Saturday, April 26, 2014

Card carrying members

“Now you are the body of Christ
and individually members of it."
                  -- 1 Corinthians 12:27

                What a bright, fresh feeling it is to finally reach Easter after the long Lenten season.  It feels a little like crawling out of a dark hole.  Finally we can sing Alleluia again.  The cross we were closing in on for so long turns into a launch pad to a new future.  Lilies in church, the Christ candle lit, white linens on the altar and a whole new attitude.  The trajectory of Christ’s journey stands revealed and hope is reborn in our hearts.
                 Our series for special services this past Lent was called “The Body of Christ.”  Through special bulletins, dialogs and a modified worship format, we explored the hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart, blood and body of our Lord — how each part of his human body became an instrument for God to use in bringing his grace to the world through Jesus.  The series culminated Easter morning at the 8am service with a look at the risen body of Christ at Easter and beyond.  I heard more positive comments about this series than any other Lenten program  we’ve done here at Atonement.  The readings were powerful, the services short and focused, and the topic (at least to me) was truly captivating. 
                The climax at Easter was uncovered at the very start of the service in our call to worship.  Again and again in the litany, we responded with those words from 1 Corinthians — “You are the body of Christ…”   Not some hypothetical “you” that we might be someday if we can be good enough.  Not a “you” meaning those who came after us or went before us.  The “you” that is the body of Christ is the “you” that we are — that YOU are — right here and now.  Guess what?  You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.
              After the service, our deacon Detlev came and asked if he could put that saying up on the sign: “You are the body of Christ.”  And as powerful as those words are, and as good an idea as that was, I told him no.  After all, it took us all of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to get to the point where we could boldly declare it in worship.  These are words with special meaning, kind of like the sacraments.  Much as I dislike “insider vs. outsider” distinctions, this is a designation directed mainly towards those who have been taught that special meaning.  When we share the body and blood of Christ in communion, we try to be reasonably sure that the one receiving the sacrament has some sense of what it’s about.  The same with this realization, this identification with Christ’s risen Easter body — it’s for disciples, for those called, enlightened, sanctified people we call the Church.
                 I don’t know if your wallet gets like mine does sometimes — overloaded with little plastic cards.  Some are discount cards for gas or groceries, some gift cards for this or that restaurant.  Then there’s the all-important drivers license and credit cards.   And then there are a few like AAA, the hospital insurance cards and my  official Florida-Bahamas Synod pastor card — the ones you don’t use often, but you better keep them with you just in case.  Each of those cards you carry says you are a member of a certain group, plan, club, organization, or privileged clan of people.  They identify something about you that indicates a connection, inclusion or benefit that belongs to you.  These are privileges of membership, and we are all members of certain kinds of things.
               Church membership also has privileges and benefits, but I want to talk about something much bigger than church membership.  If there were membership cards for all the various groups you are part of or benefits that belong to you because of your membership in the body of Christ, your wallet would be too full to carry, much less to stuff it in your pocket.  You were baptized into Christ.  This means the call of discipleship is yours.  The enlightenment of God’s Word is yours.  The holy gifts of God’s Holy Spirit are yours.  Your baptism and the seal of the cross that was made on your forehead are your membership cards for the body of Christ.   They are a sign of… not church membership with a small “c” which makes you part of a congregation or denomination, but the big “c” Church Universal of Jesus Christ, that Holy Catholic Church we Lutherans have left in our creeds.  As long as you carry that card with faith in your heart, you carry the name “Christian.”
              But it is also true that whoever gets baptized at Atonement or affirms their faith here also becomes a member of our small “c” church as well, of our congregation and denomination.  So you Atonement people are members of Atonement Lutheran Church and of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  If you’re female, then you’re a member of our WELCA (Women of the ELCA) women’s group.  And as long as you are breathing and have a heartbeat, you are part of our Outreach team as well — with your job being to “share the love of Jesus” by “glorifying God” and “extending His Kingdom” alongside your fellow Atonement members. 
              But there’s more.  We are part of  a body of Lutheran congregations doing mission in the Tampa Bay area.  As a member at Atonement, we serve in mission along with ELCA churches in Tampa, Temple Terrace, Carrolwood, Lutz, Apollo Beach and Sun City.  Your membership at Atonement is also membership in this Tampa Conference of ELCA churches, and you are invited to their annual meeting on May 22 of this month, featuring dinner, elections, a guest speaker, and worship.  Please let me know if you’d like to go!
               Your Atonement membership means you’re also part of the Florida-Bahamas Synod, our regional group of ELCA congregations led by Bishop Bob Schaefer.  Working together as a synod, we do mission projects and support other congregations and ministries such as Lutheran Services of Florida and Luther Springs camp.  It also entitles you to be nominated to service on synodical committees and study groups, or to be a voting delegate to the annual synod convention.  All this is not even mentioning all the agencies and groups you are connected to as a member of the ELCA with its nearly 10,000 congregations.  Sheesh.  If you start exploring all these gifts, connections, and benefits of membership, you may find it’s time to get a new wallet.
Pastor Scott

Let it shine

You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,
but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before others,
so that they may see your good work, and give glory to your Father in heaven.
                                                     -          Matthew 5:14-16

Friends of Atonement,
            Christ is Risen – Alleluia!!!

            Jesus, the Light of the World has broken through the darkness, and His light shines on us today.  We have come out from under the shadow of death into the warm glow of Easter.  In a world that is so taken with death, we find joy in celebrating life. 
            Jesus is alive and He gives us His light in three ways: we know it through His Word, we experience it in the Sacraments, and we live it in our own relationships.  How amazing to realize that God’s Easter light shines through us!  I see it every day through the privilege of being in ministry – people like you, people who let the light of Christ shine through them in their care and compassion, in their faith and love, and in their generosity and giving to God’s work.
            I want to thank you for being light for the world.  Your care for others brings them hope and joy; your volunteering helps welcome people to the Gospel of Jesus; your financial support touches lives around the community and around the world.  I hope you know what is so clear and obvious to me – that Christ is with you, and you make a difference.
            Keep on shining!

Pastor Scott

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What we need most...

“Do not worry about anything,
but in everything by prayer and supplication
with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."
                           -- Philippians 4:6-7

                We need your prayers.  I don’t know if you’ve ever said that to anyone before.  Maybe you’ve said it to me (I get that a lot!).  But, speaking for your congregation of Atonement I want to be sure you know this: We need your prayers.
                 I’m not saying this because we’re a dying church (we’re not), or because the bills aren’t getting paid (they are), or because there’s some terrible disaster about to happen (if there is, God hasn’t told me about it).  In fact, we are doing better than ever in many respects, thank God!  I’m saying this, or rather reminding you of this in case you’ve forgotten: We need your prayers.  We always need your prayers — because we need to be a praying church.
                Without regular prayer, we get caught up in the swirling waters of the world.  We get sucked into the idea that we never have enough, nothing is ever good enough, and those who think differently are rivals or enemies.  Without prayer, we are easily unsettled, easily frustrated, because instead of keeping an eye on what God is doing, all we see is what’s wrong in the world. 
                In his letter to the Philippians, from the darkness of a cold jail cell, St. Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near (Philippians 4:4-5).”  He then goes on to encourage us to pray to God and receive His peace. 
               We need your prayers more than ever because Atonement is entering an important moment in its history.  We have seen this church grow and change and have been fixing things up that have been broken for a long time.  We are coming to a crossroad that opens up many opportunities and directions for us.  We have questions to answer and decisions to make as a congregation.  How are we going to continue reaching out into the community?  What shape will the future of our worship life take?  What new priorities for mission and outreach will we follow?  What about the new building, and other facility needs we already have?  How will we organize our ministries and what kind of support staff will we need as we continue to grow?
              When a period like this crops up in the church, we call it a time of discernment.  Each day God gives us is new.  New opportunities abound, and old ways no longer have to bind us.  Who knows what we can become as we follow the Spirit which blows where it will?  Only God, the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that are not.  God alone knows just where we are heading as a congregation, and so, like I said, we need your prayers.
              I am very excited by the idea of Atonement becoming known as a praying church.  This is a practice that goes hand in hand with being a disciple, a church member, a Christian, even just a human being.  People pray all the time, without knowing it.  Even so-called atheists, when they express a hope or desire in their heart, unconsciously lift it up to some higher power.  As human beings, we are born connected to God, and as Scripture says, have God’s “law written on our hearts” Romans 2:15. 
                We all pray when we sigh and thank God for life’s blessings.  We pray when we hope for a better world.  We pray when we cry out for a loved one and long for their healing and restoration.  As members of Christ’s church, our lives are as naturally inclined to prayer as our bodies are to breathing.  In this time of discernment for our congregation, I hope you will join me in prayerfully seeking answers to the questions that will determine so much of our future, such as:

Å How can we live more deeply into God’s Word and Sacraments?
Å How can we be a more important asset to our community?

Å How should we promote our church and connect with friends and members in this age of social media?
Å How do we stay connected to what Christians are doing globally, ecumenically, and in our synod and conference?

Å What can we do to teach a healthy, holistic Christian spirituality for everyone, including a balance of the seven basic faith practices: worship, prayer, inviting, encouraging, serving, giving, and study?

Å How do we assist young families by helping them connect their children to God?

Å How do we engage each member of Atonement in ministry?

                This month we will be walking again together down the Via Dolorosa with Jesus.  The week before Easter, known as “Holy Week” because it leads us into the mystery and  power of the cross, begins the preceding Sunday with Palm Sunday.  That day we walk with Him through the gates of Jerusalem, and hear the cheers of the crowd there turn to shouts of “Crucify Him!”  On Maundy Thursday we go back to the night He was betrayed and experience the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the washing of the disciples’ feet and the giving of the great commandment to love one another.  Good Friday brings us face to face with the consequences of our own sin and the tremendous sacrifice that God made for us in giving His one and only Son so that we might have life. 
               Soon afterwards, that hard, dark road leads us out into a burst of glorious daylight as we find ourselves in the garden by an empty tomb on Easter morning.  Expecting to see the world as it was, expecting the long hard road to continue, expecting more suffering, Easter crashes into our lives and bursts through our old ways of seeing.  Instead, everything is made anew, transformed and better than ever. 
               What God has in store for His people exceeds their biggest dreams.  It begins from where we are now, with a God who lives beside us, providing our daily bread and calling us to love and care more deeply.  As we respond to the call, follow His lead, walk the paths He shows us, dare to continue even when the way gets hard, even though we stumble and fall, we rise again.  This God of ours does not depart from us.  He is a God of journeys who walks with us, always leading us from darkness to light.  He comes to bring us love, forgiveness, and a new Spirit, and with that new Spirit comes a power that can change the world.  Which is why, by the way, we need your prayers.

Pastor Scott                                                                     — Philippians 4:6-7