Friday, December 11, 2015

Worship: the Gift of Christmas

"Christmas" means worship, it contains the words Christ and mass.   Christians the celebrate Good News of God becoming one of us and coming into the world the same way we came into the world, through a woman.  We worship and give thanks to God because we know the end of the story that this baby would grow up to prove God's love and accomplish our salvation through the cross and resurrection.

Today we are living in oft broken world; a divided society, acts of terrorism, racial injustice, a changing climate, an inequitable economy and other seemingly intractable problems fill our consciousness with fear and loathing. With all the problems in our world these days perhaps you might wonder what worship can actually do?     Worship is the first discipleship practice; it turns our hearts toward God, renews our minds, resets our emotions and gives us proper perspective.

Worship is central to the story of the incarnation found in the Bible.  We find Mary in the midst of all of her challenges of becoming a new mother in impossible circumstances singing:

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him Luke 1:49-50 (NRSV)

Zechariah the father of John the Baptist celebrates the work of salvation that is only just beginning by singing these words:

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. Luke 1:68 (NRSV)

The shepherds going about their normal work-a-day lives witness the angels worshiping so they can tell the Holy Family some Good News to help them through their challenges of being first time parents while far away from home.  The angels sang:

Luke 2:14
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" (NRSV)

The Magi take an arduous journey and dodge a murderous middle eastern despot all to engage in a a brief moment of worship for the newborn Savior of the Nations.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:11 (NRSV)

All of these people and countless since have found, hope, promise, peace and inspiration through worship. This is all available to us through the gift of Christian community that gathers for worship.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fight Terrorism: Teach Generosity

Waking Up to the Same Nightmare

Terrorism is nothing new.  It has been around my whole life.   In my childhood, headlines reported acts by the IRA, FALN and the Weathermen. Europe had the Bade-Meinhoff gang and Red Army Faction.  Israel has suffered terrorist attacks its entire existence as a modern state.  In the 90's Timothy McVeigh attacked Oklahoma City, a cult poured sarin gas into the Tokyo Subway. Then we lived through the rise of  Al Qaeda with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, 9-11 and the London and Madrid attacks.  Now we have ISIS. While much press is always given how we can prevent future attacks, surprisingly little is given to how do prepare to respond when attacks occur.  Given the reality of human history this point should not be overlooked.

So I would like for us to think about how we can prepare spiritually for when attacks come. Terrorists like ISIS not only attack physical and human targets they intentionally target the spirit of the community in their cross hairs.   By examining what Jesus teaches us, we will have the tools to strengthen and protect our own spirits and the the spirit of the community we serve.

The Terrorist's' True Target: Goodwill

The primary goal of a terrorist attack is to disrupt the target society by instilling fear.  Part of achieving this plan is to disrupt those who work for a civil society, destroy goodwill, so people will feel they have nowhere to turn and are cowed into submission. For example, ISIS wants the flow of refugees to stop, just like the Communists did when they built the Iron Curtain   ISIS needs people to kick around, children to conscript into its army, people with skills to keep the water running, the lights on, and most of all to sell crude oil.   When people leave the conflict zones, ISIS loses human capital to continue its struggle for domination in the Middle East.  Our goodwill starves ISIS of resources. Their goal: instil fear to stop generosity.   Our fight: stand up for our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and remain gracious.

The Jesus Way

People forget, but the scholarship is clear; Jesus lived in a time when terrorism was rife. On Epiphany we will read how Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled the state sponsored terror of Herod.  Two of Jesus' own disciples may have been identified with groups that may have engaged in acts of terror, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. Jesus was killed using a Roman method to intentionally inspire terror.  So when you read the words of Jesus below, remember that he was no pie in the sky dreamer, but a person who lived and served in a very violent society.

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. ' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48 NRSV)

Refuse to Submit

For ordinary folks like us, the Way of Jesus Christ may seem hard,  but I will ask you to pray and think deeply, and hopefully see the grace in it.    When we succumb to fear and take revenge for ourselves in contradiction to biblical teaching, we play by the terrorists' rules.   The core of radical fundamentalist Islamic teaching is that Allah needs the terrorists to take revenge on the infidel  (btw doesn't that really say their god is weak?).  When we seek out revenge, we will only give them new motivation for further acts of their revenge. We will also be submitting to the scenario they wanted all along.

Countless Christian Martyrs and the the great peace leaders of the 20th century such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. realized the gift of Jesus' teaching.  They understood it for what it precisely is, a courageous, comprehensive, and effective strategy to stop evil. They would not submit to an unjust system.  When we stand with them, we are refusing to submit, and standing up to evil.  As Paul wrote when we are gracious, it is as if we are pouring hot coals over their heads.  This is because by being gracious and generous we are disrupting their agenda of violence.

This struggle we have is not just with groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, the KKK, Neo Nazi's or Anarchists.  It is is spiritual struggle against powers at work within our very communities and homes. These powers are calling us to become hard hearted and fearful. If we submit to them we lose, not just to them, but indeed we lose our very selves.

When humanity killed God's only Son, God did not take revenge.  He refused to submit and raised Jesus to new life.  God refused to submit to death and stood for life. Countless Christians will continue to to do the same, by serving and helping those who the world says should be their enemies. When we aid the Syrian refugee, we are fighting evil, When we clothe and feed the homeless, we are fighting evil.  When we greet and welcome the neighbor from the county we can't find on the map, we are fighting evil.  When we affirm human dignity of every person, we refuse to submit to the world's agenda.  If the headlines have shocked you lately, maybe it is just the time to stand with Jesus and be generous.

Be blessed,

Pastor Knecht

Thursday, October 15, 2015

How to Share Your Faith without Annoying People

Christian Life is Proclamation

Jesus started his ministry by saying "The Kingdom of God is near!" (Mark 1)  Jesus teaches the 12 disciples (Mathew 10) and then later on 70 more (Luke 10) to do what he does and they report back some great stories.  The disciples then proclaim the Good News of Jesus' Resurrection at Pentecost (Acts 2).   The Apostle Paul travels around the Mediterranean proclaiming and building up communities of proclaimers.  (The largest part of the book of Acts, Romans 10)  Christian life is proclamation.

What Christian Proclamation is Not 

Somewhere along the way some believers reduced the Christian life to a series of accepted facts. Evangelism was also thereby reduced to getting others to accept these facts.   So some believers became argumentative and annoying so the world stopped listening. The real tragedy is that a relationship with the living God of Jesus Christ was lost to countless people.

This summer while on vacation in Virginia Beach as my 8 year old son and I were walking from our hotel to get some ice cream we encountered a group of believers who were trying to get patrons of a local bar "to accept the facts".   They were doing this primarily by yelling condemnations through a bullhorn to try to get people to see that they were wrong.    My son whose experience with Christianity is overwhelmingly positive and nurturing was quite bewildered at this circus.   As we ate our ice cream, we talked about what was going on.   I tried to be as gracious as I could about these street preachers and told him that they really thought they could help people.   He said simply "I don't think it's working."

When I speak about evangelism or faith proclamation this is unfortunately is what most people have in mind.  They actually think that when the church sends people out, it is to annoy other people, argue, and get them to submit to what we think.  No wonder people don't want to evangelize.  Who in their right mind would want to do this?   Fortunately this is not what we are called to do when the Bible speaks about proclamation. Real faith sharing is much more meaningful and life giving.

Real Proclamation has Real Stories

Let me show you another picture by talking about how anyone can share the Good News of Jesus Christ in 5 steps without becoming another person's burden and without feeling guilt or shame.

Step 1. Just share your good news! 

The word evangelism originally meant "good news sharing".   So we talk about the good things God is doing in our lives and in the world.   Biblical evangelism should always be positive.   So we talk about what God has done for us, how we came to know God, why a life in Christ is important for us.  We can also share how we have witnessed what good things God has done for others.  So we keep the "good" in the Good News.

Step 2. Just talk about your experience!

No need to give a history lesson, or talk about someone else.   We start with our own encounter of God. We might also include how we we encounter Christ anew through our community of faith.  The most powerful witnesses are where our stories meet God's story in Jesus Christ.

Step 3. Just relax!

Lutherans confess that it is the Holy Spirit who calls us to faith.    You are not responsible for the outcome.  Christians are called to share what God has done, is doing, and will do in the future.   Whether another accepts this is not up to us.   We just want to share some good news that might inspire or help people.   We are not called to argue, convince, persuade or manipulate anybody.  We can bless and help people no matter what they believe.

4. Just listen! 

This is where many times our proclamation breaks down.   Effective faith sharing often involves more listening than speaking.   When people are called to faith they are called out of their isolation into a relationship with God and other people.    Effective relationships always involve both speaking and listening.   One of the joys of faith sharing is that you begin to heat the stories of other people, you will get to know them, and build friendships with them.

5. Just pray!

Our faith sharing must have its source in our own living relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit.    If it does not than it is not really evangelism or genuine proclamation.   We talk about God they way would would talk of others whom we are in meaningful relationships with.  Prayer will help us see with eyes of faith where and how God is working in our life.  Prayer can also frame our witness so that we are not hurting or injuring others through our words.  Prayer is the most essential component of faith sharing.

My own prayer is that this clarification can help you have the wonderful blessing of being able to share God's story for your life with others.  May God bless you as you share your story of the Good News.

Be blessed

Pastor Knecht

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Discipleship as Reprogramming

How do we make choices?

As part of my summer reading I read Isaac Asimov's four classic robot novels.  They are science fiction police procedurals.  The main characters are a New York detective Elijah Baley and a humaniform robot Daneel Olivaw.  They often engage in discussions about the how the programming of the robots affects the actions and decisions they make.  As in most artificial intelligence stories, the moral dilemmas are highly intriguing .  Asimov's fictional robots adhere to the three laws of robotics 1.  A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction cause one to come harm.  2. A robot shall obey all orders from humans that do not break the first law 3. A robot shall protect itself as long as it does not conflict with the first or second laws.  The fun of the books is seeing what happens when the robots are put in situations where there are choices that cause a decision that brings a conflict in the programming.   What these in fact are, are ways to discuss how people in the real world come up with the moral choices they make.

Human Programming

While real people may not have something equivalent to the three laws, we are programmed by our biology, environment, experiences, upbringing, culture and education.  A great biblical example of this would be the wilderness temptation story found in Matthew and Luke where Satan tries to manipulate the basic human programming to have need for food (turn these stones to bread),  power (see these kingdoms, they can be yours),  and attention (throw yourself off the cliff and watch daddy come and save you!).  In each case Jesus as God’s son shows he is not programmed as Satan would have liked. He demonstrates how the first commandment to fear and love God overrides the baser human instincts for food (man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God), power (worship the Lord and serve only him), and attention (Do not put the Lord your God to the test).   The first commandment to love God puts things in proper perspective and allows Jesus to continue on with his ministry.  

Discipleship, a life of following Jesus Christ and being in a healthy relationship with Christ is a lot about allowing God to reprogram us or update our programming. Living in a sinful and broken world, our programming is often damaged.  Value judgements of the majority are taken in and accepted without question, because it is easier to do so.   Negative experiences put us on the defensive.  Life conditions may cause us to become self-centered, or others may convince us that we have no self worth or dignity.  The problem of race that America is dealing with at this time is essentially one of bad programming. Americans have been programmed with a set of beliefs and actions that are neither grounded in biology or the Word of God, which both clearly state we are single common humanity.  So overcoming this dilemma will require each of us to examine how the world has programmed us and work to change those lines of code which draw us away from God and cause conflict with our brothers and sisters.

Life 2.0

This can be done; I have seen it.   I have seen addicts use faith to help them deal with their illness and change their lives.   I have seen people whose first marriages broke apart have wonderful life giving and healthy second ones.   I have watched self centered selfish people turn around and start caring for their neighbors because an encounter with God led them there.  I have seen hyper self-conscious people afraid to talk with any one come out of their shell and build a healthy and appropriate self esteem. In short,  in my ministry I have witnessed countless people who have with the help of God altered their programming.   The real joy of ministry is watching lives be changed for the better by the Holy Spirit. Jesus encourages to do exactly this when he says things like this spoken during the Sermon on the Mount “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:33 (NRSV).  

My favorite book of Asimov’s robot series was the last one “Robots and Empire”  where two robots, the aforementioned Daneel Olivaw, and another robot  Giskard Reventlov come to the conclusion that the three laws they are programmed with are inadequate.   They begin to see that they actually cause moral outrages when strictly adhered to, like when saving one person will kill thousands.   Their conclusion is that a fourth law is needed. Called the zeroth law, it becomes a preface to the other three, a robot may not do something that harms humanity as a whole.   When the robots incorporate this law they become free and true moral agents.  They are liberated when they show concern for the wider world. If you have not guessed by now I will tell you; Isaac Asimov really did not write about robots, he was writing about people.

When people allow God to help reprogram their lives with a concern for something beyond themselves they are set free. Adhering to the great commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, and might,  and to love your neighbor as yourself,  is not a constriction, it is a liberation.  You become free to override all aspects of your cultural programming. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said “only the one who believes is obedient, and only the one who is obedient believes”.  What I am arguing is that only the one who is obedient is free, and only the one who is free is obedient.   Faithful discipleship is liberation.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Discipleship Academy

I would like to invite you all to consider taking part in a new innovative program we are working on with the New Jersey Synod Discipleship and Witness Team.   Please check it out below and contact me if you are interested in trying this out to help build up the life of your congregation. 

Discipleship Academy
Build- Grow-Go

The Discipleship Academy is a ministry designed to:

Equip congregations and their leaders with resources to fulfill their mission to grow the people of God in their location,

Work together and share the untapped wisdom found in our clergy, deacons and lay leaders,

Lift up publically those in our congregation who can be examples or mentors for others in a growing life of discipleship.

The Basics

The Discipleship Academy is a series of 4 week courses to encourage deeper faith through practices of discipleship. The courses are created by participating congregations and will be designed so that they may be lay or clergy led. There are seven core courses that emphasize the building up of foundational discipleship practices. Elective courses on a wide variety of topics will also be offered as supplementary courses. All the courses will be found at a website linked to the synod’s site.

The core courses:

Sacred Storytelling and Witness
Bible Reading
Community in Christ
Our Lutheran Witness
Serving Our Communities

Some Details

4-8 minute videos will be posted on the web for each course via YouTube on the Discipleship Academy Channel.

Each course is offered in individual congregations according to the congregation’s schedule. The pastor reports those who complete the courses to the ministry’s synod representative of Discipleship. When people complete four courses they receive a certificate of accomplishment (What about Phase 1: Follower Milestone 1) and a public affirmation of their work in their home congregation. Names will posted on the synod website to celebrate and encourage them in their growth. A second certificate is issued along with another public affirmation when four more courses are completed (Phase 2: Disciple Milestone 2). A third certificate is offered upon completion of the seven core courses (Phase 3: Apostle (Sent One) Milestone 3). Those who wish to continue to grow are are encouraged to enroll in either Diakonia or some other theological study. It is our hope that those who do so will keep us informed of their further study so we may celebrate it with them.

We are recommending that courses have a small fee, which is used at the complete discretion of the participating congregation. This is to help the participants to understand that this is intended to be a commitment. Scholarships should always be given to allow anyone who wants to attend to come.

We are planning for this to be a living curriculum in two ways. First, we would ask each participating congregation to offer an elective course to the academy. Secondly as the courses are given, we will be asking for the input of the participants and leaders so that the courses can be edited over time and additional resources given. Together, we can grow disciples in New Jersey and make a difference in this corner of the world for the reign of God!

What’s the outcome? 

The goal is to grow disciples. As we are all at different places in our journey, we would like to celebrate and encourage disciples in their growth. We would like to encourage different milestones through Discipleship Academy. When an individual finishes 3 core courses and 1 elective, they reach Stage 1: Follower. When they finish another central course and any three additional courses, they reach Stage 2: Disciple. Stage 3: Apostle (Sent One) occurs after the completion of all the core courses. After that, we encourage the disciple to seek further theological training through Diakonia or other similar programs.

How much does it cost? The course is a FREE resource, we only ask that if you participate, you would create an elective course of your choosing that follows the structure of the core classes.  It would then be posted on the site with all the other courses.  We also recommend a minimal fee for each participant (to encourage commitment). The money gathered by the course is to be used with your congregation’s discretion.

Who leads the course? The course is designed so that anyone can teach it. Each course will include a brief video accessed through YouTube. Each congregation picks and chooses which courses to teach, working within the schedule and life of your particular congregation.

Where can I get this course? The Discipleship Academy courses will be available through the New Jersey Synod Discipleship and Witness page starting September 1st.   We are currently beginning a test run in some congregations this March.