lives within us as Christians is the closest relationship we can ever have. Because, as close as we are with the people we love the most and hold the dearest, we are still separated by flesh and blood, thought and mind. The Holy Spirit of God comes to us, lives within us, and has relationship with our very spirits—the essence of who we are. We can never have this kind of relationship at the very core of our being with someone else, but God can and does have it with us. 

God’s Holy Spirit dwells in me, and you, and all of His children in faith. Which means, as God’s children—life or death, physical or spiritual—nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus (Romans 8:31-39) Because we are all connected by the Spirit of the Living God—life or death, physical or spiritual—nothing can separate us from each other because all of us are in the love of God in Jesus. Jesus brings us into the purest form of what it means to be part of this creation that God has made for us, because of His love for us. Jesus brings us into the eternal relationship of love that is God and we are connected to each other, eternally.

For all of this goodness done for us and knowing that the goal of creation is love and relationship we respond by learning to live in love for each other and for God. 

Why would we want any of the things of this world, whether money or possessions, petty jealousies or misunderstandings to get between us? What do those things matter; they will not last. Only the love of God in Jesus will last. 

That is why, when it is all said and done, it is the relationships in our life that matter the most.  

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Where your worth comes from

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ…

Ephesians 1:15-20

So, all of you know about my families’ rescue dogs. As a family, we’ve been taking care of rescue dogs since I was little and it’s a mission and a ministry that I am raising my children into now. With all of our dogs, it’s amazing how you can really see the way the abuse they’ve experienced in the past effects their behavior now. Sometimes it’s a particular object they are afraid of and respond to, like men with hats, or dishtowels and brooms. But it’s also situations. 

I love to roughhouse with my kids. My son, Philip, loves to slam his head into my stomach like a billy goat and my daughter, Em, attaches herself to my legs and wants me to walk her around. As a family we play like this often. Some of my rescue dogs get really upset when we roughhouse. My dog, Lincoln Log, who came from a very severe abusive situation gets between us, stands up on back legs and puts his paws on me to stop me, like he’s afraid I’m going to hurt the kids. Another one of our dogs, Toby, hides behind grandma and whines when we roughhouse. Of our 5 dogs, 4 of them have a very particular reaction to what they think is happening and how that connects to their past experiences. Then there’s Casey. 

Casey is our oldest, a senior dog. We’ve had her since before I went to Seminary and we’re the only family she has ever known. We found her just as a tiny, tiny pup, not even weaned, in a Walmart shopping cart on a hot St. Louis summer day in August. She was Shi’s and my first rescue dog. She has never, ever known hurt, abuse, or intentional pain. Honestly, she’s lived a life of leisure and doggy heaven her whole life. Casey doesn’t get upset when we rough house. She’s never known violence or hurt and so when we roughhouse and play; she just hangs out with us and watches the fun.

When we look at how dogs react, we have to look behind the behavior to the reality of past experiences, hurts, and, really, the heart of the animal. When we look at how people react and live and do things, it’s the same thing; we have to look behind the behaviors and see the realities that are going on behind the scenes. These realities include memories, experiences, physical and emotional changes and illnesses, and spiritual realities, all interplaying together to form the present reality of a person. 

we have to look behind the behavior to the reality of past experiences

That is the prayer that Pastor Paul has for each of us in the reading today, that the eyes of our hearts might be opened so that we can see the spiritual realities that are hidden behind the physical realities of our lives. By knowing those realities, we might fully know the hope we have in Jesus and the promise of His power in our lives, both now, and eternally. 

This is true when you see someone who, according to earthly standards, is of no account. When we see them with the eyes of our hearts that Jesus has opened for us, we see that person’s eternal value and the love of God in Jesus given for them. But in the same way when we see someone who may have everything according to earthly standards, we see as well where their eternal and real value is, in the love of God in Jesus given for them. 

This is true when we struggle with each other and it’s so easy to start to judge each other and our worth by behaviors or words that we are having a hard time with. We can feel like that person’s worth is somehow less because of their behaviors. Or how we should treat that person is less because of what we see. But for we Christians, Jesus has given to us another way of seeing–seeing with the heart and eyes of Jesus, that sight that sees a worth and value that doesn’t change no matter what that person has done. 

This is also true when we struggle to see our own worth. When our hurts and past experiences beat us down, when the expectations of the world and the struggle with sin and guilt brings tears to our eyes and we can’t see ourselves any longer, Jesus gives us a different way of seeing. Jesus opens the eyes of our hearts to see ourselves as He sees us, with unconditional love and an eternal worth that no matter of sin or hurt can ever touch or change. 

As Christians, we have been given a gift of seeing our world and each other, not with our physical eyes, but with our spiritual eyes. The eyes of our heart that Jesus has opened for us in faith. 

My value and worth come from the love of God in Jesus.

When you use the eyes of your heart given to you in Jesus, when you see each other, you will see how much they are loved and worth no matter what and you will learn to care for each other according to that vision. When you see yourself, you will learn to see beyond the guilt and the hurt and see how much you are loved and worth no matter what and you will learn to care for and value yourself according to that vision. 

Trust Jesus–He is the one who gives you this vision and tells you what is real and what matters and what doesn’t. Take Jesus at His Word and see your worth, see the worth of each other, and treat each other and yourself according to how Jesus sees you. 

If, someday, I might stop you and ask, where does your value and worth come from?

I want you to be able to say and know your answer to that question, without hesitation.

My value and worth come from the love of God in Jesus.  

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Words we don’t hear very often, again…

Hello Church family this is Pastor Phil,

Our reading today is actually a few verses earlier than the selected reading from I Peter 3:13-22, looking at vs. 8.

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

I Peter 3:8

If you haven’t had a chance to read through I Peter in your personal devotions I would really encourage you to do so. I Peter is immensely practical in terms of how a Christian gets to live in this world and the encouragement of sympathy and tenderness are all the more surprising considering the source of this letter–Peter. 

When he met Jesus, Peter was a fisherman, tough and hot-tempered, skilled and hard-working, most likely a man of action, physical and bold, not afraid to speak his mind or to speak rashly. This is the same Peter who impulsively jumped out of the boat to get to Jesus on the rough waters and needed rescuing from Jesus. The same Peter who brashly cut off someone’s ear when Jesus was arrested, who boldly declared his unconditional allegiance to Jesus, and who also lied about knowing Jesus. Peter was outspoken, probably very loud, a natural leader who put it all out there without thinking much of the consequences or effects his words and actions would have on others. Those consequences led to a broken Peter, deep in regret and sorrow after denying Jesus; whom Jesus, after His resurrection, would come to by the water, take up the broken pieces of Peter’s life, and give Peter both forgiveness and purpose for the future.

This all-out-there Peter doesn’t seem like the same man who wrote these words: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” 

That Peter now valued sympathy, love, tenderness, and humility in his Christian life did not mean he was weak or a coward. This is also the same Peter who was arrested and shackled for his Christian faith after Jesus ascended to heaven. The same Peter who boldly helped lead the church in Jerusalem through all of the tumultuous early years of what it meant to be Christian. The same Peter, who when faced with martyrdom on the cross like Jesus, did not consider himself worthy enough to die in the same way as His savior and asked to have his cross turned upside-down when he was crucified. 

Peter was not a coward, but he wasn’t the same brash, out-there man either. No, because of Jesus he exchanged one way of living for another, he exchanged the ways of the world for the ways of Jesus.  

I want you to consider how the ways of the world ask–no demand of you–to act and live. In this world right now, there doesn’t seem to be any place for humility or gentleness. No, what seems to be valued more is loudness and stubbornness, a state of being determined to be right no matter what and to make sure you’re the loudest and most out there. 

I hear a lot of “me” and not a lot of “we”. I hear “you,” but in the “it’s all your fault” kind of “you.” 

I hear a lot of “me” and not a lot of “we.”

Then when this coronavirus struck and I heard things like, “you’re not alone” and, “we’re all in this together.” But now that it seems like things are calming down and we’re at least going to get back to a version normalcy for us, I’m not hearing the “we’re all in this together,” as much and I’m hearing more of “it’s your fault” and “what’s wrong with you?” and, “I’m right,” “no, I’m right!” 

The words of the brash and out-there Peter who became tender and humble Peter, speak truth today as much as they did all of those years ago.

It is a call for you and me, for the Christian to be led by the Holy Spirit in how we are going to live and act right now, no matter how the world is choosing to live and act, right now. 

Because that’s how it goes–sometimes the world will, at least a little bit and for a time, line up with some of the values of the Christian life and other times, if not most of the time, will not line up. But the ways of the world are not our personal barometer on how to live. Jesus is our personal barometer; and the ways he calls us to live and how we see those ways lived out in our brothers and sisters in Christ, like Peter, inform us on how to live.

But the ways of the world are not our personal barometer on how to live.

So, take these words to heart from our brother Pastor Peter: Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 

What do these words mean for you and for your life? 

What does it look like to have sympathy instead of apathy or straight out hostility? 

Or to choose to regard yourself with a humble mind instead of assuming you know it all or are absolutely correct.

How are you called right now to be tender on Facebook? To show brotherly (and sisterly) love in your community and workplace? To maintain the fellowship of faith in your church family that may not always agree, but is always part of the same family and same team? Be of one heart and one mind, which is the heart and mind of Jesus. 

As we continue to explore this new normal together, take the words and life, fall and redemption, of our brother Pastor Peter to heart in how Jesus is calling you to live and act right now. 

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We are the Church

Hello Church Family! 

As a church family we were never meant to stay behind walls and doors. 

Those doors and walls are important. However, we’ve become very used to calling the building where a Church family meets, “the Church.” Doing so over the years has changed the way that we understand what the Church is. The Church has become a place instead of a people. A location instead of a movement. A place you go to instead of who you are. 

The Church has become a place instead of a people.

As a Church family we’ve worked hard over the years to reclaim that Biblical understanding of what the Church actually is and what the building is. The building is the place where we gather together. It is a safe place to learn and grow in our faith together. A building to meet with your brothers and sisters in Christ and bring with you all of the hurts the world inflicts upon us and receive love and healing. A location you can go to knowing that what our God has commanded us to do together: hear His Word, share in his Sacraments, receive forgiveness of sins, and be loved by others—is all happening there. The better word for the Church building is one that has been used through the centuries—a sanctuary. 

In our Christian tradition the word Sanctuary often refers to the inner most part of the building where the altar is and where people gather for worship–the Holy of Holies. But it also and much more commonly refers to the whole building. A sanctuary. A place of refuge and rest where you can come to be at peace. 

Abbi knows this. Our little sister in Christ, Abbie: for her the church building is one of her favorite places. Rick and Linds are always telling me about how she knows exactly where the building is and every time she is here, she can’t wait to go inside and be there. Even though Abbi can’t always say with words what she wants, she makes it very, very clear with her actions that she wants to be in the building. I love watching how happy she gets when she is here. It is a sanctuary to her, a place she loves to go to with her family and Church family. 

Like our sister Abbi, the walls and the doors, the building we call Gethsemane, or the name you have for the building where your church family meets, that is our sanctuary. A location. A resting place. But it isn’t the Church. 

We are the Church. 

…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

I Peter 2:5

See how the Bible describes what the Church looks like and what it does. 

  • A spiritual house- Together as God’s people saved by Grace through faith, we are God’s house where our Heavenly Father dwells among us– that is, all of God’s people saved by grace. From the earliest of those born in the dusty pages of history all the way to those who will be born into the far-reaching future. From all of those who are living now on this earth and all of those who are dwelling now in the safety of Heaven. All of us together are being built into a house that reaches through the pages of time, that penetrates past death, that dwells between the spiritual and material, all connected together as the dwelling place of the Most-High God, our Heavenly Father. Because Jesus brought us into His Family and gave us His Father, this is our family home, forever. In this family home we are always, always connected, from the past to the future, from those on earth and those in heaven; because of Jesus we all live in the same spiritual house, together. It is an awesome picture!
  • A holy priesthood- I think the phrase, “holy priesthood,” can best be described as people who are set apart to handle the holy things of God. I know, I know– every time I talk about this and the reality that the Bible calls every Christian a holy priest, someone freaks out. Honestly, that is not an unreasonable reaction. The holy things of God sound really intimidating and we often have a picture of what a priest/pastor/clergy-like person is supposed to be like. I know, as a called and ordained clergy-like person, I freak out every day knowing that I am a priest and a pastor. The infamous words from Wayne’s World always come to mind, “we’re not worthy.” But all of that simply are own fears and insecurities trying to talk really loudly in our heads. The holy things of God? That is God’s perfect love given to us through Jesus. As a holy priesthood our Heavenly Father has called us to handle His love. That is receive His love, share His love, explore His love, learn about His love, and love as we are loved. Are we worthy? Of course not! But love is not about worth, it is about grace and mercy–our Heavenly Father’s grace and mercy for you and me, and all people, and all of creation. To be a holy priesthood, for you to be a priest, simply means love. The love of God in Jesus. 

The rest of the passage in I Peter goes on to describe the Church as being mobile. That means it does stuff.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

I Peter 2:9

All of those words– royal priesthood, a nation, a people, proclaiming– all of them are things that we do. A priesthood does priestly things; a nation is built and governed; a people work together; proclaiming is to make an announcement. All of these things is the Church on the move, outside of the walls and the doors, being and doing what the Church is and does. 

We see evidence of all of the reality of this, right here and now, sitting together in our parking lot, in our cars. We are the Church and, even if we’re not in our building right now, that doesn’t stop us from being Church or being God’s House or being a Church family. In fact, maybe it was a well-needed reminder for the Church. The building is the sanctuary, a safe place where we meet together for worship and learning. 

But we are the Church. Just like we are sitting in our cars right now. We are meant to be mobile. To drive, to live, to go. To be the Church in our world, and with our families, and in our community. 

We are the Church. We come together to worship. But we are the Church, because of Jesus. 

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Not a Foolish Faith

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil.

Our reading for this Sunday is from John 10:1-4.

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, when we think of following Jesus, our Good Shepherd, knowing exactly where He is leading us. Jesus is leading us both to eternal life with Him and all the Saints who have gone before us, and a life now that is filled with hope, meaning, and purpose. 

It is the image of being on a long journey and at first not knowing where you are going, or how you are going to get there, or who you should follow. Jesus comes to us and says, “follow me,” (Matthew 4:19), “I am the Good Shepherd,” (John 10:11-18). I will take you to the good pastures, to the places of peace and hope forever, you don’t have to be lost anymore. 

Following our Good Shepherd is a theme that centers all around faith and trust. 

The word faith is one that I have seen circling around social media in Christian circles lately, like about having faith during this Coronavirus pandemic, or saying we have to have faith that this will all turn out well. A pastor in Louisiana continues to talk about “just having to get to Jesus” while holding public gatherings. (As if Jesus is lost and you have to find Him). I have also heard some say, if you just have enough faith you won’t get sick, no matter what you do or where you go. 

What is this word, faith, that is used so easily, but not always with clarity?

Is that what faith is all about? What is this word, faith, that is used so easily, but not always with clarity? When used in Scripture, the word “faith” is used to describe different aspects of the relationship that we are given with God through Jesus. (Check out this interesting section from the LCMS on faith) Faith is like looking at a diamond that has different aspects and sections to it, but is still the same diamond. We wouldn’t be able to discuss or experience any of those aspects of faith unless God had given us the diamond in the first place. Most often when we talk about faith, it is the aspects of faith as a gift from God and faith as human trust, that we talk about most.

Scripture describes it as faith as the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross given to us as a gift of God’s love and mercy. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) You might say then that Faith is like a state of being or existence that has been created for us through Jesus. 

Scripture also talks about faith as a human act of the will. That is trust. It is the human reaction of mind, heart, and spirit to the gift of salvation given. We see this aspect described when Jesus talks about the great faith of the Centurion who asked for healing for his servant (Matthew 8:5-13) and of Peter walking on the water when he looks at the waves and loses his trust. Jesus says, “You of little faith…why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22-33).  

It is very, very important to remember that it is the gift of faith that saves, not the quantity or quality of our trust or faith in that faith that saves. One describes what God has done for us, which never changes, and the other describes our human response, which vacillates and changes like the weather in Ohio. 

… it is the gift of faith that saves, not the quantity or quality of our trust or faith in that faith that saves

Often though, when people are talking about having faith, they are describing the “human trust” aspect of faith. Us trusting in God. 

We have faith or trust in God’s promises through Jesus. We trust that He is leading us to a place of safety and security with Him. We trust that even though we die, we will live with Jesus. We trust that our lives have meaning and purpose because of Jesus. We trust that our sins are forgiven and that we are saved through His grace. This trust in our Good Shepherd Jesus to lead us to good places, both now and eternally, is not a foolish faith because we do not have a foolish God. 

When you look into the order of universe, the impossibility of life, the existence of goodness and love in a world where those things shouldn’t exist, all of the things that we take for granted point us to a reality greater than what we see and feel alone, and a good Creator that desires relationship with us and provides the way for that relationship to happen in Jesus. Even in the craziness of this virus, we know there is still created order, security, and stability in the world. Created order still continues, the sun still rises and sets, God is still God, and we still have security, security in this life and in the next. Our faith provides us in a reasonable and coherent way—in a unique way that does not happen anywhere else—the answers to the major questions in life: who are we, where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going? 

Our Christian faith, our trust in our creator God who is known through Jesus, is not a foolish trust; it is secure, solid, and sensible. It is filled with mystery, wonder, and awe—but it is not foolish. So, for you to be here today, to be listening to these words, to trust in Jesus, is not a foolish thing to do. 

Unfortunately, we can confuse our faith and trust in Jesus with doing things that God did not promise would be safe and assuming that they are, because we have faith.

In April, there was a very sad story about a Pastor in Louisiana who would not pause, even briefly, public worship. He said, “I believe God is bigger than this dreaded virus.” Unfortunately, he passed away from the virus and infected his wife as well. Yes, God is bigger than this dreaded virus, God is bigger than death, but that doesn’t mean we don’t die in this life or we don’t get sick—especially, when we do things that very likely will hurt us. Like walking into traffic, knowing there is a high probability we will get hurt or killed or do the same to someone else. We can say, “just have faith or trust in Jesus,” but Jesus never promised we would be protected if we walk into traffic. There will be natural consequences to those actions. You will go splat. 

we can confuse our faith in Jesus with doing things that God did not promise would be safe and assuming that they are, because we have faith.

The same was true when the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness. The devil said, “trust God and jump off the top of the temple, everything will be okay.” Jesus’ words, in essence, were that’s just stupid. You don’t mess with God and assume you will be protected when you do something like that. That is acting foolish. You will go splat.

In Mark 7:21-22, Jesus teaches about foolishness. He says,  

For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.

In this long list of things that we are used to thinking about as sinful actions, like sexual immorality, theft and murder, is a word we might not expect—foolishness. In the Greek the word is aphron, meaning to act senselessly, egoistically, and recklessly. Foolishness is sin and acting outside of God’s will for us.  Just as we do not love and worship a foolish God, and just like our faith and trust in that God is not foolish, we are called not to live foolishly either. If we do, that is confusing trust with recklessness. 

I know of a number of other Churches that are doing something similar to what we are doing now, with our drive-in worship after pausing worship for 5-6 weeks. This is a reasonable next step that strikes the balance between being able to worship together and continuing to do what we can to protect the health of our people and community. I also have friends who are dear brothers and sisters in Christ, both in our Church family and elsewhere, who are not attending these drive-in worship services because their immune systems are so compromised that, for them, even to leave the house right now would honestly be reckless and foolish, knowing full well they will likely get sick and die. For them, this isn’t any different than how they normally operate during a bad flu season; they stay inside then too. For most of us, this drive-in service is a reasonable next step that allows us to worship together and is safe enough for us to do so. For our brothers and sisters who have seriously compromised immune systems, this doesn’t make sense, and it is best for them to stay in. 

These faithful Christians with compromised immune systems have such an awesome and great human response of trust and faith in the gift God has given them, I pray someday I can come close to in my own faith life. But that awesome faith they have does not mean they should venture out into a situation where God has not promised their safety and where they would, very likely, get hurt and die. Like walking into traffic or jumping off of the temple. For me or them to say, “no, trust Jesus, it’ll be okay,” would be foolish, and would not be how our Lord has called us to live. 

The very first Christian martyr, Stephen, did not seek out to be martyred (Acts 7). He was simply living out his life telling others about Jesus, helping the poor, and loving others. He did not ask to be martyred or try to run headlong into it. But, when the trouble came and it was out of his control, he lived and died and lives eternally now, trusting Jesus. For us, we do not act foolishly, trying to run headlong into getting hurt. As Christians we live as Pastor Paul describes in Romans 12

…in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Like Stephen, the lives that we live in faith and trust are solid and secure in Jesus and act reasonably and sensibly in this life. Does that mean bad things won’t happen to us? No, of course not. In fact, we are promised troubles and tribulations (John 16:33). But do we go out and seek that trouble? No, we don’t. Trouble will come, and when it does come, especially because we love Jesus, we live and die trusting in our good God. If it doesn’t, we don’t look for it, we keep living the reasonable, faithful, and secure lives we have been given in Jesus.

The gift of faith from Jesus is secure and solid. Our God is secure and solid. Our human faith, that is the response of trust to what God has done for us, is reasonable and makes sense. And so we follow our solid and secure Good Shepherd Jesus to the solid and secure places He has promised to give us.

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When It All Falls Down

Hello church family, this is Pastor Phil!

Our reading for this Sunday is from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24, verses 25-35. (I would encourage you to read the whole chapter of Luke 24 here). This passage occurs after the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Morning with two of Jesus’ disciples walking away from Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus, sad and confused about Jesus’ crucifixion and not really believing anything they had heard about his Resurrection. Jesus walks with them on the road, but they don’t recognize Him, and He asks them why they are so sad. After they explain everything that had happened to Jesus and what they had hoped for, the following happens. 

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 

So, they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So, he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

I have been extra tired this past month and a half. I’ve heard the same thing from a lot of my friends and from many of you as well. I was talking about this to my best friend, Anne, who’s working from home in St. Louis. We were just like, “man, I’m exhausted.” It doesn’t seem to make a difference if we’re still able to work somewhat like usual, or if we’re working from home like I’ve been doing, or if were laid off, or trying to take care of things at home, everyone seems to feel extra tired right now. I know I do. 

If you do, or if you’re feeling down, slightly lost and misplaced, not sure what tomorrow will bring, a little bit worried and don’t know what to do with yourself, or you’re pretty sure sweatpants have become your new dress code, you’re not alone and this is completely normal. It feels like the things that we have been using to give us a sense of direction and keep us grounded are all changed about. 

When it all falls down.

When we feel these ways, often we are in shock, we are grieving, and we are trying to find something solid again to get our bearings. 

You’re pretty sure sweatpants have become your new dress code

Shock happens when a trauma occurs to a person. Not only physical trauma, but emotional and psychological trauma as well. Learning and seeing the very real effects of a pandemic where we live and being afraid for our loved ones and ourselves is a trauma in and of itself. Our bodies try to recover from the stress reaction. It is emotionally and physically draining and leaves us exhausted.

Then there’s that sense of grief. Grief is working through what this new reality in our life looks like now that someone or something isn’t there anymore. This sense of grief, of figuring out what life looks like now, takes time, is hard work and yes, it is exhausting. 

            All of this is a normal reaction to getting hit with a major traumatic event. What we’re trying to do is find our sense of identity, security, and meaning once again in this new life situation. So, we’re tired. But also angry, cranky, moody, goofy, and trying to keep busy. All of it is a way of coping.

            This is exactly what those disciples on the road to Emmaus were feeling. They had been with Jesus, seen his miracles, and believed in Him, but didn’t really understand Him–not yet, anyway. They had built their lives around Jesus and now he was gone after a horrible crucifixion and their world was crumbling all around them. Then, some of the disciples were saying crazy things about seeing Jesus resurrected. They didn’t know what to do with themselves when they heard this– they were in shock, they were grieving, and they were trying to find some solid ground. 

            What I love is that Jesus doesn’t wait around for lost and confused disciples to find Him. Jesus doesn’t wait for them to somehow find out that what they had wanted, and had thought was lost, was always there in Jesus.

Jesus came to them and showed them, “look I’m still here, your world isn’t crumbling down around you. I’ve got you like I always have!” Then he takes the disciples to the places he has always promised to be, in His Word and Sacraments. Those places and that person, the Savior Jesus, never forsake us or leave us. 

Jesus doesn’t wait around for lost and confused disciples to find Him.

            We are walking down our own Emmaus Road right now, feeling like the world is crumbling down all around us, feeling so lost, in shock and grief, just wanting something solid. I want you to know that in all of the change, Jesus hasn’t changed. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to get our act together either, but promises to be where He has always been. In His Word and His Sacraments. In your life. No matter what other craziness is going on in your own head, you can find your rest and peace in Jesus’ unchanging presence. 

            Please remember, especially, as you find your rest in Jesus, to be patient with those in your life and all around you. They are going through the same feelings you are. It might not look the same for them as it does for you, but it is the same underneath. Please, love each other well and be patient with each other, as Jesus loves and is patient with us. 

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Rest Your Heart With Jesus

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil.

The reading for this Palm Sunday, Sunday of the Passion is from John 12:12-19

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So, they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,

“Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
    sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. So, the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

To me, this COVID-19 crisis feels like that day on Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem. At first, people were cheering and having a good time. Crowds of faithful were there to celebrate the Passover and it was a huge celebration. Businesses were buying and selling, people were going about their day to day lives, everything was normal. The disciples of Jesus were the same; they were having a good time, enjoying the crowds and the cheers and the celebration. 

Then it felt like everything changed overnight. 

Then it was the Sunday of the Passion. Jesus is arrested, brought to trial, the crowds that just a few days ago were shouting out “Hosanna, alleluia, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” were now shouting, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” Nothing would be the same again. 

For us, it feels like everything changed overnight. Even though, like on Palm Sunday, it was a progression of days and events that brought about the change to the Sunday of the Passion, it still feels like one day we were doing all of our normal things and the next day, we’re making a mad dash for toilet paper in empty aisles at Walmart. Like a flip of a switch, so many of the things that we were used to, that we relied upon for our stability and security were different and gone in the blink of an eye, and now we are responding to what this new normal looks like and means for us. 

On that day, over 2,000 years ago, what didn’t change was Jesus. When the crowds were cheering his name and shouting, “Hosanna in the highest” or when the crowds were shouting “Crucify Him,” Jesus remained the same. Instead, Jesus’ eyes were fixed like flint, like stone, on where He was always going to, to the cross and to the empty tomb. From the very beginning, from the moment Jesus was promised to the world, to the moment He was born of the Virgin Mary, throughout his earthly life and ministry, no matter what was going on all around Him, Jesus remained the same. 

Jesus remained the same because Jesus was always here to be with you and me for one reason alone. To be our Savior. To be your Savior. To bring you back to your Heavenly Father and to save you from all of your hurts and all of the brokenness in this world. 

That hasn’t changed and Jesus hasn’t changed. We got used to things going a certain way, to the crowds and the cheers and the normal day to day life and then it wasn’t that way anymore, people are scared, life is different, and we truly don’t know what it will look like in the future. 

But Jesus is still the same. Jesus was still our savior when life was “normal” and Jesus is still our savior now when life is different. In all of the changes and chances of an earthly life the one and only part of this life that will never change is the security we have in the unchanging Jesus. 

While there is so much that we can’t control in the situation around us, what we can do is rest—rest and be at peace by resting in the arms of Jesus. Fall back and be calm, give all of your worries and fears and anxieties to Him. Let your unchanging Savior Jesus hold you and keep you, safe and secure.

Jesus is the one place in everything else where you can know for sure that His love, His peace, His security will never change, no matter what else does. 

On this Palm Sunday and Sunday of the Passion it is time for you and me to rest in the arms of Jesus. 

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Brave

(Please check out the end of this post for some great hymns for a time such as this)

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil. 

This week, I really appreciated it when President Trump talked about health care workers going into work with a determination on their faces like soldiers marching towards the front line. That takes courage to go in and out of a situation where normally you know illness is but now so much more with this new, highly contagious virus and the exponentially increasing demands on all of our health care workers. 

That single word, courage, has been on my mind this past week. The times that we are living in right now demands courage from each of us to face the challenges ahead. Each day presents a new surprise and a new hill to climb. Life is not how it has been. Right now, we cannot worship together like we are used too, jobs are often uncertain and even gone. We don’t like it but we don’t have too, it is what it is. Like it or not, now is a time to stand strong, soldier through, and hold up our brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. We are all in this together, and together is how we will pull through to the other side. 

This past week I was talking to one of our older parishioners and we were sharing how much we are missing being in worship together. Then he said something to me that reminded of the strength of his confession of faith. He said it something like this. As Christians, in this situation it’s a win/win for us. If we live, we’re with Jesus and when we die we’re with Jesus. Now, he wasn’t being reckless or cavalier with his attitude. Him and his family are taking the proper precautions, only going out if the absolutely have too, and staying as healthy as they can. Rather, his confession was simply a statement of fact. How it was. 

As Christians, our courage comes from Jesus. Think of this passage from 2 Corinthians 5:6-9.

So, we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.

For those in Christ Jesus, this life is a win/win. As we live, we live by faith, knowing that Jesus is with us, comforting us, forgiving us, and leading us to our eternal home where things like viruses no longer exist. Living with Jesus, we win. Not if, but when we die, we still win, knowing that we will receive fully that hope we have been looking forward too. Whether we live or when we die, we still win, because we belong to Jesus no matter what happens. Not that we are reckless with this earthly life given, because being reckless would be disrespectful to the gift of life from our Heavenly Father, rather we live with courage, bravely facing whatever it is that this life brings to us. 

Living courageously in Jesus frees us up from so much worry and allows to focus on living out our duties that God has given us to do, and working hard to help those in need all around us. Working for the good of others because of the good we have been given. Right now we do this by being on the front lines in health care, and we do this by sewing masks for those that don’t have any, like many of our members are doing right now, and we do this picking up the phone and calling someone and sending them some love. Honestly, there are more ways of loving right our neighbors right now than we can ever hope to accomplish. But that’s a good thing because we know there is always work to do and love to give and courage to lend. 

This is our time to be brave. 

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Be Kind to Each Other

Hello church family, this is Pastor Phil. 

This past week, despite the seriousness of what we are dealing with, I’ve really appreciated a number of videos on YouTube that have tried to bring some humor and give some lightness to what everyone is going through. Laughing at YouTube or with each other, doesn’t take away the difficulty of the situation, but often it can make a difficult situation a little easier to handle. (I’ve added a link at the bottom of our post today to a funny video I’ve enjoyed this week)

That’s important because what we’re seeing now is an increase in the stress that many individuals and families are feeling.

  • Often this stress is coming from our mandated workers who are put into situations where they can get sick or they are on the frontline taking care of others. Like our mandated health care workers who are working with what they have, and often not enough equipment, all to care for the sick and hurting. The stress put on them comes back home. We don’t always have a good place to let that stress out so it comes out in being extra cranky and grumpy with each other. 
  • Families that are in quarantine or are simply just stuck at home with each other, like everyone else are feeling the stress as well. As families, I don’t know if all of us really know how to spend time together without getting really stressed out by each other. Before the virus came, we all were so, so busy. Every night was filled with a sports event or activity, we worked long hours, often ate on the go or in a hurry, maybe said goodnight if everyone else wasn’t already asleep. Of course, there is variations in the intensity of this, but I don’t know if we actually saw each other that much beforehand and now in the family unit’s we are seeing each other all of the time. I don’t think we’re used to it or that we’ve really had to learn how to spend this much concentrated time together. 
  • I’ve been thinking about those that are alone and don’t have family in the home with them. Their connections and community are often outside: family visiting, worshipping in their church family, the VFW and the Legion, and those other community groups that bring us together. Without being able to participate it brings a lot of stress and isolation to individuals. 
  • Finally, I’ve been thinking about the stress put upon those in leade rship  and who are in authority. This is a unique time in our world, our nation, our state, our community, and our Church family. It has never happened like this before and quite honestly, from what I see, our leaders are really just trying to do their best in a situation where there doesn’t seem to be any perfect, 100% right answers. No matter what they do, someone and often lots of someones will be upset, think it’s the wrong choice, and want to do something different. I think about my fellow pastors, no matter what they do, someone will think it’s wrong. If they hold worship services they are called irresponsible and reckless, not caring about the health and safety of others. If they don’t hold worship services they are called faithless, bad pastors, and a disappointment. No matter what they do, it will be the wrong choice according to someone. 

All of this stress drives me deeper into God’s Word and what our Heavenly Father says about how we can and should be treating each other, especially during times of high stress and difficulty.

First, how our Heavenly Father calls us to treat each other from Ephesians 4:1-3

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 

This passage reminds us, especially now, to be intentional about the words we are using and the attitude we have. We’re going to want to take things out on the people around us, but we need to be determined to have a different spirit in us, a spirit of gentleness and patience, being intentional about how we treat each other. 

For our rulers and authorities from Titus 3:1-3

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work,  to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.

I don’t know if we talk about the passages in the Bible that talk about how God wants us to relate to those who are in authority, but this is one of many of those passages that reminds us to treat our leaders with respect and to be submissive to them and the rules that they put in place for those they are in charge of. 

For pastors, church fathers, and all of those in church leadership from Hebrews 13:17

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Your pastors are doing the best they can in this situation that is new to all of us. All of the pastors I know, are all simply doing the best they can in a lousy situation. Please don’t make it harder on them then it already is. Unless you’re in their role, most people don’t know what it feels like to carry the burden they carry for their people and how deeply they take those words to heart, that every pastor will be held to account for how they kept watch over your souls. So, please just love on your pastors, be kind to them, and listen to them because they are trying to do their best for you. 

Finally, for perspective, a reminder that all of this will pass away, and what is to come is so much better than anything we know or experience here. So please, be kind to each other now, because there is nothing in this life that is worth stressing or arguing about when compared to the glory that awaits us. From I Corinthians 2:9: 

 But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

My love and prayers to all of you and I’m looking forward to being together again soon.

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More Than A Label

Hello church family, this is Pastor Phil, 

As we’ve been watching the events of the coronavirus unfold all around us, I’ve been amazed at all of the new vocabulary and terms that seem to have become common household words in a just a weeks. 

Words like self-quarantine. I really can’t imagine before this week ever using that term about myself or others, but my doctor put me in self-quarantine when I was sick.

Or other terms, like, COVID-19 or coronavirus, neither really are things that I normally would never have said, but now, literally everyone knows what these terms mean. Another term that keeps going around is “high-risk” population. We’ve used the term at risk or high risk before, but right now, when someone says “high-risk” they pretty much only mean, individuals who are more likely to suffer severe complications if they have the COVID-19. I even saw a whole news article about “living as a high-risk” family.

This week, when I think about loved ones in my life, I’ve even started to think about them in terms of high-risk and low-risk for complications from this crazy virus. 

In such a short time it feels like the words that we use to define ourselves and each other have all changed. It’s like the ways that we define ourselves are intricately linked to this new virus. In reality, just a few months ago we talked in much the same way about the flu, heart disease, teenage drivers, the elderly, the young, and everyone else- high risk, low risk for whatever it might be that could hurt them. We’ll do the same in the future when all of this settles down. 

Not only do labels like high-risk/low-risk label you and me, but other labels from the time we were born: cute, fat, skinny, smart, athletic, not-athletic, popular, rich, and nerd have been placed on people to define them and so often to put them down. Other terms as well, hurtful, horrible labels that are repulsive to say are often thrown around in the heat of an argument or from a broken, sinful heart. 

In this world, there will always be labels and it so easy to get caught up in the labels and let them define us. But I want to remind you that in Jesus Christ, you have, not a label, but an identity, that is secure and strong, that resists all the labels. This identity in Jesus can never be taken from you. Think about this passage from John 1:12.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—

In Jesus, your identity is a child of God. That means you are loved deeply and part of a family here on Earth and in Heaven. This identity can never be taken away from you, no matter what label may be placed upon you. No matter what labels you hear or receive in the coming week, months, or lifetime, know that what matters most and will never change is your identity as a child of God in Jesus. 

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Good Gifts from God

Hello Church family, this is Pastor Phil!

I wanted to share with you some of the stories I heard this week talking to you on the phone and text messaging. For most of you, I heard you’re just staying in place, spending extra time with family in your home. Many of you are working from home right now, but there’s also a bunch of our church family that have had to self-quarantine because they weren’t feeling well but weren’t in a group that was not eligible to get tested. Like me, I was running a low-grade fever this week, my asthma was kicking up, and I was feeling really fatigued, but my doctor just told me to stay in and wait 7 days after my symptoms cleared before going out. I heard from the health care workers in our church family who are working so hard just to do their jobs and take care of other people. Please keep them in your prayers because people going to the hospital are scared and, sometimes, they’re taking that out on our health care workers.

I also heard from many of you that you are taking this opportunity to spend more focused time on your faith, from prayer and personal devotion to singing hymns and praise songs at home. I heard from some of our members most vulnerable to this virus, and they are healthy and doing well. I have heard from pretty much everyone how much we miss being in worship together and being able to be in our church family house. Thank you for sharing all of your stories with me this week. If we didn’t get to talk yet, please give me a call or text; I’d love to connect with you. 

Even if I can’t see you, it’s good to be able to share God’s Word with you and some hopefulness and security in this tim-[?.=0e of change. 

As my family has gone through this week of quarantine, I find that I’ve become more hopeful about the situation and, not only knowing, but feeling like this wasn’t going to last forever. On the medical front it looks like there are some promising drug combinations out there that have may really do some good in treating those that are infected with this new virus. I’ve also been encouraged by how many people are self-quarantining and listening to the federal guidelines. From what I’ve heard, it is making an overall difference in the spread of the disease. 

I found myself watching the news and checking online for any new stories or updates about what was happening and how things were progressing. I felt myself feel more positive when good news came through and then, when there wasn’t any news or the news wasn’t as good, I felt myself feel negative and get down. Pretty soon, all of those ups and downs not only could, but were, starting to make me feel a little bit crazy. 

That is because there is a difference between using the gifts that God has given to us and putting our hope in them. 

When we look at the First Article of the Apostle’s Creed, we’re reminded that our Heavenly Father has given to us very good and wise, earthly and material gifts to manage and deal with troubles in life. 

Listen to what the First Article of the Apostle’s Creed says-

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
      creator of heaven and earth.

And then a part of Martin Luther’s explanation of what this means. 

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. 

As Christians we read these words and are reminded that the tools we have in this life to work, live and learn with–like our reason and intellect, our senses and how we physically interact in this world, the tools of scientific study and medicine, even the tool of social distancing and self-quarantine–all of these things are good gifts from our Heavenly Father and tools for us to use and work with to combat things like viruses and illnesses in this material world. But all of these material tools are finite and frail, limited and corrupted by our disobedience and selfish hearts, prone to also fail us or not be as good as they could be. They are gifts to be used, absolutely, but our hope does not rest in the material and creaturely gifts that our Heavenly Father has given to us, though they are very good gifts from God and here for our use, but our hope rests in the Creator of all of those good gifts and his unending love for us. 

We know that not only will this material world come to an end, but our own lives will come to an end as well, whether it be in the short term or the long term, we don’t know. It is good and right to use all of the gifts that God has given to us to preserve life and home as much as we can, but we do this knowing ultimately our life is found in our Heavenly Father. Our life found here on earth will end, then our life will be found in Heaven with our Heavenly Father, and then that life will be found forever with our Heavenly Father when He makes all things new. We are given the guarantee of that life with God in the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ, who shows us that no matter what happens, when our hope and life is held by our Heavenly Father’s hands, it is always secure.

So, as Christians, we use the good, creaturely, and material gifts God has given to us, especially to preserve home and life as much as we can and is within our power, but we do not place our hope in those things. We hope only in our Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ who will hold us safe with Him, through whatever this life brings. 

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Join us in Prayer this Sunday 3/22 from 9-10a

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil,

God’s Word in I Peter 2:13-17 mandates the Christian believer in how we are to consider those who God has placed in authority over us. I want to read a portion of it to you tonight. 

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him/Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Recognizing God’s calling for us in this, as a Church family we are continuing to follow the guidelines put out for us by our District, Federal, and State authorities. We will not meet in public worship on the Sunday the 22nd or the 29th.

But as a church family we are dearly missing being together not only in worship but in the fellowship and friendship our church family is so well known for. To bring us back into some of that sense of community we are missing I am asking that our whole church family comes together in prayer this Sunday, between our usual worship time of 9 to 10, please set aside 10-15 minutes of special time deliberately praying to our HF, for a reprieve from this crisis, for our elected officials, for our authorities, for our health care workers, and for the common good of all people in this time. 

Following the command in Philippians 4:6 but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. I’m asking that our church family and all of our friends and family come together in common prayer this Sunday from 9-10, uniting us in our faith and presenting our common requests before our God. 

I’m looking forward to joining all of you as a church family in prayer this Sunday. 

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We Suffer Together

If you look at the end of the post today our Christian Education Director Tracy has provided a short message and a link for our families with young children to have devotions and bible stories at home while they are not able to go to Sunday School with their friends. 

Hello church family, this is Pastor Phil. 

I am still keeping each and every one of you in my prayers. If you haven’t received one yet, please expect a call or text from me soon. I’m working this week on getting in touch with everyone in our church family. 

Our midweek Lenten series has been about the Practice of our Faith and nowhere does the practice of our faith become more real than when we are faced with difficulties and challenges in life. This is as true in the common everyday challenges of life as when major challenges effect whole countries and the world. 

When we think of the practice of our faith during times of challenge, it is helpful to look at the body of Christ, the Church, and how a church family practices its faith and lives it out together. 

This week, I’ve been working on calling everyone in our church family, to check on them, see if they have any needs, and to pray with them. One of the most beautiful and encouraging stories I’ve been hearing from each of you is how you are caring for each other. From phone calls to checking in on each other, to bringing supplies, and even food from your freezer to our more vulnerable families who can’t go out right now, to actively keeping each other in your prayers, as the Body of Christ, our church family is right now putting the practice of its faith into action during this time of need. 

Our Heavenly Father tells us in His Word what this looks like for the Church family, the Body of Christ, to live out its faith in 1 Corinthians 12. I’ll read just some selected verses from this section. 

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Vs. 12

I Corinthians 12:12

that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. Vss. 25-27

1 Corinthians 12:25-27

As a church family we have deeply, deeply missed being able to publicly worship together as we are accustomed to. But we are also taking the concerns about the virus seriously– not only staying home if we have symptoms and are feeling sick, but also considering the possibility that individuals not having symptoms may still be contagious. In our church family, this can seriously affect many of our most vulnerable parishioners. It seems that each day we’re learning new things and trying to make the best decisions we can to keep everyone safe. This changing reality and trying to care for those in our church family, especially the most vulnerable, gives flesh to the words, “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” 

When members suffer, the body comes together. Those who are less vulnerable and more able are responsible to care for those who are in need. We all sacrifice together. As a church family and as the body of Christ, we sacrifice privileges, rights, food in our freezers, time, even meeting together for a brief period of time, for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ and for the sake of our neighbors. 

We do this as the body of Christ, because of what Jesus Christ did for us and sacrificed His body upon the cross for us. 

We pray to our Lord that during this time of challenge that we may walk in His footsteps, practicing our faith by caring for each other, and even sacrificing our rights and privileges for the sake of each other. 

One of the great ways that we can practice our faith is by using the telephone. We have an opportunity to stay in touch with each other that Christians less than 100 years ago didn’t have, and that many Christians around the world don’t have even now. We live in a time and country where we can stay connected virtually even if we can’t see each other for a short time.

During this time, please don’t hesitate to call any of the leadership in our Church Family. Your Church Fathers, Your Church Council, Ministry Team and Staff, Pastor Karl, Pastor Jody, and me, for support, encouragement, and prayer. We are a family in Christ and as God’s family we will get through this together


Hi Everyone, this is your Christian Education Director, Tracy.

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. 

Proverbs 22:6

What Proverbs 22:6 says seems pretty practical to me, but this day and age makes it hard. Add this virus that keeps us all quarantined away from each other and it makes it even worse.

But not impossible. 

For our church family with kiddos I have looked for and will continue to research ways to continue Sunday School lessons. To start this off I have included a link to Minno, a collection of cartoons and devotions for youngsters. This link does not include all shows that our membership gives us access to, but it is a start. As time goes I hope to find more and more was to “train up” our children, virtually.

Check out this website Minno Kids for worship songs, devotions, and bible videos for our younger church members. Don’t hesitate to contact me anytime.

Your Christian Education Director- Tracy

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Anxiety Control w/ Jesus

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil. Pastor Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, do not be anxious about anything. In the normal day to day of life that seems like a hard pill to swallow, let alone when a crisis has gripped our country and world. 

Anxiety can feel like an all-encompassing force that we feel trapped within and no matter how hard we try we don’t know if we can release the bonds. But with anxiety, the more we focus on what we are anxious about the more the anxiety tightens its grip on us. 

Like, in any situations in life, we work with what we can control. There are many things in this current crisis that is within our control, from how we choose to meet together, whether in person or on the phone and online to how we increase our prayer life.

Pastor Paul reminds us to respond to anxiety with what we can control, our prayers, giving everything to Jesus, both our needs and thanksgiving for all of our blessings. The rest, what we can’t control, we lay in Jesus’ hands. Take a look at Philippians 4:4-8 for these encouraging words. 

Please remember, our church family is not meeting in public worship this Wednesday or Sunday. The church leadership will continue to discuss our future plans. Please go on my FB page or my blog, www.philipmcclelland.org on Wednesday and Sunday respectively for new meditations and updates from your church family. 

All this where we are loved by God, grow together and serve Jesus. 

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Sermon for March 15, 2020 for Gethsemane Lutheran Church

Hello Church Family, this is Pastor Phil. Please know that you are in my prayers and I’m looking forward to speaking to each of you this week.

Early this week we received news from the memory care unit where my grandfather is being cared for that his facility is closed to visitors, family, and all non-essential personnel. This was done after our President and Governor both declared a state of emergency. You likely haven’t heard, but my grandfather is very ill with the progression of his dementia and recently from a stay in ICU because of dehydration. Talking with my mom, we were struggling with the idea of visiting grandpa knowing that, not only was COVID-19 in Ohio, but also that the elderly with health complications were the most vulnerable to this virus. Not only does that vulnerable population include my grandfather, but my mother. By going to the facility we would be taking a large risk of passing that virus to either of them. So we decided that knowing my grandfather is being well-cared for both by nurses and chaplains, visiting wasn’t worth doing for both their sakes. 

This seems to be one of the greatest challenges of this new virus–how to care for the most vulnerable to it. The concern is the rapid spread of the COVID-19 and how that spread can overwhelm the local health care system. It also seems that, as with the flu, those who are elderly and have serious underlying medical conditions are most vulnerable. According to the CDC, while the flu usually causes secondary bacterial infections, deaths from COVID-19 are caused by acute respiratory distress which could lead to more invasive procedures. It seems that this new virus is overall more contagious than the flu and is more lethal, especially to the elderly. However, the good news we’ve seen according to the CDC is that for those under 18, it appears they don’t become very ill with this new virus. For all of our families with young children that can ease our minds a bit, at least about that. 

The leadership for our church family has struggled with the question of not meeting for worship since it became obvious the virus would become a concern for our area. We took a lot of time weighing the pros and cons and different viewpoints about this. As your pastor, the decision not to meet publicly for a few weeks ultimately came down to caring for our neighbor. When we as a church family have the means available to us to reduce the spread of a deadly virus that will seriously impact the health and lives of those most vulnerable to it, we have a God-given obligation to do so. 

As I often do, I went to the pastoral guidance of Pastor Martin Luther, the founder of our Lutheran tradition of faith, for pastoral care in times of crisis. Pastor Luther wrote these words in the early 1500’s when the bubonic plague was in the Town of Wittenberg where he was serving: 

Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.”

Martin Luther, 1527 – Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague

When I read these words from Luther during a time of plague far worse than what we are experiencing right now, it encourages me of the wisdom of our Christian faith.

As Christians, we walk a middle road. First a road of full acknowledgement and trust in our Heavenly Father, even to the point of death, knowing that this life is not all that we live for. But also a road of living responsibly in this life and not assuming upon God to protect us when we do things that are negligent or harmful to ourselves and others. Walking that middle road is both about trusting our Heavenly Father and responsibly for our brothers and sisters in Christ, for our neighbors, and for our communities and avoiding situations where we may cause harm or death to others. How we respond to this crisis boils down to the two Great Commandments: Love God and Love your Neighbor (Luke 10:27). In this, loving our neighbor means that when it is possible for us to prevent harm we should act in accordance with good sense. 

What I also appreciated about what Luther’s wisdom is when he said, “if God wishes to take me, he will surely find me, and so I am not responsible for my own death or the death of others”. In speaking to families this weekend, I learned that one of our members has a loved one in the hospital right now in critical care due to influenza, not COVID-19. Time in this life is short and the fever of life soon ends. However that ending comes, we are to walk down that middle road, knowing full well how short this life is and welcome our peace with the Lord in Heaven and the new life in the New Heaven and New Earth, when God makes all things new. But we also live the earthly life we have been given each day a gift from our Heavenly Father. We live our lives now faithfully, joyfully, and in loving worship to our God and in loving service to our neighbor. Pastor Paul says it nicely in Romans 14:8 “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” 

So, as Christians, what do we do now?

We walk the middle road.

We spend time with our families and loved ones in prayer and scripture reading. We talk often about our hope in Jesus and look to that hope during every fear and uncertainty. We also use our God-given reason and senses to live prudently and wisely, not exposing ourselves or our loved ones, and especially the most vulnerable to unnecessary risk. We patiently wait for this to end, because it will end, and we continue to look for opportunities to serve those affected economically, emotionally, and spiritually by this crisis. 

As of right now we have suspended all of our public gatherings as a church family through the 22nd including our midweek services. When it gets closer to the 22nd we will reevaluate and make a decision from there on when to start publicly meeting again. I will be sending out pastoral messages on our one call now system, as well as recorded meditations on my Facebook page, philip mcclelland, and on my blog, www.philipmcclelland.org. Our Christian Education Director Tracy will also be sharing some great video resources for use with our families with children and youth so they can continue to grow in their Christian faith. I will also be personally calling all of our church family this week to offer pastoral care and prayer and if there is any need, please do not hesitate to reach out to me anytime. 

Heaviness for Lightness

I want to share with you a recent conversation I had with the magnificent ladies of Mary Martha in our most recent bible study. We were discussed what it was like living the Christian life and how hard that can be sometimes to follow the commands of Jesus, especially in how we are called to love and care for each other. We all agreed this wasn’t always an easy thing to do, especially during times of stress and hardship. Our reading was from I John 5:3. 

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” 

So, in our conversation we talked terms like “easy and hard” and “light and heavy” and what they meant for in living out the Christian life. Try this out with me. 

First, think about all of the negative thoughts: grumpiness, crankiness, fear, jealousy, and saying hurtful words. You might notice that while you were thinking about those words your facial muscles started to react. Maybe your brow furrowed, your jaw began to clench, your eyes started to squint, and you felt tense and pressure in your face, shoulders, and even your stomach muscles. Now, take a moment and exaggerate those movements, clench your jaw, squeeze your face muscle really hard. How does that feel?  Heavy, right? Like your whole face is weighted down. 

I don’t want to stay in that place emotionally and I don’t want you to either. 

So now, think about all of the positive thoughts: love, joy, peace, mercy, grace, speaking in kindness and love. Now how does your face feel? I know, I felt like the muscles in my face lightened up a bit, the muscles started to relax, and I even had a little bit of a smile on my face. So, do the same thing and exaggerate those movements and let them really open up and relax. How does that feel? Lighter, right? Like a burden has been taken off of your face. 

What a difference that makes! What is unfortunate is that so often, those negative thoughts, words, and actions are much easier for us to say, do, and think. They are heavier but easier. The opposite seems to be true as well. Those positive thoughts, words, and actions are harder for us to say but they are so much lighter to live within. 

It’s like lying on the ground and letting Satan pile rocks of sin and brokenness upon you. It certainly is easier, but it is heavy and damaging. Or you can let the Holy Spirit pull you out of those rocks and as the stones fall away it is a lot lighter way to live but a lot hard to accomplish. 

So, living out the Christian life is light but may be hard but sinking in the sinful life is heavy but easy. 

How would you want to live? What do you want your life to be like? 

Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus gives us this lightness in our life by being our eternal security. In Jesus, we gain perspective. So often the things that we argue and fight about are truly things that do not matter and will not last—and will not last especially in light of eternity. As Christians in Jesus’ family, we already have all things, all the riches of heaven, and all of the saints, given to us. Do we need to fight over temporary things like money or programs that won’t last and will often be gone in our lifetime when we have all of the riches of heaven already prepared for us? 

The life that we have been called to as Jesus’ followers, is no, not always easy, but it is light and a blessing to live. Even in the moments that living this Christian life is hard, we have Jesus by our side to carry us through every moment we have been called to live for Him. 

This advent trade your heaviness of sin for the lightness of Jesus.

Same God-Same Love-Same Jesus

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 3

You could feel the strumming of the bass guitar reverberating through the exterior walls of the old, white clapboard church building even before we opened the doors for worship. We were in Appalachia assisting local Christian leaders in holding a VBS for their community. We had just finished VBS and were attending worship with a local church family before heading home. Even my ear drums hurt after worship was over that day, but they talked about and loved Jesus and welcomed us like brothers and sisters in Christ. 

The stillness of the dark room embraced us as we walked into the lounge for worship that night. There was a hushed silence all around as a single spotlight shone on a young lady on the stage who was about to lead the message that night. She showed us a clay pot she had made with obvious care. She carefully placed the clay pot on a table covered it with a blanket and smashed it with a hammer. She talked about sin and brokenness and then forgiveness and healing found in Jesus. As she talked about Jesus, she pulled the blanket open and there was the clay pot, whole and unbroken. 

It was a familiar Lutheran liturgical worship on a Sunday morning. “The peace of the Lord be with you…and also with you,” was spoken and responded to. The pastor walked up into the pulpit and gave a sermon on Law and Gospel, on sin and forgiveness; all about Jesus. Later we offered the Peace to each other and came to the communion rail and shared in Holy Communion together before leaving with the words of the Benediction. 

The echoes of the faithful’s footsteps resounded from the Cathedral’s walls and rose to the murals of heaven and angels adorning the domed ceiling that seemed to rise to the clouds. You felt small in a place like that surrounded by so much grandeur and adornments all around. That was the whole point, not necessarily your smallness, but the bigness of God. How wide and how deep and how amazing the reality of who God is and the love that God has given in Jesus. 

It was in the first century and Christians in the region were being violently persecuted and put to death for their faith. They didn’t dare worship publicly knowing that men, women, and children were all being martyred without mercy simply for being Christian. Many choose to worship in small groups using code words and symbols to let others know where to go. Often worship would be held in catacombs among the bones with a few candles for light, copies of scrolls written by John or Matthew, then readings from Paul or Peter and from the Torah and the Psalms. Bread and wine would be brought in to share in the Eucharist and then they would leave in small groups to avoid notice. 

Modern day China, missionaries with a popular Christian singer share in worship with a small group of Jesus followers. It’s around midnight and they are huddled together in an abandoned warehouse with an old wooden crate for an altar, a single candle, and a worn copy of the New Testament. Hymns like Amazing Grace are sung in hushed whispers as the local pastor blesses his congregation in the name of Jesus. 

A warm and caring church family in the small town of North Jackson, OH come together on a Sunday morning for worship. Worship doesn’t quite look like it used to, but as one of her members reminded the pastor, “that’s okay, it’s still Jesus.” They gather in wooden pews in a church building generously built by many members of their families and even their own hands. Their pastor walks among them when delivering the meditation that day and you can feel the warmth of community and fellowship among them as they receive Jesus once again and respond in prayer and praise and love for each other. 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is the same story, though the people and the places, the ways and the means don’t look the same. The redemption story that begins with the love of our Heavenly Father and comes full circle back to the love of our Heavenly Father and how that love is shown and given in Jesus Christ. From His Advent to Christmas, from Epiphany to Lent and Easter, from Pentecost and the end of the Church Year, the end of creation, the renewal of creation, to Advent and Christmas, God’s story without end. 

In Jesus it is our story of Christ born in us in faith and baptism, of Jesus being revealed in our lives, to understanding the very depths of our sin and how great the sacrifice was that was made for us upon that cross, to dying to sin and being raised with Jesus on Easter morning, to living the life of the Christian till the day comes when our hope is fulfilled, and we are renewed to live eternally with Jesus and all the saints in the New Heavens and the New Earth. 

Same story, same love, same Jesus. Whatever else may change, that never does. 

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Rev 7:9-11)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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