Tuesday, September 12, 2017

September 12 - Philippians 4

My dear friend (and previous chiropractor) Jennifer's husband Derrick was in a terrible accident after the top of a tree fell on him, and is now in critical condition in a hospital in New Mexico.  So the well known and cherished Philippians 4:4-7 really hit home for me today.

This is what I wrote in a comment on the Facebook page - and it applies nicely to the survivors in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and any personal disaster you (or someone you know) might be facing -

Verse 5 is so key to it all.

The Lord is at hand.

Why can we rejoice in the Lord always (v. 4), even at a dark time like this? How can we not be anxious (v 6)? How can we keep our disappointments from discouraging our praying with thanksgiving concerning our requests? Only because the Lord is present with us, uniting Himself to us with His peace that passes all our understanding. 

He WILL guard our hearts and minds. And in such an uncertain time as this, it's great to have that piece of absolute, rock solid certainty.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Isaiah 55:10-13 - Farewell Sermon At St. Peter's and St. John's

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11
It was like unexpectedly seeing an old friend when I discovered this would be our Old Testament text for my last Sunday here.  It is one of my most favorite OT passages of all, and extremely appropriate for today. 
I first remember noticing this passage in the summer of 1996.  As I told you this story a few years ago, I was on the Summer Youth Ministry Team for my college.  Mostly that meant helping out with the VBS for a congregation and working with their youth group.  Our team each chose one of our professors who promised to pray for us throughout the summer.  I will never forget the day when a letter came from my partner, Dr. Brighton.  He specifically quoted this text from Isaiah to encourage me.  But that made me a bit confused.  I remember questioning God, “Why this verse now, Lord?  I mean, I feel like my ministry work is going great.  I am seeing the kids learn as I teach.  Your Word is having success.  I mean, maybe if I was discouraged I could understand why You had Dr. Brighton quote this passage.  But I am actually getting great joy from my work.” 
          In less than half an hour, I had an answer.  During our Team meeting, one of my friends poured out her heart saying she felt like a failure.  She was trying to reach the kids with God’s Word, but they just did not seem to be getting it.  Then I realized how foolish and self-centered I was to think that God had sent His Isaiah 55 promise just for my sake.  No, it was for my friend.  At that moment He had given it to me to give away.  He sent Isaiah 55 out so He could promise His daughter that His Word she was speaking would get done what He wanted it to do.  Even if she could not see it happen.
          The second milepost where I came across this passage was two years later in the Fall of 1998.  I was in my second year of seminary, and as I moved into my new dorm room, I noticed that the previous seminarian in that room had taped this verse to the window.  Whenever I saw rain or snow come down outside that window, those words of God got planted that much deeper into my heart.  The early months of that school year were emotionally tough – so I needed the reminder.  All sorts of questions swirled through my head and threatened to drown me.  Would I be any good as a pastor?  My classmates seemed to know so many more answers than I did, and explain things better.  What if I could not find the right words to convince a member at church of the truth of God’s Scriptures?  What if nobody listened to me?  But then God used this verse to snap me out of those fears and bring me back to reality.  His Word would do the work He sent it to do.  His Word would get ‘r done.  Encouraged by God’s promised I completed my studies, and was ordained here to be your pastor for these 16 years under God’s blessing.
          And now this passage comes along at this third milepost, and it is an encouragement for both you and me.  I would be worried sick about what might happen to your faith without me – except that this passage gives us confidence.  Hear God’s promise remind us that the success and livelihood of this congregation never depended upon me being your pastor.  It was always the Word of God that I spoke – and it will always be into the future.  Whatever successes we had in these last years, it was always because God was sending out His Word from Heaven down to us, to succeed in the purposes for which He sent it.  That same word of God that had the power to create when He said, “Let there be light,” and that same word of God that had the power to give life to dead Lazarus when Christ called him to rise from his grave – that same Word gave power to baptisms, so that I did not pour just plain water, but a life giving water, rich in grace – a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.  And even when I was having a bad Sunday morning, that could not change what I gave to you at this Altar.  God’s Word told us that it is Christ’s Body and Blood, and whatever might have been going on in my heart at that moment in time could not change it.  Because it all depends upon God’s Word, not upon me as your pastor.  We face the unknown future with confidence in His Word, because this very day God is sending His Word from Heaven to another man unknown to us – and His Word is working to prepare him to be your pastor for years to come and speak that Word of God to you.
          Isaiah delivered this promise of God to Israel at a pretty significant milepost in their lives.  They lived in dark times, about 500 years after King David had made their nation great and King Solomon had built the Temple, and about 500 more years until Jesus was born.  The Babylonians had defeated them at war, destroyed the Temple of the Lord, and brought the survivors back as slaves to Babylon.  God has promised to bring His faithful people back to the Promised Land where they can wait for the coming Savior. 
But… as days turn into weeks, and months into years, the exiles are still in Babylon.  Nothing seems to change, hope is running dry.  The insults and mockery of the Babylonians made a lot of sense.  Israel lost, so that must mean their gods were stronger than the God of Israel.  So all that talk about the exiles returning to the Promised Land was just empty talk. 
However, the Lord does not give up on them as easily as they give up on Him.  He is patient with His impatient people.  He gives them the picture of rain and snow to help them trust in Him.  They knew rain to be a matter of life and death.  They knew just as much as we do how destructive droughts can get.  God’s Word is like the rain and snow.  His Word is not powerless, but comes down from Heaven to give growth, providing everything we need for a lively spirituality.  The God who provided Bread for their bodies is also providing the Bread of His Word to be food for their souls. 
            God’s Word will accomplish the purposes for which He sent it.  In particular the Lord describes in verses 12 and 13 of today’s text that the people shall in fact go out from Babylon in joy and be led to Jerusalem in peace.  Thorns and briers are replaced by the cypress and myrtle.  Trees in the Bible are a sign of Paradise, while thorns are a sign of man’s sin that has messed things up.  Remember how God had revealed to Adam and Eve that the ground was cursed because they had failed in listening to God.  Thorns and thistles painfully get in our way as we work the ground until we return to the ground in death. 
          Martin Luther once wrote, “The sin underneath all our sin is to trust the lie of the serpent that we cannot trust the love and grace of Christ and must take matters into our own hands.”  We might proudly think that you or I would not have been so dumb as Adam and Even to take that forbidden fruit.  And yet we take matters into our own hands and ignore God’s commands whenever we live according to our own standards of what works for us instead of trusting what God has said.  Here on a Sunday morning, we acknowledge this as the Word of the Lord.  Yet in so many moments in life, the Word of God loses out to our impulses and our devotion to things that do not last forever. 
          In today’s parable of the Sower, Jesus identifies things that get in the way of us taking His Word to heart.  If you do not really listen in the first place, the Devil will come along and snatch that Word from you like the seed that bounced on the hard path.  Or we can be like the rocky ground when trials and persecution dry out our faith.  Jesus also warns us to watch out for the thorns of life that can choke our faith when we get wrapped up in the cares of this world that shut out God’s light and finally teach us to stop believing in Christ.  When we ask ourselves what gets in my way of paying attention to God’s Word, the answers will show us where the weeds and thorns are in our lives. 
          As I said, thorns are a sign in the Bible of our sins.  But do you remember where else thorns appear in the Scriptures?  On the head of our King as the soldiers pressed that awful crown down upon Him.  And the amazing thing is that Jesus chose to wear it.  He had every chance to sin and go against the Word of God.  He could have saved Himself and come down from the Cross.  Instead, Jesus accomplished the purposes of God and succeeded in the reason God sent Him from Heaven – to save us.  And so Christ suffered that crown of sin at His Cross, even as He shouldered the sharp thorns of our guilt and felt the deadly curse of our disobedience.  So that He could take it away from us.

          God’s Word teaches us who we are – human beings created by God, perfect in the beginning in a perfect world now corrupted by sin.  Yet loved by God’s grace and saved by His mercy.  To hearts that are filled with brokenness God sends His Word of good news, that sins are forgiven in Jesus and death is overcome with Christ’s resurrection.  His Word teaches us to look forward to the new Heavens and the new Earth, the home of righteousness, where there will be no more goodbyes, where thorns and thistles are replaced by the beautiful trees of Paradise.  He promises to gather us there in that land as people who will trust God completely with all our heart and will love each other – even as He has already begun that work in us now by the power of His Word.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pentecost Tuesday - Psalm 94 - What Others Said

Luther's Prayer based on Psalm 94, from Reading the Psalms With Luther (CPH) - also extremely appropriate prayer following the OT reading from Numbers about the Balaam saga:

Lord, You are a merciful and a jealous God.  Convert Your enemies, and draw to You those that are going astray; but restrain the malicious persecutors of Your Church and the willful corrupters of Your truth.  Bring their counsels to naught, and show that You are the Lord.  Build Your Church, and make it a city upon a hill for the salvation of many, through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Farewell Letter to St. Peter's and St. John's Lutheran Churches

The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2017

To the members of St. John’s and St. Peter’s Lutheran Churches,
It is with both joy and sadness that I announce that the Lord has led me to accept the call to serve as Pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Windsor, Ontario.
We have so many wonderful memories from living here.   Our family was just two people when we arrived, with no clue God had His plans to increase us to seven - plus my mother-in-law moved to town to be with us, so eight really.  All our children were born, baptized and taught the Word of the Lord here with you.  I have gone through depression here and I suffered the grief of my father’s death and the death of so many dear members here.  Yet through it all, both the good and the bad, you have put up with my mistakes, forgiven my sins, prayed for me and loved my family.  In many ways I have learned from you not only what it means to be a pastor, but also a man of God, a husband, and a father.  I would not have grown to be the person I have become without  the last 16 years of having you as dear friends, the flock of God He had entrusted to me.  Which also fills me with sadness as I think about how much I will miss you and the love you expressed regularly for my family and me. 
I am able to accept this new call because I believe God will bless my family’s life and work in Canada just as He has blessed us in Randolph County.  They have ministries such as a food pantry and more Bible classes, and other different opportunities for ministry that fit many of my strengths, as well as challenging me to grow in some of my weaker areas.  
Quite honestly, another one of my reasons that led me to accept the call to go to Peace Lutheran is because I trust God has another man chosen to lead you and care for you, and to be cared for by you.  He faithfully promises, “Never will I leave you.  Never will I forsake you.”  He makes that promise just as much to us as we move to a different country as He makes it to you here.  St. Peter’s and St. John’s are two congregations blessed by God.  He is even now at work preparing you to grow spiritually with a new pastor, and preparing that new pastor for you.  The Lord only knows how much longer He will use before that work is ready.  He also knows
·         the unforeseen troubles that approach the individual lives of our members,
·         the challenges in the years ahead that face St. Peter’s and St. John’s locally,
·         as well as the threats against Christian churches in America in the future. 

Our Good Shepherd who has died and risen again to provide us with eternal life shall also provide the new pastor who will help lead these two churches to face those changes, differently than I would – but God grant that it is always according to His Word.  
The leadership of our dual parish is faithful.  Yesterday I spoke with Pastor Mark Nebel, our circuit’s visitor, and he is ready to work with them.  I have every confidence that through this work, a pastor will accept your call, and he will deeply bless you and be blessed by you.
Our plans for the timing of our move are very unclear.  As most of you know, my mother-in-law is currently receiving breast cancer treatments.  Our hope would be that I might continue serving as your pastor until after her surgery, which is looking like it will happen in July.  Because the school year in Windsor starts the first week of September, we would like to move into our new home before then.  We will also need to visit Windsor ahead of time to choose a new home as the congregation does not have a parsonage.  As our plans come into focus, I will keep the congregation informed.
I will be arranging with Chairmen Dennis Phegley and Nathan Koester to schedule a dual parish council meeting so we can discuss these things and agree upon my final Sunday here.  It is also my understanding that the voters’ assembly of each congregation will need to vote on granting me a peaceful release as your pastor. 
I have many more things to say, but this is more than enough for now.  Please keep the congregations of St. Peter’s, St. John’s, and Peace in your prayers. I have included two in this letter that you might wish to add to your own.  The people at Peace Lutheran will have you in their prayers.  Please also ask God to grant safety and strength to my family as we make this transition.  I remain
Yours in Christ,
James A. Leistico
Lord God,
           You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
                                                           by paths as yet untrodden,
                                                                       through perils unknown.
           Give us faith to go out with good courage,
                       not knowing where we go,
                       but only that Your hand is leading us
                                   and Your love supporting us;
 through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

O Gracious Father, You led Your holy apostles to ordain ministers for the proclamation of Your Word and the faithful administration of the Sacraments of Christ.  Grant to our congregations the guidance of the Holy Spirit to choose a suitable pastor according to Your will for the blessing of Your Church in this place, and give us patience to wait for Your time; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Monday, May 1, 2017

O Foolish Ones - Homily on Luke 24:13-35 for Easter 3 A

(Many of the thoughts and words came from sermons on this text by Rev. Christopher Esget and Rev. William Cwirla.)

            Pastors are not the only ones who experience a let-down in the days following Easter.  After all those special services, the crowds, the food, the excitement both sacred and secular, it is very easy to say, “Now what?”  Is everything back to the way it was before Easter?  Did it change anything?
            In today’s Gospel, Cleopas and his sad friend walking to Emmaus have been changed forever by Good Friday – changed for the better, but they do not yet realize it.  At the start of the text, they are feeling deeply let-down.  The joy from Palm Sunday seven days ago had turned into a nightmare as they went through the painful goodbyes at the death of their Pastor and Teacher.  But more than that, He had been their friend, the One they counted on for everything, the One they had hoped would redeem Israel – but He was executed.
            Before they left Jerusalem for Emmaus, the women who had gone to the tomb were making no sense, ridiculously claiming the grave was empty and they babbled on about seeing angels and Jesus being alive.  Cleopas and his friend must have figured the stress of the last few days finally pushed the women over the edge into hysteria. 
            They probably were even more confused what happened next, as they walked the road and re-told this bit of the story to the stranger who had joined them along the way.  They expected the stranger to laugh at what the women had said.  Instead, The Man smiles slightly and shakes His head.  “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Do you not realize how necessary it was for this past week to go this way?  All over the place the Scriptures tell us the Christ had to suffer these things and then enter His glory!”
            Their heads began to spin over what the Stranger said.  In their childhood, they had had to memorize what Moses and the prophets had written.  And before He died, Jesus had worked to teach them even more about those writings – so what was this Stranger talking about?
            He begins with Genesis and goes all the way through Malachi.  He brought out the promise of salvation from sin to Adam and Eve, that the woman’s child would feel pain as He crushed the devil’s head.  He probably mentioned the Passover Lamb and all the other sacrifices at the Temple.  He highlighted passages like Isaiah 53 and the Servant of the Lord who suffers: 
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

            Cleopas and his friend were having one big “A-HA!” moment of discovery after another as the Stranger wove all these passages together into one message.  It all began to make sense as He tied together the loose ends of the Old Testament.  Their hearts were racing with excitement as they began to see it all in such a new and beautiful way.  He pretends like He is going further to a different town, but they strongly urge Him to accept their hospitality.  “Abide with us, fast falls the even-tide!”  Right?  This request is where Henry Lyte got his inspiration for the beloved hymn, “Abide with Me.”
            And then more strangeness from this Stranger.  Instead of behaving as a guest, He behaves as the Master of the house.  He sits at the head of the table, and taking the bread as though He owns the place.  He lifts up His eyes to heaven, gives thanks to the Lord, breaks the bread and hands it to them.
            And just as quickly as they finally recognize this Stranger is the risen Jesus, that He truly is alive after death, He instantly disappears.  As weird as all that was, somehow it does not disturb them in the least because it makes sense that Jesus would be working this way.  It was Jesus on the road, hiddenly teaching the Scriptures.  It was Jesus at the table breaking the bread.  Their hearts could not contain all the joy and excitement!  They had to tell the others!  Despite how late it was in the evening, they run all the seven miles back to Jerusalem to let the other disciples know what they saw and heard.
            “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.”  That is the Lord’s judgment of the two Emmaus disciples on the road.  And how often that is the Lord Jesus’ judgment about your conversations and mine with our friends.  Foolish and slow of heart, failing to believe God’s Word.  Yes, we will be happy to tell you the Bible is the God-honest truth.  We love the Scriptures, and God does not lie to us.  But then we go and live like the truth of what the Lord has said and done does not really matter in the ordinary hours of our lives.  We can hear the good news of the resurrection and then go on as though nothing important happened.  Oh, how foolish ones we are, worrying and not believing the Scriptures.
            All of our bad emotions and actions – all the anger, laziness, bitterness that ties up your guts and keeps you thinking in the darkness – it all comes from this unbelief.  Martin Luther’s wife Katie once scolded him, “To look at you, you would never know that Jesus rose from the dead!”  Maybe you have gone through one of those “As if Jesus had not risen from the dead” weeks recently, getting caught on a treadmill of frustrations and failures and putting the general dumbness of existing in a world of sin.  It is so easy to forget that
Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!
            The sad disciples on the road to Emmaus expressing their disappointed hopes and dreams before they recognize Jesus are just one example of this.  We have so many disappointments that we dwell over.  Beauty fades.  Tummies bulge.  People die in the wrong way at the wrong times – although back in the beginning, there was no such thing as a right way or right time for death, because there was no death when there was no sin. 
            Now the shadow of death touches us uninvited.  Its dark cloud follows us and affect us so that we make bad choices.  We walk with grief, in sad and unbelieving ways that are not pleasing to God.
            What are we foolish and slow of heart ones to do?  Trust in the Lord who says, “Repent and believe the good news, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”  God’s repentance turns hearts that are slow to believe into burning hearts.  Notice that what caused the hearts of the Emmaus’ disciples to burn was not when they recognized Jesus – but they tell us it was already long before that, when their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.  They could not see Jesus even when He was talking to them.  Likewise, our eyes are prevented from seeing Jesus.  Yet He is every bit as much here speaking to us His Scriptures as He was there in Emmaus.  The Bible testifies to this fact.  He is with us in most profound and amazing ways, much more amazing than a seven mile road away from Jerusalem.  He is with us by His Word and Spirit, in the preaching of the Scriptures, in the breaking of the bread that is His Body.  He is with us.  These things open the eyes of faith, and there Jesus is recognized to be our Lord and Savior.  There in His Word He walks with us and talks with us, as hearts that are slow to believe have the flame of faith kindled in them again by the fire of the Holy Spirit. 
Every Sunday becomes an Emmaus walk with Jesus not seen but heard.  This is the place to know Him, the place where He gives us Himself, the place where He forgives our slowness to believe Him, the place where He nourishes and supports us for our long journey of walking with Him until we find rest in Heaven and see Him with our own eyes in the Resurrection. 
            When we find ourselves with those two disappointed disciples, confused, hurting, grieving, not sure what to do next, the Church has given us something worthwhile and holy to do – or rather to say.  Somewhere in history, a brother in Christ based a beautiful prayer for us on the two disciples’ invitation to Jesus.  I would like you to pray it with me now – it is in your hymnal on page 257.  “Abide with us, Lord, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. Abide with us and with your whole Church. Abide with us at the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world. Abide with us with your grace and goodness, with your holy Word and Sacrament, with Your strength and blessing. Abide with us when the night of affliction and temptation comes upon us, the night of fear and despair, the night when death draws near. Abide with us and with all the faithful, now and forever. Amen.”                                     This prayer helps us put our cares and anxieties to rest in the nail-marked hands of Jesus.  It reminds us that no matter what disturbing things have happened in our day, our week, our life, Jesus Christ is risen, and none of these things will get in the way of Him raising us to life with Him at the end of time. 
            The world wants to persuade us to be just like them in their sad, sometimes angry, but always deadly walk.  They talk like fools, as though Jesus was not with us.  However, here in the Church, we have bread, and we have life, and we invite the world to leave their sad paths and walk with us instead as we witness to them all the way to the glorious appearing of Jesus that -
Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!