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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Mathew 14:13-21

Imagine that we – Hope Lutheran Church – had an unlimited budget.  Imagine that we could spend as much as we want on whatever we want and never accrue a penny of debt.  What do you suppose we would do differently? 

Stadium seating with gold plated pews… or maybe we’d go with La-Z-Boy recliners? Titantron screens? Catered brunches from 5 star restaurants every week? World class musicians playing on state of the art instruments?  A personal pastor for every member? Slickly produced services, broadcasted in primetime and streamed around the world? 

If there were no limit to our budget, how much bigger would our reach be? 

But instead we have to settle for what we have.  One lousy preacher. 40-year-old pews. And the same old Jesus we’ve been preaching for 2,000 years.  But if we just had more money… boy… there’d be no stopping us. 

Or maybe it isn’t really money that’s limiting us.  Maybe, in fact, our limited resources are meant for God’s glory.  After all, the story we read today about Jesus’ feeding the 5,000 would not have happened if they had enough money to cover it. 

I would suggest that we aren’t really limited by our finances.  We are limited by our hunger.  For that to make sense, let’s go back to the text. 

You’ll remember that the crowds have come out to the middle of nowhere to hear Jesus.  They are hanging on His every word.   So much so, that the disciples take it upon themselves to suggest that people should go home to eat. 

If people were leaving on their own, this wouldn’t have come up.  No one in the story seems to be concerned with dinner except the disciples.  It’s as if the crowds were hungrier for Jesus’ words than they were for bread.  But it’s the disciples who have their minds on their stomachs. 

I wonder if, after hearing Jesus preach so often, they’ve kind of grown too familiar with it.  They’ve lost their appetite for it. And so their minds go to earthly things… specifically they begin to think about what they lack. 

And when you think about it, it’s rather presumptuous.  “Jesus, you should send these people away so they can eat.” As if Jesus is less aware of their needs than the disciples.  As if Jesus is less concerned with caring for the crowds than the disciples.  We should probably learn from their mistake here: if you ever start to tell Jesus how He should do His job, you’re probably about to say something foolish. 

From an earthly standpoint, the disciples seem to be helpless. It would take a small fortune to feed all these people.  Getting the food from town and bringing it back would be a logistical nightmare.  There is no practical way to meet the need with the limited resources they have. 

And Jesus has the audacity to say, “They’re fine.  You feed them.”   

“But Jesus… We don’t have enough.  Not by a long shot. I mean, I know that you said not to worry about what we will eat or drink.  Just seek first the kingdom, and you’ll take care of the rest. But this isn’t a metaphor.  This isn’t a teaching illustration.  These are real hungry people.” 

“I know.  I really meant what I said.  These people have sought the kingdom.  I will take care of the rest.  Bring me whatever you can scrounge up and you will have plenty to feed these people.” 

If the disciples had an unlimited budget and a bottomless pool of labor, they could have probably handled this food problem all on their own.  They wouldn’t have needed Jesus at all… and they would have learned nothing about Jesus in the process. 

Which brings me back to today.  If we had an unlimited budget and a bottomless pool of labor, how much would we lean on Jesus?  How much would we learn about Jesus? Would we seek His kingdom first… or ours? 

I believe whole-heartedly that Jesus is every bit as powerful today as He was 2,000 years ago.  I believe that there is as much need today as back then… in fact, I believe that we have a poverty right here in America that rivals any the world has ever seen.  It’s not a poverty of empty bellies or homelessness.  Even the poorest among us, by worldly measures, are some of the richest people who have ever lived in all of human history. 

But when you think about the spiritual emptiness, the broken homes, the desperation, the despair, and meaninglessness that’s in our own neighborhoods… from God’s perspective there is incredible poverty and hunger all around us.  And there is nothing that can meet that need but Jesus himself. 

And when we think that our reach is limited by our resources, then we’ve really missed the point of this story.  If a mountain of money would empower us to be the church He wants u to be, then He’d give it to us.  But I don’t think anything could be farther from the truth. 

We aren’t limited by our resources.  We are limited by our hunger.  If, like the disciples, we are focused on what we don’t have, then we are hungering for the wrong things.  If we are focused on what we want and what would make our lives better, we will never be satisfied.  But if our hearts and minds – which is to say our priorities and our desires – belong to Jesus, then he will make what we have more than enough. 

There’s a curious ending to this story, you know.  I mentioned earlier that the disciples were likely motivated by wanting to feed themselves.  Rather than Jesus feeding them along with everyone else, He instead tells them to feed others.  He didn’t have to. He could have just snapped His fingers and made a plate appear in front of each person there. But instead, He told His hungry disciples to feed others. Don’t worry about your own belly, you take care of them. 

This may seem like a bad deal for the disciples, until you get to the end of the story. When everyone was fed, there were 12 basketfuls left over.  12 baskets, 12 disciples.  Jesus hadn’t forgotten His disciples. Rather, He wanted them to see that if they put others first, they would still be provided for. 

Many churches and many churchgoers suffer from a consumer mentality when it comes to God’s Word.  They come to church only focused on what they get out of it.  “Did the music touch me?  Did the message inspire me? Did we do the things that are meaningful to me?” Consequently, these folks wind up getting less out of it.  Moreover, they are often easily offended or disappointed.  They rarely reach out to others in meaningful ways, and are the most likely to make visitors feel unwelcome. 

But what if instead of focusing on what we get out of it, we come to church focused on what we can take away to share with others?  What if we assume that the sermon isn’t just for us, but also for the people we know who aren’t here?  What if we were more concerned about meeting the needs of others than having our needs met?  Do you think that your needs would not be met along the way – and that in abundance? 

We have more than we need to feed the hungry souls around us, right here and right now.  We have Jesus, who fed thousands with a few loaves and fish.  He has more than enough to meet the needs around us, and His invitation to us is the same today as it was back then, “You give them something to eat.” 

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 13:44-52

Ever seen River Monsters?  It is a great show that follows the adventures of Jeremy Wade in all sorts of remote and exotic corners of the globe.  He’s smart, he’s got a cool accent, and he’s a man with a plan. 

See, Jeremy Wade is an angler.  And the stuff he does is just incredible.  He knows how to choose just the right line and tackle, hook and bait, to cast into any river and pluck up the exact fish he’s looking for.  It’s really amazing. 

He throws in looking for some giant catfish, and two commercial breaks later he’s yelling “Fish on!” and hauling in some 400 pound leviathan of a catfish. 

I don’t have those kinds of skills.  I just put a worm on a hook and hope for the best.  My approach to fishing isn’t highly targeted. Nobody is going to make a TV show about my angling conquests. 

When Jesus talks about bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom to the world, He calls it “fishing for men.”  I used to picture the kind of fishing that I have some experience with.  The kind of fishing that pros like Jeremy Wade make look so impressive and heroic. 

So I could talk about identifying the kind of person you’re hoping to bring in, and selecting the right kind of bait to attract them and setting the hook as they are brought to the baptismal waters…. And the sermon writes itself from there, right? 

Only, this is completely different from what Jesus is talking about when he teaches about being a fisher-of-men. Sharing the Gospel isn’t about angling.  In fact, one of the obstacles we might face when sharing the gospel is people thinking we “have an angle” or that what we offer is “bait” rather than real food. 

No, Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net.  That’s because fishing with a pole is mostly recreational.  In a survival situation, you can probably provide for yourself and a couple others with a pole.  But commercial fishermen today as well as in Jesus day don’t use rods and hooks.  They use nets.  You will never catch as many fish with a pole as you will with a net. 

Now, of course, nets are not highly targeted.  When you throw a net in the water, you’ll pull in all kinds of stuff.  Some of it will be useless trash.  Some of it will be inedible fish.  But you’ll also pull in good fish. 

See, Jesus makes this very clear in his explanation of the parable: It is not the job of the net to sort out the keepers.  The net just needs to be open. 

A baited hook pretends to be something it isn’t.  The fisherman bobs it around to make it attractive.  It looks good; it smells good (to fish, I mean).  It promises one thing, but it has a completely different purpose. 

 

The reality of God’s Kingdom is beautiful enough that it doesn’t need bait to make it attractive.  And I’m not ashamed of what the Gospel of Jesus does promise. We are being pulled toward Christ, steadily and relentlessly.  We are being brought closer and closer each day and before you know it we are going to see Him face to face.  The invitation is open to literally everyone.  The promise is open to literally everyone. 

A net never pretends to be what it is not.  It’s a simple, humble thing.  It is just tossed into the water, spreads open wide, and is pulled back to shore.  

So, an evangelist is like a net?  No.  So the Gospel is like a net?  No.  The kingdom of Heaven is like a net.  Yes! And what is the kingdom of Heaven?  Look around you.  It’s us.  We, together, are the net.  For us to be functioning well, we have to be spread open wide to receive whomever we come into contact with.   

And if there are tears or holes in the net, we’re going to lose some good fish through them. Every one of us is a necessary part of the net and we have to hold together.  Broken relationships, people drifting away or walking away, hurting or hardened hearts – these all have to be mended. 

A net that doesn’t hold together isn’t going to catch much of anything.  You ever notice that when you read about fishermen in the Bible, if they aren’t casting their nets, they’re mending them? Jesus has grace enough to mend all of the tears and holes in the net.   

You may think that there is no way you are ever going to forgive him or that she will forgive you.  But Jesus has grace enough to do it.  And He intends to do it… not just for your sake, but for the folks who will slip through the holes in the net. 

God isn’t looking to make us slick marketers of the Gospel.  He doesn’t want to make you into a Jesus-salesman.  And spreading the gospel is by no means a competition.  You aren’t angling for people.  You are part of a net that He has cast into the water.  His invitation to us is simple: hold on to one another, and embrace everyone we can as he pulls us toward the shore. 

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Guest message from Chaplain Ryan Rupe:

 

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 6:12-23

You know, whenever I see a police car I always tap my brakes.  I may not have been speeding in the first place, but my natural reaction assumes I was. And whenever I see a police car pull behind me, I get nervous that he wants to pull me over – even if I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong.  Ever have that feeling?

Imagine you have a special license plate that told the police they couldn’t pull you over or write you tickets for anything at all.  How would you drive that car?  Would you observe the posted speed limits – or would you go whatever speed you want?  Would you park on the far side of the parking lot or right up front in on of the 8 unused handicap spots?  Would you come to a full stop at stop signs?

I’ll say this, if my car had a set of those ticket-me-not plates, I wouldn’t tap the brakes just-in-case anymore.  I wouldn’t get nervous when a police car pulls behind me.  And I don’t know how much I would care about the speed limit.  Sounds pretty great, right?

As long as it’s just me, it does.  But when you go to places like Bangkok or Mexico City or Rio you soon discover that you love traffic laws.  In the US – despite what you might think – drivers are very, very civilized. In a lot of other places in the world, drivers have no regard for things like traffic signals, or lines painted on the road, or curbs or other drivers.  You don’t willingly drive in those places.  You hire a driver to free you up to close your eyes and pray that you get where you’re going.

The idea of being free from the law is nice.  But the reality of lawless living isn’t.  And I think that’s why we have such a hard time really embracing what Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans. He says that if you are under grace, you are no longer under the law.  But that can’t be right, can it?

I mean, if I’m no longer under the law, then what’s to stop me from sinning?  What’s to stop a Christian from just doing whatever he wants?

Nothing.  The problem isn’t that he has the freedom to do what he wants.  The problem is in what he wants.

See, the law never makes a person good.  The law can curb someone from acting badly.  Obeying the law can give a person the appearance of being good.  But the law cannot make you good.  But that’s what God wants for you – He wants you to be good.

I think that being good is far more desirable than acting good.   The evil person who acts good relies on the law to stop him.  And the law becomes for him the dividing line between what is good and what is not.  The good person does what is right because it is good.

In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were utterly obedient to the law.  They were, in all honesty, slaves to it.  To be a Pharisee, you had to commit to observe every single point of the law perfectly, all day, every day.  But that commitment did not make them good.  If anything, they became horrible, judgmental, prideful people – who were greatly offended by actual goodness when they were confronted with it.

Paul says that living under grace – not under the law – is where sanctification happens.  Sanctification is the process of being made holy.  It is how genuine goodness is grown in us.

We don’t have to be soft on what we mean when we say that we have freedom in Christ.  I think we can talk about that as an absolute statement.  It may make you nervous to hear someone say, “A Christian can do anything and God will forgive him!” It can sound like permission to do terrible things.  But bombarding that person with God’s Laws won’t make them want to do those things any less – and Jesus says that wanting to do them is just as sinful!

Living under the law is rigid and full of fear.  And it leads to an obsession with being sure everyone else is following the law like us… after all, it isn’t fair if we have to follow all of these rules but other people don’t!  And it becomes easy to sort out the good and bad people by how well they adhere to the law.

On the flipside, a lawless life isn’t good either.  I don’t want my life to be the equivalent to a taxi cab ride in Rio – reckless and only concerned about whether or not I arrive safely where I want to go.

Paul offers a third way forward.  Sanctification.  God offers you absolute freedom in Jesus – but without genuine goodness, that freedom is a curse.  Rather, God invites us to take this gift of grace and really consider what it’s for.

See, you don’t need God’s grace to live a life of sin.  You can do that without Jesus, no problem.  And you don’t need God’s grace to be rigidly legalistic.  Every religion in the world will tell you how to act good.  But what God’s grace offers you is real goodness.

We’ve been talking about discipleship – that is, being a follower and apprentice to Jesus – for a couple weeks now.  And this is the kind of thing that really only happens in the framework of discipleship.  Sanctification is very much about learning to love what Jesus loves, to hope for what He hopes, to work at what He desires.  The law – as a list of do’s and don’ts  – becomes less and less relevant… but at the same time, you will be more and more obedient to God.

And as we start to experience a life of righteous freedom, our attitudes towards each other begin to change.  Our message to the outside world begins to change.  We can be less and less concerned with whether or not people seem to be acting good.  When we start to care about real goodness – the kind that only comes by God’s grace – then judgment turns into compassion and forgiveness. And the gospel becomes more than a doctrine to and for you; it becomes an invitation from you to the world.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 10

The first few years of our marriage, Alisha and I moved a lot.  Like, 5 moves in the first 4 years.  And as many of you are probably aware, moving a lot encourage you to sort out what’s valuable and what isn’t.

Now we’ve been in the same house for 8 years… and over time you start to accumulate stuff.  So now, it’s requires an effort of will to decide to get rid of stuff.  Getting rid of stuff can feel really good.  It makes the house feel bigger and at the same time more manageable.  And there’s this air of enlightenment that you get when you unburden yourself from a meaningful amount of stuff.

But the actual sorting and disposal can be tough.  I mean, some things are obviously trash… and those are easily disposed of.  The next category is, “Honey… do you know what this is?”  That probably takes the most time.  And then there’s the, “These are really nice… but we don’t actually use them” category.  Above that are the “keepers.”  “Keepers” tend to be items in fairly good condition that you are either currently using or intend in good faith to use in the future.

And above the “keepers,” are the “priceless” things.  Now, when somebody says “priceless,” maybe what comes to mind is something too expensive for you to afford.  Like a priceless work of art, or a priceless antique.  But that stuff goes on auction all the time… and it turns out, you can assign a price to it.

“Priceless” is different.  Priceless stuff means more than any amount of money.  Priceless stuff is stuff you genuinely love and would never trade away… although, one day you might pass it along to someone you love.  And when you do, you hope they’ll love it too.

I don’t think I have a lot of priceless stuff in my house.  But there are a few things.  The hat Sam wore the day he was born.  The flag that was presented at Alisha’s grandfather’s graveside.  My mom’s Bible.  It’s stuff that no auctioneer or collector would ever be interested in – but to me they’re priceless treasures.

I don’t know what you have at home that’s priceless.  But we share some treasures that are.  We have the unfailing, unwavering, eternal love of our Heavenly Father.  We have the assurance of eternal life.  We have the freedom and joy that comes from knowing that our sins are forgiven, and now we can stand unashamed before Almighty God.  We have the Holy Spirit living inside us, and that means we are never, ever alone.

I wouldn’t trade those treasures for anything.  They are priceless to me.

But they weren’t free to God.  There was an unthinkably high cost to Him.  He gave His only begotten Son to face rejection, ridicule, abuse and death to give you these treasures.  Which is why you could never buy them.  What could you possibly give to God that would rival the value of His Son’s life?  Any offer would be an insult.

And yet, He bought these treasures specifically so that you could have them.  So He gives them to you freely – not because they are cheap but because they are priceless.  When you needed it most and when you deserved it least, God gave His grace to you.

Last week we talked a lot about making disciples… and I didn’t talk too much about evangelism specifically beyond mentioning that it’s a part of it.  Today’s text addresses evangelism more directly, and so I will too.

From the outset, it’s worth recognizing that these were not “fully formed” disciples.  Jesus hadn’t even been to the cross yet.  They were theologically pretty green and they couldn’t even point to the resurrection yet.  But they had met Jesus and He sent them out – and that, in reality, is enough.

And I mean that literally.  Jesus stripped them of almost every worldly resource before sending them out because He knew they would be most effective and their message would be most clear if they were wholly dependent on God.  These guys may not have even been particularly talented “public speakers.”  They’re blue-collar dudes from backwater Galilee.

But they received from Jesus priceless treasures: the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, the good news of God’s kingdom, the call to follow Christ and be a part of the most important life-saving mission in all of human history.  So as Jesus is sending them out, He frames the work that they are going to do with this simple statement: Freely you have received, freely give.

I think if we take these 5 words to heart, it will have a huge impact on the life of this church.

It should soften our hearts toward the people around us.  I think we get that we don’t deserve God’s love – and that God didn’t wait for us to get our acts together before He’d love and forgive us.  Well, if that’s how we received Christ, what should our message to the folks still lost in their sin be?  “As soon as you get cleaned up like me, you can be part of my church.” “As soon as you are less of a sinner, God will love you a lot more.” God didn’t say that to us, why would we ever act that way to someone else?

Maybe you’re good with that… but you don’t think you’ve been gifted as an evangelist.  “I get tongue-tied… I don’t know what to say… I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of person.”  I’m not saying that God is calling you to step into the pulpit… but you do have the gifts you need to do this.

See, God isn’t calling you to give away anything He hasn’t given you.  But what He has given you, He does expect you to give away. The grace and forgiveness He shows to you, He expects you to show to others.  The hope that He gives you, He expects you to share with others.  The love He shows you, He expects you to reflect in your life.

This isn’t about memorizing scripts or walking people through a carefully curated list of Bible verses or passing out tracts or even necessarily inviting someone to church.  The call to evangelize is nothing more complicated than accepting the priceless gifts of God for what they truly are, and then passing them along to the next person.

Freely we have received.  Freely we can give.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Holy Trinity Sunday
Matthew 28

 

I have to tell you that it is an absolute privilege that I get to be a pastor.  The honor and respect that you show me is truly humbling.  I know that most of you have a high regard for my seminary training, and the office that I as shepherd of this congregation.

I really value the education I received in seminary.  In some ways it was a very fruitful time, and I wouldn’t be the theologian I am today without it.  But, curiously, most of the education I got had little to do with the day-to-day work of a pastor.

I learned a lot about translating and interpreting the Scriptures. I learned biblical history and church history.  I learned a bit about preaching (but, honestly not that much).  I had one class on how to lead worship, one class on counseling, one class on the practical operations of the church.  I had zero classes on prayer.  Zero classes on evangelism.  Zero classes on how to teach.  Zero classes on identifying spiritual gifts or raising up leaders in the congregation.

And how many classes do you think I had on “making disciples?”

In fact, the idea of being or making a disciple was never really defined for me.  I have always known that the Great Commission is, well, super important.  But I always kind of understood it as Jesus’ command to share the gospel to the ends of the earth.  You know, a command to evangelize.

I still think that evangelism is an important part of the Great Commission – but I’ve come to learn that it isn’t even the main idea.  The Great Commission isn’t a bullet point for the church to add to its agenda.  It is His description of what the church is and does.  Everything that falls under this dictate is the function of the church.  Anything that is not is extraneous.

This may not be obvious right away, but probably because we haven’t done a very good job defining discipleship.  So, let’s start with simple definitions: A disciple is a follower… but not like a Twitter or Facebook follower.  It’s a student, an apprentice.  And when we’re talking about Disciples of Jesus, there is a pretty clear method for making them: Baptize them in the name of the Holy Trinity, and teach them to obey Jesus’ commands.

Before we explore the method, let’s clarify something.  Jesus doesn’t tell us to make believers.  The Great Commission doesn’t really talk directly about giving people principles or philosophies to believe in.  He says to make disciples.

Consider for a moment: can you be a Christian and not be a disciple of Jesus?  Because we talk so little about being disciples, you might have an impulse to think these are separate things.  But I don’t think you can find any examples of it in the whole New Testament.  In fact, before they were first called Christians, the people of Christ called themselves Followers of the Way.  Followers – not “believers” – Followers.

See, following Jesus – that is living in obedience to His commands – always follows belief.  If you believe Jesus is who He claims to be and that the word He speaks is true, you will obey Him.  But obedience to Christ has to be taught.  It just doesn’t come naturally, no matter how much faith you have.

Jesus spent three years in intentional discipleship of others.  In the Gospels we have an inside view of what it looked like. He spent personal time.  He shared meals with them.  He helped them learn to pray.  He shared insights from God’s Word.  He was honest about things he saw in their life and in their heart – sometimes rebuking and offering forgiveness when it was needed.  He was a consistent presence in their life, and without that consistency the discipleship would not have had the same impact.

Now, why did Jesus take on those disciples?  Because He needed their help with His ministry?  Not really.  It was because He took an interest in building them up and helping them mature.  The goal, of course, was to get them to the point where they could make disciples as well.  They were the cornerstone of His church growth strategy.  If they weren’t fit to make disciples, then there wouldn’t be a church after He left.  The church is nothing more and nothing less than disciples of Jesus making disciples of Jesus.

A few years ago, I received a new call to Hope, and along with it a new title: “Associate Pastor of Outreach and Discipleship.”  I gladly accepted that call, but the title struck me as a little silly.  If you take “outreach and discipleship” away from the church, what’s left?  And what is the expectation of that call?  Am I to do the outreach and discipleship of this church… or am I charged with ensuring that this church is outreaching and discipling?

See, Jesus taught thousands.  He healed and served countless multitudes. He exemplified godliness to everyone He met.  But He had twelve Disciples.  Not thousands, or hundreds, or dozens.  He had twelve.

I cannot outperform Jesus.  I cannot disciple 300 people.  I can disciple less than a dozen.  I cannot reach out to all of the lost.  I can reach out to the people in my corner of the world.  The Great Commission is for everyone here, and if we aren’t all grabbing taking responsibility for our part, we are missing out on what Jesus is calling us to be.

I know that this stuff may sound daunting to some of us… but it really doesn’t need to be.  And I know some of us feel unqualified – but that’s fear talking.  Please, please, do not miss what I’m about to tell you…

You do not need a seminary degree to make disciples.  You do not need to be theologically sophisticated.  You do not need to be the most spiritual person you know.  You do not need to be perfect.  You just need to have a serious love for Jesus, and take an interest in people who are younger in their faith.

I think there is a weird thing in our culture that devalues experience and age.  And then on the flipside, there is a huge reluctance to self-identify as being spiritually mature – as if maturity is an unattainable goal that only comes about when we get to heaven.  That is not at all how the apostles talk about maturity.

Maturity means that you have a strong foundation in the faith and a solid grasp of the essentials: things like grace, salvation, repentance, prayer, and worship.  Unless every pastor you’ve had has utterly failed you, most of this congregation should be mature – not finished or perfect, but mature.  This isn’t a matter of pride, it’s a matter of responsibility.  If we’re all immature, then no one can accept the responsibilities of maturity.  No one can make disciples, and the Great Commission is lost on us.

But that isn’t us.  God has blessed this church with so many wise, godly, loving people.  And this Great Commission is for you.  This is the step He is calling us to take – a personal investment of time and love in each other’s lives.  A holy and intentional friendship with people who can benefit from what we’ve received in Christ.  Some of those people are here today.  Some of them haven’t been in a church in a long time – if ever.

These people need you.  They need your wisdom.  They need your experience.  They need your prayer and your encouragement.  They need you to follow Christ and they need your help to do the same.  You have the commission and Christ will be with you every step of the way.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
The Day of Pentecost
Acts 2

 

Last year, the Olympics were in Rio.  Admittedly, I didn’t watch much of the games last year, but I usually like to.  It’s inspirational.  It’s exciting to root for your country.  It’s fun to celebrate the achievements of individual athletes and share stories around the water cooler like, “Did you see watch the archery match last night?” I mean honestly, most of us say a phrase like that every fourth year at best.

But, you know what my favorite thing about watching the games is?  Pretending I know anything about these sports.  I have the audacity to think – or even say out loud – “Oooo… He really should have tucked tighter to get a better rotation on that dive!”  It is ludicrous that I think I should look at the best athletes in the world and say, “You know what they should do different?”  But somehow I do with a perfectly straight face.  That’s the Olympic spirit of a couch potato for you.

You know, I think we can do this about church sometimes, too.  “You know what this church really needs?”  “You know what’s wrong with this church?”  “You know what this church is missing?”

Just like me watching the Olympics, the commentary probably has some merit, but lacks the thorough knowledge and insight that the real pros have.  I would dread having an Olympian basing their performance on my advice.

So, who is the expert that we should turn to? Who has the thorough and intimate knowledge of how a church should perform?  Who has the insight and foresight to cast a vision for the church of tomorrow?

Of course, it’s Jesus.  And on this day of Pentecost – the day that celebrates the explosive growth of the church and the unleashing of God’s gospel power on the whole world, why not look at Jesus’ strategy?

Are you ready for it? “Wait on the Holy Spirit.”  Got it!  We’ll do some grassroots, viral marketing and then… “No.  Wait on the Holy Spirit.”  Got it!  So we’ll start building a suitable worship space and… “No.  Wait on the Holy Spirit.”  And then?  “And then… it’ll happen.  You’ll do the right thing, and you’ll be amazed at yourself and the people around you.  You’ll… you know what?  I’m not going to spoil it for you.  For now, wait on the Holy Spirit.”

But what if he doesn’t show up?  “Have I ever broken a promise?” No… but… “But nothing.  Wait on the Holy Spirit.”

Can you imagine what sort of mess the disciples would have made of things if they hadn’t waited on the Holy Spirit’s power? At best, their efforts would have been futile.  At worst, they might have been successful but made it into something completely different than Jesus intended.

Sadly, this is true for many churches today.  In his book, “Radical,” David Platt wrote, “I am most concerned [that]… I am part of a system that has created a whole host of means and methods, plans and strategies for doing church that require little if any power from God… God’s power is at best an add-on to our strategies.  I’m frightened by the reality that the church I lead can carry on most of our activities smoothly, efficiently, even successfully, never realizing that the Holy Spirit of God is virtually absent from the picture.”

What about Hope?  How much do we rely on the Holy Spirit in how we do church?  Not just by way of a theological footnote where we acknowledge his work after the fact, or just assume that he comes alongside whatever our plans are.  How much of doing and being church are we trying to do under our own strength and wisdom and how much are we depending on Him?

I think this is part of why they were told to wait on the Holy Spirit.  The Pentecost experience could have happened the moment Jesus ascended into heaven.  But God chose to wait over a week.  Why? Because God needed to establish for the apostles that the church He was building was His work.  They had to learn that they are not in control of it.  They needed to learn that God often has plans that He doesn’t reveal to us ahead of time.  They needed to experience the difference between life with and without the Spirit’s power.  They needed to see that the Holy Spirit is way, way out of their control… and that that’s a very good thing.

In 2,000 years, very little has actually changed – and God hasn’t changed at all.  This is still His church.  It is still out of our control and in His hands.  The Holy Spirit is every bit as surprising, powerful, and in charge as He has ever been.

If we’re feeling tired, lost, or confused then it’s time to refocus on Him.  Because God is not tired, lost, or confused.  It may be that we’ve been trying to run on our own steam – which only works for a little while.

I know that waiting isn’t fun.  It isn’t a great battle cry.  It isn’t inspirational.  But it is one of the constant refrains throughout scripture. God wants us to give in to Him.  He wants us looking to Him, and depending on Him.  This stresses control freaks straight out, but there’s no getting around it.  Without the Holy Spirit’s power and leading we cannot be God’s church.

But when He empowers us, when we wait on Him to lead us, the picture is incredible.  He shows up in supernatural power and does amazing things through regular, humble people.  When we think about the apostles, it’s easy to think of them as these elite exemplars of faith and piety.  But that isn’t how the Bible describes them.  They were common, thickheaded, flighty, and fearful regular Joes… except when the Spirit comes on them in power.  And then they do the kinds of things that Jesus did.

Why shouldn’t that be us?  If God hasn’t changed, if the apostles were regular folks, if God’s mission is still the same, if human needs are still the same… Should we be expecting something other than what God was doing back then?  Should we be pursuing our plans, relying on our power, seeking human wisdom… Or should we wait faithfully for the Holy Spirit’s power, and then move how He leads?

To get there, we’re going to have to grow in our prayer life.  We’re going to have to become more expectant and more patient.  We’re going to have to learn to set aside our plans and preferences and really learn to listen to God’s leading.  And when He shows up in power, and only when, we’ll be ready to move.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Sixth Sunday of Easter
John 14:15-21

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the reformation, it’s a good time to refocus on what makes us Lutheran. It’s not pipe organs or candles or steeples.  It’s not polka, it’s not lederhosen.  It is the absolute, unwavering belief that you are saved by God’s grace alone.

This is, without a doubt, the most beautiful, most liberating, most hope-filled doctrine any church could ever proclaim.  When the doctrine of God’s grace really penetrates your heart and dominates your mind, your love for Christ will grow and grow and grow.  It’s exactly as Jesus taught: He who is forgiven much, loves much.

So, consequently, we also put no small effort into demonstrating, recognizing, and confessing our sinfulness.  After all, what is grace for a person without sin?  We take it as a given that everyone is a sinner… That’s not being judgmental; it’s just being realistic. And it just means that everyone (ourselves included) starts in a position of needing God’s grace – grace which He freely gives.

These foundational beliefs – our sinfulness and God’s grace in Christ – are the core of Christianity… and the clear teaching about them is one of the great gifts that Lutheranism has given to the Christian Church.

And while these are the most precious truths I know, I’d be remiss if I led you to believe that it’s all you need to know.  Unfortunately, I think we might emphasize them so much that we think this is the whole story – a closed loop of sin, grace, sin again, and grace again.  In such a story, who loves whom?

To be honest, it’s fairly easy to talk about Jesus’ love.  It’s endless, it’s unconditional, it reaches the unlovable.  It is clearly demonstrated in Christ’s life, and even moreso in his death.  And as a poor, miserable sinner, I know how much I need that love and how much I don’t deserve it.

But it’s a mistake to think that we’re meant to have a one-way relationship with Jesus.  We aren’t meant to simply be loved by him, but we are meant to love him back.

You’ve probably heard the term “cheap grace,” used before, and even if not, you can guess that it’s not a good thing.  The most obvious version of “cheap grace,” is the person who says, “It’s okay if I sin; Jesus will forgive me.”  And sure, that is an example of taking grace for granted…. But I’d like to offer a bit of a broader picture of cheap grace: if your relationship with Jesus is all about what you get out of it, then you have been living on cheap grace.

Sadly, there are a lot of people that, whether they admit it or not, are looking for a one-way relationship with Jesus.  They want to be loved, they want to be fed, they want to be welcomed… but they give little or no thought to being the ones lovingfeeding, and welcoming. On the other hand, how many of those people would say they “love Jesus?”

Well intentioned churches just like ours have contributed to this problem.  For a long time we’ve tried to market Christianity as easy and accessible.  We’ve talked about Jesus’ love for us, and have left the topic of loving Jesus a little open-ended…

Last week we read Jesus say to us, “I’ll do anything you ask of me.”  And that sounds really good.  This week we read Jesus say, “If you love me, you’ll do what I ask of you.”  And that sounds… harsh? Not at all!  He’s just bringing into focus that a relationship with Him is a two-way street.  Loving and being loved.  Serving and being served.  Hearing, and being heard.

The reality is, you can’t separate Loving and Obeying Jesus. 1 Corinthians 13 teaches us that if you carry out Christ’s commands, but you don’t have love, you accomplish nothing. But here, in John 14, Jesus shows us that loving Jesus isn’t just about how we feel about Him.  Loving Jesus means obeying Him.

We aren’t talking about earning Jesus’ love for us. We’re talking about our love for Him. That doesn’t mean we should start obsessing about much or little we think we’re loving or obeying Jesus.  That won’t produce anything in us except pride or despair.  Rather, we have to start looking through Jesus’ eyes and responding to His heart to the people around us.

A curious thing happens when we do this… We begin to see Him more clearly, more regularly, more vividly.  We become more sensitive to what His Spirit is saying and doing in us.  “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

Think about that for a minute…. Are you hungry for a deeper relationship with Jesus?   Do you want to know Jesus more and more?  Do you want to see Jesus manifest in your life?  The key is in obedience to Him.

Now, this is not an invitation to become rigid and law-oriented.  By no means is Jesus looking to make more Pharisees.  And that’s why He’s so clear that it’s His commandments that He wants us to obey.

Jesus spends an awful lot of teaching time in clearing away commandments that man added to God’s law.  Not that he was making obedience easier – in fact, He revealed that obedience to God is much harder than people thought.  Not only are your actions subject to judgment, so are your thoughts and feelings.  The righteousness that God desires is in the heart… but what is in the heart will show forth in actions.

So what are the commandments that Jesus gave?  Love God.  Love one another.  Consider others ahead of yourself. Forgive one another. Trust in God.  Follow Jesus.

That’s what a life of loving Jesus looks like.  It isn’t about “What Jesus can do for me?” It’s about “What can I do with all this love Jesus has given to me?”  And as we pursue the answer to that question, Jesus promises to be with us, to manifest in us, to guide us by His Spirit.

To become the church that God is calling us to be, we can’t just be grace consumers.  We are called to be the channels by which His love impacts the world.  We are called to love Jesus back.

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By Pastor Cofer
Fifth Sunday of Easter
John 14:1-14

Have you ever broken your arm or leg?  I did, back when I was in first grade.  My right elbow was fractured for a significant portion of that year.  I don’t remember a lot about that year, but I do remember the cast.  I remember it being sweaty and itchy inside there, and occasionally aching quite a bit.  But that wasn’t the worst part of it.  The very worst was just not having the use of that arm.

I couldn’t really play kickball or foursquare or do much on the playground at all.  I had to eat left-handed.  And, of course, I didn’t have many good options when it came to practicing my handwriting.  My wrist was fine, so I think I mostly tried to write with my right hand…. But with the cast covering part of my palm and the inability to bend my elbow, things just didn’t go well.

And then you get the cast off and you have both hands again.  It’s a wonderful feeling.  And it’s a little awkward too.  After a few months of immobility, my arm wasn’t as strong as usual.  I was clumsier with it than normal.  But after a little while it was as good as new.

A cast on one arm is an inconvenience.  But I really feel for the folks who break both at the same time.  Or even worse, being laid up in traction at the hospital.  You’re there, thinking about all the things you could be doing.  Thinking about all the work that’s piling up.  Thinking about… well, anything, because that’s about all you can do for the time being.

Brothers and Sisters, I want to tell you that Jesus has no intention of being laid up in traction. I know he’s thinking about the things he wants to get done.  I know there’s a load of work piling up.  Remember when He said, “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few?”  That’s what we’re talking about here.

It is a fact that we are the Body of Christ.  We are His hands and feet.  If He is going to get any work done around here, it’s going to be through us.

Now, this isn’t a sermon about being busier.  That’s the last thing we need.  So, before you jump ahead of me, let’s just ask the very fundamental question: What is the work that Jesus wants to get done?

He’s already died and rose again, so we can cross that off the list.  He’s paid the price for the sins of the whole world.  He’s broken the power of sin and death and crushed Satan under his heel. Check, check, check.  But there is still this big job to be done – spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth.  Spreading the life-giving, life-saving faith to folks dying without it.

think we’re probably all still on board at this point.  But what’s coming to mind is probably more about being the “mouth” of Jesus than His Hands and Feet.  Don’t get me wrong, you can’t spread the gospel without opening your mouth.  But there’s a lot of talk in this world.  And just talking about Jesus isn’t going to get it done.

So let’s take a step back and ask, how did Jesus spread the faith?  How did His disciples spread the faith?  How did the generation after them do it?  It wasn’t just talk.  They prayed, and God did impossible things… and then they got to explain it.

I used to think that miracles were a rare thing that once in a great while God would do.  Usually they’d happen to other people, and probably in some third-world country.  But by-and-large miracles were just proofs that Jesus is God.  I’m not, so I won’t do any.

A careful reading of the scriptures would kinda blow that thought out of the water.  If I can’t do them because I’m not God, how come Peter could?  How come Paul could?  How come Stephen and Philip could?  And for that matter, what about Moses and Elijah?

I had misunderstood something very important. Yes, Jesus’ miracles were proof that He is the Son of God.  But the disciples’ miracles were proof that Jesus is the Son of God.  It wasn’t about Peter’s extraordinary power.  It wasn’t about Paul’s superhuman faith.  Jesus’ followers follow Jesus. They do what they learned from Him.

Imagine what Jesus would do among us if He were here today.  If your template is the ministry you read about in the Gospels, in Acts, and in the Epistles, then it’s probably much more supernatural than what we are used to.  Why?  Because they lived in a specially blessed era of history?  Because they were physically closer to Jesus?

I don’t think those reasons hold much water.  After all, Jesus promised to be with us until the very end. And the words we read today are pretty inclusive: “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father.”

The stuff that you imagine Jesus would do if He was here right now is stuff that Jesus wants to do, and that’s why He’s made us His Body on Earth.  Because He is ascended, He has passed on his ministry to us.  But not just the ministry.  He has given us his Spirit to live in us and empower us to carry out these works.

It isn’t your power, it’s His.  It’s on His authority.  It’s His promise: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You will ask anything in my name and I will do it.

I know it can be hard to believe that as an absolute statement, because we’ve all prayed for things that didn’t happen. And I’m not about to tell you that it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough or something.  Rather, let’s talk about what praying in Jesus’ name means.

See, there are times when the Father is glorified in ways we don’t expect.  There are times when His plans aren’t what we expect… so even though we ask, and ask in faith, He might still say no.  Those times are often hard to understand, but God can be trusted to know what’s best.

The trouble is that those experiences can be formative.  We can start expecting Him not to intervene, not to heal (or just to do so in small, natural ways).  And so we start wrapping a cast and a sling around Jesus’ arms as if they were broken – immobilizing them so we don’t hurt ourselves further.

Friends, Jesus’ arms work just fine.  His hands can do so much more than we expect or even imagine.  If we start with expecting God to say “no” to the prayers we really want to pray, then we will never pray them. Don’t you know that God’s heart is for life and healing and restoration?  “No” is not his default position… “No” is the exception, not the rule.

It isn’t about getting what we want.  It isn’t about demonstrating our great faith.  It’s about Jesus being glorified.  It’s about being His hands and feet to continue His ministry.  It’s about putting actions behind our words.

We do nothing on our own. He is calling us to pray in His Name, with His power and on His authority.  The Father is revealed in Jesus and Jesus is revealed in us when we do the works that He does through us.

 

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10:1-10

Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. I’m not sure there is a more comforting image of Jesus in all of scripture. As soon as I read these words, my mind is instantly pulled back to the 23rd Psalm with its green pastures and quiet waters. And it’s such a relief to know that I’m not lost or alone – that Jesus is protecting and guiding me all the way.

Granted it’s not the most dignified thing in the world to be called a sheep. After all, sheep are easily frightened and not terribly bright. They need a shepherd to protect them from dangers – and sometimes from themselves.

And while that may not be dignified, it does pretty well describe some aspects of my relationship to Jesus. I do need his protection. I do need his guidance. I do need his wisdom and courage.

That said, there is a sizable portion of Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd that will really challenge us if we take it seriously. I think we all like the idea that Jesus calls us by name, and that we (his sheep) will be able to recognize his voice and follow him. And that’s were things actually start to challenge us.

See, we’re not meant to stay in the pen. Now, the pen is great. It’s a safe place where we can rest secure. The shepherd leads the flock into the pen for their good.

But, the pen isn’t an end unto itself. Suppose the flock stayed in the pen and never followed the shepherd out into the world… what would happen to the flock?

After a while they’d get hungry and munch the grass where they stand. And for a time, they’d think things are great. But after a while they’d eat it all up. And then they’d get hungrier and hungrier. Maybe they’d fight over the little bit of grass they have left. They’d waste away. And if they stay in the pen long enough, there just won’t be a flock anymore.

The Good Shepherd doesn’t keep the flock in the pen all day. He leads them out. He calls their name and leads them out. He wants them to move to new pastures where they can eat and thrive. He wants them to stretch their legs – to grow strong and mature and that just doesn’t happen in the pen. Nor does he take the flock to the same spot time and time again. The same problem would happen. He has to move them to where the grass is green, even if they’ve never been there before.

Now, let’s make the turn to unpack this metaphor. The shepherd is Jesus. The flock is his church. Note that while he knows each of us by name and calls us by name, he is moving the flock together. He wants to keep the church together and moving as one. Now, the pen is… well… it’s probably right here: a place of rest and safety for his church. And the pastures are… well, for lack of a better term, the pastures are out there. Out in our city. Out in our future.

Hopefully by now you know that I’m not a “God wants to make you rich and comfortable so you can coast into eternal life” kind of preacher. But these words of Jesus are for you: He has come that you may have life and have it abundantly. Abundant life can’t be contained in a pen – even one as nice as this.
So, the first challenge is for the flock to get out of the pen. Now, if you’re with me so far, then let’s talk about the next challenge – following the Shepherd out.
See, as soon as we realize that there ain’t enough grass here to feed us all, the next impulse would be for us to go find some pastures. There’s a million wrong ways to do this, and only one right way.

Should we go back to the pastures we have fond memories of? It was good yesterday, surely it’ll be good tomorrow? Should we choose the best and brightest sheep to work up a plan to scout out good pastures? Should we talk to some of the other flocks and get notes on where they’ve been grazing?
Or, should we look to the good shepherd, respond to his call, and trust that he knows better than the rest of us? Should we trust him to protect us when the way to where he is taking us is rocky and dark?

I think we have some funny ideas about lost sheep. Being a lost sheep doesn’t mean jumping the fence when the rest of the flock is in the pen. Well, it can mean that, but that’s much less common. More common is simply going your own way when the shepherd is driving the flock. Maybe it’s a refusal to move with the flock. Maybe it’s a determination to head toward familiar pastures. Maybe it’s a fixation with a new and novel sight that you just have to check out.
It can be any of these things equally… and it’s usually not callous or malicious. But the truth is quite simple, if you go any direction other than where the good shepherd leads – even if it’s to a place he took you in the past – you are wandering off. It’s the shepherd’s job to know where we’re going and lead the way. It’s our job to trust and follow.

As a congregation, we’ve taken some steps forward in this area. We cannot respond to his call if we aren’t listening. We will not get to the green pastures he has marked out for us if we try to go our own way. That’s why events like last week’s prayer service are so important. Many of the people of Hope have faithful and vibrant private prayer lives, but we need that same humility and trust as a whole church.

We’re used to discussion and debating and voting and consensus to guide our way forward – and all of that can be fine, but if we all agree on any direction other than where Christ is leading us, we’re lost. The abundant life that Jesus has in store for this church begins with seeking his will and listening to him anew.

You know, when we read the Easter story and see the disciples hiding in the upper room with the doors locked even after the reports of the resurrection reached them, we shake our heads and say, “What’s there to fear? Jesus is alive! He’s defeated death and hell and the devil himself!”

Shouldn’t we have that same attitude about our own church? Jesus doesn’t want us to stay small and hidden and afraid. There is nothing to fear because He laid down his life for us, and even death couldn’t hold him. Jesus is alive today and he loves this flock more than you’ll ever know. He has abundant life to lead us to and He is calling us out.

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