Saturday, January 7, 2017

Beholding Truth


“I am the Way and the Truth and the Life”      -- the words of Jesus in John 14:6

            In the wake of all the hub-bub surrounding the Brexit and the 2016 US election, the Oxford Dictionary has chosen their “word of the year” for 2016.  And that word is “post-truth.”  It is a word that refers to a kind of political maneuvering, or more sadly, to a new era that some see we are entering.  By choosing  this as the year’s most important word, they are really warning us about where our world may be headed.  They are trying to tell us that the world may soon care less about what’s true and what’s not.

            Messing with the truth is nothing new, of course.  We’ve heard it said that “truth is in the eye of the beholder,” so we imagine anyone can just make up their own version of reality.  We’ve heard slogans used to overpower reasoning and watched people change the subject when confronted with facts.  We’ve heard dialog devolve into dissension.  We’ve seen debates that are no such thing.  Of course there is nothing new about public figures ignoring the points of their opponents and falling back on quips and accusations.  But when the words people say fly in the face of the truth we all know, we start to question the methods and the motives behind those words and the one who is speaking them.  Or at least we should.

            Martin Luther had a healthy distrust for human reason and saw the dangerous side of “facts.”  After all, people in his time seemed convinced of the so-called obvious “facts” that good people go to heaven, that you become a good person by doing good deeds, and that the good leaders of the church were just the right people to tell you what good deeds you are to do.  Few people questioned the catchy slogans of the fundraising friars who called out, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”  Once the lie within those long-trusted beliefs was revealed, all of society was shaken.  While the educated elite and religious leaders clung to their doctrines and traditions, the peasants took to the streets in outright rebellion.  Luther proclaimed that neither way would lead us to truth.

            As Christians, we understand that the only one we can trust completely is God.  As for the rest of us, “no one is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).  We are all a mish-mash of good and evil motives, love, fear and prejudice, truth and untruth.   We know that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8) and that “love does not rejoice in evil, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).  We understand that speaking untruth against another violates God’s 8th commandment (Exodus 20:16).  The small catechism tells us what this commandment requires:

“We should fear and love God so that we may not deceitfully contradict, slander, or defame our neighbors, but defend them, think and speak well of them, and put the best construction on everything.”

In other words, it’s about love – about respecting each other enough to be honest with everyone, and speak about them with love.  God’s truth cannot be contained in slogans or revealed by facts.  It is not an assertion or a prescription – it is a relationship.  It is not an opinion or an attitude; it is the Way, the Truth and the Life of the world.  Anything less is death.

            Into a dark world that is lost in lies, a light has shined.  It is the light of a new Way, a post post-truth mind-set that brings us to our knees beside friends and enemies, gathered around the manger of Jesus.  There we trade in our personal truths and opinions for the Truth that is Life.  There we stop hoping in our own gods and glories and place all our hope in love.  There God shows Himself as a child, trusting and open to all the world.  It is there that we find what we’ve always looked for, where we know the Truth and the Truth sets us free (John 8:32).

Peace,

Pastor Scott

...Our Way of Life


“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”                                             
-- Ephesians 2:8-10


Dear members and friends of Atonement,
            2016’s numerous blessings are spilling out into 2017.  Our Capital campaign reached its goal of $300,000 last year, and now plans are proceeding for an expansion of our fellowship area and a new kitchen.  Our food pantry went through some transitions this year, and are now serving over 900 local families.  The Hispanic outreach got a boost through a grant from the Florida-Bahamas Synod, and has now become an official new ministry start with support from the ELCA.  Esthel Kane, the lay developer for this growing outreach, will be off to Chicago next month to attend leadership training.  Our Drive-through Prayer is becoming a weekly routine every Friday, and the Stephen’s Ministry visitation team will be up and running once leaders are trained this month.

              So much going on, so many growing ministries, but best of all is what lies at the heart of everything we do.  Ultimately, our greatest treasure is not our ministries – it’s our message.  You see, God has given you an indescribable gift.  No, not a new car, or even superbowl tickets…  Even better!  He has given you salvation…by grace, through faith, He has taken you into His family and made you His own.  Not of your own doing or because of your own works, but purely out of the love God has for you -- His creation, His child.  That amazing and priceless gift is yours.

            But Ephesians 2 tells us more about that special gift.  It goes on to say we were created to do good works – this is our purpose and our proper way of life.  Receiving God’s love may be our greatest gift, but sharing God’s love is what we do, and what brings us the most joy.  Atonement is here to help us with both.  Yes, it is here we receive the promise and celebrate this good news gospel message in worship.  But Atonement is also here to help us give – to care for the needy, to grow in generosity and love, to live the transformed life of a disciple, and ultimately to become the hands and feet of Christ.
            This is a special outlook that we Lutherans have to share with our neighbors.  Ours is a faith that combines the message of Christ’s grace with the mission to help others.  Our faith brings basic Christian teachings and traditions into a world that is ever changing and always new.  Like Abraham, who was “blessed to be a blessing” to all humanity, we have been blessed with this “amazing grace” faith.  It’s something our friends, our community, and the whole world needs.  God has placed this church here in this growing area as a lighthouse beacon shining out the light of God’s love!  But thousands drive by day after day, zooming down State Rd. 54 with no idea what a Lutheran is or what goes on at that place called Atonement. 

            So 2017 is a year to get the word out!  Waiting in line at a store this afternoon, I began a conversation with a snowbird couple and I ended by inviting them to church.  I hope you are doing the same.  This year we’ll observe the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Church, as well as the 30th anniversary of Atonement.  Let’s invite all we know to come join us and be blessed.  So much to celebrate, so much to share with a world that is just waiting to hear God’s good news...

            It’s truly a privilege worshiping and serving God alongside of you.  I hope you feel as blessed as I do in knowing our Lord Jesus.  And how exciting to be surrounded by talented, caring people who have a heart for serving God and helping those in need!  All the success we have seen at Atonement this year – from the completion of our Capital campaign and the growth of our food pantry to the support we’ve gotten for our Hispanic & caring ministries – it all feels like a gift handed to us by the very hand of God.  This is because God has had His hand on you, and your prayers and support and participation in God’s work here are helping to make it all possible.  Thanks for the gifts that you bring and the gift that you are to Atonement.


Peace,
Pastor Scott

The Big 500

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

                                                                                                --- Matthew 1:21






Just what is a Lutheran?  What do we stand for, and what do we believe?  If someone has ever asked you that question and you weren’t sure how to answer, you couldn’t do any better than hand them a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism.  Here we Lutherans find the Owner’s Manual for a heart of faith.

            In 1529, a day and age when Bibles were very expensive and few people could read them, much less afford one, Martin Luther produced his Small Catechism.  It was originally printed on a single page and sold for pennies.  By 1580, when the movement known as the Lutheran church gathered together the writings that defined them, they included the Small Catechism alongside The Augsburg Confession and other statements of faith in the Book of Concord.  By then, the Small Catechism had circulated in many editions and was known as a Bible for the Laity.

            Today, this little pamphlet still holds the essence of Christian teaching, revealing it in profound but simple words as we find nowhere else.  By bringing together The Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, and explaining them in simple terms, Luther stripped away all the false doctrines and unnecessary complications that stood in the way of typical Christians grasping the plain Gospel message.  In each section, Luther asks the most relevant question of all: “What does this mean?”  And not what does it mean in some abstract sense, but what does it mean to me, here and now, what does it mean for my life?  What does it mean that God is my Father and Jesus is my Savior?  I’m no murderer, so what does ‘Thou shalt not kill’ have to do with me?  What do we mean when we pray to God “hallowed be Thy name”?  Luther gives clear answers for small children and great scholars alike.
            As we get closer to 2017’s recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we will be offering sermons, devotions and Bible studies that examine the legacy of Martin Luther and the Reformation - those events that formed the Lutheran faith as a distinct branch of the Christian family tree.  When I asked the congregation how many knew the catechism or learned it growing up, only about half the people raised their hands.  This convinced me that we need to take a close look at the Small Catechism this year, through sermons and studies and Lenten devotions.  This is a pure treasure box we are opening, and I believe each of us will discover or rediscover its unadorned beauty.

            Copies of the Catechism will be available at church, but you just might want to download your own Small Catechism app.    You’ll find it at http://info.augsburgfortress.org/luthers-small-catechism-new-mobile-app .  Take it with you wherever you go, and you can use it as a guide for devotions, memorization, or as a tool for witnessing. 

            That holiday is fast approaching which centers around the birth of a baby.  “Unto you a child is born; unto you a Son is given,” to be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  We too ask the Small Catechism question: What does this mean? What does it mean that Jesus came to this world?  Luther lays it out for us in his explanation to the second article of the Apostles’ Creed…


“At great cost He has saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person.  He has freed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil – not with silver or gold, but with His holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.  And this He has done that I may be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally.  This is most certainly true.”


This is most certainly the true gift of Christmas and the “holy” in the holi-day season.  Not silver or gold, but the love of a Savior. 

Peace,
Pastor Scott
 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Everyone United in Christ


“After that I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white…”

                                                                                                -- Revelation 7:9


      1. Before I arrived…

            Ten years ago when I first came to Atonement, many things were different.  State road 54 was two lanes wide, and was basically a parking lot every evening out in front of the church.  You could watch for hours as cars inched their way from I-75 to Zephyrhills.  Our church building was crammed with cribs, kiddie chairs, toys and other children’s paraphernalia, since we were the site of Little Pioneers Learning Center throughout the week.  And every Sunday afternoon, local members of a Tampa Hispanic congregation came and worshiped in our sanctuary. 

            The Wesley Chapel area has had a significant Hispanic presence going back many years.  While Hispanics of Mexican descent tended to cluster around Dade City connecting with the farmworker jobs in that area, we were more an outpost of the Tampa suburbs and attracted a variety of Hispanic families with roots in South America, Puerto Rico and the like.  The First Hispanic Presbyterian Church which shared our building 10 years ago, has their home base in a heavily Cuban neighborhood of Tampa.

            Their pastor, Julio Travieso, had formed a wonderful partnership with Atonement interim pastor Lin Houck.  Atonement was not simply the landlord to their Sunday afternoon “satellite church” – we were truly their partner in ministry.  We worshiped together with bilingual services.  We would sometimes go down to Tampa to worship with them at their main sanctuary or to attend their annual Passion Play.  They joined us frequently for service projects, meals and celebrations. 

            And, most impressively, in 2004 Pastor Lin and Pastor Julio teamed up in a special joint project of the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches to supervise the internship of Dr. Eddy Perez.  Eddy was a physician in Cuba who risked life and limb to come to the United States to escape the Castro regime and to become a pastor.  His family finally made it over and joined him for a year in Wesley Chapel as an intern shared by Atonement and First Hispanic Presbyterian congregations.  I got to meet him a couple years later when we donated some chairs and other furniture to his small, struggling congregation.



2.      Early partnerships…

            I took it for granted that in coming to serve a church in Florida, I would need to learn some Spanish.  The Church’s job is to reach our communities for Jesus, and American communities are more and more Hispanic.  Not only did Atonement already have partnerships with First Hispanic Presbyterian in Tampa and Resurrection House in Dade City, but there were Hispanic families in our own neighborhoods, not to mention our own congregation.  Monica Escribano, for instance, has told me frequently how much she loved Pastor Julio and the Hispanic congregation, but that her heart has always been set on being a Lutheran and a remaining a member of Atonement. 

            When I arrived, Eddy had already been ordained and installed as a Lutheran pastor in Miami and Pastor Julio was preparing to retire.  I invited Pastor Wally Meyer to come preach at a bilingual service which we hosted one evening, and Margarita Romo of Resurrection House spoke at a bilingual Reformation service.  Each Sunday during our regular service, I chose a verse from the lessons and looked up its Spanish translation.  Suzi printed it out in the bulletin, and I’d lead the whole congregation in reading the verse together.  Unfortunately, since I didn’t know Spanish, I couldn’t say if I was leading it correctly or not.  We also did a couple years of confirmation classes with our Dade City Lutheran congregations.   Shepherd of the Hills hosted them, but Margarita would bring vanloads of kids from Resurrection House.  Within a year, the new pastor of First Hispanic called off meetings of their satellite church, and the future of Atonement’s Hispanic ministry was a mystery.

            It wasn’t long before we received a visit from a local family that were leaders of a Pentecostal Hispanic congregation called Mision International Primicias de Cristo.  They were meeting in a local dance studio, but were looking for a building like ours to hold their services.  Their worship included a wide variety of music, along with skits and dances.  Unfortunately, we had very little storage space, and they were looking for an earlier worship time which wasn’t available.  After a year or so, they left and yet another Hispanic congregation, First Unity Church of Pasco, took their place.  Their congregation was small, but we had a wonderful relationship with them and their pastor, Enrique Amoros, who had once worked for the United Nations.  We shared a Christmas morning bilingual service with them one year, and eventually they too found a new meeting place.  To our surprise, we discovered that Pastor Enrique’s wife was continuing to come and clean the church, even after were no longer worshiping at Atonement.  They told us it was out of gratitude for giving them a place to worship and helping their congregation survive.

            Through all these partnerships and changes, my hope was that a day would come when Atonement could have its own Hispanic ministry.  As Lutherans, we have a different way of telling the story of Jesus and sharing the gospel with the world.  There’s a good reason someone like Monica Escribano treasures her Lutheran faith.  There’s a powerful witness Lutheran congregations like Resurrection House can make to the Hispanic community.  My continual hope during my time here at Atonement was that God would send us the resources and open up a way for us to develop our own.
3.      New directions…

            When Bishop Bob Schaefer became our Florida-Bahamas Synod Bishop, he showed how big a priority Hispanic ministry was in Florida by hiring Jaime Dubon as his assistant.  I invited Jaime here last summer to begin a conversation on how we at Atonement could begin a Hispanic ministry.  It was an idea whose time had finally come.  With Alice Deyne as coordinator, we soon had an active Hispanic ministry group, which soon took off, teaching English as a Second Language classes.  With 15 or so students, the classes have yielded some wonderful success stories, like the 93 year old man who learned to read Bible stories, or the lady who got a job and attributes it to the help she got with her English at Atonement.

            The climax of these new developments happened this summer when Alice and I and Esthel Kane, one of our bilingual members, went to Austin for a training that was partially funded by the national ELCA office for new ministry starts.  There we met pastors and lay people from all over the USA who were trying to do Hispanic ministry in very different settings.  While we were there, Esthel felt God calling her to more training and a deeper commitment to work and help lead such a ministry with us at Atonement. 

            We also learned about programs that the national church has in support of congregations that are doing what we are trying to do.  They want to help develop ministries that will reach the many Hispanics who might not otherwise become part of an English-speaking congregation.  We have the support and encouragement of leaders in our synod and at the national level to take advantage of the opportunities to apply for funding support to grow our Hispanic outreach.

4.      United in Christ…

            We wanted a Spanish name for our Hispanic ministry that would reflect the name of our congregation, but the word Atonement does not translate easily into Spanish.  It refers to what Jesus did for us on the cross in dying for the sins of all the world, shedding his blood to bring us all into relationship to God.  We have used the phrase “be at one” to refer to the “at-one-ment” that Jesus achieved through his sacrifice, making us at one with God, at one with ourselves, and at one with others.  We were not able to come up with an elegant Spanish word to express this idea, but instead are using this phrase to try to capture its essence: “Todos Unidos en Cristo” – Everyone United in Christ. 

            The possibility before us now is to develop our current program of Hispanic educational, spiritual, and social ministries into a mission start that is recognized by the ELCA.  The national church funds mission starts that are approved by synods as potential worshiping communities, what they call SAWCs… “Synodically Authorized Worshiping Communities.”  We will be applying to get this funding by requesting the synod to approve our Hispanic ministry, Todos Unidos en Cristo, as a SAWC.  Esthel Kane, who is currently enrolled in our deacon training program, will be the designated lay leader for the SAWC.  She will be supervised by me, along with Jaime Dubon and a mentor recommended by the synod.  Then we can work towards developing our own Lutheran Hispanic worship service, and other new programs to serve our local Spanish-speaking neighbors.

            These are new developments, but they are part of a long history of Atonement’s work to reach Hispanics in the Wesley Chapel area.  As Christ commands us to reach out to the “nations” – to different cultures near and far – we work to help make the Church more and more like God’s eternal, heavenly kingdom, filled with every tribe, tongue and people (Revelation 5:9).  The partnership to create this new SAWC and to work with Esthel as a leader in training is an exciting sequel to what happened here years ago when Eddy Perez did his internship at Atonement with Pastor Lin and Pastor Julio supervising.  We will be talking more about these new possibilities during a temple talk at our worship service coming up on November 6.  In the
meantime, feel free to ask questions of me or Esthel Kane or council president Laurie Chiaramonte, and thank you for supporting the mission and witness of Atonement.

Peace,
Pastor Scott 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Blessed Be!


“Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.’  So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”

                                                                                     -- Numbers 6:23-27


            Bless you!  We say it when someone sneezes in the same way we say “hello” when someone greets us.  But what if blessing were more than an automatic response?  Most people come to church seeking some kind of blessing in their lives.  As a Christian, you too can be a bearer of blessing and help bring the Spirit of Christ into clearer focus for someone you reach out to.

            God commanded his priest Aaron to bless the people, and through that blessing he “put his name” in them.  God “put his name” in us at our baptisms and has blessed us through Christ so we can bless others with his love.  As Christians who have been made “priests to serve our God” (Revelation 1:6), we carry that mission forward into today’s world.  We are made to bless!  Like Abraham, who knew he was “blessed to be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2), we too are given promises and gifts to share with the world. 

            This October is a month of blessing at Atonement.  We will be blessing pets and animals before the service on October 2.  We’re blessing new members on October 16.  We’re blessing Lutheran Outdoor Ministries and our Lutheran camps with our prayers and pledges to Mission Possible.  We’re blessing trick-or-treaters with our Trunk-or-Treat festival on October 22.  And on October 30, we share the blessings of our Reformation heritage with a special service and Reformation dinner.          I hope you will come and be blessed this month with God’s Word and Sacraments, his grace and his love.  And I pray you will spread that blessing by inviting others, bringing your friends to be blessed as well, and being a blessing to them through your care and concern.

            Often we think of Aaron’s blessing from Numbers 6 as a prayer requesting God to send his blessing, as if it read “May the Lord bless and keep you…” etc.  But this understanding would be a wrong translation of the original Hebrew words.  The Scripture text is saying that Aaron’s blessing is a promise from God himself.  The priest is actually speaking on behalf of God, speaking God’s own words for Him!  In other words, we should think of it as saying, “the Lord WILL bless and keep you…” etc.  This blessing is a statement from the divine one who controls our future, controls heaven and earth, and holds each of us in the palm of His hand. 

            Who can you bless today?  Who needs reminding that they are in God’s hands?  Or maybe the better question is…who doesn’t?

                       

Peace,

Pastor Scott

Holy Living means Wholly Giving


“Therefore, prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.  Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.  Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct...”

-- I Peter 1:13-15

Friends of Atonement,

            According to St. Peter, our holy living starts with God’s holy giving.  God’s holiness is to be the pattern for our own lives and conduct.  That’s a tall order for fallible sinners like us – but there is a place where we are renewed and forgiven of our old ways and encouraged and strengthened to live for God.  This all happens through God’s grace, which we discover again and again in being part of a church community.  Once again, I’m writing to thank you for patterning your life on God’s holy giving by supporting the mission and work of Atonement Lutheran Church. 

            There is much good work done through this congregation, but there are also many ways in which we support God’s work beyond our congregation.  Besides the amazing work of Atonement’s own ministry teams and our Helping Hands Food Pantry, we support many organizations and groups that touch people with God’s love both near and far.  Many of the people being helped we will never see; many of their stories we will never hear.  But we trust that in giving to these good causes, we are giving to our trust-worthy God. 

            This past month, we have celebrated God’s Work Our Hands Sunday (which this year fell on September 11, the 15th anniversary of the attacks) with a very special blessing for our local police and fire workers.  Meals from the church were sent out to on-duty first responders at police and fire stations in and around Wesley Chapel.  I received a wonderful thank you this week from our Pasco fire chief, who appreciates the care and support that you showed on that special day.

            We are in the midst of a 5-week campaign to learn about our Florida Lutheran camp, Luther Springs, and the ongoing efforts to upgrade and expand the facilities there.  Children and adults throughout Florida have a special “place apart” to experience God’s love through the wonder of creation.  We will be asking for pledges to help Luther Springs over the next three years as they try to raise a grand total of $3 million.  We hope to do our part and raise our goal of $10,000 from Atonement members – only a dime a day from each family, but enough to be a significant part of this great project.

            Last month I attended a special training put on by the Boy Scouts of America for representatives of Charter Organizations.  That’s a fancy term for groups like Atonement which sponsor Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops.  We are proud to be the Charter Organization of Boy Scout Troop 2, a very active local scout group which meets at the church on Wednesday evenings.  We also provide meeting space for Cub Scout Pack 148, and several Girl Scout groups.  Young people from our scout troop help with our food drives each year.  Some of their scouts came and led the flag ceremony at our 9/11 service.  As I learned at the training, there are many more ways we could involve them, and get church members involved with them. 

            We also support the work of local ELCA churches in the Tampa Bay area by giving annually to the work of the Tampa Conference.  As the current dean of the conference, I have been helping several of our sister congregations find pastors to replace those recently retired.  Since I’ve started, we have installed 6 pastors into new leadership positions.  Coming up on Saturday November 19, Lutheran clergy and church members from our conference will gather at Calvary Lutheran Church in Apollo Beach to hear from ELCA leaders, share ministry stories and decide how to direct our mission funds to best support the work of our conference.  You too, are welcome to come meet fellow Tampa Bay Lutherans at our Fall Conference Gathering.

            A portion of our regular offerings each Sunday is shared with the Florida-Bahamas Synod, which in turn sends over half of what they receive towards the mission work of the whole ELCA.  Missionaries around the world, hunger and disaster relief, justice work, support for new mission starts, seminaries and synod staff throughout the ELCA are all supported through our congregation’s “benevolence giving” to the wider church.  We have been growing every year in the amount we send out to synod, and are continuing to increase it as a proportion of our annual budget.           

            St. Peter tells Christians to let go of their old desires which caused them to put themselves first, and to generously practice holy living.  I am so inspired when I see you doing just that in your wholehearted support of God’s work at Atonement.  But it’s even more impressive to see that love get passed on to others.  As we join together to support causes beyond our congregation – ministries that help young and old in our communities and around the world – a miracle takes place before our eyes, and our own holy living becomes another instance of God’s holy giving.   

Peace