Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Saints: Your Spiritual Support Group

“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven.  And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is God not of the dead, but of the living…”  --- Mark 12:25-27
            She was looking for help.  She suffered from physical pain, emotional trauma from the suicides of both her husband and son, spiritual distress at being abandoned by other family members, and social anxiety at being judged by people who couldn’t understand her.  After multiple suicide attempts of her own, she was reaching out in search of someone to listen, understand, and encourage her.  “How is it you’ve gotten through all that?” I asked.  “How have you made it this far without a support system?”  “I believe in Jesus.  He’s my support system,” she told me.  “Without Him in my life, I wouldn’t be here.”
            When people wonder why they should pay attention to a 2000 year old religion, or what difference the teachings of an ancient rabbi make in this modern world, here is an answer.  Jesus makes all the difference.  Not just the difference between getting up and going to church on Sunday or sleeping in – no, we’re talking ALL the difference – the difference between life and death.  All the arguments about the failures of churches and the hypocrisies of Christians fall away in the light of the fact that Jesus came to love the world from death to life.  Jesus is Lord and he loves you, and that makes all the difference. 
            It is said that when the Turkish hordes were threatening Constantinople, their armies beating at the gates about to take that great city, the Christians inside were holding debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Even today we are guilty of squabbling and complaining about inconveniences and arguing over insubstantial issues in the midst of people’s life and death struggles with doubt and sin.  Somehow, despite the ways we distort his message and incompletely imitate his service to the world, in spite of our warped witnessing and inadequate ambassadorship to the Lord, Jesus still makes all the difference.  Those who know him know the one who “came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  For this above all, we are thankful.
            Being the month of the Thanksgiving holiday, we are highlighting the theme of Thanksgiving during our 5pm Saturday Godify services in November.  We will start off with our thankfulness for God’s creation on Nov. 3 and explore different reasons and opportunities for responding in thankfulness for what God gives us.  On Thanksgiving weekend, I’ll be talking about thankfulness for one of my favorite things – food! – on Nov. 24.  Please remember also that our annual “Home for Thanksgiving” service is Sunday, Nov. 25 – and we will be taking our 2018 “Family Photo” of everybody who joins us after worship that day.  The following Sunday, December 2, is the first Sunday of Advent and start of a new church calendar year.  We begin the 8:30am “Rise and Shine” services that day, and hold our annual congregational meeting at 11:30am.
            November is also the month of All Saints’ – a holiday we celebrate on the first Sunday of each November, but it actually falls on November 1.  All Saints ’ Day is when we remember that “great cloud of witnesses” who are the spiritual support group for all Christians, the communion of all people of faith alive or dead.  As Jesus points out, even those who are dead are alive in Christ, for God is the God of the living.  The Pharisees’ question to him about a picky technical point (in heaven, who will be the spouse of a woman married 7 times?) gives him the chance to cut to the heart of the matter – the dead will rise again in a new creation.  We can count on eternal life with God through our faith in Jesus Christ.  All Saints’ Day is our reminder of this – that all our loved ones who have died in Christ are not lost to us, but they surround us as an invisible community of encouragement and love. 
            This All Saints’ Day, Thursday Nov. 1 at 2:30pm, you are invited to join us in a special worship service as we remember all the saints, particularly the loved ones in our own lives who have gone on to heaven.  You are encouraged to bring pictures or mementos that remind you of those special saints in your life.  We will sing together, light candles and pray together, remember their life on earth and celebrate their eternal life with Jesus.  All are welcome.
            I encourage you to make use of these special November worship opportunities we are offering this month.  Bring your thankfulness for the One who made you, blesses and keeps you now and in the world to come!
 

Peace,
Pastor Scott

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

We Love to Tell the Story!

 “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”       -- John 20:30-31
            Ever seen a movie re-make that should never have been made?  Why does Hollywood take classic movies and redo them, minus the magic that made them classic in the first place?  I guess the answer is money, as usual – they figure people will go see it.  But why tell a story over and over again when it has been told so well in the first place.  I’ve seen it with movies from my childhood – Willy Wonka, Clash of Titans, Karate Kid – and my pet peeve, Planet of the Apes—have all been made into far less wonderful imitations.  And then there are those great books that are made into movies time and time again, proving again and again that great books don’t always translate well to the silver screen.  The immense power of Melville’s Moby Dick just can’t be squeezed into a movie, so why do filmmakers keep trying? 
            Maybe because there is something in the story that bears repeating, rethinking, reworking.  The beloved well-known versions of the Maltese Falcon, The Ten Commandments, Wizard of Oz and Ben Hur were all remakes.  Barbara Streisand remade A Star is Born from a classic Judy Garland version that itself was a successful re-make.  And now, get ready for Lady Gaga’s version!  The original 1933 King Kong was a technical masterpiece of its day, but modern special effects have made more recent versions if not better, at least impressive in new ways. 
            So when you’ve got a good story, it bears repeating.  Besides movies, we get stories in many forms: e-books, graphic novels, musicals, Netflix serials, audiobooks, plays, websites, and once in a while a plain, regular, old-fashioned book with words and pictures that don’t move.  Back in elementary school, our teacher used to read to us.  We were allowed to sit on the square carpeted space on the classroom floor and didn’t have to answer questions or do math problems for once…we could just listen and use our imaginations to give life to the story.  It was relaxing and fun.  Those stories took us to other places, other lands, sometimes other planets.  They got us using another piece of our brains for a while, and got us to slow down and think.  Story time made school seem a whole lot friendlier.  It’s amazing what stories can do.
The gospel writers were no dummies.  They wanted to present the Good News of Jesus in the most inspiring and powerful way possible.  They could have just made a list of ways to follow Jesus – dos and don’ts, good ways to live and evil things to avoid.  They could have given step-by-step instructions on how to evangelize and start churches.  They could have made complicated arguments for different doctrinal positions and ways to defend Christian beliefs against pagan doubters.  There were lots of ways the gospel writers could have gone about presenting Christianity to encourage those early generations of believers.  But what they chose to do was tell stories.
Those stories had probably been told before.  In fact, even after Mark had given a pretty good overview of the ministry of Jesus in his gospel, Matthew and Luke had things they wanted to add.  So we have multiple gospels – each of them a collection of stories about what Jesus said and did…and two of the first three were re-makes.  Then John comes along and gives a whole new perspective on Jesus with a bunch of new stories, teachings, and a more divine take on the Son of Man.  So now we have four gospels, all of them showing us Christianity through the lens of the Jesus story.  But the creation of story-collections about God wasn’t totally new and unheard of.  The Old Testament itself takes many stories and weaves them into one great, continuous story stretching from the dawn of creation through the rise and downfall of Israel.  I’ve heard it said that, page-for-page and word-for-word, over ¾ of the Bible consists of stories. 
It’s not always easy to follow the storyline, but God is trying to tell us something very important, not just in what he says but in how he says it.  That long, continuous story which God started at the beginning bears repeating.  We tell it again and again and are still telling it.  We tell it again and again because it is also our story, yours and mine.  Maybe sometimes we tell it better than others.  Maybe sometimes we get the story wrong.  Maybe sometimes we tell it at just the right moment that hearts are open to receive it in a way that they see exactly how the story is theirs, and they respond by praising God.
When you tell your story, how do you connect it to God’s?  Where does your life history intersect with the history told in the Bible?  One point of contact is through baptism – through that water and those promises, God reached out and touched you and brought you into his story.  What stories about God have been particularly meaningful to you?  Maybe there are parts of that story that caused you to change the direction of your life.  Maybe you’re still figuring out that story and what it means to you.  Maybe you’re well aware that the life you are living right now, at this very moment, is also part of God’s ongoing story.
As we prepare for our new 11:30am Child of God service, we celebrate storytelling in its many forms.  We will be going back to the basic stories in Scripture and tracing how that one continuous story of God’s love has unfolded through the vast ages of time and continues in the very living and storytelling that we do right now.  Because it is God’s story, it is ageless and endless.  Because it is our story, it is personal and poignant.  Although it is told over and over again down through the years, it is never exactly the same.  That’s why it bears repeating.

Peace,
Pastor Scott

Thursday, August 23, 2018

You Too are a Child of God!

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
            And all the families of the nations shall worship before him,
For dominion belongs to the Lord and He rules over the nations…”

                                                                        -- Psalm 22:27-28

            How is it possible in this age of information, when Bibles can be carried around on people’s phones, churches have websites and email, and people can watch sermons and worship services on the internet… with all these resources, how can people actually be getting less connected to God?  Obviously we can make all the resources we can think of, but if people aren’t interested in using them in the first place, what good have we done? 
            It is clear that young people think differently from their adult counterparts.  Not only are they not interested in many issues that adults are concerned with, they think differently.  Researchers tell us that adolescence in particular is a time when the brain is growing, learning new ways to solve problems and make decisions.  But church is geared toward adult problems and decisions, and often leaves the young feeling bored or left out.  If kids complain consistently, many parents decide it’s not worth dragging kids to church, and that can spell the end of that family’s involvement in church and that child’s chance to grow up knowing Christ.  How can we reach out to these new families whose children are going to the new schools in our community and looking for a church where they will fit in, have fun, and learn about the Lord? 
            Till now our strategy at Atonement has been to offer a blended style worship service at 10am that takes traditional adult-oriented elements and mixes them with children’s moments, youth Sundays, Sunday school and an emphasis on including all ages.  Knowing that 10am is still early for many families to get up, get everyone dressed and organized and make it to church (especially when Sunday might be the only day a family has to sleep in), we’ve known that the strategy isn’t perfect, but was a compromise we made to have the highest possible quality of worship with our limited resources.
            The good news is, our church has reached a point where we have the ability to develop a new worship option that will enable us to provide a compelling and quality service especially designed for families with young children and youth.  We’re calling this new service our “Child of God service” and we believe it will be a great help as we grow into God’s future.  We are planning to add this service on Sundays during the school year at the 11:30am time slot, starting the first of the year - 2019.
            We are taking seriously Martin Luther’s vision that the home will become a place where God is honored and worshiped throughout the week.  Jan Gerle has been developing a special story-centered approach which will be the centerpiece of the service.  Each week we will focus on a different Bible story, and by the end of May we will have covered the entire length of the Bible chronologically.  This pattern will repeat annually, moving from Genesis through Revelation but choosing different tales to highlight each year. 

            Our plan is for the service to last about 45 minutes, followed by a 15 minute period when children will go to the Sunday school room for a craft, and adults will stay in the sanctuary for a brief overview of the story.  We will offer a brief Bible study, along with special prayers and activities to help heads of households teach and reinforce the story throughout the week at home. 
            Two big changes will be taking place in the 10am service as we develop the new service.  First, we will be offering samples of what this new service will be like on youth Sundays for the next 4 months (Sept-Dec) at the 10am worship time.  Though we will not begin offering the 11:30 service until January, we want people to get a taste of it and will be providing that opportunity on the last Sunday of each month.  Everyone at the 10am service on those four days will experience aspects of the new service format. 
            Second, starting this month we will begin to shorten the 10am service.  This is necessary so that the new service will have plenty of room for its 11:30 start time by the end of the year.  Though we will continue to have Sunday school until the end of the year, the children’s moment will no longer be part of the 10am service.  Starting in January, the Child of God service will take the place of our Sunday school program.
            The Child of God service will be a full Word-and-Sacrament service.  Communion will be offered every Sunday and everyone is welcome to attend.  Our Lord Jesus who said “Let the children come to me,” includes people of all ages in his church and in his kingdom.  The messages will be simpler and the music more family-friendly.  Emphasizing the special viewpoint of children and youth, we hope to strengthen the faith life and intergenerational bonds of our member families.  Also, we know people moving into our community are looking for churches where their whole family will be comfortable and well-nurtured in the faith.  I am confident that this new approach will be a milestone in our growth as a congregation and as an evangelistic outreach to our neighbors.  Thanks for your support of our children and of those new families the Holy Spirit will be reaching through this service.

Peace,
PS

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The people of Atonement

“The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
                                                     – Ephesians 4:11-13

 Dear Friends of Atonement,
            Thank you for your generosity, your participation, your kind support and your prayers for Atonement Lutheran Church and our ministry together.  I remember the old Sunday school song that goes, “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together – all who follow Jesus, all around the world, YES we’re the church together!”  And it is so true – the church of Jesus Christ is all the believers, hopers, doers and dreamers that trust in the Lord and follow His call.

            We often think of the offerings we give as going to “pay the bills.”  It is true that some of that money goes to keep the lights on, to “brick and mortar,” to fixing the leaky roof (something we had to do multiple times this year) and making sure the grass is cut.  But the bulk of your offering goes mainly to support people – people in need, people doing ministry, people learning about God and growing in faith, and people spreading the gospel.
             Your giving allows us to have an excellent paid staff serving the needs of our ministries.  We know full well how blessed we are to have our talented music leaders.  Choir director Ruby Agnir, keyboardist for Sunday services Ken Hanks, and Godify band leader Brian Lindner make up a worship staff that much larger churches would be proud to have.  In our office, our new parish administrator Lynn McCurdy and office assistant Kay Edwards greet guests, answer questions, and manage our busy congregational calendar.  Our seminarian Esthel Kane is serving Atonement in many capacities even as she studies for her ministerial classes and works to develop our Hispanic mission, Todos Unidos en Cristo.  In addition to helping in the office on Thursdays, she takes part in many ministries and will be helping lead the youth this Fall.  All these wonderful people are able to use their gifts to help our church grow because of your regular generous giving.
             Beyond our paid staff, we have a large roster of volunteer team leaders whose work is concentrated on specific areas of our ministry.  Each of these team leaders manages a budget, which is supported either directly through your congregational giving, or (like the food pantry) through giving in kind.  These leaders will be submitting their next budget to be approved at the annual meeting (1st Sunday in December), but it is thanks to you that we are able to provide them with the resources to answer God’s call and lead these ministries.
            Most importantly, money given to our ministry touches the lives of the countless people God sends us to serve.  A young person has their life changed at a national youth gathering, a new resident wanders into a worship service and feels warmly welcomed, an out-of work father receives food for his family, an elderly shut-in receives communion in her living room, a local family brings their child to our Day Camp to learn about Jesus, a new first-time Lutheran experiences the wider church at a Synod Assembly…  I could go on for a very long time listing people you have made a difference for through giving graciously to Atonement.       
            Of course, I’m one of those people.  Your regular offerings help pay my salary and benefits and help me afford a home in the Wesley Chapel area.  As Susan has dealt with increasing health challenges, it has allowed her to quit her physically demanding work cleaning houses and focus on her volunteer work at Atonement.  She handles all kinds of odd jobs around the church, works in the food pantry, plays in the praise band, helps with the audio-visual team, and is my personal “pastor’s support committee.”  We are grateful every day that the giving at Atonement allows us to be here and minister among you.
            “YES, we’re the Church together!”  On behalf of all the people of Atonement – members, friends, staff and volunteers, care givers and care receivers of all kinds – thank you for being the church together with us.  “May mercy peace and love be yours in abundance” (Jude 2)!

Peace,
Pastor Scott

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Mission of justice

Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you."
                                                              -- John 20:21
            I was taking a walk last week when I heard my phone ring in my pocket.  At least, I thought it was ringing, but actually it was dialing.  Somehow, the phone got jostled around and was dialing a number, but who was I accidentally calling?  I wrestled the phone out of my pocket just in time to hear a voice say, “This is 911, how can we be of help?”  I apologized multiple times and explained that I was walking and my phone decided to call them on its own.  They still asked specifically whether I required assistance, asked my location and name just in case, and assured me that this is something that “just happens” and to have a nice day.
            This little non-emergency reminded me how great it is that there are people out there, on call 24/7, waiting to spring into action the second someone needs help.  We are blessed to be just a butt-dial away from a whole system of rescue personnel who are waiting vigilantly for a moment of true distress.  It is not unusual in my walks down State Road 54, to be passed by one or more rushing ambulances or fire trucks with alarms blaring.  This is a world in need of help, and God bless those who willing and equipped to provide it.
            Jesus knew that returning to heaven meant leaving behind a world in need of help.  He loved the world that God the Father sent Him to, despite the rejection and contempt of fellow human beings.  And yet, those human beings were the ones who needed the most help, and he saw that those human beings were also the solution to that need.  As God had sent him into the world to bring the Good News of God’s grace, so Jesus would send his disciples into that world to continue what he had started. 
            That mission has been passed along to us…to you and me as present-day disciples of Jesus.  In Christ we recover the original God-given purpose of humanity – to tend to this planet and the good of all living things.  This means caring for the needs of those around us, giving a hand up to those who are facing hard times.  It also means nurturing the good in our society, being a voice that helps guide decisions people make in our congregation, community, nation and the world.  When Jesus came back from the dead, telling the disciples that he was sending them out just as God had sent him, these were the tasks he was passing on. 
            As disciples of Christ, we try to understand the issues that challenge us in the light of God’s grace and the message of Jesus Christ.  Our national church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been studying and wrestling with many of them on a large scale.  By bringing in parishioners and experts from varying perspectives, offering study materials and surveying church members across the ELCA, and offering workshops and gathering feedback at synod gatherings, our national church body has crafted “social statements” that define our collective stance on many of these issues.  Each of them has been approved by a 2/3 majority at one of our national assemblies.  If you want to know “what the ELCA teaches” on any of these particular points, the Social Statements are the place to start:


ELCA Social Statements: 
            The fact that the ELCA has official positions on these issues does not mean that any particular pastor or church member is expected to agree with everything in these statements.  They are tools to help guide policy and clarify our thinking.  Some of the statements define a range of positions that are held throughout the church.  Each of them looks to Scripture and Lutheran teaching and seeks to find how our understanding of Christ intersects with the struggles of our changing world.
            When Jesus sent the disciples to bring Good News to the world, he gave them his peace and left them in the hands of the Holy Spirit.  That same Spirit that guided the disciples and gave birth to the Church continues to guide the work we do together.  This summer, we will be looking at ways to grow our social justice ministry here at Atonement.  We will begin with our July Godify services on Saturdays, where we will take a close look at some of these social statements and see how our denomination continues to wrestle with real-world questions.  Then we will ask: where is Christ sending us?...where is the Spirit guiding us to “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) with God and our fellow human beings. 
Peace,
Pastor Scott


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

25

“…and the two shall become one flesh…”
                                    -- Matthew 19:5

             I wish I could say I met my wife Susan at church, but that’s not quite true.  It’s true, I was the new pastor of her church, but she worked most Sundays at the big, famous restaurant the next town over.  And so it happened that 2 months into my first job as pastor, I had already met her mom and her little brother, but had only seen a photo of Su. 

            They all lived together just 2 blocks down the street from where I lived in the parsonage.  Su’s brother mowed the church yard, and would often stop by to talk or play some basketball.  One day he left his basketball in the yard, and I walked down the street to return it.  “Do you want to come in?” he asked, but I didn’t want to intrude when his mom wasn’t there.  “Don’t worry, we let everyone in” he said, so I went inside.  
            He gave me the grand tour of the house, including the drab, windowless room under the basement stairs where his sister was staying.  It was not meant to be a permanent situation.  She had moved back home to get on her feet, and to help her mom and brother after her father’s death.  Near the end of the tour, he showed me that photo.  I tell people that a feeling came over me when I saw that picture, but it’s not what you think.  It was not a warm gush or a floaty, romantic feeling.  In fact it wasn’t something I ever felt before or since. The closest I can think of is the jolt you get from touching a screwdriver stuck in a live outlet.  It was like God punched me in the gut and said, “Pay attention.”  The next week she stopped by the parsonage one evening to tell her brother he had to come home… and yes, I paid attention!
            This month Susan and I celebrate 25 years of marriage.  That’s almost half my life.  When I first met Su, I realized that I had never met anyone like her, and 25 years later that’s still true.  Her open spirit, independence of thought and sarcastic sense of humor don’t fit most people’s image of the typical pastor’s wife.  If you’re like me though, you’ll find that refreshing.
             No matter how much you tell someone what marriage is going to be like, there’s no way to fully prepare for the reality.  Knowing what someone likes or dislikes still doesn’t make it easy to find them presents for birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries…  Marrying someone who cooks at a restaurant known for world-famous chicken dinners doesn’t mean you’re going to get world-famous chicken dinners at home.  Family vacations meant for rest and recreation can be more exhausting than 2 weeks working overtime.  It’s not often that real life matches our expectations.
            That’s why every marriage requires adjusting expectations as you go along.  Moving, having a family, different jobs and friends, and struggles with health issues all play a role in shaping daily life together.  When you share the rhythms and responsibilities of each day with someone for half your life, you start to see how much you are the way you are because of them.  You are no longer the you that you would be if it was just you.  You have a history together, shared aspirations, goals and experiences, in-jokes, ways of seeing things, habits and concerns, all of which are permeated by the grace of God.  Somewhere along the way without ever consciously realizing it, the two have become one flesh.  
            There are times that this realization can be a little scary.  The challenges are daunting –
·        knowing that when you mess up, you’re affecting the ones you care most about; 
·        depending on someone else’s love, which is something beyond your control; 
·        trying to maintain deep and constant gratitude for something that is so easy to take for granted.  
It’s easy to say “All you need is love,” but there’s also some real conscious effort involved.  It starts by loving the spouse you really have instead of the image of who you want them to be, and realizing the 1,001 ways you will never be the person they deserve.  This leads into the kind of love John Legend sings about, a love for “all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections…”  Some days this is the easiest thing in the world, and some days the hardest.  It’s easiest when we trust that God’s spirit lives in that history we share, and that his forgiveness and grace are there for us to make us new each day.
            So I’m ready for another 25 years, and I hope Su is too.  Even though sometimes I forget to introduce her, I am proud to call her my wife.  I am even more proud to call her my best friend, and the best gift that God has given me in this life.  
Peace,
Pastor Scott