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Pastor Michael Cofer
Luke 18:9-14

I’d like to play a game with you all… it’s one that you’ve probably all got some practice with. What we’re going to do is I’m going to say a name, and your job is to respond with a cheering or hissing. Simple enough, I think, so let’s get started.
• Abraham Lincoln
• Bernie Madoff
• Mother Teresa
• Paris Hilton

Those are perhaps some easy examples… and going forward from here, I don’t want you to answer out loud but, let’s try a few harder ones. What about the person who sits across from you at work? Would you cheer or hiss? What about the guy carrying a cardboard sign at the intersection you stopped at? What about the welfare mom with 3 kids from 3 different fathers?
I’m ashamed to admit that I find that it very easy to rank people in my mind. Some people are better than me, some people are, well, not as good as I am. I know in my head that that isn’t the way I should think about people… but if we’re being completely honest, I have to admit that I still do it sometimes.

They say the one of the main reasons that young people stay away from churches is that they are “full of hypocrites.” Maybe you and I feel like that’s a bum rap, but there’s a reason that perception is out there.

It’s all well and good to talk about the importance of spreading the gospel, but how do we live it?

I want to challenge you to think very honestly about what your Sunday morning looks like. When you show up before church starts, who do you talk to? When church is over, who do you talk to? Is your time spent mostly with your circle of friends, or are you actively seeking out visitors and trying to welcome them in?

The parable we read earlier is a pretty stark illustration of what church should and shouldn’t be about. As you all know, the Pharisees were the church elites. They were one of the major religious authorities, and their message was basically, “Follow the rules and you will be a good person, and then God will love you.”

And that’s an easy message for people to believe. In fact, I think it’s what a lot of people outside the faith think Christianity is about. “Follow the rules, be a good person, and God will take you to heaven.”

The trouble is, if you think obeying the law is what makes you a good person, it’s easy to get hung up on yourself. Your religion becomes all about your own performance: if you’re doing well, then you’re a good person. If you’re struggling then it’s your problem. And it’s easy to sort out the good people from the bad people. The good folks fast, and tithe, and pray big showy prayers. They have stable jobs, and little fish emblems on their car and their kids don’t get into much trouble. The bad people carry cardboard signs and have broken homes and vote for the other party.

For the Pharisee, church is the place you go to celebrate your own self-righteousness. And his worship life suffers for it. Even his supposed “thanksgiving” is completely worthless. Does the Pharisee have a lot to be grateful for? I’d imagine he does. But he can’t even offer up a proper “thank you” to God because he’s all caught up in himself.

On the other hand you have the tax-collector. And tax-collectors in Jesus time were hated far more than the IRS is today – if you can imagine that. They were known to be openly dishonest… it was basically part of the system. You know how waiters are paid less than minimum wage because they are expected to get tips? Well… basically the same was true of tax collectors, except it wasn’t tips they received. They were expected to cheat people as a way of supplementing their income. What mother wouldn’t be proud for her baby to grow up to be a tax collector?

What’s curious is that we all know he’s a crook. He’s not fooling anybody. And yet, he’s the guy who understands what church is for. He’s the guy that Jesus says “went down to his house justified.”

Is that because he was sad in church and the Pharisee was happy? No. The point of the parable isn’t to say that church is all about being depressed. It isn’t. The thing the tax-collector did right that the Pharisee did wrong was this: he knew he needed God’s mercy.

If you come into worship like the Pharisee, the most beautiful thing you will see is a funhouse mirror reflection of your self. But if you come like the tax-collector, humble and sincere and needy before God, you will experience something glorious beyond description. Those who believe themselves to be perfect are stuck with all the flaws and failings they have. But those who see themselves clearly, and who approach the throne of God with repentance are made new, whole, and right with God.

It’s not a pity party. In fact, once you are forgiven there is a joy and a peace that far outweighs the sadness of your sins. As Paul says, “The gift is not like the trespass.” His forgiveness is far greater than my sins. His love is far greater than my selfishness.

That’s the real joy of the Christian life. We don’t delight in what we do, but rather in what God does for us and to us. If you think you got it all together, then what good is Jesus to you? But we all know just how much we need Him, how his death and resurrection have changed our lives – both here and in eternity.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
1 Corinthians 1: 10-17

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

Today is Miracle Sunday, a very special time in the life of our congregation. We’ve been preparing for a month with talks in church, two mailings, and finally a phone call “campaign,” but in truth, all of this started almost two years ago when we decided to build Envision Hope. We’ve been living in “controlled chaos” for months, and, tired as we are, we’re so close to the finish that we can almost “taste” it. Not the dust that is, we’ll taste that for years, but the completed job.

I don’t know how YOU felt when the offering plate passed by you this morning. I was watching the offering plates go through and I THINK I heard a little voice pipe up back there somewhere saying, “It’s all right, daddy, you don’t have to pay for me, I’m under five! (OK, maybe that was just my imagination!) I’m excited about what God is doing. I know that if each of us did as God moved us, a miracle will happen. That’s what prayer does. That’s what God does. We approached Miracle Sunday prayerfully and carefully.

I also know that for some of our families it wasn’t easy to approach a special offering. Two of our families lost jobs just this week; one of them is a single parent!  That, my friends, brings those families into “crisis mode.” And when any of us is in crisis, it’s tough. It’s hard to see a good future. It’s hard to have Hope.

It’s not been a “quiet week in Lake Wobegon” at Hope either. Last Sunday, our music director, Kathy Weiss, resigned. She had been here for 14 years. She had made some very significant contributions to the life of this congregation. Since I have been here she directed “Bow the Knee” and “More than Just a Man.” Think of all the Joy of Christmas presentations; hundreds of uplifting choir numbers, even a CD produced by the Voices of Hope. She led the Sounds of Revelation praise team. To a lot of us, she WAS the music program of Hope.

Needless to say, Kathy’s resignation came as a shock. It put our family, the Family of Hope, into crisis mode.

Our Council met on Monday evening to pray……because prayer is the first thing a believer does when a crisis hits. There can never be too much prayer. We were reminded by some of the long time members that there have been other crises in the history of Hope. As we prayed and talked this all through, it seemed to us that the crises in the past ALWAYS seem to come at pivotal moments in the life of the church: once as we were building the fellowship hall; another time as we were considering expanding from two services to three. The devil knows just how to pick his times to attack, right?

There’s not a single person in this room who hasn’t experienced a crisis in their lives. Our very first crisis happened when we were born…..as we were shoved or even dragged from the warm and comfortable wombs of our mothers and whacked on the tail as a welcome to the world! From then on, life is a series of ups and downs……good times and bad……richer and poorer……sickness and health, you know, you’ve been there. Crises aren’t enjoyable, but they’re natural. In fact, we can’t LIVE without going through a series of crises.

God designed people to be able to withstand, endure, survive and ultimately grow stronger from crisis. The same thing can be said of congregations. But getting there isn’t easy. It certainly isn’t enjoyable. And it can…..if we handle it poorly…..be incredibly destructive.

It usually starts like this.  We get a phone call or an email, or even worse, a pair of uniformed officers at the door and when the bad news hits us, we go into shock. We may not believe what we’re hearing. That’s normal too…..a God-designed kind of “shock absorber” mechanism that only allows so much impact at a time. Sometimes it takes minutes. Sometimes it takes hours. And for really difficult news it can even take days or weeks for the total impact to hit us.

Another very normal reaction to bad news is to get angry. We can think, or even yell, “Whose fault is it?” As a pastor, when I hear bad news about a child being hurt, my immediate response (after praying for the child) is to pray that one or the other parent isn’t at fault….because I know it will usually tear the family apart!

The same thing happens in organizations or churches. Before the facts are ever known….and every story has plenty of facts and at least 3 sides (theirs, mine, and the truth….which is often somewhere in the middle), it’s human and natural to point fingers and assign blame.  Sometimes it is obvious. If I let candles burn all night on my desk and burn down the church, there’s no question about it. It’s my fault. But when the facts are a bit murkier, it’s time to slow down the train. It’s time to remember Peter’s words from the top of the outline: (From 1 Peter 5: 8-9)

“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.”

Whether it’s an individual, a family or a congregation, a crisis certainly gives the devil the opportunity to work. I think it’s important for each of us to remember that the devil has one overarching goal in his existence: to separate us from God. He usually starts that by separating us from each other.

In our Tuesday morning staff meetings we always spend at least an hour in prayer and Bible study. This past Tuesday was no exception, and because Kathy was a part of our staff, our prayers went extra deep and extra long. Someone, not sure who it was, brought up this Bible verse for us: “Trust in the Lord with all  your heart and don’t lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3: 5)

Who among us, dear friends, knows the whole story? Who knows the big picture? Who has more understanding than God? Who has the future of Hope in His hands and in His heart? And who loves the Weiss family more than we ever can? God does. Right now, dear ones, God IS speaking to us. He always is….and in times of crisis, times of struggle, and times of change, God speaks even more forcefully. It’s just that because of our emotions, because of our hurts, and even because of our anger, it’s much harder during those times to listen.

Someone once quipped that the only people who like change are wet babies, but I’ve changed my share of wet babies and most of them cry during the process, either because they’re cold or they’re scared. It’s only when it’s all said and dry that they settle back and enjoy what’s happened to them…..until the next time.

Change may not be easy, but it’s normal. It’s necessary. The only thing that DOESN’T change is God. God has brought us to a time of change here at Hope. He’s done it before and He will do it again. This congregation is in HIS hands. We always have been. It is God who started this congregation, just as it is God’s Spirit who calls each of us to faith. It’s not about US…..it’s about God, and His desire to have us with Him forever!

Turn in your Bible to 1 Corinthians 1. Paul had started the church in Corinth and then left Apollos in charge when he moved on. Word had gotten back to Paul in Ephesus that there were divisions in the church…..divisions that were being destructive to the congregation and which were damaging its ministry. Read verse 10 with me: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

Reading on, Paul tells us that he heard that there are at least 4 groups in the church: those following him, those who were following Apollos, the Jewish Christians who were mainly following Peter (who had passed through Corinth after Paul left), and even those who got down and dirty in arguing who was the best…… even though they claimed to be following Christ!

Putting it another way, each group was putting someone else up on a pedestal. Pardon the pun, but Paul’s words are simple: if you are putting ANYONE on a pedestal other than Christ Jesus, “knock it off.” Pedestals belong under plants, not under people. Even Jesus, Paul reminds us, didn’t come to be put on a pedestal, but to be hung on a cross; to give His life as a ransom for many…..and as a Savior for us. People on pedestals make great targets and they don’t stay up there very long. It’s a recipe, Paul says, for being divided and for getting hurt.

On Wednesday evening our choir and praise teams met to share some of the feelings they have been experiencing and I tell you, friends, that it was a wonderful gathering. They are grieving their loss, but doing so in a very healthy way: they look forward to singing as soon as they can; to the glory and honor of their Lord Jesus Christ, who is greater than all and over all and in all and through all! They look forward to even greater days of ministry here at Hope. They will care for each other in tough times and celebrate with each other in the good.

These folks blessed me….and they bless us all….for living out their faith in Jesus Christ. They know that the church is more than a person, than a personality, and more than a single ministry. They know that the church is Christ, who lived out His life among us as both Servant and Sacrifice…..and who walks with us through whatever “valley” we are in until we celebrate together on the other side.

This is Miracle Sunday. It is our prayer that God works the miracle today of furnishing our facilities so that we can make the best use of each square inch of Hope to honor our Lord Jesus and bring others into His family. It is our prayer that God will use the gift YOU have brought to make an earthly and an eternal difference in the lives of people we have not yet met. It is my prayer that God will show us clearly…..and I know He will…..that through Him, the best days of this wonderful congregation are ahead of us.

Amen.

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Pastor Michael Cofer
Luke 16:19–31

Once again I have the privilege of preaching on one of Jesus’ parables. I always get pretty excited when these opportunities come along, because when Jesus crafts a story, you can be sure that it’s going to be rich, and deep, and challenging. Rarely, if ever, do you get the full meaning of a parable on the first reading.

So today, we get the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Even before you start digging into the meat of the story, something unique might strike you about this one: it is the only parable we have in which any of the characters are named. Usually it’s about some anonymous shepherd or widow or home owner or something like that. But in today’s story we have two named characters: Lazarus and Abraham.

Clearly, my curiosity is piqued.

So, how does the story go? Well let’s see… There’s a rich guy and a poor guy named Lazarus. They both die. The poor guy goes to heaven, the rich guy goes to hell, and Abraham can’t do a thing to help him. The moral of the story: money is bad, right?

Well… maybe not so fast. After all, Abraham was rich, wasn’t he? He was really, really rich. Like the he-had-his-own-army kind of rich… and somehow he still made it into heaven.

So, maybe we need to step back and read this story a little more carefully. Let’s start with Lazarus. He was poor. I mean very poor. Jesus tells us that he was dumped at the rich man’s gate. That implies that he couldn’t even walk – so chances are the only means of providing for himself was to just wait in hope that someone might bring him some trash to eat. He was covered in painful, open sores and the only relief he got was from stray dogs licking his wounds.

That’s a pitiful position if I’ve ever heard of one. And yet, his name is Lazarus – and I think that’s significant. “Lazarus” means “God is my help.” Now, from an earthly perspective, that might be incredibly ironic, but we have more than the earthly perspective on this story and so his name is perfectly fitting.

So let’s turn our attention to the rich man. He was wealthy in a way that you and I will probably never be. In a world where eating meat once a week was considered “well off,” this guy has exotic gourmet food everyday. In a world where having two coats is considered a luxury, this guy has a fresh pair of hand tailored underwear everyday. Jesus paints a picture of a guy with ludicrous wealth, who is not the least bit hesitant to use it on himself. If Lazarus would say, “God is my help,” the Rich Man would say, “I help myself.”

And every day as he leaves his house and every day as he comes home, he steps right over poor Lazarus, as if the poor man didn’t even exist.

So, unsurprisingly (and probably mercifully) Lazarus at last dies. And when he dies, God sends his angels to carry Lazarus to heaven, and there he is greeted by Abraham.

Now, it’s probably worth spending a moment talking about what Abraham represented to the Pharisees that Jesus was speaking to. Abraham was the father of the jewish nation, the first heir of the covenant, and the picture of righteousness. In fact, the ancient Hebrew way of talking about what we call “Heaven” was to talk about “going to Abraham’s Bosom.” Simply put, we know that God loved Abraham, and that He was faithful to God. And the Hebrew hope for the afterlife was to be wherever Abraham was, because it was certainly the best place to be.

Okay, so back to the narrative… By and by, the Rich Man dies as well – only for him there are no angels, no Father Abraham waiting with open arms. For him there was hell, and fire, and torment.

If that were the end of the story, then maybe we’d be justified in seeing this parable as a condemnation of earthly wealth. But that isn’t the end of the story. Jesus bends the rule of heaven and hell a little to let the Rich Man talk to Abraham, who he calls “Father.” He begs for a drop of water. He pleads for Abraham to send a message to warn his rich brothers about his fate. But there is nothing that Abraham can do. He said, “They have Moses and the Prophets. If they do not listen to [them], they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
I think what he’s saying here is pretty clear: The Word of God is the only thing that can save a man from Hell.

Okay, okay… so maybe you already knew that before I started preaching today. Don’t tune out just yet, because if that was the only thing Jesus was trying to say, I think he would have just said that and been done. Why all the business about rich people and poor people?

I find that Jesus does not often teach simplistic theology. I think it’s a very human thing to try and reduce salvation to absolute necessities. We Lutherans are very quick to say things about faith apart from works. Which in the hypothetical is perfectly fine. But when you look at real life religion, real life churches and Christians, there is no such thing as faith apart from works. If you have faith, you are going to actually live like it. That’s why Jesus can talk about separating sheep from goats based on their good works. That’s why Jesus talks about chopping down the tree that bears no fruit.

So it is with the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man had it good on paper… He was even a descendant of Abraham! But he was deaf to the call of Moses and the Prophets, and even the suffering beggar on his very doorstep. He had no reliance on God… He had made himself into a god, and an ungracious one at that.

I think what we see in this parable is that our wealth can be a sort of thermometer to see how healthy our faith is. The Rich Man’s full attention had been fixed upon himself, and this was evidenced in how he used the wealth that God gave to him.
When I read parables, I am a firm believer that it is the job of the reader to figure out where they fit in the story. After all, Biblical truths to benefit us if we don’t actually apply them to our lives.

So, I have to wonder: Who am I in this story?

Sometimes, maybe even primarily, I think I’m the rich man. I have been tremendously blessed, both in this material world as well as in the spiritual one. And yet, how much of my time and energy and wealth is spent on my own needs, wants, and desires? It’s an embarrassingly high percentage.

But unlike the Rich Man, there is still time for repentance. And I should earnestly do so, if I don’t desire to share his fate.

Still though, in some ways I’m like Lazarus, too. There are times when this life seems downright hard. There are times when I feel like God isn’t helping me – times when I just want some peace and relief. And this parable speaks a word of comfort to me in those times, because it isn’t comfort in this world that matters. God is my help. He has never and will never abandon me and at the end of the day, I know that He has a home waiting for me where pain and sorrow and want can no longer touch me.

After all, that is the message of the Gospel, isn’t it? Christ died for you and for me, not to make our lives here easier, but to give us eternal life in heaven. And if that’s true, then we are freed up to stop living for ourselves alone. We can be proud to be rich beggars at God’s table, freely receiving His blessings and freely giving them to others in need.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Luke 16: 1-13 
      

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

Every church member knows that once Labor Day arrives, summer is officially over. Because of our construction, this summer has been far busier than normal. I think you’ll agree that we’ll be OVERJOYED when we finally finish the job. It’s been almost an entire YEAR since we started construction. Having the Laborers for Christ here with us has been a marvelous experience; and working together with each other, whether it’s hanging sheetrock, laying tile, painting walls or the endless tasks of dusting and sweeping has been very rewarding. A “do-it-yourself” building project is a fantastic exercise in community building.

I was amazed at how “full” the building seemed last Sunday morning; so much so that somebody quipped to me that we already need a bigger nathex! I love it, because for me, church is about GOD and GOD is about HIS PEOPLE.

Remember the little kid’s finger game where we lock our hands (like so) and say, “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people?” Let’s do it together: (Do it…and recite the verse).  If you did it right, how many people were “in the church?” The correct answer is 6. In the game they are only fingers, but if you look this morning, you are surrounded by PEOPLE. Just to prove this to ourselves, turn to the person next to you and ask them this: “Are you a real person?” (Do it now). That was easy, wasn’t it? Let’s go one step farther. Turn back and ask THIS question: “Are you a PERFECT person?”

We will, when our service is over, hold a special meeting for all those of you who answered that you ARE perfect…..notice I said PERFECT, not forgiven! We’ll hold that meeting inside a coffee cup on top of Martha’s desk; because there ARE NO PERFECT PEOPLE HERE. Forgiven people, yes, all of us! Perfect people, not a one! I don’t think that’s news to any of us who are here….but it may come as news to a lot of people who AREN’T in worship this morning.

What do you think are some of the biggest reasons people give for not being in worship on Sundays? “I’m too busy,” .that’s a common one. Another one I hear is this, “All the church wants is my money.” Or, “The church isn’t relevant to my life,”….I hear that quite often. Finally, have you heard this one, “The church is full of hypocrites!” The word in Greek means “stage player,” or an “actor.”  According to a book called “UNChristian” by the Barna organization, a highly respected national polling organization, 85% of non-church attending teens and young adults say this is their #1 reason for not going to church: Christians are too hypocritical. It means that in their opinion we Christians don’t practice what we preach, we simply “Act Christian” on Sundays.

Let’s stop this train for a minute. How many of you got up this morning, put on your Sunday best, and came here so you could PRETEND to be righteous and holy, and crazier still, you are actually willing to PAY good money to do that?

I don’t buy that for a minute. If we’re going to be brutally honest about it, I don’t think very many Christians are seriously trying to fool people around them. We KNOW we’re not perfect. God’s Law and our failure to live up to it are crystal clear.  We KNOW that far too often there are big gaps between what we KNOW we should be doing as Christians and the way we actually LIVE. It may be true that when OUTSIDERS need an excuse for not going to church they can play the “hypocrisy card,” but for those of us inside the church, WE are much more likely to see ourselves in the light of our human FAILINGS.

Three minutes ago someone asked you if you were perfect and it wasn’t hard to answer honestly that you weren’t. In fact, I believe that many of us Christians COME to church and STAY in church BECAUSE we want to follow Jesus faithfully. We want to live lives more like Jesus. We want to be better people. Being in church puts us in the company of other sinners who are in need of forgiveness and who are trying to narrow the gap between our preaching and our practicing of the faith! (OK, I know that every congregation has its share of “interesting personality types,” a few wing-nuts, and maybe ever a few real hypocrites, but for the most part, the descriptions I’ve given are accurate.)

Today’s Gospel text (Luke 16:1-13) is the parable of the dishonest manager. Jesus describes this guy as a genuine crook. He’s not a hypocrite, because he’s not even PRETENDING to be a decent manager. He’s so bad at his job he doesn’t even know how much the debtors owed. It’s obvious he deserves to be fired. He’s only out for himself. So, when the master is finally fed up with him, the guy is so shrewd about getting ready to be fired that Jesus can’t help being impressed with how clever he is. Imagine the boss talking with his friends over lunch, “That guy cost me a bundle…..but he’s sure got chutzpah! I only wish he’d put his energy into managing MY money!”

We might admire his cleverness too, but we don’t want his kind on our board of finance, do we? The lesson Jesus teaches here is clear and it cuts two different ways: “If you are going to be dishonest in the little things, you’re also going to be dishonest in the big things. But if you can be trusted in the ways you deal with the little things, you will also be entrusted with the bigger things.”

Jesus lays out the bottom line in verse 13 when He says: “No slave can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to the one an despise the other……and……here it is……the punch line of all punchlines..…..you cannot serve both God and Money.”  In the NIV Bible I use on my desk, there are two words capitalized here; the first is God and the second is Money. Jesus is clearly making this a 1st commandment issue: choose your God…..choose wisely……choose well……choose for the long term!

Jesus is talking about commitment. He’s talking about priorities. We cannot maintain a dual focus on short-term profits and long-term security. We might be able to juggle the two for a while, but ultimately and eventually the time will come when we have to pick one or the other, and give it our undivided attention.

Today’s Scripture challenges us to resist this temptation, to focus on a higher calling, and to be willing to sacrifice some of our earthly profits in order to gain heavenly wealth. The passage is a call for us to practice Christian stewardship, and make sacrificial gifts in support of God’s work in the world. When we do this, we are following the example of the steward in the parable, a person who shrewdly trades short-term profits for long-term security.

The parable is also an invitation to community. As surprising as this sounds, take note of what the manager discovers soon after he loses his job: He needs friends. He realizes that his money can’t save him, and so he uses the last days of his wealth to create a community of support that would support him after his job was gone. This is an odd way to build friendships, and a stranger way to plan one’s retirement,  but strangely enough…..and commentators have struggled to understand it ever since Luke recorded it, this manager’s actions earned a small measure of approval from Jesus.

One of the great realities about the way God created us is that we are designed to be in community. We’re social beings and we will continue to be so into eternity. That’s one of the great benefits of gathering together each Sunday. It is GOOD for our souls to be among other people who are our fellow believers. It’s like a grill full of burning charcoals: each one helps keep the others glowing. That’s what you do for me and I hope what we all do for each other!

It’s also good for us to be among people who have accepted responsibilities in the church……big ones AND little ones, public ones and private ones, ones that receive the weekly notice of others and those that might seem thankless. It’s good for us to see discipleship in action and be a part of it.

It’s good for us to be among people who are willing to hold us accountable to the standards of the faith, because the world isn’t going to do that for us and it’s much harder to do it on our own. (This reminds me of the story of the woman who was going to church on Sunday. Just before she left her neighbor called and asked if he could borrow their lawn mower while they were in church. “The nerve!” she said, “cutting grass on Sunday mornings! Tell them it’s broken!”) It’s so easy to be judgmental of others, especially when we’re alone.

It’s good for our souls to be among people who are living out their faith on a day to day basis; people who have the same struggles we do and are dealing with them at the foot of the cross. It’s good to know that we might be the answer to someone else’s prayer……and they might be the answer to ours.

It’s good for us to be among people who realize their sins and rejoice in the news of their Savior…..which is why it is good to be here this morning!

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Study of Acts, part 13
Acts 27- 28

We now join this episode of “Survivor: Shipwrecked on Malta” in progress: Paul and 275 others are on board a ship that is caught in the grip of a ‘noreaster that has been blowing furiously for 14 days. The ship’s crew, using that special “sailor intuition” that God has given them, sensed that their doomed ship is nearing land. They prepared to make their escape over the bow into the lifeboats, leaving the soldiers and passengers to save themselves. Paul figured out what these sneaky sailors were doing and warned the centurion of the soldiers, who cut the ropes holding the lifeboat to the bow.

Now every avenue of escape was cut off. It was the middle of the night. The storm was roaring furiously and the water was getting shallower. The ship was headed for certain destruction, either on the rocks or on the beach. Paul somehow got the attention of everyone on board with a very STRANGE request (verse 33), “For the last 14 days you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food. Now I urge you to EAT!” I’m not sure how the sailors, who were used to storms at sea, responded, but I’m sure that for the passengers and the soldiers, EATING even one bite was the LAST thing on their mind!

But Paul had his reason and he presented it: “You need to survive. Not ONE of you will lose a single hair from his head.” Paul took some bread, gave thanks to God in front of the entire ship’s company, broke it, and they all ate their fill as the gray of morning showed them they were close to land. The sailors made for the beach, but the ship got stuck on a sandbar and the surf started to pound the ship into pieces!

This time it was the SOLDIERS who were the problem. They knew that if any of their prisoners escaped, it was their necks on the chopping block. They planned to kill the prisoners but this plan was foiled because the centurion wanted to save Paul’s life……so every single one of them, all 276 on board… made it to shore! God always keeps His word, doesn’t He?

They were shipwrecked…..but they weren’t stranded on a desert island. This didn’t turn into an episode of “Lost.” The people living on Malta were very kind to them and helped them build a huge bonfire to warm themselves and dry their clothes. But again, the plot takes a nasty turn. As Paul grabbed a load of firewood, a snake (and a nasty viper at that!) bit into his hand and held on! The Maltans thought this through and came up with a conclusion: this “Paul guy” must have been a real nasty criminal because even though he escaped death by storm, the gods must have wanted him DEAD so they sent a snake to finish the job and get justice done!

It wasn’t the snake’s job that needed to be finished, however, it was God’s job that was on the top of the list. So when Paul shook the snake off and he didn’t die, or even swell up…..the islanders started to worship HIM! This got the attention of the governor of the island, who invited Paul to his house, where Paul healed the man’s father. In a marvelous display of hospitality, the residents of the island opened their homes to the entire company of the ship, and over the 3 months they were there Paul healed everyone else on the island who was sick!

So ended this episode of “Survivor: Shipwrecked on Malta!” But rather than follow this with a commercial for snakebite medicine or self-inflating life rafts, I’ll ask the most Lutheran of all questions: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? What’s our “take home” from this exciting story?

Nobody WANTS to be shipwrecked, but on the off chance that YOU had the possibility of being shipwrecked, let me ask this: if you were stranded on a desert island and you could have only ONE book to read, what book would that be? I know what you’re thinking!!! Someone once ask that question of G.K. Chesterton, one of history’s greatest and most influential Christian authors, a man of vast intelligence and deep learning. He knew he would want a book that would show him how to be saved; a book about getting home safely. It would be a book that would give him valuable insights into dealing with his plight.

See if your answer is the same as his. He chose SHIPBUILDING for DUMMIES!

God knew that people on the Island of Malta needed to be saved. He also knew that His power needed to be demonstrated to the centurion, the soldiers, the sailors, and all the other Rome-bound prisoners. So he sent Paul and left him there for 3 full months.

And if we believe that Paul spent 3 months on Malta only healing people by God’s power, we are fooling ourselves. Paul never lost a single opportunity to share the news of Jesus Christ with someone…..or anyone. As we said last week, Paul was a “big picture” kind of a guy. He KNEW that God had a plan for his life and truly believed that he had been called to take the story and the love of Jesus to the center of the Roman world. Things like storms, sneaky sailors, shipwrecks and snakes simply provided him with more opportunities to tell people about Jesus!

Paul simply met the earthly needs of people to reach down into their deepest need: that of a Savior, who is Jesus.

Unless you’re a hermit in a cave or a monk on a mountaintop, every one of us comes face to face with other people every day. They may be people who matter dearly to us: family and our close friends, or people we’ve never met before and may never see again; or somewhere in between. The truth is this: you have never locked eyes with someone who doesn’t matter to God. Jesus went to the cross for each of them.

What stands between them and where they will spend eternity is the issue of faith: do they know and trust Jesus for their salvation or not. That’s the question that should run through our minds every time we look into the faces of people, knowing full well that we may be the one sent by God to rescue them from an eternal shipwreck.

Right about now……time out on the field…..some of you are already checking out by thinking things like: “I don’t know how to share my faith” or “I wouldn’t know what to say” or (and I like this one the most) “That’s the PASTOR’S job!”

Beyond the “go and make disciples of all nations” that Jesus commanded us in His Great Commission, how DO we know what God wants us to do? How are we supposed to figure our way through all the possibilities that life, and God, throws at us every single day? How do we know what God’s plan is for our lives…. and for the lives around us? The key, my dear friends, is time spent in prayer. Prayer is the time we set aside to allow conversation with God to take place.

Think for a minute about the time you spend with your best friend. What is it that makes your “best friend” your “BEST” friend? My guess is that they are willing to LISTEN to you. In fact, they probably wouldn’t be very high on YOUR friends list if they did all the talking……and you wouldn’t be very high on THEIR list of friends if you didn’t listen to THEM once in a while.

That’s usually the problem with our prayer lives: we spend a lot of time talking to God, but not a lot of time listening. We finish our list of “pleases and thank yous” and then hang up the spiritual phone, sometimes before God has a chance to whisper in our ear, or our heart.

I usually walk 5 mornings a week, a half-hour per morning. In the “old days” that was a great time for prayer. I had time to share my heart with God and then time, especially when I was out of breath, to pay attention to anything that He might put into my head or my heart after I stopped MY end of the prayers. That’s something, that time to listen, that we rarely take time to do; but walking gave me time to do that. THEN I got an I-pod……and things changed, for the worse for my prayer life. Now every walk becomes a challenge for me: do I pray or do I listen to whatever music I’ve downloaded from U-tunes. My quiet time has evaporated…….and, truthfully, my prayer life has suffered. What about yours?

Question on this one: how many of you have EVER thought this: “I’m TOO BUSY to pray!” The ONE most direct avenue that God has given us for communication with Him is prayer. God has promised time and again in Scripture that He will hear every prayer lifted up to Him. There are certainly times when prayers are short and to the point, but in general, Luther had a wonderful approach to prayer: the more that was going on in his life, the more he needed prayer because there were a) more people in his life…..that God could bless if he understood how; b) there were more activities in his life and more wisdom necessary to do them, which only comes through prayer; and c) there were more decisions that needed to be made, and again, they were decisions better steered by God than by himself. For Luther, he was never too busy to pray and the busier he was the more he prayed.

For us in our busy lives, setting aside time to pray is a great investment towards an even more wonderful life…….not only for us, but for those around us.

Next Sunday we will arrive in Rome with Paul…….and we will see just what God did with and through Paul in the 2 years he was there as we end this study of Acts.

Next Sunday we will arrive at our “kick-off for fall” Sunday…..and we will see just what God is going to do with and through you and me here at Hope Lutheran in Virginia Beach, Virginia in the year 2010!

And that… will be wonderful!

Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Study of Acts, part 12
Acts 20: 13-38

Anyone who has turned on the radio or television has gotten an earful of the latest controversy in our dear nation: whether or not a mosque and Islamic center should be built near the World Trade Center site in New York. Some focus their discussion around calls for religious freedom and tolerance. After all, America is built on constitutional freedoms and we cherish them! Others are deeply offended by it, especially those who lost loved ones on September 11. They remember who attacked our country back then and see this as an attempt to solidify the event on our soil, like the mosque that was built on the very site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem after it was conquered by Muslim armies.

However this turns out, and time will tell, another place of worship at Ground Zero certainly hasn’t garnered nearly as much media attention. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, the only church actually destroyed in the attack on 9/11, is having all sorts of problems being allowed to rebuild, on the same site it has occupied for decades! The 70 Christian families who worshiped there have to travel all the way to Brooklyn for their services, because there are no other Orthodox congregations on Manhattan… and their story has barely been noticed.

Does it seem to you that in the eyes of the media and the elite in America, Christianity isn’t “in” anymore? Does it seem that Christianity is being subtly, or even actively, pushed towards the sidelines of our culture? Examples are legion: Wednesday evenings used to be ‘off limits’ for athletic practices because it was “church night.” Not so anymore! Sunday mornings used to be “church time;” now soccer leagues compete with worship services in almost every community. Businesses that are closed on Sundays, like “Chic-Filet,” are few and far between. Put a Christmas display anywhere near public property and watch out!

No matter what WE might think of all this, St. Paul would not have been surprised in the least. After all, he lived in a time when Christians were definitely in the minority and, depending on the Emperor, were actively persecuted for their faith: something he had done to Christians when he was a rabid young Rabbi.

Our focus today is Acts 20, the end of Paul’s 3rd missionary journey, which took place from 53 to 57 AD. He had spent 3 years in Ephesus. Then he went to Greece, where he taught in a number of cities. While he was there, he collected offerings for the Christians back in Jerusalem, who were suffering because of a severe draught. We can relate to this: we have our own food pantry, JCOC, and quite a number of us support Food for the Poor. These Christians were obviously very moved by the plight of their brothers and sisters back in Israel and gave generously. Even though Paul wanted to go to Rome, and eventually to Spain, he committed himself to take the offerings back to Jerusalem personally.
On the way he sailed through the Greek isles down to the city of Miletus, about 30 miles from Ephesus. From there he sent a messenger to the elders of the church in Ephesus and asked them to meet him in Miletus. They joined Paul in Ephesus, not knowing exactly what he would say to them! He said “Goodbye.”

Most of us don’t like saying goodbye to a loved one, do we? This congregation has said goodbye to a lot of dearly beloved members over the years and it’s never easy. Our families go through farewells quite frequently, some of you on a fairly regular basis. We have a lot of folks here at Hope whose first words to me are usually something like this: “We’re going to be here for 2 years.” They KNOW that when their time in this job runs it’s course, they will be moving on. Moving is a regular part of work today and even though it isn’t easy, we accept it.

The same thing comes with being deployed. Sometimes you know far in advance when it’s going to happen and sometimes, not so. That was the case of Chaplain Berteau as he and Janelle were taking Ben to Concordia in St. Paul. His commander called his cell phone and within one 10 minute phone conversation his shore billet was changed to a ship and deploying him 3 days later! They didn’t even give him time to drive home! When the Navy says “go,” what are you going to do? You are compelled to go by a force greater than yourself.

Look with me at Acts 20, beginning in verse 22. It’s Paul, talking to his beloved friends from Ephesus who had journeyed 30 miles to hear what he had to say. Read 22 with me: “And now compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.” Let’s stop there for a moment.

Did you catch Paul’s motivation? COMPELLED by the Spirit! Compelled!

Let’s unpack that word compelled just a bit. The Greek is dedemenos, the perfect past participle meaning “to be BOUND UP” or “TIED UP.” It wasn’t that Paul merely “felt like” he should go to Jerusalem or simply “wanted to.” The Spirit that filled Paul was a far greater force than Paul’s human desires or his will or his interests. He was COMPELLED by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit was, is, and always will be, far more compelling than Paul, or me…..or you.

What was it that the Holy Spirit had “bound Paul up to do?” He speaks it clearly in the last half of verse 24: “the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”

The Holy Spirit had shown Paul the “big picture.” Paul knew, and I do think God had revealed this to him, that when he went back to Jerusalem that the Jewish leaders….his former Pharisaical Friends…..would find a way to get him arrested. He saw way past all that.

He knew that once he was arrested he would make sure that he was able to tell the story of Jesus to the soldiers and their officers (Acts 22), to the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 23), to Felix the Governor and his court (Acts 24), to Festus, the next Governor (Acts 25) and then to King Agrippa and his wife Bernice (Acts 26). He knew that as a Roman citizen he could appeal his case to the “most supreme of all courts,” to the Caesar in Rome…..and by doing this, the story of Jesus would be told in the very center of the Roman empire!

THAT was the race that Paul was running. That was Paul’s goal. That was what he was compelled to do. Was it going to be easy? No! Would it be dangerous? Certainly! Did Paul trust that this was God’s plan? Absolutely. Flip ahead in Acts to chapter 27, verse 23 and following. Paul is on a ship caught in a fierce nor’easter that went on for days. The crew had given themselves up for dead. Listen to Paul’s words as he encouraged the very crew and soldiers who were taking him to Rome: Last night an angel of the God whose I am (notice….to whom I am BOUND)…and whom I serve stood beside me and said, “DO not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you. So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen, just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

Paul’s eyes were fixed on the big picture: sharing Jesus with no one less than the Emperor Caeser in Rome. That part of the Great Commission drove him. It compelled him. He knew Jesus had died for HIS sins: Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and told him just that! He knew that if Jesus loved him enough to forgive HIS sins, Jesus loved the Emperor the same way. Paul wasn’t going to stop proclaiming Christ until he took his last breath and crossed the finish line between this life and life in heaven.

Question: when I say “St. Paul,” what is it that first comes to your mind? I bet it wasn’t “sail-maker” or “former rabbi” or “good writer.” It’s “SERVANT of JESUS CHRIST” or something like it that leaps into our minds when we hear his name. Paul was NEVER ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter what it cost him, and it cost him dearly; it cost him often and ultimately it both COST him his life in this world and SAVED him for eternal life in heaven forever!

What about us? What about me? IF the first thing you think of when my name is mentioned is “rabid railroad nut,” then there is something wrong…..not with you, but with me! Through my baptism, I have been “bound up” with Jesus Christ in His death, something that compels me to proclaim Him as my Savior and yours. That’s the big picture of my life. All the rest of the things in my life are really just details, most of which fall off one way or another as I run the race. NOTHING else crosses the finish line with me…..only my faith in Christ Jesus.

Paul cared deeply about the dear people of Ephesus. He knew that after he left them, false teachers would come in and lead some of them away from Jesus. That’s why God puts “shepherds” over each group of His sheep!

Look at 20: 28: That’s where he urged them….. read with me….. ”Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (stop here)

We are “on our guard.” As LCMS Christians we take God’s Word and the teaching of it very seriously because we, like St. Paul, know just what can happen. But we also take Christ’s Great Commission seriously. It compels us to Proclaim the Name of Jesus Christ first, last, and always, as the ONLY name under heaven, given among men, by which we can be saved. We are compelled to LIFT HIGH the CROSS of Jesus Christ, to rally around it, and to let all men know that we are PEOPLE OF THE CROSS and PEOPLE of the CROWN of eternal life.

Amen!

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