Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Year of Promise

“…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”
-          Luke 4:19

            She called because she had been doing a fundraiser for a battered women’s shelter.  People had been very generous supporting her, and she had some donated items leftover.  She wanted to know if our church could use them.  “Now I want you to know, I’m not a Christian,” she told me.  She said she was a pagan who believed in God, and believed Jesus was a good guy but did not believe in the Christian religion.  “Then why are you calling us?” I asked.  “Because I see the work you do, and everyone knows your church helps people.”
            How great is that?  It seems we have a reputation.  It seems we are “on the map.”  People are sitting up and taking notice of Atonement Lutheran Church.  No longer quiet and camouflaged, no longer hidden back from the road, no longer so mysterious to most of the community, we are in the papers, on the news, and a part of what is happening.  What would you like people to be saying about your church?  That we are fun? …friendly? …dedicated to our community?  I’m hearing all of these things and more.
            God is good and we are finding new ways to share God’s love.  While the community changes and the look of Lutheranism in the Tampa Bay area shifts, our congregation is playing an important role as an active sign for our area that Jesus cares for everyone.  Welcoming all people of all ages and backgrounds shows each visitor that our faith is real.  Inviting friends and neighbors brings new people to the Lord’s table and gives them a chance to discover God’s love.  Keeping our facility open for meetings by community groups along with the outstanding work of the Helping Hands food pantry has made us known throughout the north Tampa area.  Having police cars out front with their lights on Sunday mornings hasn’t hurt either.
            Still in the spirit of Thanksgiving (shouldn’t we keep that spirit all year long?), let me share just a few things that I am especially thankful for this year:
Å      dedicated members working hard on council, serving groups, in the office and on ministry teams
Å      a creative Sunday school program with Jan Gerle, Julie Kaufmann, “Bitsy” the dog (reminding us all to Depend On God) and other helpers
Å      Audra Eldridge leading a delightful Kindermusik program Tuesday and Thursday mornings
Å      the talented Agnir family: Ruby our highly-qualified choir director
Å      a growing confirmation class full of smart, inquisitive youth
Å      our lively and colorful newsletter edited by Carol Reams
Å      assistance in ministry from Marcia Weil and our deacon candidates
Å      great partnerships with Peace Lutheran (Pastor Michael Birra), Resurrection House (Margarita Romo) and First Unity of Pasco (Pastor Enrique Amoros)
Å      new traditions, including a “Trunk or Treat” Fall Festival and our “Stock Our Shelves” Pancake Breakfast Extravaganza
Å      great partnerships with Luther Springs who staffed our Day Camp and hosted our Spring Safari Family Camp
Å      enthusiastic new members
Å      great help and partnership from Thrivent and our rep. Deb Kretchman
Å      outstanding youth leadership from Brenda Lenz and Cotta Ungerer, as well as help with confirmation from Laurie Chiaramonte and Carla Haberland
Å      consistently quality music from Ken and the choir
Å      the example and inspiration of our saints who have gone to glory


            We know 2012 will bring some big changes.  There will be a few “dreams coming true” as our property begins a long-awaited transformation.  New landscaping and parking will give us a newer, fresher look.  Much-needed repairs on the building should keep it in shape for the future. But more than that, this will be a year where we have new opportunities to let our faith shine. 
            There will be chances to dedicate gifts towards a new building which will help us serve and reach more people for Christ.  This multi-use building will give us new space for worship, fellowship, and our food ministry.  Plans include a room with large, flexible space and a full commercial-grade kitchen, as well as more storage for Helping Hands.
            With a new year comes a perfect opportunity to grow in stewardship.  We can’t outgive God, who has given us all things.  Luther reminds us of a few of them in the Small Catechism.  In reply to the question, “What is meant by daily bread?” he reminds us what God gives us day by day:  Everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”
            Moving into this new year, it’s the perfect time to prayerfully consider growing in your response to all that God has given you.  Our offerings are the way we give thanks – they are the gifts of our hearts to our ever-giving God.  Think for a moment - of all the money you make in a year, how much of it goes to maintain and support your own life, and how much do you give away to help others?  Many people don't know what percentage of their income goes to charitable giving, or what percentage they give to their church.  I hope you will take a moment and find that percentage for your own household.
            Then ask yourself some questions:  Does this percentage represent an honorable gift to my Lord and Savior?  Am I comfortable giving this amount?  Am I perhaps too comfortable giving this amount?  What would it take to move up a percentage (to move left one column) in my weekly giving?  What would it take to make a “leap of faith” to giving a tithe (10% column) or beyond?  Would 10% of my income be an appropriate amount to give, considering what God has done for me and my real needs?
            Your answers to these questions are very personal.  They are between you and God.  This year we have not asked people to make a pledge or turn in commitment cards.  Instead, we leave it up to you and God how much you decide to give financially in 2012.  I have been joyfully giving 10% of my income to the church for many years now, and find it a great way to honor God in my life.  By giving a 10% tithe, I tell my Lord “thanks” for all he gives.  Tithing is my constant reminder that I need HIM much more than I need that money.
            One more opportunity that I hope you will take this year, and this is something that could change your life even MORE than tithing.  Consider reading through the Bible with me, day by day and chapter by chapter.  I am planning to read the Bible every day this year using the Bible reading plan included on this website, and I invite you to join me.  If you stick to it, you will have read the whole thing by the end of the year.  If you miss a day, just pick up on the following day and catch up on what you missed when you can.  I have done this now for three years and every time I do, I learn something new and the Bible comes alive for me in new ways.
            Finally, I want to thank you for another year of friendship, ministry and love.  You have a unique place in this congregation and in our future together.  God gave you special gifts and I know you will find new ways to share them at Atonement.  This year you all reminded me (in such a sneaky way) that it was my 5 year anniversary at Atonement and my 20th as an ordained pastor.  It’s funny, because I feel like we’re just getting off the ground.  On behalf of your family of faith and my own family, I ask that God continue to bless our life together in Christ as we head into this year of promise, 2012.

The Coolest Job

We feel we must be continually thanking God for you, brothers;quite rightly because your faith is growing so wonderfully and the love that you have for one another never stops increasing...
2 Thessalonians 1:3

    Veterinarian  Marlene Siegel joined us in October at our Blessing of the Animals before worship.  Her daughter Alyssa Harrell also stayed for Sunday school to talk about her new book, Demi of the Dolphins.  So there we were, gathered in bright Florida morning sunlight, with members and friends and our dogs and cats and lizards at hand to help us thank God for these living gifts.  After the ceremony, Marlene said to me: “You have such a cool job.”  And you know what?  I had to agree.
How many jobs give you anything like the variety of experiences you get being a pastor? In the morning I could be meeting with local business people, in the afternoon standing by a bed in an Intensive Care Unit, in the evening practicing songs with the praise band.  In between I’m praying and reading Scripture, teaching classes and playing games with the youth, helping with service projects and mission trips, planning for the future with ministry teams, carrying in food donations, praying with homeless people, and eating heavenly food at a potluck dinner.  But not all churches have so many things going.  What a privilege it is to be so wrapped up in a congregation that is so wrapped up in serving!
    And then there are those moments at that baptismal font which, like God’s cupped hands held out, enfolds a little new life with God’s grace.  And at the table each week where God works a miracle and comes down to us all, and we hand Him out in bread and drink Him in wine and a procession of hands reaches out to take Him — some old and rough, some young and glowing.  And there again at the end of life when we realize it has all been a gift, and something breaks through our sadness when we see that the person we know and loved as a friend on earth has gone on to become something more beautiful than anything we knew them as here.  And I get to be part of that, again and again.
Pastors are blessed seeing the Spirit constantly at work.  It’s so easy to see when we gather for our services, but it doesn't goes on from there, spilling out into all of life.  Tasks and events and meetings, things which can seem so routine and un-spiritual, take on a different significance when we are doing them as a community of Christ.  It’s not the business or the busy-ness, but the people that make up ministry.  Through the teamwork and the tasks, our service for Christ becomes a kind of worship in itself.  Liturgy (in Greek, leitourgia) means “work of the people.”  We are changed as we engage in it.    We see the startling way God takes a person and makes them into a disciple.  We witness the transformation that happens when the eyes of a heart are opened and one really sees how, in the midst of joy or sorrow, God’s hand has touched their life.
    Here at Atonement, people have shared amazing stories of how God has changed their life, brought them back from the brink of disaster, healed loved ones, given new direction, and brought friends and spouses to find each other.  Here at Atonement, people have worked as volunteers, coordinators, teachers and team leaders, gofers and planners, finding ways to help make ministry happen here.  Here at Atonement, people greet visitors and go out of their way to introduce themselves, connect people with new friends and make people feel at home.  Here at Atonement, people watch out for each other, checking up on people who have missed church a few times, calling on those who may need no more than a listening ear.  Here at Atonement, people put aside personal differences and work side-by-side and face-to face for the ministry of the gospel and the future God is calling us to build. 
    I guess what I’m trying to say is — you inspire me.  I get the feeling the Apostle Paul must have had when he wrote letters to the thriving young churches he helped start.  Seeing them grow in grace and understanding, welcoming new people, teaching the faith and spreading the Word about Jesus — these small, new groups of people he had shepherded were becoming strong witnesses for the Lord and beacons of hope for the world.  They were places where people could come, find acceptance, hear the truth and be saved.  I believe Atonement is that kind of place.
    Another person said to me this week, “I love how the people at our church are so real.”  A good way to put it, I thought.  You are keeping it real.  Real as a worried man and a pregnant woman, riding together far from home, seeking a place to come in out of the cold.  Real as a silent night, starlit and still, with some distant echo that sounds like angel song.  Real as the baby born that night, wrapped snugly in the best they had, watched and wondered at in the tired aftermath of birth.  Real as the hope that calls us to live each day with joy, doing what we can to get out the Good News that God is real and a child has been born for us.