Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Resolve to Keep the Faith this New Year!

If you are going to make a New Year's resolution to improve or change your life, why not resolve to keep the faith this year? Make a simple promise to God:  "I will not depart from you" or "I will stick with you through thick and thin."   In a sense, I am asking you to make a resolution to hold your life together.  I am all for improvement, but sometimes focusing too much on areas we need to get better leads us to neglect the necessary maintenance of the things that should stay the same.    For example, if you adopt some fad diet that leads you too tired to keep up your exercise routine that could hardly be called progress.

The Hebrew word for faithfulness אֱמוּנָה (amunah) derives from the root verb meaning to make firm or to give support.  This makes sense when you think about the story of the people of Israel.   There is a long list crazy, tragic and horrible events that this people has had to endure, yet they still hold onto their God despite the mess of living in a broken world.   The gift of the Old Testament is that it shows that staying with God is just as important as coming to God is in the first place.

The other important thing to realize is that faithfulness is not just between you and God.   It affects all your relationships with those you meet every day.   People who are faithful are a blessing to those around them.  They help provide some stability in an ever-changing world.    A great example of this is when Paul writes to the Philippians   It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Philippians 2:16 (NRSV)

You have probably heard of the idea of being a "non-anxious presence."   The simple wisdom behind this idea is that anxiety is contagious like a virus.   A steadfast and faithful person can be likened to one who is inoculated against the virus of anxiety.  It not only helps the person vaccinated it dampens the transmission of the pathogen.    Part of the problem our society faces in our current age is that too many people a running to too many fad ideas and have left solid faith of our ancestors behind.   This means there are less non-anxious people out there to help stop the spread of the crazy.

Please understand I when I say to keep the Faith, I am not reducing it mere personal piety.   We will still need to feed, the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, and lift up the lowly because as the Word teaches us this is just as much a part of our faith as is our prayer, scripture reading, and worship are.   Serving as others as our Lord does us is at the core of the faith I am asking you to stay with.   So perhaps with Martin Luther we can pray the words of the hymn Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word. 

Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all Christ has done.

Lord Jesus Christ, Your pow'r make known,
For You are Lord of lords alone;
Defend Your holy Church that we
May sing your praise eternally.

O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.

Wishing you a blessed New Year and that you keep the Faith!

Pastor Knecht

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Advent and Christmas: It's Not Just for Kids

Have you been around a while?   Have you seen both good and bad in the world?   Does it seem that the changes in the world seem to be leaving you behind?  Do you feel more isolated from others as time goes by?  Then perhaps the story of the coming of Jesus in Luke is just what you need to hear this season.

The Cultural Christmas 

In our culture, Christmas is supposed to be about the kids.   The common view is it is all about presents wrapped under the tree.  The family in well decorated home all gathered watching the children joyfully experience the grace of their parents, grandparents and extended family and friendships.  Much of the media we will view this season will be that that refers back to a lost mythic childhood.  From the old Christmas specials from the 1960's like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, to the comedies of the 1980's and 90's such as A Christmas Story and Home Alone,  kids take center stage.  The adults are the comic foil to the bright shining youthful main character (usually a blonde boy between the ages of 8-10).  The adults are portrayed mostly as clueless or or even evil.  As an old dude, this is not good news for me for obvious reasons.  By the way, neither was it when I myself was a young blonde boy 8-10 years old.  My memories of that time revolve mostly around beloved family members blaming me for ruining the perfect Christmas.   Our cultural Christmas celebrations can be fun, entertaining, and yes profitable. However the real Christmas story found in Luke's Gospel is something more.  It is trans-formative, life-giving, and most of all hopeful. 

The Biblical Advent and Incarnation 

In contrast to our cultural orientation, the biblical story of the coming and infancy of Jesus according to Luke is a lot about older people.   In Chapter 1, we first meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, an older couple, who like Abraham and Sarah are waiting for their first child.   Near the conclusion of Luke 2 at the end of the story, we meet Simeon and Anna, two older, possibly lonely people.  They are portrayed as those who go to the temple on their own each day and wait in prayer to see what God does.   For Luke, these older folks who have remained steadfast despite the ups and downs of life are at the core of the story.   They serve to remind us that God does answer prayer, works miracles, and most of gives reason for hope through the sending of his Son Jesus.  God comes to the aid for those who have been beaten down by the pressure of living in a sinful world. They are those who have their hope fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah.

By the time of Jesus birth, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna would have witnessed, heard of, and experienced the brutality of living in a country occupied by foreign power and given over to the murderous sycophant puppet rule of Herod the (so called) Great.  They would have been privy to dramatic outrages and everyday slights.  It would have been enough for any person to give up and give in, but they didn't.  They kept the faith.  The words about Simeon are particularly powerful.   "He was waiting for the consolation of Israel" writes Luke. 

Luke affirms not only their hope, but their dignity as well.  For they are not mere victims to be rescued, God actually calls them to play a part in the salvation drama.  Zachariah and Elizabeth shelter the unwed probably teenage mother Mary from the tyranny of being the center of scandal in a small town.  Simeon and Anna help affirm the dignity of the Holy Family as they assist them in following the rituals of their faith community.  The older folks in Luke are part of the story; it is an affirmation of their value before God.  In a youth obsessed culture like ours, where everyone is supposed to look 25, this is certainly good news. 

The People of God 

I meet people like Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna all the time in my ministry.   I meet people who though they have experienced hardship and even tragedy, keep the faith and are part of the story of God at work in our world today.   They hold on to hope despite the evidence they read of in their newspaper or news-feed.  You will meet these people volunteering to feed the homeless, working the polls on election day, babysitting their grand-kids, checking up on their neighbors and  yes, keeping our communities of faith running.  I hate to break it to you, but God did not send his son to bring your child the hot toy for Christmas,  God did this to validate the hope that people like Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon,  and Anna (maybe even you?) who have placed their trust in Him. 

Right now, there is much going on that can serve to erode our hope.  I need not catalog it, for you probably have experienced some of it or know of it.  But the story we proclaim every December in the church during Advent is that we have a God who is worth waiting for.  So perhaps with Simeon we too can confess these words:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us, 
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, 
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79 (NRSV)

No matter what your age, I pray that the dawn from on high will break upon your life this Advent.  I hope that you too may be able to place your trust in God and become part of God's story for our time. For the story of Christ can give hope to people of any age.  Indeed, people of all ages can be part of this story, because the Bible shows us that they have been in it all along.

Be blessed

Friday, October 26, 2018

When Being Good is not Enough

 Am I a Good Person?

This is the question that people ask in times of crisis.  One can ask it when they are going through a difficult ordeal and wonder if the difficulty is deserved.   One can also ask this when they see that there is much in the world that seems evil, and ruminate if he or she is part of the problem or part of the solution.  It is also the question that most people have asked when considering if they are worthy of eternal life.   The story of the rich man which is found in Mark chapter 10 deals with this question in a unique way.

This wealthy man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10:17) He is wondering because his answer to the question "am I a good person?" is by the cultural standards of the day a resounding yes.   When Jesus refers the  man to find the answer in scripture, he gives the reply “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” (Mark 10:20 NRSV).  So the man is saying "yeah, I am good person."  Yet this man came to Jesus with a longing in his heart that there was something more important than being a good person in the eyes of God.

 Give It All Away to the Poor?

Jesus tells him straight out what is missing.   In order to inherit the kingdom of God he must do two things.   The first is a tall order: sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.   Jesus asks him to do this to show love for those he came to serve.  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:  "For the follower of Jesus there can be no limit as to who is his neighbor except as his Lord decides." Dietrich Bonhoeffer- The Cost of Discipleship   Additionally selling his possessions will remove any attachments that the man may have which may be keeping him from doing the second more important thing which the man lacks for inheriting the kingdom. 

Follow Me

The second thing Jesus asks is even a taller order.  The simple truth is, that the most important thing this man and anyone else can do for that matter, is to follow Jesus.   The selling and giving to the poor is the prelude to the following.  The following is the harder of the two things that Jesus asks the man to do.  Often when reading this passage, we get so caught up in the enormity of selling all one's possessions that we miss how hard it actually is to follow Jesus.   The truth is that the selling of  all one's possessions to help the poor only leads one to the kingdom if one follows God during the process.  Bonhoeffer explains this perfectly:  "Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power.  If for instance, we give away all of our possessions, that act is in itself is not the obedience he demands... In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might be choosing a way of life for ourselves.. (one) is not set free from his own self, but still more enslaved to himself."  Dietrich Bonhoeffer- The Cost of Discipleship.  St. Paul was thinking along the same lines in 1 Corinthians 13, when he lists a whole bunch of spiritual and moral gymnastics that he can put himself through and concludes that without love these are worthless.

The fact is that there are plenty of "good people"  who have excellent personal morality, have great manners, and follow the cultural appropriate virtues who never become part of God's work for the world.  I meet wonderfully moral and upright people of every persuasion in my neighborhood.  They can be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic atheist or whatever.   Some of these people will at times live more morally than those of us who belong to the church.  The question Jesus is asking us to consider is not whether or not I am a good person, the question is: do I love God, my neighbor and our world?

The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that through the cross God has shown love to the world.  Through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, God reaches across the chasm that exists between human beings and God.  When Jesus replied to the rich man to follow him, he was inviting him to be part of that work. 

The Radical Gospel 

I have observed two poles where contemporary American Christianity can get off track.   One pole reduces the Gospel to a personal morality code.  I see this often in books written for young Christians.  It is as if the Gospel is reduced to method to program the youth to be a part of someone's idea of respectable society.   This is quite common in churches that preach a "prosperity gospel."  If one follows the rules, the quid pro quo is not only admission to heaven, but worldly wealth as well.  This leaves one permanently in the condition of the rich young man as he approached Jesus.  The person is trapped in a bondage to the self.  I think Jesus died for you for something more than this.

The opposite pole is that if we only fix society than all will be good and everything will be in balance.  Utopia will be at hand.  People are only bad because the structures of society are bad, this reasoning goes.   This reduces the dignity of the person into just being a cog in some machine.   If it is only the culture or society responsible for our actions, than we have lost agency, and are something less than human.  I can not see how the cross makes sense if this is all there is.

God did not send his son to die so that we could live in a prison of self-absorption.  Neither was he crucified to create some hive mind where one's individuality no longer matters.   Christ came as love for love.  Whether we are good enough to be loved is not the point, the point is that we are loved.   I hope this is good news for you. It is good news for me because I am good and bad all mixed up and at times struggle to follow the path Christ has set for me.  To me the choice has never been between good and bad, but between love and apathy.  So Christ lays this choice before us, just as he did for the rich young man.  How will we choose?

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Encouragement for Anxious Times

If you find that times seem anxious for you lately, know that you are not alone.  The pace of change in our world has left many people behind, as the world they once knew seems to be relegated to distant memory.  In our own area of the county we have seen profound changes economically, technologically, socially, politically, demographically, culturally, and morally.   There appears to be people who are comfortable with and excited by these changes, as well as those who are threatened by them.  If you are like me, perhaps you are a bit of both. There are some things you think are wonderful and there are some changes that are keeping you up at night.   If you find yourself dealing with the anxiety of the times then I recommend reading 2 Timothy.

2 Timothy is one of the Pastoral Letters of the Apostle Paul.   Some of Paul's personal letters made it into the Bible and Christians have found them inspirational ever since. He wrote these letters for several reasons. 1 Timothy and Titus were written to lay out some ground rules for the early Christian communities.  Philemon was sent to deal with a critical issue.  2 Timothy was written to help him and the members of his community get through some anxious times.   This is why when the world seems crazy, 2 Timothy is one of my go to pieces of scripture.  Paul writes:

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 2 Timothy 1:6-7 (NRSV)

I love that Paul brings Timothy back to an intimate and physical moment of prayer, or perhaps even his baptism.  The memory of the word of God connected with the touch of Paul's hands upon the head are the fuel to rekindle the faith of one who may be in doubt because the times are uncertain.  This faith leads to empowerment, or what social scientists are calling "agency" these days.   Paul is reminding Timothy that he is not helpless.   He can show love to others and discipline himself.  Just because the times are hard does not mean one need to give into despair.   Paul does not sugar coat the problems that are going on his world or ours. He writes:

For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! 2 Timothy 3:2-5 (NRSV)

When I read these words I feel that the more things change, the more they stay the same.   The self centered nature of our sin is something that every generation must deal with on its own terms as it becomes uniquely manifest in every age.  Paul is writing to Timothy to remind him to place his trust in Christ who is more powerful than the forces of the world that beat the faithful down.  He continues:

The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him; 2 Timothy 2:11-12 (NRSV)

The heart of the matter for Paul is to encourage Timothy to hold on the the most precious thing we have, the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   Our life is secure in Christ, so why would one want to throw it away?  At times anxiety can cause us to make silly decisions, and we might hold onto the wrong things while throwing away that which actually will help us thrive.   That is why the Holy Spirit sends people into our lives to remind us what is truly important and what will really help us navigate living in a broken world.   He encourages Timothy and his sisters and brothers with these words.

Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us. 2 Timothy 1:13-14 (NRSV) 

Guarding the good treasure given us can be a way to explain what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  The word translated "guard" (φυλάσσω) is also commonly translated as "watch", "keep", or "obey".   Living a life of discipleship in Jesus Christ involves all of these things.   We guard or protect the heart of our proclamation that Christ died for all no matter how the world classifies a person.   We watch the Gospel work in the lives of the faithful and witness what we see.   The stories of God at work that result can open the hearts of those in need.    We keep a commitment to prayer and reading God's Word to help keep us centered and to ask God to help others.   We listen to the voice of God through worship, prayer, and witness so that our relationship with Christ may stay strong.   When facing a challenge it is good to know one is not facing it alone.   2 Timothy reminds us that Christ is with us, even in anxious times.

Be blessed,
Pastor Knecht

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Our Lighthouse

As I picked up my son at Cross Roads Camp last week they opened worship with a catchy song called "My Lighthouse."  The refrain goes:

My lighthouse, my lighthouse
Shining in the darkness, I will follow You
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
I will trust the promise
You will carry me safe to shore+

The National Park Service states in its educational materials for school children: The two main purposes of a lighthouse are to serve as a navigational aid and to warn boats of dangerous areas. It is like a traffic sign on the sea.*  These two purposes can be used to describe the role of a living faith in Jesus Christ quite effectively.   Christ as our lighthouse can warn of us the dangers of living in a world bound to sin and death so that we do not crash upon its rocks and reefs.  Christ can also provide direction for our life by giving us fixed point to point our rudders to.   When the waves of our culture and the winds work to disorient us, the lighthouse stands firm to illuminate the way home.  The lighthouse is a wonderful metaphor of how Christ can help us live a better life.

As we move into the fall, we will be working in our worship with the texts in Mark's Gospel that describe the ministry of Jesus as he approaches the cross. The actions of Jesus in these texts work like the lighthouse; they warn us of the rocks and they also point our lives in a direction of well being. 

One my favorite texts, which comes up in October, is the short account of the healing of a blind man named Bartimaeus. His encounter with Jesus corresponds to our theme.   Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. Mark 10:51-52 (NRSV)  According to Jesus, it was Bartimaeus's faith that saved him, it did so by helping him see and giving him a direction to go.

Regular Bible readers may bring up the point that the lighthouse is not an image directly mentioned in the original biblical texts, and they are right.  Both in the Old Testament and the Gospels, herding, desert and agricultural images predominate.  This should not stop us from using this imagery, especially if it helps someone understand the grace of God. There are indeed some maritime images in the Psalms, the letters of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, and of course the book of Jonah, but a lighthouse is never mentioned anywhere in the original texts.  A quick search in my Bible software application brought up only one instance where the word "lighthouse" was used any biblical translation.   It was used in Eugene Peterson's The Message.   

"I am God. I have called you to live right and well.
I have taken responsibility for you, kept you safe.
I have set you among my people to bind them to me,
and provided you as a lighthouse to the nations
, Isaiah 42:6 (MSG)

Using the word lighthouse in this context is really profound.   Isaiah 42 is one of the passages that describes Israel as the servant of God who is the light to the nations.  Christians have long seen the work of Jesus Christ in its words.  Jesus suffering and death serves to show the world how far God will go to show that we are loved.  What I like about Peterson's use of lighthouse in this context is that when Isaiah first wrote these words, he wanted to show how the people of Israel together could be the light to the nations.   They were called to show people the way to God.  If Jesus is my lighthouse and together with my fellow Christians we are the Body of Christ, then we can be the lighthouse.  We can warn of the dangers and show the way home.  This is the work of the church. 

Yes, we have at times failed in this work.  Current headlines remind us of those who used what should be lighthouse to the nations for their own demonic ends.  Between sexual predators and con-artist prosperity preachers it can at times the church is more of black hole than a lighthouse, but we should not give up or give in.  God's call is clear and the light of Christ shines to show us the way to a better shore.  Just because others chose not to steer toward the light and were wrecked in the dark, doesn't mean that the light is not there.   The lives of faithful Christians inspired by the Holy Spirit have helped me and others countless times to avoid obstacles and find the right way to go.  So I invite you to let Jesus be your lighthouse, and that by living as he guides us we can be a lighthouse for others.

Be blessed,
Pastor Knecht


+Songwriters: Gareth Gilkeson / Chris Llewellyn My Lighthouse lyrics © Capitol Christian Music Group

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

What Cain and Abel Tell Us About Who We Really Are

The First Honor Killing

The story of Cain and Abel is often described as the first murder.   I would argue that it is more precisely the first honor killing.   An honor killing occurs when someone loses face or is shamed by another person.   The shamed person then lashes out and kills the person responsible for the shaming.  Cain kills Abel because he comes in second, while he as the first born, thinks he should be first in all things.  God should prefer his offering to Abel's.  It is the natural order of things in his eyes.  Because Abel is elevated, Cain thinks it means that he is diminished.  Removing the person next in line moves you up according to this sinful logic. In the recent attack of a Maryland newspaper office the first press accounts report that the accused had a problem with a news story about him.   If this is correct, then this will be basically an honor killing.

Defending perceived violations of honor can lead to all types of evil, from bullies in the school yard to domestic abusers, the words of Cain are oft repeated again and again.  The victim of violence is discounted, "I'm not my brothers keeper" (biblical slang for "not my problem"), or even blamed, "She had it coming."  In a recent podcast by Malcolm Gladwell a social scientist reported on the data from the spate of "Stand your Ground" laws around the country.   The most affected demographic by the law has been white men.   The scientist reported bar fights and neighborhood squabbles were turning violent as participants stood their ground, grabbed their weapon and sought to protect their honor.

The story of Cain and Abel and the fact that it comes so early in the narrative, right after creation, tells us that we have a dark part of our nature born of weakness.   We can seat our self-worth and being in others deferring to us.  God was supposed to defer to Cain, as was Abel, so Cain in a fit of rage would try to end his perceived shame in a fit of violence and murder.   But much to Cain's chagrin, his shame would only intensify.  One can not heal inner weakness by attacking another more fortunate person.   His pitiful weakness is only intensified by his barbaric actions.   The story of Cain and Abel reminds us to be on guard against the weakness and shame that can destroy us.  Sin is not only lurking at the door for Cain, it lurks for us.

Finding Our True Honor  

This is why the Gospel of Jesus Christ matters.   The core witness of the New Testament teaches us to find our honor not in the deference of others to ourselves, but by the fact we are loved by God.  The gospel proclaims that our personal honor is to seated in the fact that Christ is crucified, died and risen for us.  The identity politics of our day is putting all or nothing bets on whether or not the rest of the world will accept us, defer to us and celebrate us.   But what happens when your tribe loses that bet?

Does my dignity really rest on others praising me?  If our society answers yes to this, then we are nothing but barbarians, the offspring of Cain's cowardice.   If my honor rests in God's grace, then I am free to treat my neighbor with dignity.  The latter is demonstrated to be true in how God treats Cain when God confronts him with his crime.   God treats Cain with dignity.  First, God respects Cain enough to speak the truth to him.  God explains his crimes and the need for justice.  Second, God makes Cain pay a consequence for his crime by removing him from the land, which affirms Cain's agency and therefore his dignity. Third and most importantly, God protects Cain from the vengence of others with no stake in the incident. Genesis 4:15-16 (NRSV) And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.

Of course, God is God, secure in his honor, one who does not require the praise of men or women. God is free to do what is right.  So we are able to see what might be the way to go forward when we are living in conflicted times.  We are to first be grounded in our dignity as children of God which has been given to us as a gift.   We are to remember that though the world will not always accept, love and celebrate us we have a God who does. 

Knowledge is power, and perhaps with this knowledge we can keep the Cain within us at bay.  For while few of us will kill for a perceived slight of our honor, most if not all of us, have hurt someone for it.  Whether yelling at our kids unjustly, or making fun of someone who holds differing views than we do, the sin of Cain can be manifest in us in all kinds of ways.  We live in a changing world where the culture tells that honor and acceptance are supposed to be found in just about everything but God.  If we do this we are building spiritual houses of straw built on sand.  If we stand in Christ and let him be our honor, our fortress will be impregnable and we will be able to honor and uphold the dignity of all God's children.

Be blessed.
Pastor Knecht

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Gospel In Word and Service

To Meet the Needs of our Community 

In my lifetime I have seen momentous changes in the church.   There have been changes in how we worship,  who gets to lead congregations, how churches are organized and how we communicate.  What has not changed is the heart of our witness to Jesus Christ.   Christ gives the promise of eternal life and we demonstrate  through our actions that this new reality starts now.   Since the founding of the church at Pentecost, disciples of Jesus share his teachings and make disciples using two main tools, Word and service.

The Word brings the hope we have in God through the Gospel story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   We tell the story of Jesus and how the Gospel works in the lives of the people who have opened their hearts to God.   The Word or story of God's saving action for humanity changes hearts, lives and minds.  In fact, the Greek word the New Testament uses for one to open their life to God (μετανοέω), (which is normally translated "repent") means to change one's mind.  Hope changes how we think about things.   The most important thing about this hope is that it strengthens and leads the disciple live out what God calls him or her to do.

Service is living out our call to the glory God and the benefit of others.  The Word states what hope looks like, service makes it tangible and real.   Service is living proof of the truth of the Gospel.  In the book of Acts, which is the biblical blueprint of the church, the Word is always accompanied by service.  The apostles not only speak the Word to persuade, but also work to heal, set free, include, reconcile, advocate for and feed their neighbors.  Both Word and service are vital for the spreading of the Gospel.  A wonderful example of this occurs in acts chapter six, where the apostles open up avenues of service for new people in the early church.

 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”Acts 6:2-4 (NRSV)

Acts chapter six shows us that there will be people who are better called to administering the Word and prayer and there are others more equipped for tangible acts of service.   The important thing is to make sure that both are provided for.   An important point to note is that just as individuals will gravitate towards either the Word or service in their faith life so will congregations.

For the first part of my tenure at Holy Cross we were clearly a church that gravitated to toward the Word.   Preaching worship, small groups and VBS were Word centered to bring about changes in hearts and minds.   As we moved through the years the service component became more pronounced, through our food ministry started by one women's small group under the initiative of Heidi Klebaur, and our mission activities spearheaded by our seminarian Erich Kussman.   We now continue to move in this direction through our potential partnership with Lutheran Social Ministries.

Lutheran Social Ministers of New Jersey is planning to use the 2002 building for its Lutheran Senior Life (PACE) program.  This helps fixed income seniors receive the care they need while continuing to stay in their homes.  Our congregation will move into our previous sanctuary for worship and Sunday activities.   Holy Cross will continue to devote itself to God's Word.   It is my hope that freed of the overhead of a facility that sits largely empty most of time, we will have more resources to devote to spreading God's Word in Springfield.   More importantly, our devotion to those in need through our partnership with LSM and our continued ministry through our Christian Nursery School will help demonstrate the veracity of what we proclaim.   This is that the Gospel is for those far off and those near to God of every generation no matter how they are classified by the world or the world classifies them.   I am hopeful that the relationships we form through our service will help open people up to hear and take in God's Word which can help make a positive difference in their lives.   As we move into this new balance of the essential actions of Word and service, I ask for your prayers for its fruitfulness through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Friday, April 27, 2018

Don't Do, Just Pray

I have a weakness that can get me into trouble from time to time.   When I see something broken, I want to fix it.   When I see a broken hinge or door knob, or  malfunctioning kitchen appliance or something wrong on a car engine, I impulsively dive in and start taking things apart.  The screws start flying off and parts are carelessly scattered on the floor or kitchen table as I hack away at a solution. Sometimes I fix things, and sometimes I make them worse. 

Over time I have learned that it is best to think things through and come up with a plan before diving in.  I usually make it worse when I don't pause and think about what to do before I do it.   So now I will watch a repair video on YouTube, or call computer savvy or mechanically inclined friend before starting out on a repair.   I will anticipate what tools I need and lay them out on the table,  I might even get a sandwich bag for the screws and take photos of each thing I take apart before I proceed.  Each pause I take increases the likelihood that I will fix the problem.

Pause to Succeed 

Something like what I am explaining is going on in the biblical book of Acts.   The book starts as Jesus is preparing to ascend to heaven.   It is a time of extreme disruption for the disciples of Jesus, they have seen Jesus arrested, tried, crucified and risen.   Now he starts to speak of ascending.   The disciples wanting to fix things and move out of the place of uncertainty ask. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Acts 1:6  

Jesus responds by telling them this knowledge is above their pay grade. After Jesus ascends the angels from the Easter tomb reappear to tell them to stop looking up, basically implying for them to get back to their appointed mission.  The mission as Jesus explained it to them is "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.Acts 1:8 

The next thing the disciples do is gather together and pray.  That's it.  That's all. "All these (disciples) were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. Acts 1:14.  Prayer in the book of Acts is an action of anticipation of the activity of God.  It is also a time to clear one's head and get ready for the next thing.  When something big is coming up it is the best thing we can do.  The pause of prayer increases the likelihood that we will fulfill what we are called to do. 

Active Waiting 

This is why when Luke writes in Acts about how the church works best he describes that They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42.   This means that the church fulfills its mission best when it pauses to listen to voice of God, hears the witnesses of the entire community, actively remembers what it is really all about, effectively gathers resources and rests up for the mission ahead. 

Unfortunately the church today does not do this enough.   We seem to be caught between the polarities of doing nothing or acting without thinking. Those who argue for action, discount the church's active waiting as doing nothing, while those who are afraid to act criticize the work of discernment as disruptive to the status quo, not realizing that the disruption is already going on.  Both fail to realize the true virtue of active waiting, which to arrive at a vision.

A Vision for Action 

We need vision in order to effectively act.   This is why the book of Acts is structured the way it is.  It sets forth a vision of what the church could be, one that welcomes those like eunuch from Ethiopia as well as a jailer from Greece, a church that stands for justice like when a young slave girl is exploited by her owners, while recognizing those in power are not monsters, but people.   This vision is continually adapted as God does new things and the church takes the time to worship, pray, reflect, think and plan for the next phase of the mission.

The completion of a vision signals actual readiness for action.  It is the necessary the pause before the initiation of action and it requires prayer.   Thoughts and prayers are important steps when used purposefully for casting a vision of how one should act.   This goes for finding a way through a personal crisis as well as for coming up with ways to go forward together in community.   We should never proceed with out a vision.   This is why it is important to pray before we do anything of consequence.  Thinking and praying seem to be in short supply in our world today, which is why we run from crisis to crisis.  So if someone criticizes you for pausing to pray, just let them know that you need to get it together first, and remember Where there is no vision, the people perish. Proverbs 29:18.   I encourage you to never forget the blessing of prayer it is usually the best thing we can do.

Be blessed,
Pastor Knecht

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Easter: the Victory of Faith

For whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith! 1 John 5:4 

The Devil the World and Eroded Trust

If I would only look at the news,  I  would conclude simply that we live in a skeptical age. Seeing is believing we say, and even if we do see it, someone will question what it is we actually saw.   In our world today truth is said to be all in the numbers: poll numbers in politics, balance sheets in businesses (and yes sadly churches!) SAT or PARC scores in our schools.  Yet others will heap doubt upon those very numbers challenging that they don't really represent anything at all. 

Different camps will have different truths.  The savvy manipulator can go shopping for facts.  Institutions no longer have the credibility to mediate differing ideas and form consensus. The pressures of our current times have led us to doubt many things, if not most things.  If one goes with the flow of our culture there is little hope left in our world today.  Everything has an explanation, nothing is good or bad.  All is relative. Value neutral judgments rule from classroom to boardroom.  Unlike our ancestors who formed common ideas of virtue and vice, all has become utilitarian.   The left, right and center groups of culture are no different from each other in this regard.   All morality has devolved into self justification.   We are reliving the fall of Adam and Eve over and over again.  The serpents skeptical push rings in our ears, TV sets, and social media feeds.  If all become nihilists, the devil wins. 

The Real Alternative: Faith 

How different this is from what we are called to be by God in the witness of the Bible and through the moving of the Holy Spirit. We are reborn to be set apart from the wider world. It is not only OK to be different it is necessary.

Christians are called to be optimistic and hold certain virtues dearly.  Life matters from womb to tomb.  Each life has dignity,  We pay special attention to the lives of those beaten down by the world, and yes, even our enemies.  We are called to witness our faith in Christ, which as Christ modeled to us himself, means listening as much as speaking.  We hold that all are created good, even in the face of evil.

Our optimism is not the pie in the sky variety held used by marketers and prosperity preachers to get us to open our wallets or click the "buy it now" button.  It is the steadfast variety confirmed by scripture and witness, that the God who rescued Israel sent Jesus to redeem our world.  Our worldview starts with the premise that Christ and the good will ultimately triumph.  Indeed some will call us naive, but better to be pure of heart in the service of virtue and building things that last, than wise or worldly to merely satisfy our transient lusts.  When your life on earth is done, what side do you want to be on?  We indeed like Christ, may be called to pay a price, but that price will always be worth paying. The struggle may be long, arduous, and not all sugar coated, but the outcome is sure. Life will win! 

Easter Victory! 

How can we have the confidence to be optimistic in world so full or strife? Simple, listen to the Word of God that has upheld the faithful since Abraham.  In short, it says that God acts for good in our world at all times.  For us who follow Christ it specifically means that God sent his son born into this world just like we were so that we might be redeemed.  This redemption was done for us by Christ's sacrifice on the cross.  Three days after Jesus was put to death, he rose from the dead, destroying our last enemy and binding Satan underfoot.  This witness has been seen and handed down through the generations of the faithful.  Billions have experienced this truth in their lives and shared it with others. 

For us Christians, the watchword is faith,  the trust that God’s promises are actually for us.  This is grounded in the hope of resurrection. Our trust in Christ leads us to view our world differently than those who are skeptical or nihilistic.  For the faithful, the world is full of hope, as we see God working in all situations.  It is full of wonder, when the unexpected good comes along. It is realistic in the midst of crisis, but active in the midst of need.  It is humble when examining the potential of ourselves, but expectant when seeing God at work in the lives of others.  Our faith values love, justice and the intrinsic value of all life because we know that the only source of good is the God of life.  This we remember every Easter when we contemplate the empty tomb.

No, we have not conquered the old skeptical Adam within ourselves just yet, but by clinging to Christ we will not let the darker side of ourselves have supremacy.  So as Christians, we hold fast to our faith and the promise delivered at Easter.  May God strengthen your faith that you may always believe and have life in Christ's name. For he is risen indeed!

Blessed Easter 
Pastor Knecht 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Jersey Samaritan

One night after a long day at work, a lawyer in his mid 50's from Glen Ridge who has just seen the last of his three children go off to college, sits under a chandelier of an empty dining room table to contemplate where his life is going.   His divorce was finalized a few years ago, and his ex-wife now lives in San Diego.  He mulls over calling her but thinks better of it. 

He wonders if he should call the psychologist whom he has been seeing since the divorce, but he finds talking to him seems too much like staring a mirror for an hour with a hangover; it is painful, dreary, and most of all draining.  He then decides to call his eldest child, but she is in night class at law school and can't talk.  His youngest has enough problems of his own adjusting to college life, so talking to him would be all about helping him, and he was way too weak to do that now.  So he takes the cap off the bottle of Glenmorangie he got for Christmas and refills his his heavy tumbler two thirds of the way up the side of the glass and meditates if he should call his middle son. 

Their second child and first boy was a middle kid from the get go.   Having spent more time in the vice principal's office than in class, it was some sort of cosmic joke that this was the one who got religion.  He and his former wife did what his parents did; they had the kids baptized.  They went to church if there was no soccer game for the kids, or anything else fun to do on a Sunday,  More likely to attend Christmas than Easter, they did  have all three kids confirmed to please his in-laws.   His middle guy had fallen in with a campus ministry at school in Illinois, went on a mission trip to Ecuador, met a girl whom he just proposed to, and talks about working for Doctors Without Borders when he finishes med school. The lawyer thinks this is all a bit sketchy,  and that his son is naive. He is sure he will come around once life kicks him around a bit, but hey, at least he believes in something.

He presses the contact link in his I-Phone and his son picks up, "hey dad" he hears on the line.   "How ya doin" the man asks.  "OK, what's up" the son responds.  "What's it all about, son?"  "What?" says the son.  "This faith business you go on and on about."

"Well" the son says with a drawn out pause. "It's simple to think about but most times hard to do.  You're not religious, but you've been to church enough to get the message, Do you remember what the pastors would talk about in the sermons."   "Being a good person" said the father.  "Not really" the son answers,  "perhaps being a bit more specific might help"  "If I wanted therapy I'd see my shrink son!"   "Not gonna waste my time trying to fix you dad! But this is not rocket science, you know the answer"   "Love you neighbor as yourself" says the father.   "Just add God to the mix and you got it dad."   "Well how do you do it son?"  "Let me tell you a story" he replies.

"Suppose one evening a guy from our neighborhood takes his Range Rover and drives southeast on Bloomfield Avenue towards Newark to see a Devil's game.   As he pulls up to a traffic light.  A 20 year old Honda Civic stops suddenly in front of him without break lights and the guy runs into the back of it.  The man steps out of the Range Rover to inspect the damage.  Out of the Honda come three guys with baseball bats.   They beat the man senseless, take his watch, wallet and keys.  One jumps back into to the Honda and the other two drive off in the Range Rover for a joy ride. He is left alone bloody and broken on the street within an inch of his life"

"Across the intersection in a Toyota Camry sits a man in clerical color,  he's on his way to meet with a church about becoming their pastor.  Shocked, he assumes someone has a cell phone and will report it.  He can't be late; he knows that if he lands this position he will be able to help people. So he drives off.   Right after him a deaconess from a Pentecostal church drives by in a Dodge Caravan on her way to pick up a widow to take her to Bible Study.  Disturbed and scared at the sight of the man in the road she too drives by.  Thinking she is a woman alone and that someone must have reported it by now, she remembers to jot it down in prayer journal as she pulls up to the widow's house in Montclair.  As the light changes again, a 20 something black man in a hoodie runs across four lanes of traffic as he dials 911 and tells the operator about the man on the side of the road.  Swallowing his fear that the police will mistake him for one of the suspects he waits until help arrives."

"The police arrive. followed an ambulance. They perform first aid while carefully loading the man onto a backboard and stretcher to take the man to whatever they call UMDMJ Hospital these days.  The guy in the hoodie knows someone from his church who works in the hospital and asks about the John Doe. He convinces her to look the other way with HIPA and he recruits his church friends to sit vigil with the man until he regains consciousness.  After he starts to recover, the church helps him back into his house in Glen Ridge and makes sure he has food to eat and company in his recovery."

The son asked his father, "which person in the story loved God and his neighbor?" "The kid in the hoodie" says the dad.  The son, whose voice is breaking because he is overcome with love for his dad says "I know you're cynical old guy with a receding hair line and beer gut, but you will never find peace until you are more like the guy with hoodie.  This is really Jesus' story, and it's the only time in the bible he says 'go and do likewise' so you need to be that guy."

My rewrite of Luke 10:25-37 takes place in towns that I am familiar with but don't know anybody who lives in them.  As a white male in my mid 50's I chose the protagonists for obvious reasons.  You may criticize me for these choices, but I would encourage you to ask the question "who is my Samaritan?"  That is, the person who society is conditioning you to reflexively fear.  Until we understand our common humanity and our God given call to care for each other there will be no peace.  

Be blessed 
Pastor Knecht  

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Case for Sin

Sometimes the answer to our questions is just staring us in the face and we are unable to see it.  I think this is the case today in our society, church, culture and even personal relationships.  We are neglecting a central part of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the idea that we need to be forgiven in order to be free to live as God intended. 

What is distressing to me as one who has dedicated a life to the mission of the Gospel is how few Christians talk about sin anymore.   Some Christians teach a lot about being born again, but I am not hearing that one needs to come to grips with his or her sin first.  Other Christians teach a lot about inclusion, but I don't see much introspection about how our own sinfulness may be what  is dividing our communities.  Lot's of people are going to mega churches and following TV preachers to "find their best life now" or to get a "special blessing" and will sign up for seminars, buy books, and contribute money without doing the one thing that is actually necessary to actually turn their life around.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalms 32:5 (NRSV) 

Perhaps most distressingly, many of the right wingers and left wingers who are manning the barricades of the culture wars to right the wrongs of society are utterly blind to the fact that it is most often our own sin which obstructs us from building a more blessed and beloved community.  It is not the sins of those whom we dislike that we need to deal with first, it is the sins committed by ourselves.

Don't get me wrong people believe in sin, it just that we like to look for it in others, not ourselves.  This is the ultimate spiritual struggle and we are called to enter the fray.   For until we experience forgiveness we will not be free and we will not be healed.  Our created purpose is to be people at peace with God and the world and that can not occur until we are relieved of the burden of sin which weighs so closely.

The simple fact of the matter is that we cannot understand the true power of the Gospel unless we start to grasp what Christ has freed us from.  Lutherans traditionally have always talked about the big three, sin, death and the devil.  Notice which one is first.  Sin leads to death and it leads us to open the door to evil in our lives.  Confession and forgiveness is basically preventive medicine to help us be whole. 

This leads us to be forgiving of others, because when we begin to understand that we are not perfect we can better appreciate that our neighbors, co-workers, classmates and family members are not perfect either.   Two key outreach actions of the church in wider society are dependent on a healthy appreciation of our own sinfulness, evangelism and advocacy for the marginalized.  In order to effectively reach out in both ways we have to appreciate our own  history of sin, forgiveness, and new life, as well as our dependence on God to guide us when we do not know the way.

What we can never do is engage this process of confession and forgiveness with an attitude of complacency that we have somehow finished the job.  The world is still waiting for redemption as are we.  So we must daily go once more into the breach, confess our sin, and need for God's help and to hear the word of promise that we are forgiven through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

I understand our reluctance to talk about sin openly; it is certainly easier in the short run to avoid seeing that negative aspects of our lives.  Some  churches today don't really want to make people feel guilty by pointing out that its members are not perfect, so they avoid the topic.   However, the Word is clear While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. Psalms 32:3 (NRSV)

Guilt doesn't come from talking about sin; it comes from unresolved sin.   The church that refuses to talk about sin is doomed experience it in soul crushing ways.  When I fist figured out that God loved me even though I have done things that I should not have, I felt peace.   I would never have experienced true peace for even a brief second if I had not talked to God about the truth of who I am.   So I am making the case that we talk about sin, most importantly our own, so we can know the power of Christ who has forgiven us.  So give me that old-time religion where sinners are forgiven and loved by a gracious God.

Be blessed

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Bible Challenge

I challenge you to read the Bible in 2018. Not parts of the Bible, the whole thing. “We must learn to know the Scriptures once again… as our fathers knew them. We must not grudge the time and work it takes. We must know the Scriptures first and foremost for the sake of our salvation. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

To be a Christian is to be a person of the Word of God. We were called into a relationship with God through the Word. As we say in the Lutheran Church, it is the source and norm of our faith. It is the place we go to find out about how we should deal with the central issues of life. Contemporary culture may not hold the Bible in high esteem, but that is to its detriment; it need not be ours. We have the gifts of God given to us through the Word, we must not throw them away, or relegate them to dust covered bookshelves in the spare bedrooms of our lives. Our life and our salvation is the most precious gift we have, therefore the Word should have pride of place.

Yes, the Whole Enchilada!

While every person of faith has parts of the Bible they like better than others, it is important to read the whole story so that we may know the strengths and weaknesses of our faith. We can at times place ourselves in a spiritual feedback loop, which constantly confirms long held beliefs without question or introspection. This happens often with devotionals that only use individual verses, or churches that only follow a lectionary with narrow range of the wider body of Scripture. Focusing on pieces of Scripture to the exclusion of the whole story of salvation can stunt the growth of a faith life or leave one ill equipped when life brings new challenges. Holy Scripture does not consist of individual passages; it is a unit and it is intended to be used as such (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

Christians are People of the Book

To be a Christian is to be in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We cannot do that without the reading of Scripture. “Consecutive reading of biblical books forces everyone… to put (oneself)… where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of (people).” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together) In other words, God’s story becomes our story, and yes vice versa our lives become part of God’s story too. Regular Bible reading changes who we are and that can be a blessing to others and even the entire world.

As one who reads history often I can tell you that so many of the blessings that we have today were inspired by those who steeped their entire lives in the biblical story. From things such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor laws, to the freedom of individual conscience, the story of God’s salvation inspired those who fought for these things. “The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451) I challenge you to be a Bible person (not a thumper) one who lets God’s story breathe through their life. As you will read in the Gospels, Jesus lived in exactly this way; just look at how many times he quotes the Hebrew Scriptures.

How to Start

If you have not read the Bible regularly before, I encourage you to begin by reading 1-2 chapters continuously of the New Testament daily beginning with Mathew’s Gospel and ending with Revelation. By doing this, you will complete the New Testament in well under a year. As Christians, we read the rest of the Bible through the eyes of Christ, so this is the best place to start.

If you have some experience with the Bible, perhaps a chapter of the Old Testament read continuously, with a Psalm, and when you finished them, a chapter from Proverbs, followed by a chapter of the New Testament. You will not finish the Bible in a year, but will have read the majority of it.

To complete the Bible in a year you can google a plan, there are many available, or you might read 5-6 chapters of Scripture a day. It is important not to get bogged down when you get to those sections of Scripture that can seem monotonous, such as descriptions of the temple furnishings, genealogies, or obscure parts of the Torah. It is important therefore to have a mix of Old Testament and New Testament readings. It is also OK to skim these parts, as long as you aware of what you are leaving out. The goal is the familiarity with the big story of the Bible. I hope that this can be blessing for you in 2018 and you too can let the story of God breathe through your life.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht