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Pastor Michael Cofer
Matthew 13

You know what’s great about the old silent movies? You can tell at a glance the good guys from the bad guys. The good guys have a square jaw, and a barrel chest. They ride a white horse, and hold their chins high. The bad guys have the black cape and top hat, and that curly mustache. Their hobbies include rubbing their hands together, cackling maniacally, and tying damsels to railroad tracks.

It’s great because you know who to root for. Even if you come into the movie midway through, you can figure it out in no time flat. It’s like watching a Yankees game… you just cheer for the other team. Easy!

I can’t help but notice that real life isn’t much like that at all. Bad guys often look like the good guys. Sure, some thieves wear pantyhose on their head and wave a gun around, but others wear nice suits and promise guaranteed dividends.

The parable today paints a picture of the real world. There’s no black-hat, white-hat distinctions. In the story, the weeds are growing up right next to the wheat, and the land owner would rather leave them there than run the risk of pulling or damaging his good crops. I learned this week that there is a weed that grows in the Mediterranean that looks like wheat in it’s early stages. It isn’t until the two reach maturity that it is easy to distinguish them.

So, again, we have the oddity of a parable that Jesus explains piece by piece. The wheat are the children of God; the weeds are the children of the devil. The harvest is the end of time, and the harvesters are the angels. So… you know. Easy, cut and dry. What else is there to say?

Well, maybe quite a bit. Unlike the parable of the sower, I think it’s easier to identify who we are in the story: we’re the wheat. Great. So… what? Is the moral of the story, “Be wheat?”

I hope not, because the seed doesn’t have much control over that, does it? What’s that thing Luther says, Pastor Nieting’s favorite quote? “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.”

So, then, is the moral, “Be like wheat?” Well… probably not, because in the end “like” doesn’t cut it. You’re either wheat or your kindling.

So, what can we make of this story? Well, for starters I think we can safely say Jesus is warning us to not judge others. After all, if the angels can’t sort out the good guys from the bad guys, what are the odds that you can? Pretty slim, I’d guess.

Now, let’s clarify this a bit, because this principle gets abused something terrible. It’s one thing to try and judge who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. It’s entirely different to lovingly talk with someone about their sin. I don’t feel qualified to tell anybody here that they are going to hell, but it is my responsibility to confront you about your sin. But that really only works because I assume that you’re one of the wheat. If not, how can I possibly help you deal with that sin?

So, no, this parable doesn’t mean you aren’t accountable for how you live. It doesn’t mean that no one has the right to talk to you about your sins. But it does mean that you don’t get to make the call between the good guys and the bad guys.

I think there’s more to this parable that that though. In fact, I think this parable addresses one of the toughest topics that Christianity faces: if God is good, why is life so hard? After all, that’s the problem with weeds, isn’t it? They cause hardship to the good plants. They fight for water, of nutrients, for sunlight. Weeds make growth a challenge for the wheat.

This is a serious problem if you take the Bible’s picture of God seriously. Is God good? Absolutely. Can God do anything He wants? Most definitely. Then why is there sin in the world? Can’t he just say the magic word and make it go away? Couldn’t He fix it? Well… yeah, He could. So why doesn’t He?

As it turns out, God’s first priority isn’t that you have an easy life. He is much more interested in making you grow into the person he designed you to be. When he made the seed that you came from, he packed into that seed the potential for a truly glorious thing. He had big plans for you before you were even planted. While it may not always be comfortable, the growth he has planned for you is well worth it in the end. And part of that process may mean struggling against the weeds.

This is precisely what Paul was talking about when he said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Paul had plenty of sufferings: ship wrecks, wrongful imprisonment, an unnamed but debilitating “thorn in the flesh,” and a criminal execution. And none of that, was worth comparing to the glory that awaited him.

Now, again, let me offer a word of caution. Sometimes people get things turned around, and think that God sends hardship for our good. As if evil is somehow God’s fault. It’s not. The enemy sowed the bad seeds, not the landowner. But the thing about God is that He can take the most painful circumstances – He can take broken and tragic events – and make something beautiful out of them.

The devil simply cannot gain ground against God. Try as he might, every one of the devil’s plans will ultimately be frustrated, confounded, and turned against him. The good seed that God has sown will grow into fruition in the time of harvest. And when it does, the righteous (that’s you and me) will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

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Rev. Michael Cofer
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

I’m not much of a farmer. The closest I’ve gotten so far is a few potted mint plants and an aloe. Now, I should tell you that I have this thing I do. First, I get a plant that’s perfectly fine and healthy. Next, I follow the instructions on the label/booklet/internet. And then, miraculously, it turns brown and shrinks.

I know. It’s a gift.

So, when I read the parable of the sower, obviously I’m coming at this thing as a bit of an outsider. Still, with my limited knowledge of farming, there are some weird things going on in this story. The most glaring one, to me, is that the sower is blind. Well, maybe not blind, but at least careless.

That’s not really what farming looks like, is it? You don’t just go around throwing seeds all over the place. Rather, farmers till the ground, they plow furrows, and drop the seeds in them. Why are they so careful? Because seeds are their livelihood. They are valuable. And if you’re going to make a living off of your crops, you can’t go wasting seeds on hopelessly hostile terrain.

But the sower in our story is going nuts! He’s just throwing seed all over the place: on the road, in the thorns, over in that rocky stuff… oh and he even managed to get some on the field.

On the other hand, this parable seems to be as much about dirt than it is about the farmer. After all, when Jesus explains the parable (which is something he rarely does) he doesn’t talk about the sower much at all. He unpacks the metaphors of rocky soil and thorny soil, and all that stuff.

All of which leads me to ask the question: “Who am I in this story?” It’s a good question to ask when you read a parable, because if you don’t ask it, you can let it roll off your shoulders. But if you have a role in the story, then it’s personal. It’s not just sterile facts, but it might actually change your life.

So, who in this parable are we? At first glance, it might look like we’re supposed to be the ground. If that were true, then the moral of the story might be something like “Be good dirt.” Fair enough, I suppose, except that dirt is dirt. It can’t be anything other than what it is. And if that’s true, then what hope is there for rocky soil?

Well, if we’re not the soil, then maybe we’re the sower. I think that is probably true. After all, we know that the seed represents the Word of God… and whose job is it spread God’s Word? It’s ours, of course. But then, what is the point of the story? “Well, you win some and you lose some.” Maybe. When it comes to sharing your faith, that is probably true… but I’m not sure that that is Jesus’ point.

No, to get his point, let’s look at the sower’s conduct again. Did he just sow into the fertile ground? Did he save the seeds for the ground that had the highest likelihood of growing up? Or did he throw seed all over the place?

See, here’s the thing about the gospel… it’s a bottomless bag. You don’t have to be conservative with it, you can throw it all over the place, because you’re not going to run out. And sure, you might know some fertile soil to sow in, and you definitely should plant those seeds. But if you can’t run out, then why not sow all over the place? After all, you don’t really know what will take root and what won’t until it is time for the harvest. I think the moral of the parable isn’t, “You win some; you lose some.” Rather, it’s something like, “Sow like crazy. Who knows where you might find some fertile soil!”

But if that’s all there is to it, why all the talk about different kinds of soil? I think there might be someone else in this story that isn’t mentioned… the landowner. To put it a different way, the soil isn’t me, but it is my heart. See, we have a responsibility to take care of our hearts.

We have a responsibility to clear away the stones, and make room for our faith to run deep. Digging out stones can be a lot of hard work, and it may not seem worth it, because on the surface everything looks good. On the surface you look healthy and normal and ready to grow. But your faith isn’t about appearances. It’s not just a lip service, bumper sticker kind of thing. Shallow faith won’t carry you through the rough times.

We have a responsibility to identify the weeds. There are a lot of competing voices and priorities in our lives, trying to blot out the sun (Son) and eat up the nourishment that God sends us. And if we can’t distinguish between thorns and the wheat, you’re wheat is going to struggle – at best. And chances are, you’ll never be rid of them all. But knowing which things growing in your heart are springing up from the seeds of God’s truth, and which are springing up from the lies that this world, the devil, and are sinful nature try to sell us is absolutely vital if we want to bear good fruit.

Now, before you start trying to weed and till someone else’s heart, bear in mind that I said your heart is your responsibility. It’s like when we confess our sins. Some of you might want to confess the sins of the person sitting next to you: “Dear God, I’m sorry that Bobby is liar and rude and terrible at doing laundry, and…” But that’s not how confession works. You have to own up to what you have and have not done. Sure the people around you are sinners, too, but you really only have this one field to work.

No, your job is to keep your own field in good shape, and to sow like crazy on everyone else’s, because the seed that we carry doesn’t just grow into one kernel of wheat. When the word of God takes root in the heart of a believer, it grows and multiplies way beyond what was sown. Because to you, telling some one that Jesus loves them or that they God wants more out the relationship than judgment or inviting them to church… to you that may not seem like you’ve done a whole lot. And you might never see that seed grow to fruition. But those seeds have a massive potential.

And guess whose job it is to make those seeds grow? Is it the sower’s job? Is it the guy who is tending the soil? No. Neither of them can send the rain nor make the sun shine, or coax the plant out of the safety of the ground. God makes it grow. Of us, he only asks that he tend this one field, and that we sow like crazy. And if we do that, God is well pleased with the work we have done.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matt 11: 25-30

For most of the world, July 4 is a normal calendar day, but for Americans it is very special. We call it “Independence Day,” celebrating our country’s freedom from England. We celebrate with a variety of symbols. Fireworks remind us of the “rockets’ red glare” from the Battle of Fort McHenry in the war of 1812. We read excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. There’s the Statue of Liberty and the famous words of the poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

My ancestors came to this country for the same reason most of ours did. They came because life in the “old country” didn’t give them much hope. They knew that coming here was going to require sacrifices on their part and would take plenty of hard work and time, but it was the promise of a better life that led them on. It wasn’t, as was the case earlier in our history, about religious freedom. My ancestors were Lutherans in Germany and they were Lutherans here. In most cases they came here for financial and political reasons.

They knew they weren’t going to get a free ride in this country, and they didn’t expect it. Whether they fished, logged, worked in steel mills or raised cotton, the life of our ancestors wasn’t “easy” at all. “Easy life” is a relatively modern term. So is “vacation.” So is “retirement.” Those are all relatively modern “inventions.” Our ancestors worked hard. We may call life in their time “the good old days,” but the truth is, they worked long hours, enjoyed few vacations, usually earned enough to get by, and, as we all know from OUR work, they got TIRED. So do we! That’s one of the reasons we enjoy our holidays……we get to “rest.”

In 3 beautiful verses (from this morning’s Gospel), Jesus gives us some beautiful imagery as he stitches together two polar opposite concepts: work…..and rest. Just to remind us, here’s what He said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The Greek literally says “I WILL REST YOU.”

REST IS important to all of us. We work, so we need to rest. It’s an absolute necessity. Without rest, our bodies, our minds and our spirits become weary, worn out and wasted away. Even GOD rested…..”Sabbathed” is the word….after creation was completed, as an example to us! In 1 Kings 4:25 there’s a wonderful image of rest that describes God’s people living securely “every man under his vine and under his fig tree.” It’s a great Old Testament image of “R&R!”

Even Jesus himself “rested” in the same ways many of us rest today. He regularly took time off from the normal day to day “grind of ministry” for physical rest, prayer and contemplation, and yes, even time for fun. He did attend the wedding at Cana, after all! Rest…..in any way we look at it…..is a good thing and is a “God-thing.”

But in today’s text, Jesus goes far deeper into the concept of REST than the normal “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” image we have.

Question: Have you ever come back from a vacation so tired that you need to rest before you can go back to work? I have! Some of us have the tendency to pack our “down time” with so much activity that we get exhausted from resting! We do and do and do until are we’re done in by doing!

Jesus links together two interesting concepts to help us understand the kind of “rest” that HE makes available to us. Those twin concepts are found in these two words: BURDENED and YOKE. First, BURDEN. There’s not a person in this room who doesn’t understand what a “burden” is. We’ve all got them, and they DO make us weary. Don’t you feel sometimes that you epitomize the phrase, “He’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders?” That’s what the burdens of life feel like, don’t they? It’s times like that when REST is really necessary, but to get rest, somehow we have to get rid of the burden!

Jesus’ second word is YOKE. What is a YOKE? It’s the heavy, harness-like contraption that sits over the shoulders of an animal (usually a mule, a horse, or an ox) so that it can pull a load of some sort. When the “burdens of life” pile up on us, we FEEL like we’re literally harnessed to them…..and there’s no rest to be found then, is there?

Is that what Jesus means when He tells us to put on HIS YOKE? Is our faith supposed to be a burden to us and ON us? No, my dear friends….if that’s the way we look at Jesus, then, to use a bad pun, “the yoke’s on us.”

Pam’s grandfather owned a small sawmill in the mountains of Western North Carolina. When her father was young, his job was to bring the logs to the mill. To do that, Charles used a team…..a “yoke” of oxen. A “yoke of oxen” is never one animal….it’s always two of them, “yoked” side by side. His job was to balance the load so each was pulling along with the other, the stronger one making up for what the weaker one couldn’t do. Each of them had a name and they would respond to his encouragement….and to his commands. When the work….the burden….was shared, the job got done.

Isn’t that the way it works with us? There are times when the burdens of life become so great that rest only comes when someone else comes alongside and says, “Here, let me help!” We know how wonderful that is….and what a relief it is to have others bless us by sharing and caring for us under our burdens.

But Jesus meant far more than even the significant rest available to us by helping each other. Jesus knew that HIS people were being burdened by the “YOKE of the LAW.” The religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees and the Priests, loved to lift up all the Old Testament laws, thousands of them, and require that they be observed by everyone if they wanted to be blessed by God. It was no different in Martin Luther’s time, when the church sold forgiveness of sins for cash and good works. The blessing of God’s grace and mercy turned into a burden and a YOKE of LAWS that was far too heavy for any individual to bear, and offered no peace.

People in Jesus’ time, in Luther’s time, and people today can turn themselves into “spiritual workaholics” trying to find true rest and true peace on their own. It might be the burden of sin that weighs them down. It might be that they are trying to trust in someone or something else other than Jesus for salvation. It could be an unwillingness to forgive and be forgiven that yokes them heavily. Like the Prodigal Son, they may be looking in all the wrong places, with no good results.

Whatever the case and whatever the burden, Jesus invites EVERYONE to give up any other “yoke” that we are carrying and to slip underneath HIS YOKE. That’s where we will find rest, because Jesus has already done ALL the “heavy lifting” of Himself onto the cross. He’s already carried the burden of our sins and offers to freely lift them off. It’s where, in the words of Matt 11: 28, He literally says “I WILL REST YOU!” He’s done the saving…..we get the resting! Our only task……is to stay inside the yoke with Jesus.

While we celebrate IN-dependence Day tomorrow…..and gain some physical rest, it’s EVERY day that we can celebrate….and find spiritual rest, from our DE-PENDENCE on Jesus, who has already carried the burden of our salvation.

A teacher in one of our Lutheran schools was trying to get this concept across to her students, so she asked them, “Boys and girls, what is a yoke?” One bright little guy said, “It’s what you put on the necks of animals!” Then the teacher asked, “What is the Yoke God puts on us?” the same boy said, “It’s when Jesus puts His arms around our necks!”

Leave today with Jesus’ arm tightly….but lightly wrapped around your neck. Leave today knowing that it is HIS YOKE that is truly a joyful one. It is Jesus who offers to share every burden you have, and when you don’t think you can do any more, He will carry it for you…..(as He did for our sister Jenny Baird this week) into life…everlasting with Him. It is Jesus who offers every one of us REST, both now, and forever. Amen

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 10: 38-42

The four of us were in the San Diego Safari Park, my son Ben, his daughters Kaylee (6) and Karina (4) and me. There were tons of animals to be seen, laughed at, oohed and aahed over, fed, and photographed. But one animal got quite a bit of attention from the girls: the porcupine. There was only one of them in the cage, its entire body covered with sharp quills. “How do you pick it up?” Karina asked. “Can porcupines stick each other?” Kaylee asked. “Is it a boy….or a girl? How do you tell, grandpa?” they asked.

Wise old grandpa didn’t have any answers to their rather “sticky” questions, so we moved on to the lions and tigers and bears, Oh My! But later on, I did some research. Want to know what I found out? Porcupines, as solitary as they are, don’t always LIKE to be alone. In the fall, a young boy porcupine’s thoughts turn to love, or at least to making little porcupines. There’s only a very short time when young lady porcupines are open to, say, “dinner and a movie.” But that’s risky business if you’re a young male porcupine, because in the porcupine world, “NO” means “NO!” And if she is threatened or feels afraid, HE’S going to get hurt.

That’s the porcupine’s dilemma: How do you get close, without getting hurt?

That’s our dilemma too…..yours and mine. How do we get close to each other without get hurt? We’ve all been poked, stuck and barbed….all too often.

Just like Mr. and Mrs. Porcupine, every one of us left home this morning with our own little arsenal of barbs. Mine are safely hidden under this white robe and green stole, yours under your summer church wardrobe, a suntan and a smile. Our long, sharp, barbed quills are the burdens every one of us carries, burdens inflicted on us by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Burdens we carry that have come from nature, from nuture, from parents, from bad habits. We’ve had some of them for a short while and others maybe for our entire lifetime. Each one has a name: rejection, hurt, anger, envy, lust, contempt, greed, arrogance, pride, selfishness, resentment. There’s also illness, poverty, prejudice…it can be a very long list. But then, every porcupine has a lot of quills. In the words of Jesus, we all have burdens to bear. I’ve got mine and you’ve got yours. They affect us, which is one thing…..but it’s worse when they affect people around us.

Some of us hide them pretty well, but get close enough and “push the right buttons” and you know what happens……you’re going to get stuck. We’ve got “defensive barbs” that we use to keep people at “quills length” from us, and we’ve can even get good at TOSSING them….like spears! The wounds we cause can fester, can infect relationships, destroy friendships, cost us jobs, break apart marriages and even threaten entire ministries and churches.

God DID create us to be social beings…..not hermits. We’re made in His image, and God’s image, that of a triune God is a “social image!” It’s almost impossible to live in a vacuum…..we NEED people. Our lives are one social experience after another. We work with people, play with people, get on each others’ Facebook pages, join churches teams and clubs. You know all the things YOU do not to remain alone in this world, and we try to do it without getting hurt. We spend lots of time and energy looking for someone we can get close to without getting “stuck,” a softer, gentler kind of creature, and in the porcupine world, that’s tough.

I bet that right now most of you in this room are mentally “listing” the porcupines in your lives. I thought of quite a few as I was writing this. But that’s not the entire problem. The truth is, I am somebody’s porcupine and…..so are you.

In today’s Gospel, from Matthew chapter 10, Jesus is getting His disciples ready to be “sent out” on their own, without Him. Our text is the end of a long section of teacher to student instructions: “Be careful, be on your guard, you will be handed over, you will be flogged, you will be betrayed. You may, in His first mention of crucifixion in the Gospels, even be crucified on a cross! The world, Jesus is saying in the language of my granddaughters, is FULL OF PORCUPINES, all of them ready to stick you deeply and stick you often……and yet…..still…..YOUR JOB, Jesus reminded them, was to “acknowledge Him” to everyone they met! They were, in the language of the “great commission,” to go out and try to make disciples of all nations, even the ones filled with porcupines.

“Why? Why does everything have to be so hard?” we have to ask. “Isn’t there a softer, gentler world out there? “Yup,” answers Jesus. “There is….it’s with me.”

Oh…. I forgot to share one more thing about porcupines. They can dance! When the time is “right” they ignore the risk of getting close together. They touch their front paws together and stand on their hind legs and, well, “do the foxtrot” long enough to ensure there will be another generation of porcupines. Imagine that! Porcupines dancing! It’s a reminder to me, and I hope, to you, that even the most “prickly” of us can learn to pull in our quills and learn to love, and be loved, by God, and by each other.

We can learn to do that with each other. Yes, it’s RISKY. I’m sure more than one porcupine has found THAT out….but it’s necessary. It takes a willingness to build relationships, to listen, to care, to forgive, and be forgiven. It takes “doing the dance,” whatever that is, to get past the someone’s defenses and let them past ours. But vulnerability is necessary to build community……and healing and strength come from being IN community, in our families and in the family of God.

It’s only a few chapters later in the same Gospel when Jesus clues us in on how He wants us to do this. “Is someone “sticking you? Is there a problem? Then go, one on one, person to person, porcupine to porcupine and carefully, with grace, mercy and forgiveness, do everything in your power to work it out, not just ONE time, but, as Jesus told Peter…..seventy times seven times! Persistence worked for Peter….and it works with porcupines and with people too! If finally…..if all that doesn’t work, take a friend…..after all, it might just be YOUR barbs too!”

In Matthew 18 Jesus’ instructions were given so that we could maintain our Christian relationships despite the sin in which we live and the burdens that we bear! It’s as clear as the quills on a porcupine, friends, that if we’re “pricking” each other, it’s not good for either of us, or for our relationships. Is it “risky” to come together for gentle but firm confrontation, in confession and, ultimately to offer and receive forgiveness? Absolutely! It’s HARD WORK. It makes us vulnerable. It cost Jesus His LIFE! But done properly…..does it “bear fruit?” Most certainly…. It restores relationships and rebuilds community. Theologians call it the “mutual consolation of the brethren.” We call it “life in the body of believers!” It’s what happens when we help someone bear their burdens and they help us.

Community is important us….. to Christ…..and to Him, there’s ONE community that comes first. It’s a “1st Commandment” issue, at its heart and core.

In the few verses before today’s text Jesus talks to His disciples….and to us… about community. “If you stand up for me, I’ll stand up for you. My father will stand up for you. In fact,” Jesus says, “We will make room for you in OUR family!” Can you imagine? The Creator of the Universe, the Redeemer of the Universe, and the Holy Spirit, the “witness” of it all………making room within their family for you and me? How amazing can that be?!

That’s what happens when we keep “first things first.” But to do that, we have to carry more than a burden…….we have to pick up our cross, and carry it.

As I said before, I can keep my ‘quills and barbs’ hidden under my robes and my stole…..or my shorts and t-shirt, for that matter. But the one thing that can never be hidden……the one thing that has to come first is my cross, my faith in Jesus.

On Good Friday Jesus literally had to carry His own cross up the “via dolorosa” to Golgotha. His beaten and exhausted body wouldn’t carry the load anymore. Simon of Cyrene came alongside and helped Jesus bear His burden……a wonderful reminder of sacrifice that we can all use to bless others with the burdens that THEY carry.

But Jesus carried far more than two huge pieces of lumber. He carried the sins of the entire world. That, dear friends, is the cross NO ONE carry, or needs to carry, because Jesus did it, willingly out of love.

All we need do is lift High the Cross of our Faith before all to see, the Faith given us as a gift by the Holy Spirit…..a faith that welcomes us into the community of Christ…….forever. Not a bad ending for a bunch of prickly porcupines, is it?

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 28:16-20

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Heavenly Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday evening I came back from a week in San Diego visiting my two oldest children, Ben and Reba. Reba is married to Ian; they’re doing quite well for themselves and have started “thinking” about having children, if you catch my drift. Ben has two daughters: Kaylee, 6, and Karina 4, who are truly the most adorable granddaughters in the world (or at least in my family!) There are few things in life that bring a sense of justice to my soul than watching my son parent his OWN kids. It brings great meaning to the old expression ‘paybacks are tough,” .but as one dad to another, he’s doing a really great job!

In the life of the church we often struggle with what to do with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Neither is an official “festival” on the church calendar, as you well know. Today is Trinity Sunday, where we honor God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, a very different kind of “family,” theologically speaking. There are pastors who steadfastly avoid preaching about mothers and about fathers because they don’t want to offend someone whose childhood experiences were less than good. Truth be told, the stories of some of our childhoods may lean towards the negative instead of the positive. Childhood pain can run very deep and we can struggle with it for our entire lives……shaped as we are by both nature and nurture, or the lack of it.

Parenting, whether on the father side or the mother side, is not an easy task. It’s one of the very FEW things in our country for which one does not need a license! Want to keep bees? Get licensed. Want to drive, carry a handgun, even become an interior decorator….get training and a license. Want to have children? Hmmm, I think the majority of us understand THAT process!

But parenting? Actually BEING a Father? To approach this topic we’ll go back to the very beginning and remember the model from which fathering….from which mothering…..from which parenting comes. That model is the creation of man and woman by the Divine Family: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

God created Adam’s body from the clay of the ground, the seed of Adam. Then God breathed, “pneuma’d” was the term Pastor Cofer used last Sunday in his Pentecost sermon, the very act of nurturing life into being. Then God brought Eve into the world and joined them together in the first “couple” our world has seen and told them to “be fruitful and multiply.”

God’s plan is that we are joined together as male and female within the context of marriage, and THEN we can deliberately create new lives to nurture, protect, train and teach so that they can do the same in their good time and according to God’s good plan.

That, my friends, is the context with which we as Christian people should always approach parenting: marriage comes first, then come children, if that’s what a couple desires. Parenting is designed to be done within the context of a nurturing marriage. It’s designed as a two person process.That’s God’s plan. That’s how God wants us to live, and that’s where the very best living is to be enjoyed!

God’s plan is NOT that we have a series of sexual encounters that “accidentally” produces a child. It’s not living together, playing house and seeing how life “works.” It’s not anticipating the consequences that may result in the birth of a child. And no, God’s plan doesn’t include divorce or rape or incest either. All of these things are results of the sin. And yes….ALL of these sins are forgivable, just as all sins are forgivable. That’s the joy of living in God’s grace. That’s THE greatest gift that comes from being a child of our heavenly Father!

I have a confession to make here, one that once I lay it out before God’s throne of grace you may wish to make with me. Here it is: I wasn’t a perfect child. If you’ve ever seen a picture of me as a child that’s hard to believe, but it’s true! My imperfect childhood carries over into my imperfect adulthood and then into my imperfect “spousing” and my imperfect parenting! That’s quite a burden to carry around for any of us, which is why I cherish the forgiveness my Heavenly Father offers to me through His Son, Jesus Christ. I know you cherish that too.

It’s not that God hasn’t had imperfect children before. Adam and Eve started the whole thing with their lack of obedience in the Garden. Then there was Cain and his outright rebellion and on and on it went. Abraham was the same; saac and Jacob, Saul and David…the list goes on and on. In fact, God was USED to his children letting Him down, disobeying Him, not trusting Him; individually and collectively, by His “children,” the people of Israel. God was their Father; they were His children, and their track record wasn’t going to win them awards. It’s why they…and we… need Jesus. God, however….was always faithful. Always there, ready to administer discipline, if necessary, and always ready to forgive.

God has given to husbands and to fathers the very heavy and very important responsibility of being the spiritual heads of our families. We ARE the Christ-figures within the relationships God has given us. It’s not an easy responsibility for any man to assume and to do well, especially our “macho male culture” seems to mitigate against it. But it’s our role….our God-given role. If we, as Christian men in this congregation, take this role seriously, we will be doing everything we can to seek God’s help in leading our families in prayer, in bringing our children to Christian instruction, and in keeping ourselves spiritually strong.

We Fathers need Jesus……not only as our Savior, but also as our role model. In today’s Gospel Jesus was preparing His disciples for His leaving. He had been doing this for 3 years, a far shorter time than we fathers have to prepare our children to carry on. He taught His disciples to pray……we fathers are to do the same. He taught His disciples about worship……we fathers are to do that too. He taught His disciples about relationships……the same applies to us. He taught His disciples the true meaning of sacrifice; of placing others first. Can we do that too?

The role of Fathers in the spiritual lives of our children is hugely understated and underestimated. Need some illustrations? A Swiss study published in 2000 shows that the “religious practices of the family that above all, determines the future church attendance of the children.” The results are SO striking that it’s almost scary: if mom is the one bringing the kids to church and dad stays home, 2% of the children will end up actively involved in church. Reverse it. If DADS bring the kids (even if MOM stays home, and I’m not recommending that!), 44% of the kids will attend (even higher than if both do!).

A study released by the Baptist church concludes that if MOM becomes a believer first, there’s a 17% chance anyone else in the family will follow. But if DAD is the one leading the family to Jesus, it’s 93% that the household will follow! That reflects how God wired up His creation: men, women and children. That’s how SPIRITUALLY influential God has designed FATHERS to be!

I know this can be depressing to single moms and women whose husbands aren’t living out God’s plan…..and that’s why there we are SO blessed at Hope to have so many men involved in our youth program, our confirmation program, and our JamTime program, men who are willing to do whatever they can to help bless all of our children with the spiritual inheritance of the faith.

Dads of Hope, how do we strengthen ourselves in the task of fathering? Young men of Hope, how will you live out your God-given role as the spiritual head of the household that God will give you? Older men of Hope, how can WE live, speak and act as role models for the younger men and the boys of the church so that they too can live out their faith? We can start today, by challenging the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh and stating that WE, the MEN of God’s church, mean business! We are STANDING TOGETHER as Men of God at the foot of the cross……with Jesus as our leader, pledging ourselves to do all we can to bring our brothers along with us in the journey of being the “Fathers of the Church!”

Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
John 17: 1-11 (Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer)

On Wednesday evening a small group of us gathered to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. We read the story from Luke and Acts, snuffed out the Christ candle, and then went outside to watch the children’s group release their helium balloons into the air. Then we all went home to relax, probably watch TV, and sleep.
As I drove home, I thought to myself, “How very UNLIKE the actual Ascension of Jesus!” The eleven disciples, who had barely begun to comprehend Jesus’ resurrection, now watched Him ascend up into heaven in literal amazement. Then they had to go back to the same city that had crucified Him and wait.

We KNOW what they were waiting for; the POWER, the comfort, the blessing of the Holy Spirit, Who ten days later was to cover them with fire, energize them and send them out to change the world by starting the Christian Church on Earth!

One thousand nine hundred and seventy eight years after Jesus prayed fervently for His church to be “one,” how IS the Church doing? How is the Lutheran church doing? As we prepare for our annual voters’ meeting, how is HOPE doing?

We begin our worship services with a time we call “Moments of Hope,” where we have an opportunity to share what we have seen God doing in our lives over the past week. Some weeks we hear “praise reports” or “God things,” and some weeks……..nothing. That’s the way the Holy Spirit works, by moving from place to place and person to person as He, using Luther’s Words, “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

The church began in Jerusalem, moved outward into Judea, then north to Galilee, the Mediterranean world and Africa. The Gospel was carried eastward to India, westward to Europe, the Americas and finally to Asia. Each continent, each country has witnessed the movement of the Holy Spirit as Jesus was proclaimed.

Where is the Spirit working today? Simply put, the Christian Church is the HEALTHIEST where life is the HARDEST! In India, where Christians are heavily persecuted by the Buddhist government, the church is 30 million strong and growing by thousands of converts DAILY, converts who risk their jobs, their homes and even their lives when they confess their faith like our confirmands did last Sunday! In communist China, where Christianity has literally been “outlawed” for over 50 years, there are now 105 MILLION people who publicly declare that they are believers in Jesus Christ. Eight percent of the Chinese people worship Jesus weekly! In Tanzania (Africa), our partner Lutheran Church now numbers over 7 MILLION active members; probably tripling the number of LCMS members in church on any given Sunday! In fact, there are now more Lutherans in Africa than there are in the United States, period. Is the Spirit moving? Absolutely!

Sad to say, there are also places where Christians have to exist under terrible persecution. In Iraq, where 97% of the population is Muslim, the 3% Christian minority which used to enjoy some protection under Saddam Hussein is now being heavily persecuted. And it goes without saying that in most Muslim countries even carrying a Bible can be punishable by DEATH. When the media uses the phrase “sectarian violence,” nine times out of ten the back-story is that another group of Christians has been attacked and killed or sold into slavery.

In Europe, where 60 MILLION people claim to be Lutherans, church attendance for most people is 4: not 4 times a month, but 4 times during their lives: baptism, confirmation, marriage and finally, burial. In Australia and New Zealand the picture is just as sad. As I said before, where life is easy, the church is dying. Where life is difficult, the church is THRIVING!

What about here in the United States, our “nation under God?” A recent Gallup poll reveals that 35% of Americans worship weekly, 45% of Americans never worship, and the rest are somewhere in between. The mainline denominations are aging and declining; while at the same time there is still some growth in the more “Pentecost-ally oriented” denominations. In America church participation is highest among the poor, among women, among conservatives, among those who are married, among those in the south and those in the Midwest.

To those paying attention, it’s obvious that faith in America is under attack. The ACLU is notorious for their role in emphasizing the ‘rights of the few’ over the will of the many, especially where Christianity is concerned, and far too often the “will of the many” won’t, to quote the hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus!” Where Sundays (and even Wednesdays) used to be reserved for church activities, that is no longer the case. Where the church used to be the central focus of community and family activities, parents (and grandparents) are stretched thin with all the options that are out there! Fully 50% of the children baptized in the LCMS will not be in church by the time they should be confirmed! The key factor, and I’ll focus on this in two weeks, is the men of the church, the fathers, and how they…..or should I say “we” live or don’t live out our faith.

What about HOPE? What, at the tender age of 35, is the condition of our dear congregation? We have just about completed a major expansion of our facilities through our ENVISION HOPE campaign, which (amazingly enough) we started just as the American economy went into the tank. Despite that, in year #3 our pledges to Envision Hope are within 5 or 6% of being right on target! We were blessed to raise over $75,000 in cash to furnish our building in a few weeks. The excitement we feel…..and justifiably also the pride we have in our facilities is very real and very good. We were blessed to have the Laborers for Christ with us for a year and also…..blessed with MANY volunteers. In fact, if you WORKED on our building, contribute(d) to Envision Hope, brought in snacks, watched children, or did ANYTHING ELSE towards this effort, please stand! (Thank you!!!!)
I know, dear friends, that all this hard work and progress came at a cost. At the beginning those who aren’t in favor of a building program and those who don’t want to pay for it slip off into the woodwork, either for a while or for good. Some of us have put in huge amounts of our time, our talent and our treasure, and truthfully, as a congregation and as individuals I think we are TIRED. After God finished HIS creative work, you know what He did…..He “rested.” We need that too, and it’s a good thing that we’ve reached our summer, so we can relax, refresh, and reframe our ministries for the coming fall, when we can build on the blessings God has given us. To paraphrase “a field of dreams,” we have built it and once we develop the programs to reach out, they will come!

One of the biggest blessings God has given us here is our preschool, which has just completed its best year EVER. Five years ago we averaged 40 children in our school; this year we finished with almost 60! This year we finally expanded our program to be able to meet the needs of parents who need full day care. This year we are offering a Summer Program! And with all of this, our school finished the year “in the black!” You know that I am a firm believer in the outreach of Lutheran Schools….and friends, I never, ever want to hear again the old canard that “the school is a burden our church!” Our School IS our church……the church at work in our community, and our school finally has a facility commensurate with the quality of the program that we have offered for years!

We’ve had some programmatic struggles in the past year. Our youth ministry program had to cope with the divorce and departure of one of its leaders, something that is always challenging. Our music ministry had a change in leadership as well, and new people have stepped up to bless us. The economy continues to challenge us financially. Our average Sunday attendance is down from where it was five years ago, (from 370 to 344), but our adult Bible class attendance is up. Our congregation makes a noticeable impact on our community through multiple ministries that reach out and touch the lives of people who are in need. On the whole, I could summarize this year by saying this: we have emerged from our building program as a “lean and clean ministry machine!”

I want to give us the state of the church when it comes to our finances; personal stewardship. On that front there is both good news and bad news. The good news is that, despite the worst economy in a long time, congregational giving is up. Five years ago our weekly giving per family (we call them ‘giving units’) was about $35. Now it’s about $44. That may SOUND like a lot, but IF that were a Biblical tithe, those families would be living on about $23,000 a year, a lot lower than the Census Bureau’s median household income for our area of $67,356.

This year our congregational offerings will total about $550,000. IF we were a “tithing” congregation, our giving would be about TRIPLE that amount…..which means that most of our families are giving back to their Lord about 3% of what He so graciously gives them. That is the factor that limits growth of our ministries the most; money we can spend on programs and the size of the staff that can lead ministries. I encourage you to take your own stewardship before God in prayer. Seek His guidance and TAKE THE RISK to tithe, and when you do, you will see in the most concrete way possible that God is as good as His promises! (Also, I encourage every single family to sign up for SIMPLY GIVING!)

When I first arrived here five years ago I made a statement that upset some people: If you only worship on Sundays you are an inactive member. I still stand by that statement. With the number of opportunities for ministry here, there is a NEED for every single one of us to become involved in “making disciples of all nations.” I’m going to list as many of our ministries as I can remember. If you are in any way involved, please stand, and remain standing:

Worship Ministry: Musicians of all sorts: handbells, choir, instrumentalists; altar guild, nursery workers, bulletin folders, greeters, ushers, lectors, communion servers, sound booth, JoyTime leaders, church dusters and pew-straighteners, pencil sharpeners, nametag sorters, Porch callers

Fellowship: Cooking or bringing food, Wednesday dinners, coffee hours, Enchanted Evening, Mother-Daughter banquet, Ultimate Frisbee, Church Picnic

Education: JamTime teachers, Bible class leaders, Confirmation instructors, our Preschool, Youth leaders, Vacation Bible School, Bible club, young adult leaders

Social Ministry: Food Pantry, school lunches, JCOC meals, Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets, Angel Tree, Food for the Poor, Adopt a Child

Property Ministry: Light bulb changers, our Lawn Crew, Columbarium committee, building painters, fixers, and cleaners, Envision Hope volunteers, flower planting, kitchen cleaners, chair stackers, window washers and power sweepers

Stewardship and Finance: Stewardship committee, check writers, offering counting teams, Envision Hope follow up, all around “money managers,” Web Site maintainers, Public Relations and Personnel policy maintainers, Council members and Ministry Team Leaders

Men’s and Women’s Ministries: LWML, Knights of Hope, Military Ministry, Stephen Ministry, Good Grief, Home group leaders, Thursday prayers, Prayer chains, shut-in encouragers, Mothers Morning Out

This (and I mean all you who are standing) is the Church at Work….. this is Hope on the move, all of you who have been called by the Holy Spirit and gifted by Him with the passion for your Lord Jesus Christ that enables you to put your faith into action and I, and we, thank you (applause). If you’re not standing, you are a visitor….and there is room here for you too! This is the Church in Action! These are the hands and feet of Jesus Christ alive and at work in the world today. This is……we are…..the people of God making a difference in the lives of our community and helping people “reach home safely,” one soul at a time. Amen!

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Pastor Mark Nieting
John 14:15-21

One of the most common topics that finds its way into most conversations is a simple “how’s the weather?” We almost say it without thinking…..kind of like “did the sun come up this morning?” But ask someone in one of the many places literally ripped apart by tornadoes and we’d get an entirely different response, wouldn’t we? They could tell us in graphic detail what the storm sounded like and how their lives were spared…..and for many of them…..how someone they loved is now gone, either missing or dead. For them the weather isn’t a common topic anymore: it’s moved to an entirely new level…. life or death.

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus is moving His disciples to a new level, to where they will be after He’s gone. They didn’t KNOW that He would be leaving; they didn’t even know that within another day He would be on the cross and dead, but He did. Jesus loved them. He KNEW they loved Him. What Jesus was doing for His disciples was what parents, pastors, youth counselors, teachers, and confirmation instructors have been doing for ages to prepare children, students and disciples for the “next level” of life: He was connecting love with obedience. You heard Jesus’ words when I read the Gospel: If you LOVE me you will obey what I command you.

Let’s look at those two concepts that Jesus is linking together: love and obedience. We have a good idea as to what love is….and the same thing with obedience. But linking them together? I don’t have to LOVE a stop sign to know I have to obey it. I certainly don’t LOVE the Internal Revenue Service, but I will obey their laws. New sailors don’t LOVE their drill instructors……but they obey.

Jesus is linking these two concepts together in a “cause and effect” relationship: “IF you Love me….. you will Obey Me.” Isn’t that what parents struggle to instill in our children? Isn’t that what teachers do? We parents LOVE our children. We teachers LOVE our students. We pastors LOVE our people. We confirmation instructors LOVE our catechumens……and in each case…..that love is tested.

How many of us have ever been “two years old?” OK, then you know the favorite word of every two year old……it’s NO! It’s not that twos don’t love their parents, but they are in the process of learning that love and obedience go together. It’s not natural……it’s something that takes time, maturity, forgiveness and patience.

In this text and the two chapters to follow, Jesus is preparing His dear friends for the next level of their lives and the next level of their discipleship, which they will demonstrate by obeying the commands He gives them.

That’s what love does. That’s what disciples do. That’s who WE are. That’s life!
It’s LIVING what the Holy Spirit has called us to do as followers of Jesus Christ.

Think for moment as to WHO in your life has had the most influence on your Christian life. Was it the pastor who confirmed you? A grandparent who loved living their faith? A confirmation instructor? Maybe your husband or wife, or a close friend? Probably, for most of us, it was mom and/or dad. It’s the HOLY SPIRIT who Calls us to faith in Christ…..but it’s believers around us who help us grow as Christ’s disciples.

This morning I am going to introduce you to a whole new “breed” of God’s creatures who I truly believe are wonderful examples of how disciples of Jesus Christ can link together the twin concepts of LOVE and OBEDIENCE……. I’m going to introduce you to “Doggy Disciples.”

How many of you have a dog….or have ever had one? I know not all dogs are created equal and I’ve had a few very strange ones myself, but let’s take a moment and examine the dogs we know and love in the light of how Jesus calls us to live as His disciples. Are you ready for this? I can almost see your tails wagging with excitement!

1. Dogs always greet their loved ones with wagging tails. There’s no creature on the planet that does “greetings” better than dogs. The wagging tail affirms that this is where we belong. It says this is our home where we’re safe and where we’re loved. It’s a great message….one we can imitate every day, to be WELCOMING people.

2. Dogs eat with gusto and enthusiasm: slobber flying everywhere; licking the dish clean until every last scent of gravy is gone. Dogs know that eating is a celebration of life, so they look forward to it. Whatever has gone wrong in the day is forgotten at the table. Disciples know that Breaking Bread together is holy. It’s at the table where our sins are forgiven, where barriers are broken down, where friendships are renewed and where all God’s people are strengthened.

3. On hot days, dogs drink lots of water and then they lie down in the shade They know how to relax, slow down and enjoy the creation God has given them. It’s a good lesson for us….”doggie disciples” always take time relax, refresh and enjoy God’s creation.

4. Dogs know it’s good to run, romp and play daily. Physical exercise is as important for the soul as it is for the body. No disciple of Christ can be as faithful and effective when their body is run down and their health is unnecessarily poor. When we learn how to play and stretch; when we keep the bodies God has given us well tuned, we’ll feel better from the inside out and be more effective!

5. Dogs are loyal to the end. Loyalty is a good thing, and if dogs are nothing else, they are loyal to fault. Loyalty has fallen on hard times in our world. Loyalty is a critical element of discipleship. Disciples who are loyal to each other and to their Lord reflect the commitment that Christ Jesus has made to each of us!
6. How do you know when dogs are happy? They dance around and wag their tails….sometimes their tales wag their whole selves. They CELEBRATE their joy! Thankfulness and celebration are powerful dynamics for successful and healthy living. Joyful gratitude is a gift we give ourselves that enables us to affirm the essential goodness of life. Even when adversity strikes, gratitude helps us maintain our perspective and carries us through the low moments.

7. If we’re having a bad day, what do our dogs do? They slip up along side us, lie down close and nuzzle us gently. They have a “ministry of presence.” We all have bad days when what we need the most is encouragement and affirmation. When we are depressed, we know that it takes only a quiet word, a gentle touch to bring us around. A dog has this instinct that tells it when to be dancing and jumping around and when to just BE there. Words are not always needed, or even helpful, to convey empathy. A gentle nuzzle and loving presence will do.

8. Dogs don’t carry grudges….they forgive and forget. Carrying grudges makes life a drudgery. “Doggie disciples” make friends and keep them. Dogs are good at overlooking our faults and, like Martin Luther says, they “put the best construction on everything.” “Doggie disciples” don’t keep a scorecard of rights and wrongs.

9. For the most part, dogs avoid biting, especially when a simple growl will do. We do not need to injure others by what we say or do. We can be strong with love; firm with kindness……a “growl” is better than a bite!

10. Lastly, what happens when one dog in your neighborhood barks? They all start! Dogs teach us to Bark with our buddies. It’s a community thing, and dogs know it. Barking together says we ARE together and it’s a good thing. Disciples love being together….celebrating together…..and having fun together!

Even though God didn’t send Jesus to give His life for the sins of our pets, It may be true that God put dogs in our lives to illustrate some significant things about living our lives in Christian discipleship. Think about it. They are often more humble, more loving, more grateful, more joyful, more excited, more kindhearted.

In the three years the disciples were with Jesus, they all shared incredible experiences and learned valuable lessons. They learned, as we continue to learn in our own Journeys With Jesus that some of you are marking as your Confirmation today, about love, about faith, about affirmation, about friendship, about ministry, about forgiveness, about patience and certainly about humility.

Then, as Jesus prepared to leave them, he reminded them of what is truly important: that our lives of Christian discipleship are NEVER lived alone: Jesus HAS sent us His Holy Spirit…..and He HAS given us each other! And in that we all have great cause to “wag our tails and rejoice!”

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Pastor Michael Cofer
John 14:6

Well, we’re here, which means that the world didn’t end yesterday after all. I have to say, I am a little disappointed, but I’m not terribly surprised. You might remember that Jesus said, “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And if Jesus doesn’t know, there’s no way a radio preacher from California knows.

Still, it’s interesting stuff. It’s the stuff of headlines: the idea that there’s secret codes in the Bible, some sort of secret conspiracy tucked away by God, just waiting to be discovered. Christianity would be so much more marketable if it were just a little bit more complicated.

But it’s not. Christianity is incredibly simple. In fact, it is so simple, it’s difficult to explain it accurately. But we try, anyways. It starts in Sunday school, where the correct answer to every question is, “Jesus!” Of course, as we get older and go to confirmation there’s all kinds of memory work, and roughly 5 billion questions that we have to answer… and all of them boil down to “Jesus.” I went to seminary, and for 4 years I study theology. Guess what I learned? The answer to every question is “Jesus…” I just had to be able to explain why.

I know, it sounds a little hokey, but it’s true. That doesn’t mean our faith is shallow, or trite. In fact, it’s kind of scandalous when you get right down to it. As much as people like to think they like Jesus, if you take his words seriously, he’d tick off a lot of people.

Consider one of Jesus’ most famous sayings: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It is a beautiful phrase, but how often do we ponder what those words really mean? If you ask Buddhists what “the way” is, they’d probably point you toward the Eightfold path. If you were to ask a Muslim what “the way” is, they’d probably point you toward the Five Pillars of Islam. If you asked a Jewish person what “the way” is, they might point you toward the teachings of the Torah.

What is interesting, however, is that Christians don’t have a set of teachings that they point to as “the way. For a Christian, “The Way,” is not a philosophical or moral system, it is a person: Jesus. This is the thing that makes Christianity stand out. In fact, if Christianity is presented with honesty, most of the world will be shocked and offended by it.

Every other religion out there will always boil down to one basic premise: it is a man’s responsibility to save himself. Maybe that’s through obedience to a strict code of conduct. Maybe that’s through embracing a specific philosophy. Maybe that’s in just doing what feels right. Whatever the particulars, every other religion centers on mankind doing what needs to be done.

But in Christianity, the whole equation is different. One of the most foundational truths of Christianity is this: nobody can save themselves. A lot of people find that idea repugnant. I mean, if religion isn’t about bettering ourselves, what good is it? And that’s where our faith shows how different it is from the rest of the world. It isn’t a step-by-step how-to guide for becoming the best we can be. It isn’t really about us at all; it’s about Jesus.

We live in a pretty open-minded world, where tolerance and genuineness are more important than truth. I have to say that as an American, I fully believe in the rights of an individual to choose what religion they want to pursue. As a Christian, I also fully believe that every other religion is wrong. I know that doesn’t sound terribly tolerant, but neither is Jesus’ claim to be “The Way, The Truth, and The Life.” Those are exclusive claims. Jesus isn’t just “one of many paths to God,” he is the only path.

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I hear someone say something like, “it doesn’t matter what you believe. The important thing is that you believe.” Sound very nice and enlightened doesn’t it? But the problem is that people can honestly believe in things that are wrong. Once upon a time, people honestly believed the sun went around the earth. Did that make it true? Some people honestly believed the world would end yesterday. Did that make it true? If I honestly believed I could fly, would I survive a leap off of the Sears Tower? Of course not, because it matters what you believe.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. However intolerant it may be, I believe Him when He says that. Of course, that doesn’t make everybody who isn’t a Christian stupid, they’re just wrong. And I can’t really look down on them or mock them for their beliefs, because at the core of my faith is the realization that I’m as messed up as anyone else. If Jesus’ hadn’t found me, I’d be just as lost as anyone else. If Jesus hadn’t saved me, I’d be dead.

A lot of churches these days won’t say what I’m saying today. They don’t want to sound arrogant or narrow-minded. Neither do I, but that doesn’t change the facts. Left to my own devices, I would be forever lost, and forever dead; and if you can’t get that point then Good Friday and Easter are absolutely meaningless. But once you face the Truth, you are ready to accept the good news that in Christ is Life. He is that Life. Every other road leads to death, but Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

It’s all about Him. It’s not about making our own path, finding our own way, or discovering our own truth. It’s about knowing Jesus, the almighty God whose words cause things to be. He doesn’t merely show us the Way, He carries us to our destination because He is the Way. He doesn’t merely reveal Truth, He defines it because He is it. He doesn’t merely teach us about Life, He makes us live because He is the Life.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
John 10:1-10

It’s not MY favorite Christmas movie, but it seems to be Pam’s, and I do like Jimmy Stewart, so I’ll watch it occasionally. The title is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and here’s the plot. George Bailey is a man whose life seems so desperate that he contemplates suicide. He had always wanted to leave Bedford Falls to see the world, but circumstances and his own good heart have led him to stay. He sacrificed his education for his brother’s, barely kept the family business going, protected the town from the greedy Mr. Potter, and married his childhood sweetheart. He’s ready to jump from a bridge when his guardian angel pops in and gives him a vision of what life would have become for the people of Bedford Falls if he had never lived. So, George realizes he does have a “wonderful life.”

What was it that George really learned? What was it that made his life “wonderful?” Why couldn’t he see it at first? In the eyes of LAST Sunday’s Gospel lesson, how were HIS eyes opened? That’s what we want to discover this morning!

Think of all the definitions of life that we’ve heard. What did Forrest Gump’s mama say? “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” Author F Scott Peck of The Road Less Traveled begins his book by saying, “Life is difficult.” How about this: “Life is a bowl of cherries, sometimes we get the fruit, sometimes we get the pits.” Or this: “Life is a Rat-Race….and right now the rats are winning”.

My parents ingrained in me 3 basics concept about life: 1) life is a gift from God; 2) life is not to be wasted; and 3) the only commodity that cannot be replaced is TIME. We can always make more money; we can always buy more stuff, we can always meet new people and do new things…..but when time is gone, it’s never going to be replaced. And the older we get, the more we realize this.

But if we accept that God has both created life itself and offered us not only life in this world, but life eternal in heaven with Him, then it seems that there’s quite a bit at stake in how we approach life and living . If we take are to Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel seriously, He came so we could have LIFE TO THE FULLEST; we could have “an abundant life.” But again, what does that mean?

The tenth chapter of John, which contains today’s Gospel text, is usually subtitled “Jesus the Good Shepherd chapter.” We can summarize it this way: God the Father created the flock; owns the flock and loves every one of the sheep IN the flock. Jesus is the Good Shepherd of the flock, going so far as to lay down His life FOR the flock. That all sounds wonderful. It sounds “Garden of Eden, Green Pastures” kind of wonderful. It is and always will be God’s original design for the people He created and loves.

Adam and Eve DID have a fully wonderful life. They trusted God, walked with God, had everything they could ever want, and were designed to have it all forever. It was a life that we can only imagine.

Then sin entered into the world through the temptation of the Evil One. He promised them MORE……and ultimately delivered far LESS. He offered the temptations of power, of privilege, of possessions, of being their own gods.

Jesus calls ALL these things that tempt us THIEVES and WOLVES. They come to steal and destroy not only the WONDERFUL LIFE, but life itself.

There is a huge difference between being “happy” and having an abundant, joyful, and wonderful life. Happy is on the outside…..joy is on the inside. I might get happy when I find a new train, but that’s a long way from true joy. It’s one more “toy” to appreciate, but when we focus our lives on stuff, is it really ever enough? There’s always room for more stuff; there’s always room for more money; there’s always room for more pleasure; there’s always room for more promotions, but honestly, “He who dies with the most trains, most money, best job or most power…..is still dead.” How many of us really have “Ebenezer Scrooge” as our role model?

What is your favorite Psalm? I would guess most of us would answer “the 23rd,” right? Maybe that’s because it’s the one we hear the most; maybe it’s because we haven’t read or memorized any more of them, but it may just be the Psalm itself! How does it begin? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!” It’s a wonderful image…..can you picture that in your mind?

Let’s enhance the images we have of Jesus, our Good Shepherd.
First, Jesus is our “BLEEDING” shepherd. In verse 11 Jesus adds this to His self description as our Good Shepherd: “the shepherd lays does His life for the sheep.” He’s already done that for every one of us because every one of us has gone astray because of our sin. He sacrificed Himself to redeem us from our sins. When we know our sins have been forgiven by our “bleeding shepherd, we are on the way to having a WONDERFUL LIFE.

Second, Jesus is our FEEDING shepherd. He knows we need 2 kinds of food: physical food and spiritual food. In HIS prayer Jesus taught us to ask for our “daily bread,” and what we need, he provides. But He goes far beyond that: He also offers us SPIRITUAL food……His Word; His body; His blood. It’s there, in endless supply, from our FEEDING shepherd.

Third, Jesus is our LEADING shepherd. There are two things I learned about sheep: they always take the easiest path of least resistance, and they can’t see danger until it’s too late. That sounds like the Prodigal Son to me….or the Prodigal Mark or Bob or Jean or Pat. That’s why Jesus is our LEADING shepherd….and that’s why, in the waters of our baptism, God taught us to recognize the voice of our Good Shepherd, no matter what else or whom else is calling out to us.

There’s nothing a GOOD SHEPHERD wants more than for His sheep to have a wonderful life……..but AGAIN: what IS a wonderful life? What does it look like? How will we know when we have it?

Let’s paint the picture of a WONDERFUL LIFE in the Flock of our Good Shepherd. It’s knowing that we have the Creator of the Universe providing for all of our needs; giving us our daily bread. It’s knowing that He provides His holy angels and His divine presence to protect us from all harm and all danger. It’s trusting that while God is big enough to know every living thing; He is personally involved in our lives enough that He listens to our every prayer, and wants to. It’s knowing that we can make a difference in the lives of people around us because our Good Shepherd has made a difference in our lives. It’s believing that the more of His gifts we give away to bless others, the more blessed we really are! It’s knowing that while we can’t see the “big picture” of life, HE DOES; and He reveals it to us one step and one day at a time. It’s knowing that we can TRUST Him because He and He alone is trust-worthy. And it’s not fearing even death itself, because the grave couldn’t hold the Good Shepherd…..so we have nothing to fear.

I LOVE being one of His sheep. When I’m lost, He finds me. When I run away, He comes after me. When I’m hurting, He heals me. When I’m hungry, He feeds me. When I’m sleeping, He watches over me. When I’m lonely, He’s there with me. When I’m scared, He offers a gentle and quiet, “I will be with you always” in a voice I know, I trust and I love.

That is what makes LIFE WONDERFUL!

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Luke 24:13-35


I love to walk. Most mornings I try to walk at least 2 miles. It’s one of those times when, even though my body is moving rapidly, my life actually slows down. I take the same route almost every day, so I see the same houses, wave at the same people, chat a bit with some of the other morning walkers, and get a chance to observe all the subtle changes in peoples’ lawns and homes. Each mile I walk is supposed to add a minute to my life, which means I can enjoy many months of a nursing home someday at $8,000 a month!

Jesus was an epic walker. As a young boy, Jesus walked 400 miles coming back from Egypt. Every devout Jew would travel to Jerusalem 3 times a year. Add this up for Jesus between ages 5 and 30, he would have walked 18,000 miles just to and from Jerusalem. Add his known ministry trips and his pedometer would have hit almost 25,000 miles! That’s a lot of sandals…..and a lot of time for both observation AND conversation along the way. His lifetime of long walks allowed him to meet people, hear stories, experience the hospitality…..or hostility….. of strangers and make plenty of friends. For 3 years Jesus led his disciples on a “ministry of walking around.”

All of this is prelude to today’s text, which takes place on the evening of Easter Sunday. Two disciples, one named Cleopas, were making the seven mile walk to the village of Emmaus, most likely their homes. They were leaving Jerusalem after the disaster of Good Friday, the tears of Saturday and the strange stories they heard on Sunday morning. Most of the other disciples had hunkered down in locked rooms, but these two, because home was so close, had left. The risen Jesus, still walking, comes up behind them and quite obviously makes a bid to become a part of their conversation. These two men had walked with Jesus before, as every disciple had.
They thought back then they were really going somewhere, Jesus was worth following and that He was going to take them, and their nation, somewhere.

No one wants to see their hopes and dreams dashed, but on Good Friday theirs were. Scripture is clear that even though they knew Jesus, this time they didn’t recognize Him, so Jesus tweaked His way into their conversation by asking what they were talking about.

“Where have YOU been?” Cleopas responded. “Have you been living in a cave? Are you the only one who doesn’t know what happened in Jerusalem this weekend?” Jesus, who was both BORN in a cave and was BURIED and ROSE again out of a cave, kept listening. “We have been following Jesus of Nazareth. He was a powerful prophet in word and deed and we hoped He was going to be the one to redeem Israel; until our leaders had Him put to death! 3 days later our women came back from his grave with stories of angels who said he was alive!”

Now these two men, who at one time thought they were really going somewhere with Jesus, probably thought and felt they were on a dead-end road. Imagine if Jesus had just walked on by? It would have been a sad and lonely trip.

Instead, this stranger began to tell them about an even longer journey they’d ALL been on, starting at the time of Moses; and how God led his people to freedom and brought them “home.” Jesus laid out for them God’s entire plan of salvation. He told them about “Christ” and how the Christ had to die and rise again. He told them HIS story……in the 3rd person singular.

They kept walking and He kept talking until the seven mile mark, the village of Emmaus. The two men invited this stranger to stay with them, perfectly acceptable hospitality in anybody’s culture, and to have dinner with them, and then, when Jesus broke the bread……….they knew who He was!

What if they wouldn’t have invited Him in? What if they had “been too busy?” Would they have ever known the “rest of the story?”

If there’s anything the Emmaus Road story teaches us, it’s that the disciples of Jesus……that’s US……are at our best when we keep on walking with Jesus.. We’re at our best when we slow down and invite Him into our homes, and our hearts. We’re at our best when we sit down with Him at the table and “break bread” with Him……literally!

True Christian discipleship is never a drive-by, never a fly-by, never a text-by process in which we look for instant results with little effort on our parts, and make shallow, if any, commitments to the people around us. Disciples of Jesus enjoy a life-long relationship with Him that begins with our baptism and ends with our own resurrection that has been made possible by His resurrection.

Given the pace at which most of us live and the fear of intimacy that many of us, especially us MEN, have, true “Emmaus Road” experiences may be few and far between…..but they still happen. Our youth group participated in a “30 hour famine” this weekend; imagine teenagers going 30 hours without food, so they can go “deeper with Jesus?”!? That’s an Emmaus Road Experience. Christian Marriage Encounter, Via de Christo, Crucillo, and the Walk to Emmaus movement all offer opportunities to slow down and go deeper with Jesus, as do home groups and studies like BSF. Some of us at Hope have participated in these and been blessed!

Twelve years ago I was offered the opportunity to participate in a 72 hour Walk to Emmaus weekend and honestly, I didn’t want to go. Who could teach me ANYTHING about the faith…. I was a seminary-educated LCMS pastor!!
I went, kicking and screaming and knowing it all…..as most pastors do, reluctantly even obeying the “no wristwatch rule.” And somewhere well along in the course of that weekend, Jesus came alongside me and opened my eyes.
I’m not sure when…..and I’m still not exactly sure how…..but I know WHY He did, and I’ll share that with you today: He loved me enough NOT to want me to continue life as I was living it. He wanted a deeper relationship with me. He had greater plans for my life……..but He had to slow me down, break me down, create a moment of true vulnerability, and then, only then, could He “open my eyes” to the depths of His love for me. I’ve never been the same since.

For Cleopas and his friend the road to Emmaus wasn’t the end of the story. It wasn’t the finish line of their faith…..like far too many view Confirmation today. They were SO excited about what happened that they turned around and ran the seven miles BACK to Jerusalem, found the disciples in their locked room and began telling them their story when, surprise, surprise, Jesus showed up AGAIN!

The living and resurrected Jesus showed up 11 different times between Easter and Ascension…….and through the Holy Spirit continues to reveal Himself to one disciple after another, one century after another, if only they will walk with Him, listen to His Words, and break Bread at His table.

The Road to Emmaus……it’s well worth walking!

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