Today’s message: ‘Justice Deserved’

Hands with a few coins

A link to our live-stream service (via our YouTube Channel) is below, along with the text of Interim Pastor David Mueller’s sermon. For more information on this new online option, please read the guide provided by John Lasher, director of music and worship arts.

 

“Justice Deserved” (Matthew 18:21-35)

Interim Pastor David E. Mueller

You are getting a double dose of the Joseph story in that I referred to it last Sunday and here it is as the Hebrew lesson for today. It is an incredibly beautiful story about why forgiveness is far better than bitterness.

By typical human standards, Joseph had every right and reason to come down hard on his brothers. This was the equivalent of human trafficking today. It must have been pure agony and loneliness for years for Joseph to have been ripped out of his family and by his own brothers to boot. On a practical level, however, now that they all had been re-united in Egypt for 17 years, not knowing that their progeny would be there for over 400 more years, it made sense to get along and not be estranged.

By contrast, in the Gospel we are confronted with one of the worst cases of utterly base violations of the “Golden Rule” anywhere in the Christian Scriptures.

Right away, I want to emphasize that this parable is first and foremost about God’s forgiving grace and mercy. This can easily be lost in what must be ravenous rage in most of us about the awful turn of events and treatment of the second debtor by the first. Keep thinking thankfully about how gracious and merciful God is. Refuse to get lost in the inhumanity and ungratefulness of the first servant.

PRAYER:

Lord God of Heaven and Earth, we rejoice in You and Your promises made to us. Help us never to be guilty of abusing You and Your grace and mercy and Your eternal love of us, shown especially in Jesus Christ, Your Son and our Savior. Amen.

This begins with the disciple we can count on as being mildly cantankerous in his questioning and commenting on the words of Jesus. OK, Jesus, you shared about going personally to someone who has offended us — that is, keeping the matter contained and only later bringing in others if necessary. So then, how often do we need to do this forgiveness thing? We need to give Peter a little credit here because he probably knew full well how hard forgiving others really is.

The answer that Jesus gives here may as well be “Infinitely!” In former translations, we heard 70 times 7. Now it is 77 times. In either instance, it is “don’t ever stop forgiving.” The number 7 in Biblical numerology always means complete. Forgiveness is never one and done.

There is more math herein. Scottish preacher William Barclay, in his “Handbook of Parables of Jesus” published in 1970, concludes that 10,000 talents is at least 10 times as much as the taxes paid by the total number of provinces in Judea. In 1970, it would have been 2.4 million British pounds or nearly 4 million U.S. dollars. Many of us might recall back then and now realize how much inflation there has been since 1970. The point is that it was utterly impossible to be paid back. One cannot help but wonder how on earth the steward could have accumulated such debt. Talk about things sneaking up on you.Empty wallet

The debt the steward wanted repaid in full was 500,000 times less. I am happy that Barclay did this math because otherwise we would not grasp the enormity of what the first man owed in comparison to the pittance owed him. A denarius was a day’s wage.

In the first place, Jesus told this parable to show how infinitely large and vast is God’s grace and mercy. In the second place, by implication, we are to consider the sins committed against us. As much as we may have hurt, as disappointed in a friend or family member as we may have been left, by human standards — as much as you have a right to expect justice — none of it is but a pittance compared to what any of us owe God.

We may not be murderers, thieves or gossips, and we may give generously of our time and treasures. We may not be America’s most wanted. When one looks at the comparison between crooks and people like us, the distance from God’s perspective might not be that much. We each and all owe God infinitely more than anyone else owes us!

“Have patience with me and I will pay you everything!” That is the biggest joke here. But how many bargains have we made with God? “Lord, if You forgive me, I promise never to do it again!” And those of us who are parents, how often did your children at various ages make similar promises? Did you believe them?

OK, so neither the math nor our methods work out very well for any of us! Perhaps it is because of the value we tend to place on our hurts.

Gigi and I were driving to upstate New York on Easter Sunday afternoon, 2019. Back in 1983, we were run into from the rear at a stop light by a woman driving 50-60 mph. There were no skid marks, just boom! I would love to share more about that some other time. Suffice it to say, I have lived in my rear view mirror ever since.

On that Easter afternoon there was this large white vehicle five cars back weaving in and off the road on both sides. I asked Gigi to get out paper and pen because if the vehicle got past us, I wanted it reported. Next thing we know at between 70-80 mph this Chevy Tahoe smacked us, pushed us off the road barely inches from the guard rail, and 500 feet later came to a stop.

I do not believe this was an accident but a criminal act. She admitted fault and the State Trooper gave her four tickets.

We were physically uninjured, but you should ride with Gigi and experience the lingering effect of this hit. I forgive her, but so that she harms no one else, I want her license suspended. Her insurance, All State, advertises 40% discounts for good drivers. I want her to pay at least 40% more. Am I an ogre? Possibly, but it is the reality of how I feel. Yet I can still forgive her, lest I (we) be the one(s) who are losing sleep over this incident.

Just as important, and really inescapable, as are our feelings about this woman’s crime against us — we must be honest and authentic — so also forgiveness, as Jesus states, must be authentic, that is, “from the heart.” There is no faking forgiveness! God sees through it even if no one else does.

In Luke 7:36, Jesus has a woman of questionable character anointing his feet and drying them with her hair. Obviously this freaked out his Pharisee host. Jesus then told another story about two debtors, one owing 10 times what the other owed. Which one, asked Jesus, will love the creditor more for forgiving the debt?

The one forgiven the most!

The insurmountable debt forgiven by the king of the first debtor here should have brought him so much joy and gratitude that he couldn’t wait to forgive the debt of the fellow who owed him so little. He chose instead his own fate — and, oh, how just was his deserved reward!

Abusing God’s grace is a dangerous matter. Accepting God’s grace gratefully is a genuine delight. Thank you, Jesus!

Amen.

St. Mark’s goes live today — in the sanctuary and online!

Open doors

We have waited and prayed and longed for this day! For the first time in almost six months, the sanctuary at St. Mark’s will have worshippers in attendance! Church doors open at 9:45 a.m. and you will see many changes, as you know already if you have watched our “Reopening Day” video.

That’s not to say we have not been worshiping together throughout this long building closure, which was done in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We have been together — online!

And thanks to the work of John Lasher and our Worship Committee, that online option will continue for all who are unable to join us in the sanctuary for any reason. See John’s guide to the new “livestreaming” broadcast that starts today at 9:55 a.m.

Many thanks to Interim Pastor David Mueller and John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, for producing the weekly prerecorded worship services that have helped us stay connected as much as possible during this time of extended separation.

Thanks, too, to the musicians and the virtual choir, the worship assistants and all who have continued to support the ongoing ministry of St. Mark’s with your prayers, gifts, mask-making, fundraising, notes of encouragement and other assistance. Thanks to Council President Kitty Dombroski and all who serve with her on the Leadership Council and its Worship Committee. Thanks to Office Manager Cheryl Denneny and Sexton Rick Johnson and all who have given their time and talents during this unexpected interruption of life together.

Now some of us are returning to in-person worship, but many will continue to wait until the virus is brought under control or a vaccine is available. We trust you to make the best decision for you and your family and we want you to be comfortable and connected in the way that suits you best.

We will continue to provide online access to our worship services. They will be broadcast live on our YouTube Channel and then will be archived there for future viewing. You can participate at any time, wherever you have an internet connection.

Thank you for your patience as we continue to develop and refine the tools we use for these broadcasts. We are amazed at the ways God has provided — and we hope to fill you in on some of the stories behind the scenes in the not-too-distant future.

Click on the image below to link to our YouTube livestream. The text of Pastor Mueller’s sermon for today is also available below.

Altar and stained glass window at St. Mark's

“That Which Cannot Be Overstated” (Matthew 18:15-20)

Interim Pastor David E. Mueller

I believe most of you by now realize how important the righteous acts of Christians are to me. It is never exclusively or even primarily our personal salvation and spiritual well-being. We carry in our redeemed hearts and minds, the compassion, healing impulses and genuine concern for others of Christ.

The story was told decades ago about a certain lighthouse, the obvious purpose of which was to keep ships in the channel and not aground at night. Volunteers showed up regularly to clean, repair and manage the lighthouse so that it continued to fulfill its purpose. But the volunteers started gathering, having parties and neglecting the lighthouse in favor of activities more fun but less noble and necessary. It no longer fulfilled its purpose!

Jesus warns against putting our lights under a bushel basket (Matthew 5:15). The Church, which is not a building but a community of believers, has as its purpose to “let your light so shine, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) When we move in on ourselves and fail to shine for the sake of others, we lose our purpose and reduce Christ’s suffering and death to meaninglessness.

At the very core of the Christian faith, however, is something even more important in a practical way. Without this core, we are not Christians at all for this core is also at the center of the nature of God. I am speaking of forgiveness!

David, in Psalm 103, professes the following: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. He does not deal with us according to our sins … as far as the east is from the west so far he removes our transgressions from us.” (portion of 8-12)

Remove or ignore this core essence of God to forgive and we lose. Other gods may demand appeasement, sacrifices, rigid rituals, but God invites faith in who He is, and regarding us, what He does in Christ.

Matthew 18:15-20, our Gospel for today, is a powerful if really simple process about our learning to forgive. It is also perhaps one of the most abused portions of the Christian Scriptures, which has been used by Popes and other pious  persons to manipulate kings and other leaders. It has been used all too often as a threat: “if you do not do what I/we want, you will be excommunicated.”

Clearly, this passage has been rightly called “Church Discipline.” At the end of the process “if an offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The Amish in our day and certain churches in the past have called this “shunning!”

Please do not go to the end of the process too quickly. As Christians forgiven, it is both our duty and our delight to be forgivers. This could not be any more serious or special. If we don’t forgive, we are not forgiven. In the prayer our Lord taught us, God the Father does the feeding, the avoiding and the deliverance. The only thing we pray for and do is to be forgiven AS we forgive those who sin against us. The forgiveness petition is the pivot around which the whole prayer matters and the Christian life centers. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7), Jesus shared “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”The word 'forgiveness' written in sand

Travel with me to the beginning of this process. If someone in the Church sins against you, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” The Eighth Commandment as we number them is about not bearing false witness. Luther went so far as to say that if we tell the truth about someone for malicious reasons, we are violating this commandment. Bearing false witness implies blabbing about someone else all over the place. The prescription in Matthew 18 begins with keeping the issue, whatever the sin is, contained. But it is more: “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” The purpose is not to judge the other but to hopefully embrace the other, to hold again the other in positive regard.

If that does not work, “take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This mandate of two or three and not just one other witness is found in Deuteronomy 19:15 and thus has biblical precedent. Once again the purpose is to reconcile and restore the relationship and not to judge. The others are to witness to your behavior and not just to confirm the intransigence of the perpetrator.

If that does not work, “tell it to the church.” Only after several truly righteous attempts to straighten out the mess does it become potentially a public embarrassment and sanction. If even that does not work, then the person is to be shamed and shunned.

As antiquated as this process may seem and as abused throughout history as it has been, there are very practical advantages, especially to the forgiver whether the forgivee is moved to acknowledgment or not.

My favorite account in the Hebrew scriptures is the story of Joseph which takes up a significant amount of biblical space, Genesis 37-50. Joseph was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery. They were forced to come to Egypt to obtain grain due to a drought in Palestine 25 years later. They did not recognize Joseph and after Joseph’s own ruse — holding the youngest brother Benjamin responsible for a theft — he revealed himself to them. They all moved to Egypt, where the Hebrews would spend 435 years. Seventeen years after moving to Egypt, their father Jacob died. The brothers freaked out, believing now the axe of Joseph’s wrath was surely going to fall. What Joseph said to them in Genesis 50:15-21 is as beautiful as it gets. The deepest weeping comes from the forgiver. The brothers did not get their due! They had spent 42 years in guilt, shame and fear.

This is often true of anyone who has been in some way violated and yet has an opportunity to forgive. The one who forgives or is willing to forgive even if the other refuses to accept it, is free of the burden. When as Christians we are in a constant state of being forgiven and forgiving, we are far freer to be about the more positive aspects and privileges of our faith. Forgive us AS we forgive!

There is more. First of all, you do not have to and cannot forgive someone who sinned against someone else. As the Fallwell scandal has surfaced, Becki has been quoted as saying: “I wish Christians were as forgiving as Christ.” She didn’t violate or harm me. Perhaps the students, faculty and administration at Liberty University need to forgive her and her husband but not me. I cannot forgive someone for murdering another. It is noticeable how many of those affected by such a crime, are freed of a lifetime of anger and anxiety when they forgive the perpetrator even if they also get justice in imprisonment.

Secondly, no Christian community including St. Mark’s can or will survive the presence of animus and the absence of forgiveness in its midst. Jesus, still in the Sermon on the Mount says: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go, be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23, 24) This is often associated with Holy Communion. It is first “Holy” because the meal was established by Christ. It is also “common unity” with those partaking with you. You might have heard someone say along the way, at the altar, Holy Communion is between me and God. No it isn’t! God is NOT present when chronic conflict or animosity exists between God’s people. God affirms the reality of His people: if they are forgiving, so is He; if they are not, neither is He!

I believe that we need steady reminders of the power and absolute necessity of forgiving grace all over the place within Christian community. Without it, there is not just something missing, but someone missing. Without God we lose! With God we forgive and win!

Today’s message: Paul’s instructions for Christians

Interim Pastor David Mueller

In today’s prerecorded worship service, Interim Pastor David Mueller explores Paul’s instructions to Christian believers and urges us to consider the implications for our lives and our community.

“Be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers.” Who of us would argue against any of that litany of goodness? Who would not want to be a member of a family like this?

Also participating in today’s service are John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, and Brian Schmidt, worship assistant. This week’s virtual choir includes Dave Herrmann, Allen and Myrna Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell, Paige Stebner and Teresa Stebner.

Today’s prerecorded service may be the last as St. Mark’s aims to reopen on Sunday, Sept. 6, with the doors opening at 9:45 a.m. The service will also be streamed live online. More details to come. Be sure to check out the “reopening” video to see how things will work.

You can access today’s service below using the link to our YouTube channel. The text of Pastor Mueller’s sermon is also included here.

“What is the Point?” (Romans 12:9-21)
Interim Pastor David E. Mueller

I confess that Romans 12:9-21, today’s appointed second lesson, is one of my favorite sections in the Christian Scriptures. This is not because I believe myself to be an example of its fulfillment. It simply challenges me in a major way.

Leviticus 19 is known as “The Holiness Code” for the Hebrew people. It is a summary of sorts of the other 600 or so laws commanded in the Pentateuch. We would most likely agree with most of it with a few exceptions like: “Nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials,” or “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” That tattoo prohibition would get a whole lot of folk in trouble now.

Romans 12:9-21 in a similar way summarizes expected behavior of Christian believers. It might be an interesting exercise for each of us to look over these prescriptions to see if there are any we think are outdated, incredibly difficult to perform, or not of interest to us. Let’s look together today, mindful that almost any passage herein is a sermon or a study on its own.

We pray: Lord God, gracious and merciful Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, empower us by the Holy Spirit to understand Your Word for us written by Your servant St. Paul, and by the same Spirit lead us to living out these precious instructions for Your faithful people. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

One of my three grandsons came to me about six years ago and asked me if I would pick his Confirmation verse. I recommended Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.” He liked it!

We begin with this verse. Sometimes, it is not possible; that must be said. There are many people in the world who do not want to live in peace and will not accept peace if offered to them. They seem to be so accustomed to violence or conflict that they do not know how to live without it. That is a real shame but it can be true in families, in communities, in countries, and most unfortunately in churches. The end of the verse stands, however, that there are no exceptions. If possible, live peaceably with ALL!

At the beginning of this portion of Romans, Paul writes: “Let love be genuine!” Here is “agape” again, unconditional love, which exists in the subject and requires nothing of the object. It is to exist in us authentically whether others accept it or not. It is impossible to fake agape. It is the love with which God loves us and the love we are expected to offer others, even if our expressions of it are less than perfect; only God’s love is without blemish.

It starts within the Christian community: “Love one another with mutual affection.” Here the word for love changes to “phileo,” familial love. Being in a relationship with each other of unconditional love allows familial love to develop. Just look at what also follows in a flowing and growing way: “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers.” Who of us would argue against any of that litany of goodness? Who would not want to be a member of a family like this?

There is still more. “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” Like I said previously, there is a sermon or a truly lengthy study in each of these expressions. But guess what? None of it will work, certainly not without love but also not without discernment. I believe this may be more necessary these days than ever.

“Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” The Greek for devil is “diabolos,” meaning “deceiver.” Distinguishing between good and evil is difficult to say the least. Evil is sometimes obvious, but more often is masked, presenting itself as good, valuable, worthwhile, etc. One gets sucked in and in short order is captured with no escape. Is it any wonder that we are to pray: “Deliver us from evil?”

When one considers feeding, giving drink and expressing care toward enemies, which means by implication that helping friends is already happening, then the absence of these expressions toward friends and enemies alike is at best wrong and at worst evil! Do not repay evil for evil; it never helps! If we have discerned what is evil and hated it, and are holding fast, “cleaving” to good, that is, “what is noble in the sight of all,” then we are being God’s and not the devil’s servants.

One can take almost any modern invention or technological capacity and use it for the good of others and not just self; or, the same can be used for evil and the detriment of all. Social media is shown to be quite detrimental to teens who overuse it, and to adults who seek political truth and are led into all kinds of falsehoods and half-truths. We must learn as Christians to discern, to scrutinize from a Godly perspective what is good and true and what is evil and wrong.

We might just be served by looking at current reality and asking whether it is good or evil. It can be as simple as that! Is it good or evil that a black man was shot in the back seven times by the police? Are almost 180,000 deaths due to COVID good or evil? Is political division filled with animus good or evil? Is a major evangelical figure preaching family values and living opposite good or evil? The litany could continue ad infinitum. Ask the question of issues concerning you.

At the same time, ask of yourselves: are we rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep? The matter invites intimacy and genuine empathy. Are you overcome by evil or overcoming evil with good? The reason I appreciate this section of Scripture is — as stated — not because I am good at it but am challenged by it. I am challenged by this biblical assessment and not some other.

Peter, in the Gospel for today, took physical as well as spiritual issue with Jesus having to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Ironically, this is immediately after Peter gave his simple confession that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Interestingly, we have learned long ago to refer to the day on which the suffering and dying took place as “Good” and not “Evil” Friday. Let that sink in.

A hymn which comes to mind, a favorite of mine, is “Lift High the Cross, the Love of Christ Proclaim.” It was written in England by George Kitchin in 1887, but was not published in America until 1974. At first wash, we, like Peter, may have resistance about Jesus having to suffer and die. What a way for God to go! Yet it is the love of Christ that is proclaimed on it.

The Cross of Christ is both what covers our sins of falling short of God’s glory and motivates us to faithfully live into Scriptural mandates to love and care ourselves. In this, Christ’s suffering and death is good and not evil.

As in any era, we Christians have some significant discerning to do!

Amen.

Today’s message: ‘Who do you say that I am?’

The Rev. Barbara Melosh

There is much to love about our prerecorded worship service today, including a guest message from the Rev. Barbara Melosh, a visit with Interim Pastor David Mueller’s menagerie, wonderful music and Scriptures.

We also have important news about our reopening day (September 6!) and a new video — starring our own Teresa Stebner and Nancy Wilkerson and produced by John Lasher, director of music and worship arts — that demonstrates the procedures that will be in place to protect the safety of all.

Also participating in today’s service are Beth Miller, worship assistant, this week’s virtual choir — Dave Herrmann, Allen and Myrna Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell and Teresa Stebner — and soloist Arden Shindel.

Our guest speaker, the Rev. Barbara Melosh, is a second-career pastor, ordained in 2005 after a teaching career (English and history) spent mostly at George Mason University. Her first call was to a small church in Baltimore city, a story told in her 2018 book “Loving and Leaving a Church: A Pastor’s Journey.”

Since her retirement in 2014 she has served as interim pastor at Grace in Hockessin, St. Stephen’s in Wilmington and Hope in New Castle. She is dean of the Delaware-Maryland Synod’s Delmarva North and Delmarva South conferences, convening colleagues for Bible study, shared ministry and mutual support.

You can access the prerecorded worship service on our YouTube channel through the link here and find the text of Pastor Melosh’s message below, too.

“Who do you say that I am?”

The Rev. Barbara Melosh

 

This question marks a turning point in the gospel of Matthew, and in the life of Jesus. It’s spoken as Jesus’ ministry is growing at a phenomenal rate—from a few people gathered from almost accidental encounters, called from their boats or, in the case of Matthew, called from their jobs as tax collectors, and now spreading like wildfire, with huge crowds that are following Jesus everywhere.

The carpenter from Nazareth has become the miracle worker of Galilee. He’s hosted a picnic for more than 5,000, out of just a few loaves and fishes, and a few days later, a replay — feeding 4,000 men, plus women and children.

Everybody’s talking about him, and Jesus turns to his disciples to check out the buzz.

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples give their briefing. “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

So they report that some see Jesus as part of a rogue movement, those followers of the strange wilderness prophet John the Baptist. Others place him in the long line of God’s prophets known in Hebrew scripture, from Elijah to Jeremiah.

Jesus goes on, “But who do you say that I am?”

And then Peter takes a breathtaking leap. Others have called him a prophet, many have called him “Lord” — a title of honor, used for God but also for people in positions of power. But for the first time, Peter calls him Messiah — the anointed one, the long-awaited savior foretold in Hebrew scripture. “Messiah” is a Hebrew word, and in Greek that word is “Christos” — Christ. And “Son of the living God.”

A bold proclamation, pronounced defiantly at a site that the gospel’s first hearers would have recognized. The story takes place at Caesarea Philippi, located 20-some miles from the sea of Galilee, part of the foothills of Mount Hermon. It contains a massive rock face that is still there today.Hermon Springs

That rock face held religious and political significance. It had been a place for the worship of the ancient god Ba’al, god of the storm. Then it was a place sacred to the worship of Pan, the Greek god of wildness, woods, and sexuality. And then, in the time of Jesus, the site had become a monument to the conquest of the region by Rome. Herod built a temple there to Caesar — and so for Jews, this site was a bitter reminder of of the triumph of Roman power.

Peter called Jesus “Son of the living God.” That was treason. “Son of God” was a title reserved for the emperor, wielding power by divine right.

“Messiah, Son of God.” Those same words got Jesus killed. Religious leaders brought him to trial. At the turning point, the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus replied, “ ‘You have said so. But I tell you from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (Matt 26:64)

That answer sent him to the cross.

Right after Peter calls him “Messiah, son of the living God,” Jesus tells the disciples, for the first time, what will happen to him. That he will suffer, be killed and rise again.

“Who do you say that I am?”

In Jesus’ own day, there were many answers to that question. His disciples called him Teacher, Rabbi. His opponents called him a blasphemer, a heretic. His critics called him a glutton and a drunkard.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Christians have had many answers to that question.

    • Prince of Peace; for some Christians to be a Christian is to be a pacifist, standing in opposition to all wars.
    • Mother — maybe you never thought of that one, but there is a medieval saint whose ecstatic visions of Jesus revealed him as a nursing mother, milk coming from his breasts.
    • Good Shepherd, the one who cares for his sheep and will stop at nothing to find the one who is lost.
    • Defender of the weak, advocate for the most vulnerable.
    • Liberator, come to set us free.
    • Healer of our every ill.
    • Mighty Counselor.
    • Judge of the nations.
    • Ethical teacher and example.
    • Comforter.
    • Lover.
    • Friend.

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s a question that takes us to our foundation. For three centuries, Christians struggled and fought and sometimes killed one another to work out an answer they could agree on and that’s what the creeds are — the church’s effort to say who Jesus is, and how Jesus can be God for people who worship one God, not three; but one God who IS three.

Before the creeds we use got written, early Christians used a shorter one in their worship. “Who do you say that I am?” Their answer was the three-word creed, “Jesus is Lord.”

Jesus is Lord. It’s still a good answer. Jesus is Lord, calling us to turn away from all our own false gods — money, success, power, security, self-improvement, even religion itself. Not Donald Trump. Not Joe Biden. Not even Anthony Fauci!

“Who do you say that I am?”

Over the centuries there have been many answers to that question, just as there are today. But Peter’s answer gets down to solid rock. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ. “Son of the living God”—not the gods of pagan worship, not the idols of our own day, not a God who made the world and then left us to work out the mess we’ve made of it; but the Son of the living God.

Where is that God at work in this time of pandemic, when we are separated from one another; worn thin with pandemic protocols; frustrated and angry and fearful about what is happening to our country?

That God meets us at the cross. The place where we come face to face with who we are — and who God is. The place we come to when we get all the way down to rock bottom, to stand again on solid rock.

Thanks be to God.

Today’s message: ‘God’s beautiful tenacity’

Rose blooming on a wire fence

When everything seems shaky, it is good to remember the steadfast love of the Lord — and that is the message Interim Pastor David Mueller brings today in our prerecorded worship service.

Join us for this sermon, Scripture readings, prayers and special music during this time of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Our building remains closed for a while longer, but our ministries and worship continue.

In addition to Pastor Mueller, the service is led by John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, and Jeannine Herrmann, worship assistant. Also participating is this week’s virtual choir, including: Dave Herrmann, Allen Kirk, Myrna Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell and Teresa Stebner.

The service also features a solo by John Lasher, singing a new setting of the Lord’s Prayer that he composed.

You can access our prerecorded service using the YouTube link below. The text of Pastor Mueller’s message is also available below.

 

“God’s Beautiful Tenacity!” (Romans 10:1-2a, 29-32)

Interim Pastor David E. Mueller

In the midst of any personal difficulties or needs of any kind as well as in the midst of difficulties or needs we are all experiencing, it is essential that we hold tight to the promises of God. We must acknowledge and learn to appreciate that God will fulfill his promises in his own way and at his own time. God is our Heavenly Father.

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” (Matthew 7:9-11)

The relationship which has been established between God and a person or persons allows us to trust God, to believe God has our best interests in mind and heart, and will in his time and way, act. Try to relax and be patient.

“Commit your way to the Lord; trust him, and he will act…. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” (Psalm 37:5 & 7a) As shared a few weeks ago, when speaking of prayer, based on Romans 8, we read in verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good, for those who love God….”

It may take a good while, but the good will come. In the meantime, don’t stop loving God!

A word that has significance in both Testaments is “covenant.” There is the “Noatic” covenant in which God promised never again to destroy the earth with a flood. There is the “Abramic” covenant in which God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations. There is the “Davidic” covenant and others, each having God’s assurance of one promise or another.

In our Baptisms, God calls us by name, makes us his own in Jesus Christ and promises never to leave nor to forsake us. Baptism is such a wonderfully simple act with the basic substance of water and the spiritual promise of God’s Word. It is a sad reality that so many of the Baptized forget or forsake that rebirth.

Let’s pray: Lord, renew us in our appreciation of and belief in your promises, sealed in the blood of Jesus, serviced in the power of the Holy Spirit. Forgive us for in any way treating lightly or casually this eternal hope. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

On what basis are you a Christian? Hopefully we all know it is not on the basis of our imperfect behavior. Hopefully we all celebrate that becoming and remaining a Christian is purely on account of God’s amazing grace. Hopefully deep within our hearts, we have faith — that is, confidence —in God precisely because of Jesus.

On what basis was an Israelite an Israelite? Did a bunch of tribal people out of the blue in the desert one day decide to call upon God to save them? Hardly! God decided to call them and mold them into His chosen people, as resistant, hesitant and intransigent as they tended to be all along the way. The “covenant” was sealed for the male children in the act of circumcision. The male children were only 8 days old, not quite yet of an age of personal decision. God decided!

Somewhere along the line, did God decide to forsake his promises to the Israelites, later, the Jews? Had God finally had it with them, after sending prophet after prophet and blessing after blessing? Perhaps it was not until most of them rejected Jesus as the Messiah? Unbelievably, there are those who count the Holocaust as punishment for killing the Christ. Articulating this nauseates me.

The point is that we human beings — Jews and Gentiles alike — forsake our part of the covenant God has in some form or another made with us, but God never forsakes his part. If God does, we are all in very deep trouble.

Romans 11:29: “FOR THE GIFTS AND THE CALL OF GOD ARE IRREVOCABLE.”

Earlier, before writing this incredible statement, Paul about his Israelite family wrote this: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” (11:2)

If God is given to breaking promises, what do we have left in our relationship with God? If God had finally had it with the Jews for whatever reason, what is to keep God from forsaking us when we so consistently fail in doing our part?

When I read the Hebrew Scriptures, I am invariably struck by the vivid contrast between the unfaithful behavior of the Jews and the constant grace of God.

Listen to Isaiah (63:7): “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”

Listen to David the Psalmist (92:1-2): “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing your praises, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning and your faithfulness by night.” There are dozens of Psalm verses which say the same.

Listen to Jeremiah in Lamentations, a book seldom quoted (3:22): “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.”

In Romans 11:30-31, Paul makes a fascinating claim, namely, that the disobedience of the Jews occasions the broadening of God’s mercy to include us. It is as if to say that had the Jews done their righteous and obedient part, we might not have gained access to God’s grace, mercy and love.

Anyone, however, Jew or Gentile, then or now or in between, who takes God’s grace and twists, abuses or uses it as an excuse to behave as we please has not known the depth, breadth and height of God’s grace to begin with. Just because God is as God is, that is, tenacious in his love of humanity, does not give humanity an excuse to hate, hurt and harm others because we will be forgiven anyway.

At the same time, when we fail and fall short of God’s glory, what we trust is not our capacity to make amends, but God’s promise to forgive in Christ. In my ministry, there have been times when the only resource I had was God’s grace toward me and toward whoever I was ministering to, especially in the midst of great tragedy or grievous sin. God is so gracious, tenacious, loving, merciful and good that what we can and must do is depend upon God and rejoice in His Name.

Especially in our day, there remains a profound issue which is extremely important to me: the condition and fate of the Palestinian people. Just as Paul did not trade hates when he became a Christian, so also I need not cross borders and take a side as I have become committed to justice for the Palestinian people. Technically, the Delaware Churches for

Signpost in Israel

Middle Eastern Peace and its national counterpart, stand as neutral in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I participate in and support that organization.

There are all sorts and kinds of tensions and conflicts the world over, at least 40 skirmishes going on at any given time. Some are relatively minor, others are major and deadly. None is seemingly as complex and significant as in Israel.

It tends to be that as things go in the Middle East, so goes the world. I have often said that when someone in Israel/Palestine eats garlic, the world burps. It is a geopolitical nightmare, for which there is no easy solution.

I once heard in a national Jewish-Christian conference from a Jewish scholar and rabbi that if Jews, here and over there, disagree, sometimes profoundly, about the policies of the government of Israel, we Americans and others are free to disagree as well. It would be difficult to avoid calling Israeli policies toward the Palestinian people as anything other than oppressive. While I have political concerns herein, there is an even greater issue for me.

The Christian population between 1948 and the establishment of the modern state of Israel and the present has nose-dived from 17% to less than 1%. I genuinely and passionately believe that there must remain as strong a Christian witness there as anywhere else on earth.

Mrs. Mueller and I have two goddaughters there, who with their parents are Arab Israelis, that is, Arab citizens in the Jewish State. They matter to us as do other Palestinians we know and care about, even as we know and care about Jews there as well.

I could go on and on about this, but allow me to finish by suggesting that a resolution to this problem is as “God-sized” an issue as any other on earth. If you believe that, then please with me remember the Jews and Palestinians in your prayers, pay attention to our own American political positions toward peace there, and allow the Lord to use you in whatever way as agents of peace. That is, I so very strongly believe, as Jesus would have it. Amen.

Today’s message: ‘Who will proclaim him?’

Microphone and digital audio image

We have come through major storms this week in the Delaware area and they arrive in the midst of a year of upheaval, with losses and griefs on so many levels.

It’s important to remember that Jesus has Good News for us all. But is it getting through — to us and to others? Interim Pastor David Mueller talks about this in today’s sermon “Who Will Proclaim Him?”

Join us again for a prerecorded worship service, which allows us to gather virtually during this time of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic when our building remains closed. Thanks to John Lasher, director of music and worship, for preparing these videos — especially this week when he was faced with loss of power and other storm-related challenges.

Also participating today are Brian Schmidt, worship assistant, and this week’s virtual choir: Dave Herrmann, Allen Kirk, Myrna Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell, Paige Stebner and Teresa Stebner. Allen Kirk brings special music.

You can access our prerecorded service using the YouTube link below. The text of Pastor Mueller’s message is also available below.

“Who will Proclaim Him?” (Romans 10:5-15)

Interim Pastor David Mueller

If one were to get down to basics and seek the very heart of Lutheran teaching, what I believe we would find is the extreme importance of the proper distinction between Law and Gospel. The Law, we believe, instructs us as what to do and not to do. We also believe that we fail, sometimes miserably, to do the right and avoid the wrong. The Gospel, we believe, is about what God has done in Christ, and invites us to believe in Christ and the forgiveness of our sin.

In our second lesson, Paul wrote: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Paul went on to assure his readers: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” The only qualification remaining is that we grasp — we don’t just believe — that Jesus existed and did what we are told about him, but that we take him to heart, literally inside of ourselves, resulting in confidence.

The Reformation produced three “solas” or “only:” sola scriptura, sola gratia and sola fide. We do not get our truths from vivid imaginations but from Scripture, where we learn that we are saved only by God’s grace, which we apply to ourselves only by faith. Ideally, we cherish and live by these solas.

A question we must go on to address is once saved by grace through faith, what does the Law mean to us? The Law is what David the Psalmist invites us to meditate upon day and night (Psalm 1:2). The Law is that basic guidance we learn to rely on living in keeping with God’s purpose. We learn to keep — not for fear of punishment, not in order to obtain God’s favor, which we already have in Christ, not to impress people around us with how righteous we are, but with joy to behave as God’s redeemed people.

“Love God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself” remains a summary of the commandments or Law; it is the “Great Commandment.” We must never use our freedom in Christ as license to do whatever we please, but what pleases God and helps rather than hurts others.

In my travels in circles where Christians and Jews are learning to appreciate rather than denigrate each other, one of the phrases or practical statements of belief on the Jewish side is “deeds and not creeds.”

If we Christians confess our creeds but do not follow up with deeds, we are not only violating our calling, but presenting ourselves hypocritically to others. Please understand that I cannot speak for Jews as to what the equivalent of creeds may be for them. I must speak for Christians, not only about what we believe but about what our beliefs invite us to do. I know without doubt that our faith teaches us nowhere (in Scripture) to hate Jews or for that matter anyone else. It is never: Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, love yourself and hate your neighbor.

I get idealistic at times or perhaps guilty of very high expectations of myself and other Christians when especially it comes to fulfilling our mandate to love all. I must say at this point that genuinely loving others, especially unlovable others, is as hard as it gets. It is utterly impossible for us to conjure up enough stuff within ourselves to pull off “in-spite-of” unconditional love, so here again we depend upon, have faith in and seek empowerment from God’s Holy Spirit.

No one can ever in this life get to the point of saying, “I made it; I am fully righteous, I do everything I am supposed to do and do it well, I have no further growing to do. If only the rest of the world is like me.” We live in a constant state of grace, that is, in falling short of God’s glory but having still his love and forgiveness.Interim Pastor David Mueller

Now here is the real problem: if we are not in constant relationship and communication with God, we very quickly slip into bad habits, former faults, secret sins and spiritual malnourishment. I have real concerns for people, young and old, who have left the Church. What are they feeding on?

As we feed on God’s will and word both in our private and corporate lives, as we gather for worship together (again sometime soon we hope), our faith remains and our capacity to care about others grows. What about those no longer among us?

I am at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church as Interim Pastor for now. As all of you know, I am far from perfect, make mistakes, get tired, wish I could do more and the like. Thank God I am a “temporary shepherd.” You need a new, different and younger pastor. WHO will proclaim Jesus among you? WHEN will she or he be named, installed and able and willing to minister with you?

There is much to do and the doing of it effectively is far more difficult and complex than it used to be. People are no longer flocking to churches. Going out after them must be done with great sensitivity and sincere love and care.

Support and encouragement for the now “mystery pastor” will be absolutely essential, ministering WITH the person is what will need to occur if growth in depth of existing members and breadth of new members is to happen. Actually, we must all consider ourselves not just members but disciples-in-process.

“How are they to call on one [Jesus] in whom they have not believed?” All the people out there are the new mission field, must hear the name and possibly come to believe in Jesus.

“How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” One of the real issues these days, unlike times past, is that so many people once knew and loved the name of Jesus but opted to hear of him no more. New approaches, new but faithful language, new creative ways of touching the world around us must be found, but always while speaking the name “Jesus.”

“How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” Your Pastor will minister with you, proclaiming the good news to you and through you. The proclaiming of the Pastor must result in the proclaiming of the people.

“How are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” Dear Lord, real and righteous God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, send soon to us your choice of our new shepherd. Use us in this meantime to prayerfully consider all that goes into finding and welcoming a new pastor and knowing in faith who it is that You wish for us. Whoever she or he is, may we know and celebrate “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.”

Amen.

Today’s message: ‘What about the Jews?’

Jerusalem, Israel
The photograph above shows a view of Jerusalem, a city of pivotal significance for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. In today’s prerecorded worship service, Interim Pastor David Mueller’s message — “What About the Jews?” — reminds us of the Jewish roots of our Christian faith and challenges us to “enrich and correct our beliefs and practices toward Jews.”
“It may seem silly to raise this, but contrary to the suspicion of some, Jesus was not a German or Scandinavian Lutheran, not even a Caucasian but probably a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew,” he says.
Join us for our prerecorded worship service, led by Pastor Mueller, John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, and Worship Assistant Judy Stadler. Also participating are this week’s virtual choir — Allen and Myrna Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols and Cheryl Powell — and soloist Dave Herrmann.
The link to our YouTube channel is below, along with the text of Pastor Mueller’s sermon.

“What About the Jews?” (Romans 9:1-5)

David E. Mueller, Interim Pastor

“Bloom where you are planted” was an expression of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the Summer of 1977, I was called to Concordia Lutheran Church in Wilmington to serve as assistant pastor and executive director of CONTACT Wilmington, the 24-hour crisis intervention hotline founded by Concordia. I followed Carl Sachtleben, who would later become pastor at St. Mark’s.

CONTACT had the support and involvement of all sorts and kinds of people of faith, who I came quickly to respect and honor. Concordia’s building in those days was located at Washington and Lea, next to the Wilmington Music School on the one side and Congregation Beth Emeth on the other. While Concordia and the Music School shared spaces and had a good working relationship, there was no relationship with Beth Emeth. But I had been planted there, so I needed in time to do some blooming. Thankfully, their then-young assistant rabbi was also interested in blooming. To put a long and really special story short, Rabbi Peter Grumbacher and Pastor David Mueller became close friends and colleagues, both of us having accepted senior positions in our respective religious institutions.

Pastor David Mueller, the Rev. Dr. Kamal Farah and Rabbi Peter Grumbacher
Interim Pastor David Mueller (left) with the Rev. Dr. Kamal Farah and Rabbi Peter Grumbacher during a 2018 visit to The Galilee.

This relationship and its various expressions gave me all kinds of opportunities to engage Jews on pastoral and reciprocal levels, including involvement in the Delaware Chapter of The National Conference of Christians and Jews, a half dozen national Jewish-Christian conferences, dialogue experiences within both congregations and three jointly led pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

Especially these days but beginning earlier, certain “Christian” groups on the one hand have held up the Jews as having a special place in the heart of God. On the other hand, some of them as well as most other Christians have held the Jews responsible for the killing of Christ, giving much of Christian history an embedded anti-Semitism and all too often, violent treatment, the obvious and tragic worst of which was the Holocaust.

In our day, Christians have a chance to enrich as well as correct our beliefs and practices toward Jews.

The ninth to 11th chapters of Paul’s letter to the Christians of Rome offers us biblical assistance in our renewed appreciation of our Jewish roots. We encounter a portion of his heart-felt issues beginning today in Romans 9:1-5.

Historically, the statement by a relative few in Matthew 27:25 — “His blood be on us and on our children” — has been cited as an excuse. Too many “Christians” have used this passage and other issues to hold all of Judaism then and now accountable for the death of Christ. To blame a whole people for the guilt of a few is hardly the righteous thing to do. In a real way, it is not surprising that Jews have had negative feelings about Christians. Besides, Christian theology holds that all people, including us, are responsible for the death of Christ.

Paul goes a completely different and a very passionate direction. His introductory statement here emphasizes this: “I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart…” about “my own people.” (Romans 9:1)

A great deal of study has been done on Paul’s history and beliefs. He was of the tribe of Benjamin and had been a Pharisee, a militant hater of Christians, prior to his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. He came out of his conversion not exchanging hatreds, but still cherishing his Jewish roots. His sentiment for “my kindred according to the flesh” was deeply rooted and authentic.

As an aside here but a pertinent one, on a trip to the Holy Land decades ago, I walked into the Children’s Museum at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Center in Jerusalem, where the names of the million children slaughtered are softly and reverently read at a pace that takes nearly a year. The name I heard when I made my initial few steps was “Rosa Rockenstein.” My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was “Emma Rockenstein.” I knew that I am a quarter Jewish “according to the flesh,” but it really hit home in a powerful way that day.

Listen to Paul when he committedly proclaims, “They are Israelites and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises.” He leaves little, if anything, out here. It is all theirs. Everything significant in the will of God is theirs. We Christians are secondary, “grafted in” later. The Jews are the true and first children of God and we are adopted ones.

I was the appointed Lutheran delegate at a Jewish-Christian workshop held in Baltimore decades ago. Curiously, I was appointed by then Bishop Nafke of the Delaware-Maryland Synod. Even though I was in the Missouri Synod in those days, he knew of and trusted my involvement with and commitment to Jewish-Christian relationships.

At the conference, a Jewish historian, whose name escapes me, began his words to us by stating: “We don’t need you Christians! You are just another Jewish heresy, but you Christians need us because you came from us and your history is grounded in our history.” Those words enriched and did not disturb me because in a real sense it is true. Paul knew it back then and we need to know it now.

“According to the flesh, comes the Messiah.” (9:5) It may seem silly to raise this, but contrary to the suspicion of some, Jesus was not a German or Scandinavian Lutheran, not even a Caucasian but probably a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew.

About any of this there can be no question. Clearly, if we stick to Jesus as a Jew, following and at times elaborating Jewish law and teachings, Jews and Christians have much in common.

Paul, however, refers to Jesus as the Messiah (savior, anointed one). Jews do not believe that! There are plenty of others, including Muslims, who have few issues with Jesus but many with “The Christ!” Who are we — who have we been — to take such violent issue with the very people of Jesus?

Our appointed second lessons for the next few weeks are from Romans 9-11 and we will learn much more about the Jews and their relationship with Christians according to Paul. Hopefully, each and all of us can learn to appreciate more fully the chosen and covenant people of God from whom came the Christ we believe and find life in, so that with Jews and all others we are agents of life and love rather than death and hate. Whatever questions remain in us about the Jews, perhaps we can trust that they remain in the heart of God.

In our mid-week experience this coming Wednesday, I will have a very special guest: Rabbi Peter Grumbacher. I hope you can join us as we chat about our relationship and the relationship between our respective families of faith.

Today’s Message: How to Pray

Hands folded in prayer

If you could talk with your Creator — would you keep that appointment? What if you knew the Holy Spirit was interceding on your behalf? How do you talk with God anyway?

Interim Pastor David Mueller looks at prayer in his message today, discussing what it is and also what it isn’t.

Join us for our prerecorded worship service, using the link to our YouTube channel below, which goes “live” at 10 a.m. Sunday. You will also find the text of Pastor Mueller’s sermon below.

Also participating in today’s service are Barbara Sheridan, our worship assistant, and John Lasher, director of music and worship arts.

This week’s virtual choir includes: Dave Herrmann, Allen Kirk, Myrna Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, Fred Meckley, Jan Meckley, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell, Paige Stebner and Teresa Stebner.

“How to Pray” (Romans 8:26-39)

Interim Pastor David E. Mueller

I must admit to having my spirit tested these days as much as any time in recent memory. I like to think of myself as a happy-go-lucky sort of person, who tends to be positive most of the time. I can get depressed, but usually no longer than a day or two. Generally I am happy with myself and am particularly secure as a believing Christian.

The forces attacking us all these days, however, are heavy in the extreme, far too heavy to bear with our typical resources spiritual, emotional, and physical. There is profound political division within our nation, a deadly virus and — at least for now — hotter and muggier than most of us enjoy.

Nothing that I can name then is more important, especially right now, than that we pray without ceasing — that is, regularly. What does that mean? How does it look? What might it accomplish? Please revisit that very special Christian privilege, but before we begin to talk and learn about prayer, let us pray!

Dear Lord, we are being humbled these days and that might just be the greatest benefit of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Allow us to be emptied, forgiven and relieved of all false senses of security. Fill us anew with your love and grace and teach us anew how to pray. In Jesus’ Name, we say, Amen!

Clearly Paul was writing to relatively new Christians in Rome when he shared: “… we do not know how to pray as we ought….” Prayer is such a profoundly beautiful exercise, however, that we might think of ourselves as new Christians. Romans 8 is a jam-packed chapter, but — most important — about prayer.

In Matthew 6:5, we learn what praying is not: “the heaping up of empty phrases … many words.” Also, prayer is not a public but an intimately private matter: “Go into your room and shut the door….” James the Apostle in his letter wrote: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” (4:3) 

There is another even more significant revelation about prayer in all four Gospels.

I will stick with Matthew in 26:36-46. There are several extremely revealing truths within this text.

The Last Supper was finished and Jesus went to Gethsemane to pray. In his first petition, he prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (26:39).

The next petition shows a subtle but real change: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (26:42)

In his last petition we are told he “prayed for the third time, saying the same words.”(26:44)

We may recall that between each of these petitions, he found his disciples taking a nap.

Most significant, however, is what Jesus said following prayer: “Get up, let us be going, my betrayer is at hand.” (26:46) He was ready to face his reality!

The sign on your kitchen wall or on a bumper sticker piously proclaims: “Prayer changes things!”

The reason I am not so sure about that is that it did not work that way for Jesus. His circumstances changed not; he went to the cross.

Often our prayers ask God to change everything and everyone around us but not us, when all too often what needs to change is us. We may need to face our reality and not escape it!

The pleasures James reports we pray for are not all bad. Praying for family, friends, community, country and the like seem so benign. But praying for any of those can often require an empowerment of us so that we might become more significant agents in the family’s or country’s well-being.

And there is more. Paul in Romans 8 makes a definite connection between the Holy Spirit and prayer. As I have shared several times previously, the Greek word “pneuma” can mean spirit, breath, wind. This time around, the “breath” helps us in our weakness … with “sighs too deep for words.” The “breath,” writes Paul: “… intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

If we allow this biblical truth to set with us and sink deeply into our hearts and minds, what we get is that prayer is spiritual breathing, that is, inhaling the word and will of God and exhaling his praise. When that happens, we are fully alive; when it does not, we are not spiritually alive. So breathe, folks, that beautiful and powerful fresh and clean air of the “Holy Breath.”

So far then we are to admit that when it comes to prayer we do not know what we are doing. We offer many words and so many of those words are about changing everything and everyone around us but not ourselves.

When we pray appropriately, we are breathing the breath of God. The promise which flows from this living exercise is that “… all things work together for good for those who love God.” (8:28)

The primary problem I have and share with many if not most of you is timing. God’s promises are seldom fulfilled immediately. We may have to wait a while or a whale of a long time.

What happens in this at times painful meantime is that we are promised that nothing … NOTHING … NOTHING we can name “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The significance of this in a practical way cannot be overstated. I belong to God in Jesus Christ. I have been called by name, made his own and have God’s promise never to leave nor to forsake me!

So, I or a loved one having a significant medical issue is among all other things an opportunity for me to remember joyfully that I belong to Christ Jesus. That can never mean that I sit back and lend no support to the medical professionals. It never means that in any way I fail to be supportive of the loved one. I still do everything reasonable and potentially helpful that I can, but first and foremost I believe that whatever “this” is cannot separate me from the love of God.

If one loses a job, secular and spiritual resources will tell you that whining and complaining and being dragged down won’t help, but remembering who you are in Christ Jesus can never hurt you in your pursuit of another job!

Given the current shape of things political, the current attack of things viral, whatever else is happening or not in your personal life, breathe easy, breathe in the word, will and wonder of God and breathe out his praise and your faith in his promises. That is exactly what prayer is and if it changes anything for sure, it will change you and you will love the change because it will place you in the best possible position and condition to be an agent of positive change in others.

Amen.

Have you loved a weed today?

Wheat field

If you’ve been gardening during this time of Coronavirus pandemic, you may have strong feelings about weeds these days. Interim Pastor David Mueller has a weed-related challenge for us in his message today.

Join us as we worship by way of a prerecorded video, produced by our Director of Music and Worship Arts, John Lasher, who has worked with Pastor to provide these online services each week.

Also participating today are Cheryl Powell, worship assistant and soloist, and this week’s Virtual Choir: Allen Kirk, Myrna Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, Fred Meckley, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell and Teresa Stebner.

The link below will take you to the video on our YouTube channel. The video goes “live” at 10 a.m. The text of Pastor Mueller’s sermon  is also included below.

“Have You Loved a Weed Today?” (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) 

Interim Pastor David E. Mueller

In a class at Princeton years ago, a professor claimed that many parables of Jesus were intentionally designed to confuse his listeners. Confusion is a state of affairs most people cannot tolerate, which compels them to work their way out of the confusion, to think through all angles until it begins to make some sense.

The perfect example is the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). “Which one of you, having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Any shepherd, as well as anyone else for that matter, would find this absolutely insane. One cuts his loss of one sheep and continues to watch out for the 99. What on earth was Jesus saying?

With today’s parable, even though Jesus explains it, listeners are left with incredible questions and concerns. I am no botanist, but I have enough yard to know that if weeds are allowed to grow, they take over quickly. Explaining this by speaking of people instead of plants makes thing worse and not better. Evil in the midst of us tends to thrive even as we suffer difficulties at least.

Haven’t many or most of us at one time or another, perhaps more often, asked why God doesn’t do something about certain people, groups or forces that tend to be so effective at causing problems? Why can’t basically good people be left alone to accomplish good things? Why are we constantly confronted by resistance?

Yet again with incredible energy, we are faced with the evil of racism raising its ugly head ironically in the north and not just the south, perhaps in our very midst here at St. Mark’s? How can some people be so cruel, insensitive and selfish as to fight for not wearing a mask when all the research strongly supports wearing one is a main mitigation against the virus?

Is this mere misguidance or is it evil? Where is God in any of this? Must the devil so often prevail so it seems?

Jesus, as a Jew, got much of his teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures. I turn to the book of Ecclesiastes of the Wisdom Literature to seek some assistance. There are at least a few hints herein.

Solomon, traditionally believed to have been the author, says in 7:15: “In my vain life, I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.”

Ain’t it the truth!

Similarly in 8:14, Solomon says: “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.”

God, this is just not right!

Both Solomon writes and Jesus says that in the end, the righteous will prevail and the wicked will fail miserably, but what a hell of a meantime this is.

Have you heard about the lawsuits against the poison Roundup? It kills weeds for sure, but evidently has caused many cancers in those who use it frequently. That sort of risk Jesus raises — namely, that we do not want to harm the wheat or good folk as we poison, cut, or in some way kill the weeds. I get that!

In Romans 12,9, we note: “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” We are not told here to hate evildoers, but the evil they do.

There are children and families still stuck in cages at our southern border. I hate that! It does no one any good to hate the perpetrators!

There are tens of thousands of good police personnel without whom life and crime would be worse. What of those police who cause unnecessary harm, even death? That is a question for us all these days.

What of those white guys who wave foreign and domestic enemy flags, shout racial slurs, make violent threats, and — all too often — are violent? I hate that!

What of politicians and government officials who fail in their duty to keep Americans safe and secure, physically, financially and otherwise? I hate that!

Speaking of police, Gigi and I were in Venice, Italy, on what we called our “There is Life after Tuition Trip.” After dinner one evening, we walked what there is of streets amidst the canals. We came upon a very drunken Gondolier who was surrounded by six policemen. There were several Carabinieri, military police, and an equal number of Polizia di Stato, civilian police, being incredibly patient with this young man. They spoke softly to him, encouraged him to stop shouting and making a fuss, and seemed prepared to take whatever time it took to wait him out or wear him down. There were no threats, no gestures of force, no drawing of weapons. That has stood in contrast to all too many scenes here in America. I realize that we are not frequently exposed to our police being patient and kind.

There is almost nothing in the words of Jesus that could be interpreted as “do nothing!” If then, weeds or evil people are so near us, what do we do? Hating, killing or harming them in any way is not the Christian way. What then? Love them! How? Allow them to get away with their evil ways? Not really. Come on, Mueller, you are suggesting this, so what do we do?

Love is misinterpreted sometimes. There is absolutely nothing mushy about love here. It is not a weak gesture. It is not passive but active. It seeks to express care for sure, care they probably have not known in their lives or they might not be the people they have become.

“Pray for those who persecute you.” (Luke 6:28) Offer them an example which is their moral opposite! Pray for them! Be Jesus to them, forgive them, show them mercy and grace. Pray for them! Be the redeemed person you are and they are not!

“Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:6) Let them see the rejoicing we do in what is good, true and positive. Let us refuse to rejoice in their evil ways. Pray for them! Praying cannot hurt. It can keep us engaged!

Back in seminary with a student body of approximately 400 or so (oh, to have that many today!), there were about a dozen of us who were not satisfied with what we were being taught about certain matters or about important matters about which nothing was being taught.

We set up what was an “inner seminary.” We had retreats, discussion sessions, prayer times. What really kept the seminary administration’s bowels in an uproar, was when we planned a weekend retreat with special guests or held an evening symposium.

We invited Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party to come and speak to us. In the late Sixties, one of their stated desires, not goals but desires, was to get 13 states in the South for themselves. I remember moving from the back of the room right up front where Fred was sitting with several of his companions. When given the chance, I asked if after getting their 13 states, might some small percentage of their own people start to exploit them? His answer was “perhaps, but at least they would be our own people.”

Sadly, two weeks later, he and another Panther were shot and killed by the Chicago police in a raid.

There were then and there are now those white folks who would think of the Black Panthers as a terrorist organization. They did have a violent streak in what could better be called riots and not just protests back then. But we engaged them, sought to understand them, did not have to agree with them on anything. How Fred Hampton thought of a bunch of German Lutherans inviting him to dialogue we will never know.

As Christians, washed in the blood of Jesus, forgiven and freed, loved forever, we cannot allow ourselves to merely become victims of the evils around us. Engaging evil in a careful, caring, intelligent, faithful and prayerful manner is far less risky and potentially far more effective than doing nothing. Jesus engaged the devil and those throughout his ministry who were less than righteous.

Have you loved a weed today? If not, give it a shot! You might just discover a new and possibly righteous part of your Christian self.

Today’s message: ‘The Messy God’

Interim Pastor David Mueller

We gather again today to share a prerecorded service with worship, prayer and a word from Scripture. Our building remains closed in this time of Coronavirus pandemic and we are thankful indeed for the work of Interim Pastor David Mueller and John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, which allows us to continue to meet and share a common experience, albeit from afar.

Also participating in today’s service are Nancy Myers, worship assistant, and this week’s Virtual Choir: Dave Herrmann, Allen Kirk, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell and Teresa Stebner. We will also hear from vocalist Paige Stebner.

The link to the prerecorded video is below, along with the text of Pastor Mueller’s message: “The Messy God.”

Also, be sure to check out the new “St. Mark’s Midweek Extra,” which offers a more informal encounter with Pastor Mueller, who offers to reply to questions we submit and also shares his reflections and thoughts on a range of other issues for about half an hour. The broadcast started on Wednesday, July 8, and it is planned as a weekly event, usually arriving online by 10 a.m. You can find last week’s discussion — and all those to come — on our YouTube channel.

“The Messy God” (Matthew 13:1-9, 36-43)

David E. Mueller, Interim Pastor 

You may or may not find it interesting that seminary education in Lutheranism traditionally has included four theological disciplines: Biblical theology (exegetics), history, systematics, and practical theology. I am troubled that far less history is required these days.

I want to center for just a minute on systematic theology, which is like engineering. If the foundation of a bridge has not been built correctly and strongly, it could easily collapse. The engineers have to put the design together in such a manner so that various parts of the bridge support rather than conflict with each other, making the whole a safe and practical bridge.

Systematic theology, which includes our Lutheran Confessions, seeks to make certain that various points of theology, belief and practice fit together and in no way contradict. Systematic theology is structural and quite technical. It is an attempt to neatly package what we believe even if complex.

Along comes Jesus speaking in parables which often defy neatness and order. I will not go through a number of them to prove my point, except to look at the Gospel lesson appointed for today about the sower and the seeds, which, as Jesus reveals when He explains what He first spoke, is really about the word and kingdom of God. God the sower flings seeds all over the place, in hopes that some will fall on good soil, take root and grow.

Seeds cannot and do not germinate on the road with birds eating what is not destroyed by traffic, like the devil coming along and snatching the seeds away.

Seeds cannot grow well on rocky ground either for the soil is not deep enough, which is like a person believing initially until the going gets hard and persecutions and other troubles come along and the person falls away.

Seeds can fall among the thorns and weeds, but get choked by the thorny cares of the world and wealth, yielding nothing.

Finally, seeds grow best on good clean and rich soil. The word is received, understood, the seeds germinate and produce fruit in various measures.

Interestingly, in the appointed Gospel for next week from just a bit later in Matthew 13, the weeds and thorny things are left to grow together.

It is all very messy and doesn’t seem to fit together very well. God does the things God does whether flinging seeds in reckless fashion or allowing weeds and seeds to co-exist.

In the familiar Psalm 23, we hear of cups running over, making a real mess on the table. God can be and often is quite messy.

We do ourselves and anyone else no favors by looking at the various places seeds land and identifying people we know who are like that. Good old Charlie gets very involved in things at the church but can never sustain his excitement. Henrietta simply cannot keep up with the thorns and weeds which end up killing off her many efforts. Mortimer always has his mind on what is best for himself and how he can make a killing. We all know people who seem to fit into these three categories. We can even identify the ones among us who do all the work, take little credit when all goes well and take a lot of guff when things go badly. These characters are all here at St. Mark’s in full and living color.

But what if there is a deeper interpretation without meaning to outdo Jesus here. What if in each of us there are four kinds of soil? What if there are birds which take the seeds in us which have not been smashed by traffic? What if in a spiritual sense we have rocks in our hearts much like stones in our kidneys which can act up? What if we find ourselves so wrapped up in the things of the world that there is no room left for the things of God? What if there is in each of us really good soil? If all this is true, what to do? Move to the good soil and let the word and will of God grow; avoid the other places in our lives where no growth of consequence is possible!

There is a parable in Matthew 21:28-32, where one son said yes when asked by his father to go out and work in the vineyard but who did not show up. The other son said no to his father but showed up and did the work. Which son did the work of the father? Obviously the one who showed up after all. This is a messy business as well because to have said “no” to a father in those days would have been asking for real trouble. It would be nice if sons or daughters always said a loving and obedient “yes” and did the work. But a case can be made that two sons like that or daughters are in each of us, doing some sort of battle. Which of them wins in us? It is like the soil. Move to the good soil in yourself!

I believe I have shared about the Native American grandfather who told his grandson that there were two wolves in each person, a ravenous, angry, dangerous one and a kind, friendly, but protective one. “Which one wins?” the grandson asks. “The one you feed,” said the grandfather.

There is clearly an eternal implication to all of this, that is, what is it that makes life last forever and not just for a while? But there is an immediate temporal significance and benefit as well.

Listen to the Prophet Isaiah in our first lesson as he lists the beautiful things God will do: to summarize, there will be joy, peace, hills singing, tress clapping hands. There will be no thorns but the Cypress, no brier but Myrtle. It is all an everlasting sign that people will not be cut off from the Lord.

Paul in our second lesson (Romans 8:1-11): set our minds on the things of the Spirit and live or on the things of the flesh and die!

As we ask ourselves what we want out of life, we Christians are invited to believe that the word, will and wonder of God is well worth it, while the stuff of bad soil, bad boys and big bad wolves are worth nothing in the end. Believing then and having living faith is setting aside our stuff — whatever it is — and allowing God in Christ to sow His abounding and steadfast love in us, on our hearts and in our minds.

There is clutter like thorns and thistles in us. There are false but formidable forces calling us to destruction. Let Jesus die for that so that you might be good soil on which God sows good fruit! Amen.