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October 14, 2018, 5:43 PM

Dear America: Remember Amos 5:24 and the Remarkable Words: with this Faith!

The Word of the Lord from Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is a classic example of prophetic utterance from the Old Testament reading today. Amos the prophet is pleading with the people to finally, finally repent. "Three times and a fourth time" we the prophets have begged you: remember the poor and disenfranchized, remember and do not forget the Lord your God. But if they listened at all, it was too late. They had forgotten already and brought the wrath of God upon themselves. Exile was near. The Empire of Assyria was about to march its armies and chariots into the northern kingdom and smash it apart and take them captive. Thankfully we are not facing down such a thing (!) but the utterance--as part of the Word of God--the utterance is ever applicable and relevant to us today. God LAMENTS over his people; everyone is called to mourning; God does not tolerate sin or wink at it as if it were no big deal. People of God: leave your religious ceremonies behind and repent! If you are going to neglect the weakest among you and the neediest, but still pretend to worship God, just put it all DOWN. Stop! Turn your hearts to God and seek Him first.

Of what sins do WE need to repent in our day and age, and where we are in our lives? We can always ask this question and be doing right by God and His kingdom. 

Really, though, as I mentioned before the hymn just sung--the sermon hymn today--it really does say it all; I almost would not need to preach this sermon today, you could just look at those words. That's it. It's what I mean to say today with this message: God laments over sin, but gives us a tremendous opportunity to repent and change course: "For Jerusalem you're weeping, in compassion, dearest Lord."

An outline avails itself on Page 16, if you'd like to follow there.  

Now, as a preacher I am really interested in the great oratories of the past, like Amos's sermon, and like those of our past here in America--and how they often intersect. Amos 5:24, for example, is quoted in a certain iconic speech given on August 28, 1963. You remember that it was in the sweltering heat in Washington and yet 250,000 were gathered there, peacefully, before The Lincoln Memorial. And they were captivated, inspired, and moved to act. At the center of the speech, these words rang out: "Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream!" Those words and the words of the whole speech were the right words, at the right time, in the right place. That is why the people listened. That is why the people acted, and the nation was changed in most cases for the better.

And so I am going to throw a Greek word out at you today: KAIROS. The dictionary definition of this word in English is "a time when conditions are right for accomplishment of a crucial action." For fun, you see, I used to repeat some of the great speeches of the past such as the I Have a Dream speech to people I was helping, to people with disabilities. I would recite things like this: "I have a dream... that one day my four little chlidren will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." And as great as those words are--and holy and for a right cause--my hearers just kind of raised an eyebrow and continued eating their lunches. They were not the right words at the right time for the right people.

Yet the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were the right words, at the right time, in the most perfect moment. He also quoted Isaiah--a contemporary of Amos, by the way, speaking at the same time in Israel's history: "the crooked paths shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. And in their flesh all people shall see God" (40:3-5). The fulfillment of which is our Jesus, and John the Baptist before him, crying in the wilderness. And with which Dr. King followed: "this is our hope, this is our faith." For you see: they had to go back. He seemed to be bracing himself, also, to go back to where they normally live--for they couldn't always be there, together, marching on Washington. They would have to go back to the places they came from, and that would be tough. And then he says what I think is the highlight of the speech: "with THIS faith we will go back to..." Alabama / Georgia / Mississippi. And I wonder if the same thing could be accomplished at all today in our culture, and in our time. Could a leader today stand up and quote Scripture like this?

It's not that the speaker of the words, or the people gathered there that day were perfect. It is that the ideals were from God. They held to the deep, faithful ideals of the Founders of our nation, in fact. Ideals most often and most deeply forged by the Christian faith, and by the God we know and preach. 

We also know such oratories as that of Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt, speaking on March 4, 1933. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Only that "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" that makes us curl up and freeze and do nothing. These--again--were the right words at the right time spoken to the right people. 

Dr. King's words had hearkened back to the Emanicpation Proclamation of 1863--exactly 100 years before they marched on Washington that day. And the document had read: "we will maintain and recognize the freedom of such persons [the slaves in the Southern States]." This kind of godly impetus, penned by Abraham Lincoln, gave the slaves military and political protection as a group of people. It led almost directly to victory in the Civil War. (Yes, believe it or not, the Presidency is supposed to be a dignified and at times prophetic office. It is not supposed to be the kind of mockery that it's being turned into today; it's not for indecency and then laughing at it; it's not for bragging and promotion of a brand name!) 

And so all of this brings us to the question for today: What is our Kairos? 

Well, several things. For starters, a return to civility is needed, yes. A return to the humane treatment of people, especially the unborn. And that we do not treat them like junk or something inconvenient, or in the way. Yes, we need a return to that. A return to respect for authority. Oh, there's one! People going around today and not respecting policemen. These servants uphold the First Use of God's Law! (And there are Three Uses of God's Law--which you confirmands should know, and I hope the rest of us remember--1. curb. God will use force if necessary to stop wickedness in its tracks, this is the role of the police. And look at how they aren't respected. The second use: 2. a mirror. To show you your sin, as a sermon such as this one is supposed to. And 3. a Guide. These are the Three Uses of God's Law.) And we are seeing more people shoot at them, mock them, curse them, and disobey them--the police and FBI and other authorities. So yes, we need a return to respect for them as well. People often walk in here to church and remark, "Wow, I can't believe how disrespectful people are nowadays, and what I just saw," for they will have seen someone young (or even older than young!) be entirely disrespectful and rude to the authorities. So yes, we need a return to that as well... and all of these are godly points and improvements of our society to ponder. 

But most of all we need a return to God's Word! It alone changes us. We must allow it to speak and we must listen. We must finally realize that behind all acts of love and self-giving sacrifice in the world is our God, and His Word. They are not from Buddha, or any other god of man's own creation. They are from God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As a case in point, I present the Gospel lesson for today. In Mark 10, we heard Jesus tell the rich young man that he lacks one thing, going and selling all he has and giving the proceeds to the poor. Now, we might say as a result that we must all sell what we own and give the money to the poor. But I know also Luke 16:9, and the goal is that you know it, too. And maybe you wouldn't remember chapter 16, verse 9 (chapter and verse, that is) but you would remember Jesus saying, "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it's gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." And so you see the matter is to be held in balance; we may use worldly wealth to welcome others. From time to time, for one example, folks will question why we use silver Communion ware. "Why don't you use wooden vessels, as those are more humble and what Jesus would have used?" Yet why not use silver, as we are showing that something special and holy and blessed is happening here? We are welcomed to God's meal here and for the strengthening of our souls in such a way that only God can give it. And so we use the best things we can afford to carry it. The point is, we must hold each part of God's Word in balance. We must know the context, and be ready to review it so that we can speak it accurately to a world so lost and in need.

Luke's Gospel invites us into a world were we are invited to many feasts, and this one that we share today again--at this railing. It is the best sermon of all and it has no words. Think of the direction of our salvation: from God to us. Think of Jesus' life and you see that it's all one, big picture of "God to us." A man is God but also born of a virgin. He grows up in lowly Nazareth as the apprentice of a builder, a tekton in Greek--a mason and carpenter. He humbles himself to learn the Torah when He already knows the Torah and the whole Word of God, and IS the Word of God. He then brings forth the single greatest picture of self-giving love there's ever been: the cross. And it is why we display it to this day in our churches; it is the culmination of God's speech and action to the world. 

We will have to go back there, you see. We can't always be here at church, going to the Lord's Supper, and encouraging one another with God's Word. We will have to go back to people who have no use for the Word of God. If you haven't noticed, America is getting forgetful. She is not remembering her foundation in godly wisdom and accountability. And I do not mean to equate ancient Israel with modern-day America as if they are the same nation. But I mean that if once our Founders and those after them knew God's Word was the foundation of this experiment in freedom and government, we are swiftly forgetting even that! And so, WITH THIS FAITH we must go back to them, even those who don't believe in our own families. And WITH THIS FAITH we must go forth and shine in a world full of thoughtless, gutless, evil men.

"This is my Father's world / O let me ne'er forget / that though the wrong seems oft so strong, / God is the ruler yet. This is my Father's world / why should my heart be sad? / The Lord is King! Let the heavens ring! / God reigns, let the earth be glad!" 

And so we will take our actions. We can even stand against evil from time to time. But in such activities--even well informed by the Scriptures--we must be able to put them in their proper context. God's action is always the Greater. HIS is always at the perfect time, and what we needed most... and so we simply pray (in the hymn aforementioned): "O dear Lord of my salvation, / grant my soul your blood-bought peace / by your tears of lamentation / bid my faith and love increase." (LW 390, v. 3).

And so we'll take our stand as the people of God in Christ. We'll do what we can. We'll make our speeches. But we'll look back and see that this whole time it has all been about God's action toward our fallen world in Christ Jesus our Lord. It has all been for righteousness and for salvation spoken through us, for believing on His Name, repenting, and receiving eternal life on earth, as it is in heaven.

In His Name. 


October 14, 2018 + Pentecost 21 

Referenced above: "I Have a Dream" Speech, Aug. 28, 1963: 







October 8, 2018, 3:08 PM

A huge castle. With beautiful trees around it: the Word of God.

And... I'm now in my 15th year of preaching God's Word to God's people. I have been through the 3-year lectionary (list of Bible readings) five times, counting my student pastorate. There have been special sermon series along the way, but I usually kept pretty true to the lectionary. Along the way there have been extremely disappointing and challenging times; there have been moments of betrayal by people in my congregation and in the church at large; there have been more times I've wanted to quit than I'd care to write about here. 

But I knew there would hard times; perhaps most troubling is the occasional sense that what's been said about a given text has already been said, and I might as well drum up someone else's sermon and just read it. Or, perhaps, a sense of ennui that accompanies the preaching task: as in, what can I say to God's people this week that will impact them and be relevant for them? I've never given in to that urge, to read someone else's sermon; for better or worse, I have done the work myself each and every time.

Thankfully, as it strikes me now, the bulk of God's Word does not NEED to be relevant. It can just be the awesome Word of God, being awesome. It can let the eternal mystery of heaven and God and Jesus shine just as well as it can house very practical, day-to-day needs and activities. It is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). It is somewhat like a working castle from the old days of Europe. 

1. DIVINE SERVICE. A castle in the old days had soaring, stone or rock walls and turrets serving as look outs and defensive positions for archers. It is these turrets that are the "romantic" parts of a castle--at least to me--stretching upward toward heaven but having a very earthly purpose. That, as watchmen wait for the morning, so my soul waits for the LORD and all of his redeption, goodness, and love (Psalm 130). That the promises of God remain above all others; that is what a thickly-walled turret says to me. That inside all are protected--thankfully, in the penultimate ways--from sin, death, and the devil. That God Himself is our mighty fortress, as a famous Lutheran once wrote, basing his hymn on Psalm 46. That is His service to us, even as we use the wonderful gifts of his kingdom in Word and Sacrament.   

2. DOORS TO SAFETY, DOORS TO THE WORLDThe drawbridge of a castle leads to a massive door that is intended for physical defense from invaders AND intimidation of evil marauders. God's Word has the big doors, too. "Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise" (Psalm 100:4)--and I don't mean this in an isolationist way. God's Word doesn't mean it in an isolationist way. But think of Jerusalem and her gates; this is literally what is meant in the Psalms. "Let us go up to Jerusalem" is a literal utterance; they were ascending Mount Zion to enter into Jerusalem, the temple, the temple courts, and so on. ALL ROADS lead to Jerusalem in Israel's golden age and in the known world of the time. It is no accident that it stood at the center of the world, if you ask Christians like us--Christians who are "evangelical" and proclaim the Son of God and Son of David for all peoples, nations, tribes, and families. "All nations" means all nations--they will come to see that He is the true God, and there is no other (Isaiah 43:9-13).

3. RITE VOCATUS. The "right calling" (Latin: rite vocatus) of God's people often happens in the underbelly of the castle, but is no less important. It is the sacred vocation of all Christians to practice their craft(s) taken together as one. The Holy Church expresses herself both in the faithful administration of bloody, sweaty, and difficult work and in the painstaking work of making great art and godly expression(s) of culture. Martin Luther once said, "The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That he would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor. ... The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living." (source:

And then, at times, we tire of the castle and our work and need rest. Thankfully, the spiritual castle is surrounded by vast trees in a canopy of grace--the history, liturgy, and confession of the saints (all who believe His Word and live according to it). 

The beginning of Divine Service is heard again: "In the Name..." 

And the people and the pastor look up, waiting to be fed. 

And then they are.

And next week we will meet here again.

"I Love Your Kingdom, Lord" 

By: Timothy Dwight

I love your kingdom, Lord, The place of your abode;

The Church our blest Redeemer saved With his own precious blood.

I love your Church, O God! Its walls before you stand,

Dear as the apple of your eye And graven on your hand.

Beyond my highest joy I prize its heavenly ways,

Its sweet communion, solemn vows, Its hymns of love and praise.

Sure as your truth shall last, To Zion shall be given

The brightest glories earth can yield And brighter bliss of heaven.

Hymn # 296 from Lutheran Worship Author: Aaron Williams Tune: St. Thomas 1st Published in: 1800


Hebrews 10:23-25

August 2, 2018, 9:00 AM

The Sun Rises and Casts a Blue-Line Shadow

Citizens this morning are praying for him, a peace officer.

Shot in the wee hours near a hospital, the one my wife works at. 

He responded as all officers who are patroling as officers: 

at 2:30 this morning, he went. And risked being shot at

when he approached a man wielding a gun

at the corner of Dark Soul and Sun.

When evil is surprised by the men and women who care,

and go on caring as the cameras roll, reload and roll again, airing the scene 

as the sun rises, again, from here to there.

Today the sun casts a blue-line shadow.

July 10, 2018, 12:00 AM

Lead On, People of God. Have done with lesser things!

An old Gospel tune puts it this way: "Rise up, o men of God! The church for you doth wait, Her strength unequal to her task; rise up, and make her great!"  

A quote from a book on the theology of the cross says: "Sin lurks in the most pious of places." 

And how true it is! And I could give many similar quotations, but first let's play with the themes presented here.

We are all--for sure--EXPERTS at seeing the sins and failures of others, but what about us? What about our Christian piety and life? How have our actions and words directed others to Christ or...gulp...directed them away from Christ, damaged God's reputation, or caused others to question the Faith? Have our actions and words "made the church great" or made the church feel more like a bad community organization?

I was blessed to take a family vacation recently. As I sat on the coast of Oregon near the famed Haystack Rock--one of the most gorgeous places on earth, I must say!--I reflected honestly on my own spiritual life. How often am I only reading Scripture to prepare for a sermon, Bible class, or blog post? How often am I praying only problems at God, instead of gratitude and praise for Who He is? Am I "making hay" for God when I have opportunity, or sitting by hoping that His blessings come my way--without the work of prayer? 

If each sinful heart looks away from God at the forbidden fruits of the world; if our sinful hearts find the sin they know is wrong but secretly enjoy it; if all of that is true, then no wonder Christian prayer takes work. It takes a militant attitude toward our own hearts, which lead us astray (Matthew 15:19-20). Some of the worst advice in all of history is to "follow your own heart." For God's sake, don't! We must follow Christ and his Way, the narrow Way--the one that costs everything we have. And, now, I know what people mean when they say follow your heart--perhaps they're talking about finding a good vocation, or knowing what your talents are, or being true to one's upbringing as polite company and decent citizens of a nation. 

Yet there is the one, aching problem in our same-divorce-rate and everything-else Church of Today in America: evidently we don't take much time to correctly evaluate our heart of hearts. As Billy Graham used to say, "We're not sinners because we sin; we sin because we're sinners." And that is biblical. Have you ever read King David's bold confession of sins in Psalm 51? There he says, "Surely I have been sinful from birth, from the day that my mother conceived me." It is a problem that we must address daily, or we risk drifting away. 

Exactly five-hundred years ago, a meager servant of God by the name of Martin Luther was busy with a disputation, or academic debate, on the topic of what it means to be a theologian of the cross. (Or, we might say for our purposes here, to be a Christian who really & truly takes up the cross to follow Jesus. Not only sometimes or when with other Christians, but in front of the world, and against persecution if that should come.) In the disputation, he says that the law of God can NEVER rescue us from our sin. It was in this context that another writer said "Sin lurks in the most pious of places." (The late professor Gerhard Forde.) Other versions of this are something akin to "wherever there's a church, the devil builds a chapel." And so on, I think you get the idea.  

But, you see, only the good news of Jesus Christ can rescue us from ourselves! Jesus has taken all of our most-pious platitudes that cover our shame and FORGIVEN them. He has set us free to be Resurrection People. (Romans 5-6)

Now there. As much as I thank you for reading this blog, it's time to take up that devotion book, devotion email, Scripture reference, or conversation with another Christian pilgrim and keep the wheels of your wagon rolling! 

The devil does not want God's kingdom to come (people to believe his message about Jesus and be saved). The devil also does not want anyone to care about or hallow God's name. Those of us who use His Name rightly should be leading the way. 

Lead, people of God. Because you know what's lurking beneath. 



January 9, 2018, 12:00 AM

On the Five Purposes of Our Church

There are five purposes of the New Testament Church. Our church body--the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS)--had published those purposes for our congregations sometime in the early 1980's. They were most widely circulated, however, by Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California via his books "The Purpose-Driven Life" (2002) and the earlier release, "Purpose-Driven Church: Every Church Is Big in God's Eyes" (1995). 

Now, this is not an endorsement of everything or every bit of theology in Pastor Warren's books, lectures, writings, blog, or other publications. I am simply trying to agree with the five purposes and use them in our Lutheran way.

You know that we are liturgical. We are historical. We are orderly. But none of these mean "dead." Liturgy, history, and orderly procedures are to be used by the living church for living purposes. They are to uphold Christ and do so in the vernacular of the people. This is why you are reading this in English, and not in German (the founding language of the Lutheran Church). Nor are you reading this in Latin, the language of the academy and all serious theologians in the 16th Century when our church began. It is because each element of the church's life and practice is scrutinized for, may I say it?, "usability." It used to be that Latin was the only language that could be used in church, for church, and especially in Mass. But the Lutheran Church immediately (in the 1520's) said, "The Gospel needs to be understood in the language that people actually use everyday." By contrast, it took the Roman Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's to officially allow the use of languages other than Latin in its worship services.  

The 5 Purposes, like language, are definitely something we can use in service of the Gospel. 

From the Website, they are: 

  • We were planned for God's pleasure
    • so your first purpose is to offer real worship.
  • We were formed for God's family
    • so your second purpose is to enjoy real fellowship.
  • We were created to become like Christ,
    • so your third purpose is to learn real discipleship.
  • We were shaped for serving God
    • so your fourth purpose is to practice real ministry.
  • We were made for a mission
    • so your fifth purpose is to live out real evangelism.

Perhaps these seem overwhelming, but when you break it down, they are no more complex than five points on a star. And, in practice, many of them flow together. For example, when a group of the saints prepares for an "evangelism"/outreach event, they work together serving and in so doing have fellowship. Thus, they are serving/ministering to one another and the guests our church will have, they are in meaningful fellowship with one another as they share that experience, joy, and challenge; and finally, yes, they are about doing evangelism or telling the Good News of Jesus when the time comes to execute their plan for the event. Be it a spaghetti dinner or a parent's night out at church, they have accomplished three purposes in one event.

Does this make sense? 

When the world sees this happening among us, and that we are enjoying serving and loving others so much, it is attractive and winsome. Now, this isn't "the whole boat" as they say. There is much more to being the Holy Church of God in Christ Jesus on this earth. But as for catching fish and fulfilling our mission of making disciples of all nations, tribes, and peoples--a place to start. It opens the doors of the church to more of our neighbors and invites them to come and see the salvation of our God. 

Studies by the Alban Institute have shown that it doesn't matter what style of worship the church has--any church can grow! Is a liturgical style like ours done well and in Spirit and in truth (John 4)? Or, does the worship languish from bad sound, poor organization, or unclear sermon messages? The Law should accuse and eliminate the hearer's sin-hearts, and the Gospel should ring like a bell from the rafters of the church leaving no question that our forgiveness is free and accessible to all in Christ Jesus, by faith alone and by God's grace alone.

I have left the toughest subject for last. But, when followed in faith, it is not burdensome. It is sometimes difficult, but not burdensome. There is a difference! It is "discipleship." As a result of all of these activities, we are finally to be quiet and listen. What is God calling us to do or say in our context that may challenge the status quo? Or, what areas of weakness do I constantly have as I am in the practice of living as a follower of Christ Jesus? These I NEED to confess--it is not optional--and then I need to put to death these "weaknesses" which are really sin, clinging to our natures, and constantly battling against our new life in Jesus. 

The Church is not a customer service for the soul. There is considerable tension in the balance between being "seeker friendly" as the catch phrase used to put it, and simply saying, "If you wish to be a disciple of Christ here, you must put some of your own effort into understanding what is being said and what is happening in worship." But it's not only with Worship. In our life together we must also have "staying power" and exhibit the qualities of disciples when something (like a vote) doesn't go our way. We need to forgive, forget, and move on with the Body of Christ. Too many saints in our day forgive, but then leave a church when something emotionally adverse has happened. They say it's too stressful for them. But I would gently push back, and try to in my service as pastor, in a challenge to that way of thinking. I am willing to bet that God has growth in mind for you through some contentious time at church! Or at the very least, can you really discount that as a possibility? That God wants to instruct you and guide through something like that to teach you about yourself and stretch you to a new place with Him? 

There is an old saying that "God loves you as you are, but would never leave you there." That is the challenge and the work of Discipleship. The Church is the only organization on earth that calls out to everyone with a message of love, but when people get into a faithful church, what they hear is a Savior saying: "Take up your cross and follow me." And, "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." And, "No servant is greater than his Master. What the Master suffered, the servant will also suffer." Etc. 

In my own words. All of the above is our mission. In Christ our Savior and Redeemer, 

Pastor Joel



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