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Back to School (September 10, 2018)

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Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

Dear Saints,

I can hear it everywhere … parents saying, “Yay! School’s back!”  From the students I hear, “Ugh! I don’t wanna go.”  Like it or not, school is one of God’s many gifts, along with parents and others, to help us develop our God-given talents, skills, and abilities.  It’s through school that we receive many gifts from our teachers benefitting us throughout our lives. 

Even the best teachers sometimes have to tell their students what they need to know twice.  It’s been that way forever.  The name of the Old Testament book Deuteronomy means “Second Law.”  It’s not another Law … a new one for God’s people.  Rather, God’s primary instrument to teach His people Israel, Moses, took some time to teach Israel a second time what they’d already been taught.  Moses says, “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live … keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:1-2) God gave His law to His people as a gift protect them and to show them how to live as His people among the pagan peoples in the Promised Land He was about to give to them.  So, Moses retaught God’s law for His people … making sure they knew and understood it. 

In living by the law among these people, who didn’t know God, God called Israel to become a light to them … showing them the one, true God through their actions and deeds which emerged from their hearts.  Their adherence to God’s Word would cause people to stand up and take notice saying, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” because the one, true God was so close them in all things. (Deuteronomy 4:6b-7)

Of course, teachers sometimes need to go over key items again.  Fourteen hundred years later, God sent His Son into the world to teach His people … again.  The people of Israel had changed God’s commandments by adding their own ideas to it … against Moses’ warning. (Deuteronomy 4:2) Jesus told the crowds, “There’s nothing outside a person that going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mark 7:15) The things making a person impure come from the heart of a person, their actions and deeds which run counter to God’s Word.  Jesus lists them for us in verses 21-23.  Later, Jesus re-teaches the law in summary saying, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ … (and) ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:30-31)

We all get to go back to school … to hear the teaching of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh in our daily devotions, prayers, and worship of Him through our lives.  Here He teaches us how to live as His people in the world.  Then, seeing the love of Christ coming from our hearts, people of the world will stand up, take notice, and be drawn to God by the Holy Spirit to hear His teaching again.  Welcome back to school!

                                                                                              In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                                        Pastor Jim

So Close ... Yet So Far Away (August 31, 2018)

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Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“So close … and yet so far,” “Close, but no cigar,” or “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” (attributed to former Baltimore Oriole Frank Robinson).  We use these sayings when someone almost gets the right answer or nearly wins a prize.  You probably remember a time when you almost got the job done, but not quite.  This often happens when I have a do-it-myself carpentry project … it has almost perfectly square corners.

Isaiah records the Word of the Lord saying, “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me … I will again do wonderful things with this people.” (Isaiah 29:13-14) The people of Israel had taken God’s Word and twisted and bent it.  They’d speak God’s Word, but their actions didn’t line up.  They were close … and yet so far from God.  God desires that His people not just know about and repeat His Word, but that they live their lives in accordance with it. 

By Jesus’ time on earth, Temple leaders had developed 613 new rules true Israelites needed to follow to be considered holy.  God’s Word had been warped into “the word of man.”  Jesus addressed the problem of being “so close … and yet so far” in Mark 7:1-13.  The Pharisees and scribes, those knowing the Word of God inside and out, complained that Jesus’ disciples weren’t following the law to perfection by washing their hands before eating.  In their minds, the tradition of washing properly was key to earning God’s favor by obeying His will.  For the Pharisees and scribes, outside appearances … clean hands, clean pots, clean furniture, and other man-made traditions … were the indicators of holiness.  Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 to make the point that these outward displays required by man, though based on God’s Word, are only close.  They’re still off the mark.  What truly matters is what comes from inside a person in response to God’s Word … what is motivated in the heart by the love of God found in His Word.  As an example, Jesus cites the 4th Commandment, “Honor your father and mother.”  This is God’s Word.  But the “word of man” had twisted this Commandment into a practice called “Corban” where a son, though obligated by God’s Word to help His parents in need, could, according to “man’s word,” set aside money for this purpose for a higher purpose … dedicating it and setting it aside for the work of the Temple.  Once set aside for this purpose, it couldn’t be used by man anymore.  While their actions might seem godly … they missed the mark.  They were “close, but yet so far” from God.

God the Father has drawn all of us to Him by the Holy Spirit through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.  In response to His grace and mercy, He fills our hearts with His Word.  Our actions, informed by His love and Word, overflow from our hearts, showing His love to the world.  Words alone are nice, but they are only close … actions reflecting a heartfelt love and trust of God and His Word … that’s on target!

                                                                 In the Love of Christ,

                                                                          Pastor Jim

I AM ... (August 24, 2018)

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Dear First Family and Friends,

Somebody asks you, “Who are you?”  Usually this question is answered by our name.  So, when I’m asked this, I’ll say something like, “I’m Jim.”  Once someone knows my name, they can call on me … to come to them, to do things for them, to talk to me or greet me.  We all have names … and that name is how people reach out to us.

God is no different.  Recall in Exodus how Moses was tending his sheep on Mount Horeb when he saw a bush that was on fire.  But, it wasn’t being consumed!  Little did Moses know, but the fire was actually God … a fact He discovered as the bush began speaking to him, asking him to rescue His people who were enslaved in Egypt.  Moses asks a simple question, “What is the name of the god who is sending me?”  Moses wanted the identity of his taskmaster.  “Who are you?”  God responds, “’I am who I am.’ And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:15) The Hebrew word “I am” is “YAHWEH.”  That might sound familiar to us … YAHWEH (or YHWH) is the name of God used throughout the Old Testament.

When you and I in 21st century Calvert County hear Jesus say, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” (John 6:51) we might think, “Oh yeah … His words nourish and feed my soul, like bread feeds my body.”  Or, “His body, present in Holy Communion, feeds my faith.”  And … we’d be correct.  But for a 1st century Jew, living in Palestine, this statement carries extra weight. 

In the Gospel of John several “I am” statements grammatically reveal much more than simply Jesus saying, “I’m bread … I’m light … I’m the one” and so forth.  Grammatically, Jesus is calling Himself God.  He uses the name of God His Jewish hearers clearly recognize.  Asking, “Who are you?” … to the Jewish ear, Jesus replies, “YHWH, the living bread from heaven.”

Many do hear Jesus … which is why they dispute with Him.  “How can you be God? You’re from Nazareth!”  Jesus then lays out the facts for them … facts they must believe … or reject.  Like the people of Joshua’s day, the people have a choice, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served … But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Exodus 24:15) Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63) by enabling people to believe in Him.  Many rejected the gift of the Spirit as “(they) turned back and no longer walked with Him.” (John 6:66) But some were led by the Spirit to continue following Jesus, “I AM,” YHWH, God the Son.

Jesus asks us today.  “Do you want to go away as well?”  With Peter, because we believe and confess that Jesus is the Son of God, we answer, “LORD, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life … you are the Holy One of God.”  (John 6:68-69) We call Jesus by name in all things … He comes to us.

                                              In the Love of the Living Bread,

                                                                                   Pastor Jim

Preparation for the Journey (August 15, 2018)

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Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Dear Fellow Sojourners in the World,

I love going on long trips by car.  It takes longer to get there … and back … but I just like seeing all the interesting things along the way.  Of course, when I do this there’s a bit of preparation for the journey.  I need to check out the car to make sure it’ll make there and back.  I need to stock up on supplies and plan on things to do and see before I head out.  And then, even the day I leave the house, there are those last-minute things to attend to just before heading out on the road.  All this preparation is needed to ensure the journey is completed as envisioned.

In our Old Testament passage, we see a distraught Elijah who is just worn out.  Going head-to-head with the prophets of Baal, he’s shown there is only one true, living God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The prophets of Baal tried in a vain to get Baal to do something with their sacrifice while the God accepted Elijah’s sacrifice in dramatic fashion, destroying the prophets of Baal in the process (1 Kings 18:20-40).  Now … Elijah is on the run because Queen Jezebel has put out a contract on him for killing her prophets. 

Elijah, worn out, tells God, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4) In his mind, he’s done what God asked and he’s ready to be taken away from his difficult circumstance.  I know I’ve felt this way at times.  Not to the point of saying, “God, take my life.”  But certainly, to the point of saying, “God, get me out of here! I can’t do this anymore.”  But God had more for Elijah to do.  God sent an angel to nourish Elijah for the next part of his journey telling him, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” (1 Kings 19:7) God prepared Elijah for his 40-day journey to Horeb (also called Mount Sinai) – where Moses received his call to rescue God’s people in Egypt and the Ten Commandments.  There, Elijah would receive his next mission from God.

You and I are on journeys through the world today.  Our trips across the country, to other continents, even to the grocery store and work are all part of the journey God, the same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who set Elijah on his journey, has put us on.  It can be a difficult journey and we can be tempted to say, “Enough God!  I’m finished.”  That’s when Jesus, the Bread of Life, says to us, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51) He nourishes us … strengthens us … prepares for the journey ahead.  As travelers in this world, we’re on a journey to our eternal home, the kingdom of heaven.  Through the gift of His Word and Sacraments, God prepares us for the work He envisions for us to do along the way.

                                                         In the Love of the Living Bread,

                                                                                              Pastor Jim

Walk the Talk (August 8, 2018)

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Dear Saints,

“You gotta walk the talk.” I hear these and similar sayings when people get tired of hearing someone say they’ll do this and that, but never get around to it.  In the sports world we see teams brag about how good they are, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter what they say until they back it up on the field.  We frequently hear politicians make bold promises to get elected, but again, talk is cheap if the actions don’t back up the promises.

Paul is urging the church in Ephesus to “walk the talk” when he says, “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1) One problem he was addressing was a church where people heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ, said they believed in it … yet their actions weren’t always consistent with it.  By the gift of God’s grace, they were called by the Holy Spirit into faith in Jesus Christ, the Son through their baptisms.  It wasn’t because of anything they did that they were brought into faith … rather it was only because of God’s love and Jesus’ humble servanthood on the cross that makes faith possible. 

Nevertheless, many in the church of those days were still under the mistaken impression that man’s work was part of the process to be saved.  This brought about division caused by … false teachings, differing opinions on old religious practices, and simple intolerance of those different from them.  But, the church is not a place of division, but rather of unity under a single head, Jesus Christ. 

We see some of the same issues in the modern church today too.  Unfortunately, this disunity, caused by people in the church not “walking the talk,” threatens the church and keeps many outside the church from coming to faith.  In the eyes of many in society, the church’s witness by actions that are inconsistent with God’s word shows the church as hypocritical.    

God desired the 1st century church, as well as the 21st century church, to “walk the talk.”  To use the old “wristband phrase” … “What would Jesus do?”  as we engage the world.  Jesus walked the talk by speaking and acting in humility, gentleness, patience, and love.  He didn’t do this by giving into the world, but He did it by letting the world see that His actions matched His words.  He told people to love … and He loved (e.g. John 11:1-44).  He told people to be servants … and He served (e.g. John 13:1-20).  He told people to forgive … and He forgave (e.g. Luke 7:36-50).  Sometimes He spoke the hard truth, but He did it in love in order to bring about repentance ( e.g. Matthew 16:21-23). 

We walk the talk when our lives reflect the words we believe in.  When we walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  (Ephesians 4:1-2) Let us show the world the gospel of Jesus Christ in our words and deeds.

                                                                                                        In God’s Peace,

                                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Fueling the Imagination (July 31, 2018)

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Dear First Family and Friends,

I retired from the Air Force after 24 plus years.  While the ceremony took place on March 8th, 2011, much took place before that day.  One of the more significant things was a class called “Transition Assistance Program” (TAP). Among other things, TAP taught me to imagine myself in a post-Air Force life.  That might sound weird, but my life was shaped by 24 years of cutting my hair a certain way, wearing certain clothes every day, and doing certain work every day.  I needed to imagine a new kind of life in order to figure out what I’d be doing in that new life.  I thought I was in good shape as I imagined myself a high school math and science teacher who coached the baseball team.

Our imaginations are gifts from God.  He gives them to us to help us envision the future and prepare for that future.  Paul instructs us that God helps us to envision a future even greater than we could possibly imagine on our own, “(He) is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20) We may “think,” or as the Greek word Paul uses – “imagine,” we know what God’s plans are for us, but the reality is that God’s ideas are far greater than we can imagine!

So, how do we align our limited imaginations with His far more abundant imagination?  First, we do as Paul does in the passage contained in Ephesians 3:14-21.  We pray.  As we pray, we listen to God as He guides us – often hearing what others around us, those He speaks to us through, say to us.  We also listen as He tugs on our hearts – moving us in certain directions.  Then, as we begin to “comprehend … the breadth and length and height and depth … (and) be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19) we pray some more, consult with others, and pray again.

As I was imagining my future as a teacher, which I thought was pretty imaginative. But, God definitely had different ideas in His imagination.  Through prayer and spending time in His word, He enabled me to comprehend His plan … and today, after much more prayer, consultation with my family and pastor, and more prayer, here I am … a pastor … a kind of teacher and coach I guess, but much different than I imagined.  What is God imagining for you?

God also imagines the future of His church … it is much grander than we can envisage.  First Lutheran for example, began as a “house church” in Al and Sally Plusch’s living room.  Today, First Lutheran sits at one of the busiest intersections in Calvert County and owns 4.5 acres of undeveloped land.  What is God imagining that we do with this prime location and the resources He’s blessed us with?  I urge you to pray about this.  God will provide all we need to fulfill His vision of “joyfully proclaiming God’s word and enthusiastically sharing Christ’s love” with those He puts in our lives – coworkers, classmates, neighbors, and passersby.  Imagine the possibilities!  God will enable His people to do that and more!

                                                                                    In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                    Pastor Jim

Sheep and Shepherds (July 25, 2018)

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Dear Fellow Sheep,

I’m not a biologist, veterinarian or rancher so I can’t say I know for certain that sheep are as clueless as I’m led to believe.  Frankly, my only experience with sheep is in the form of sweaters, coats, and Easter dinner.  However, I’ve heard enough stories from people who routinely deal with sheep to believe there is at least some truth to the claim that sheep can be clueless, self-centered animals … so much so that they really do need shepherds to guide them to food and water and keep them safe from what many other animals would recognize as danger.  Sheep generally, from what I hear, go where the shepherd leads them.

Scripture often uses the metaphor of “sheep” to represent people in the world.  Scripture also uses the metaphor of “shepherd” to represent people who lead other people in the world.  Jeremiah 23 offers an interesting perspective on the shepherd-sheep relationship.  God calls shepherds — prophets, priests, and kings in Jeremiah’s day — to guide His people.  He expected His shepherds to do what He told them to do.  A good example is Amos who, when told to by Amaziah, a priest in Israel, to leave Israel and proclaim God’s truth in Judah, essentially said, “God didn’t tell me to prophesy to Judah.  He said, ‘Go prophesy to my people Israel.’” (Amos 7:15) Unfortunately many of His anointed, like Israel’s King Jeroboam, weren’t taking care of the sheep God entrusted to them.  “(They) have scattered (His) flock and have driven them away” (Jeremiah 23:2) with false teachings. 

But God, in His love for His creatures, including you and me, won’t let His people be scattered forever.  He will certainly punish all who cause them to be scattered by their lies (Jeremiah 23:2).  But, those who’re led astray, He will gather them … He will bring them back to Himself … He will set new shepherds over them who speak the truth and care for them (Jeremiah 23:3-4).  And these shepherds will be led by the ultimate shepherd, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus will save Judah and enable Israel to dwell securely (Jeremiah 23:6).  He will also bring “those who once were far off … near by (His) blood.”  (Ephesians 2:13) Both fallen Jews and ignorant Gentiles will be united in Christ, joined together as one body through the Cross of Christ. 

Today many are concerned about loved ones who’ve gone astray.  There are many evil shepherds, some even posing as so-called ministers of God’s word, who’re leading many astray.  Their words may sound like “love” and “peace” and “happiness” to worldly ears, but they aren’t.  These words please man’s ears while leading God’s sheep astray.  But, God promises to gather those they scatter back to Himself.  Just as He set new shepherds over this Old Testament people, He has set new shepherds over us— shepherds who proclaim God’s word in truth, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, (with) Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:20) God will lead those who’ve gone astray back to Himself through the work of His true shepherds and the true believers that make up His church here on earth.  We take comfort trusting God keeps His promises.

                                         In the Love of the Good Shepherd,

                                                                                    Pastor Jim

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