Dealing with Distractions – Sermon for May 14, 2017

Dealing with Distractions
Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60
5th Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Everyone gets distracted. The older you get, the more responsibilities you have, the more likely it is that something will slip through the cracks. Sometimes it’s something small, like scrambling to get out the door on time in the morning and leaving your coffee mug sitting on the table. Other times it’s something more significant, like missing an appointment or deadline because something else comes up unexpectedly.  No one knows this better than moms, who are consistently responsible not only for their own schedule but also for the schedules of their kids and, often, their husband. That’s why it’s good on a day like today to take time out to say thank you to moms for all that they do. But Mother’s Day sentimentality aside, most moms could probably tell you a story about the time they forgot something important for work or home or their child’s school. Most dads could too.

That’s because distraction is a common problem. Many would argue that, as a culture, we have become addicted to distraction. It is now a documented fact that the sound your phone makes when you get a text message or other alert releases dopamine into your brain. Dopamine is a chemical in your brain that drives you to seek rewards and gives you a sense of pleasure when that reward is met. It sharpens your focus and increases goal directed behavior so long as that behavior results in the desired reward. Some researchers suggest that the cultural addiction to smartphones is a result of the dopamine they produce in your brain. For example, dopamine in your brain makes you start looking for something, and when you find that thing, you get a feeling of reward or accomplishment. With smartphones, the dopamine in your brain encourages you to look for the notification: a new text, new email, new mention. With phones, you can have that reward experience almost immediately, which releases more dopamine into your brain so that you seek the reward more and more. Smartphones are especially suited to feed this cycle because dopamine is heightened by anticipation and unpredictability. Subconsciously wondering when your phone will bing next releases dopamine into your brain. Then, when your phone finally bings, the result that your brain was seeking is fulfilled. The behavior is rewarded, and your brain starts the whole cycle over by anticipating the next bing.[1]

When your phone doesn’t bing, you pick it up to see if you missed something. You check it every few minutes just to make sure. And if you didn’t miss something, if there’s no notifications there to reward you, then you post on social media or text someone in an effort to induce a response from your phone. Or you play one more level on that game so that you can hear the sound it makes when you win. Or you look for that one perfect pin on Pinterest that you can save for later. And pretty soon, the dishes aren’t done, the laundry’s not folded, the lawn needs to be mowed, you haven’t made eye contact with your spouse all day, you haven’t spent much time with your kids, you didn’t finish that report for your meeting at work in the morning, and all you can think about is how to get your phone to make that “new message” sound you love so much. We are easily distracted people. And more often than not, we’re so caught up in the distraction and how it makes us feel that we don’t even realize what’s not getting done, what important tasks are slipping through the cracks.

It’s just as easy for us to get distracted in the church. It’s easy for us to get distracted as the children of God. It’s easy for us to let what’s most important slip through the cracks as we chase after other things – some of which are important, some of which are not. It’s a temptation that faces the church as a whole, and a temptation that faces each of us as a child of God.

Today’s reading from the book of Acts tells of a two-fold distraction, temptations that would keep us distracted from the main purpose of the church and the primary work of the children of God. One of the major distractions is the threat of persecution. The Apostle Stephen was violently opposed for preaching the good news of Jesus. When he would not fall silent in the face of his persecutors, he was killed. We often find ourselves living in fear of persecution and we wonder what we would do if such a threat appeared in our lives. We don’t need to limit persecution only to death threats, although there are certainly people around the world for whom that remains a distinct possibility. For us, we live in fear of becoming a social outcast, or of losing friends, maybe even losing family members. We live in fear of how people might negatively respond if we proclaim the Word of God with our lips and with our lives.

The threat of persecution or hardship is a powerful temptation to set aside our identity as God’s children and instead to attempt to blend in with the world around us. And because there’s no shortage of reasons to fear, we can quickly become addicted to the distraction. Like waiting for the phone to buzz, we end up waiting for, even looking for the next threat. We become distracted from the comfort of God’s Word.

When faced with such temptations, we remember Jesus’s words from today’s Gospel reading: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Often Jesus spoke of His suffering and death, but we tend to forget. Now He says: “I am the Way.” He is the Way to live and to die. Jesus said “Narrow is the Way that leads to Life and few are those who find it.” It is narrow because it is the way of God, following God’s Word, not distracted by the threats of sinful men. How does one quiet a fearful heart in the face of persecution or rejection from the world? By believing in the promise of Jesus. How does one quiet fears about the future? By listening to Jesus who says: “In My Father’s house are many mansions. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to Myself so that where I am also you may be.” And then He adds: “And where I am going you know the Way.” Jesus went the way of sorrows and suffering, the way of the cross, the way of death and resurrection so that we can go the way of peace and everlasting life. Jesus is the Way.[2]

Beyond the fear of persecution, we are also tempted to become distracted from who we are as the children of God by other good and godly activities. It is important for parents to make sure their kids have clean clothes, but that’s not their most important task. Would we applaud parents who were so wrapped up in doing laundry that they neglected to feed their children or take them to the doctor when they had a fever? So also we are likely to get distracted by activities that are in and of themselves good and godly, but that are not our main focus as the children of God.

In today’s reading from Acts, that activity was tending to the needs of widows. The twelve summoned the full number of disciples and said: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables.”[3] There are cautions and reminders in there for all the children of God. Most importantly, there is a reminder of the importance of hearing God’s Word. I’ve often heard it said that the church should focus on deeds, not creeds, that the church should focus on helping the sick and starving, the widows and the orphans, and not on gathering for worship or Bible study. And because such experiences are often more fulfilling than an hour of sitting in church or Bible Study, we become addicted to the distraction. Like waiting for the phone to buzz, we are waiting for the next service trip or charity event, ignoring the simple task of listening to God’s Word while we wait.

But such ideas distract us from our main focus as the children of God. It’s not that such activities or acts of charity and mercy are unimportant. They certainly are. But we must keep the hearing of God’s Word our top priority. We are first and foremost people who hear and confess the truth of God’s Word. We hear and confess the truth of our sin. We hear and confess the truth of our salvation. We listen to him who is the way, the truth and the life, for there is no way other than him. There is no life apart from him. His Word of truth assures us that he is our Good Shepherd, the one who laid down his life that we might overcome death. Living in that promise is what makes us children of God. The acts of kindness and mercy, while important, come after the hearing of God’s Word. It’s like a lamp in your living room. If you want the lamp to light up, you have to plug it in. Once you unplug it, the bulb goes dark. You don’t just plug it in for 30 minutes then unplug it expecting the lamp to go on working all evening. The lamp has to remain plugged in to shine. So also the children of God. We need to be plugged into God’s Word to be the light of the world. We don’t just plug in once or twice a year and expect the light to shine. We stay connected to the source – to the Word of God – and then through us the light of God shines into the darkness.

The world is full of things that would distract us from this reality. Whether it’s the bing of a smartphone or the dozens of other activities and events that would keep us from regular worship and Bible Study, repent of these distractions. Turn your focus back to hearing and learning the Word of God, making regular worship a priority, not fearing soft or hard persecution from the dying world, not prioritizing pious actions over the Sabbath rest of hearing God’s Word, but instead remaining plugged into that Word in order that the Holy Spirit might create saving faith within you.  For with that faith comes the promise of eternal rest, the joy of knowing you are loved by your Father in heaven, and the comfort of knowing that no matter what happens in this life and in this world, Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you. And he will come again to take you unto himself. May the Word of God comfort you with this promise all the days of this life and into the life to come.

[1] Susan Weinschenk Ph.D. “Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google” Psychology Today Online (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201209/why-were-all-addicted-texts-twitter-and-google)

[2] The Sermon Notes of Harold Buls. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/bul/east-03a.html

[3] Acts 6:2

Hearing Our Lord – Sermon for May 7/8, 2017

Hearing Our Lord
John 10:1-10
4th Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)
May 7th/8th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

The human eye is an incredible creation composed of over 2 million working parts. There has never been a successful eye transplant because the eye is so intricate, connected to the brain by more than 1 million microscopic nerve fibers. But the eye incredible not only because of how precisely and intricately designed it is, but because of the impact it has on us as people. Sight is the primary sense in human beings. Some people estimate that 80% of our memories are determined by what we see, and 80% of what we learn is learned through the eyes. The only organ more complex in the entire body is the brain itself, but over half of the brain is devoted to processing visual stimuli. Vision is the primary sense for the vast majority of human beings – it forms our most basic understanding of the world around us. Of course, the bodies and brains of those who are blind learn to rely on other senses to make up for the lack of vision. But generally speaking, sight is the primary sense in people.

But what about the children of God? What is to be the primary sense for the children of God? Which sense are we to rely upon most for our understanding of the world around us?

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Our Epistle reading reminds us that we were at one time straying like lost sheep, but we have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. The Psalm for today is Psalm 23, one of the most beloved sections in all the Scriptures. The Lord is my shepherd; I am his sheep. The Gospel reading for today records for us words of our Lord that have become known as the Good Shepherd Discourse. The image of shepherd and sheep is one of the consistent images that runs through the entire history of God’s people. It’s a prominent image in the Old Testament. It’s a prominent image in the New Testament. It’s a prominent image in the church today. It’s in our hymnody. It is in our artwork. Here at St. John we have a painting by the elevator depicting Jesus as a shepherd, and we have a stained glass window dedicated to the same idea. Today’s Gospel reading helps us understand a bit more about why this image is a favorite one of our Lord, and why he consistently places it before us. And believe it or not, it has a lot to do with sight.

Today’s Gospel reading from John chapter 10 follows on the heels of an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees where sight was the main topic. John chapter 9 records for us the account of a man born blind who had his sight restored by Jesus. The man is questioned by the Pharisees, as are his parents, and eventually he is cast out of the synagogue for confessing Jesus as Christ. When Jesus heard that the man had been cast out of the synagogue, he went and found him and said, “For judgment have I come into the world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” When the Pharisees heard this, they asked Jesus, “Are we also blind?” To which Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say you see, your guilt remains.” He then immediately launches into the Good Shepherd Discourse, including this discussion about how true sheep hear the voice of their shepherd, relying on their ears, not their eyes.

That’s our call as the children of God: to rely on our ears, not our eyes.

Our eyes will deceive us. Our eyes will fill us with fear. Our eyes will fill us with anxiety and doubt. Our eyes will look out at the world around us and see rising unrest. They will see a polarized political existence in our country. They will see racial tensions. They will see professional baseball players subjected to racial slurs in a Major League Ballpark. They will see tensions rising between those fighting for religious liberty on one side and those fighting for SOGI laws on the other. Our eyes will see flooding in Missouri and Texas. They will see tornados and earthquakes and hurricanes. They will see cancer and disease and death within our own families and church and school. Our eyes will give us every reason to fear.

But our Shepherd beckons us to believe our ears, not our eyes. For faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.  Christ our Shepherd invites us to cast all our anxiety on him, for he cares for us. His yoke is easy. His burden is light. He leads us to the still waters. He makes us to lie down in green pastures. He fills our cups overflowing with his mercy. Though the mountains crumble and the earth gives way, the steadfast love of our Lord never ceases. Behold, the Son of God, with whom the Father is well pleased. Listen to him. Don’t let your eyes fill you with fear. Let your ears fill you with peace.

But our eyes are powerful. We’ve learned to rely so much on vision. We’ve trained ourselves that seeing is believing. It is not only fear and anxiety that our sight tempt us to believe more than we believe the promises of God. It is greed and lust. Our eyes see the fruit of the world, and seeing that the fruit looks good for eating, we are tempted to take a bite. Our eyes take in the new car our neighbor drives, the new house our friends purchased, the new phone, the new Apple watch, the new iPad, the new this the new that. Our eyes gluttonously devour all the toys and possessions that are not ours, and our eyes tell us that we deserve more, that we deserve better, that we want what others have.

But our Shepherd beckons us to believe our ears, not our eyes. Our ears hear the voice of our Shepherd saying , “Do not covet.” It those words is more than a command; in those words is a promise of freedom. The one who commits sin is a slave to sin. The one whose eyes are addicted to greed becomes a slave to greed. But if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. Free from the worry that comes with discontent and coveting. Free from the temptation that is always hiding in the shadow of those shiny new things. The temptation to cut back giving to God so that we can afford a nicer car or more extravagant vacation. The temptation to neglect quality time with our spouse or children because we are spending so many hours working for a bigger paycheck. The temptation to play with the numbers a little so that the government doesn’t really know how much we make. The growing hatred in our hearts as we look at the possessions of the people around us and, rather than rejoicing in the good gifts our Lord has given someone else, hating them for getting what we want. The temptation to tear down the reputation of another person or to speak ill of them or to sabotage them because we are jealous.

Our Lord’s Word sets us free from all of that when it says, “Do not covet. But receive from the Lord with thanksgiving that which is yours.” Our ears give us the peace of a thankful heart. Our ears hear the Lord’s call to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” And our ears trust that our Lord will give us such bread, neither giving us so much extra that we think we have no need of our Lord, nor giving us so little that we fall into theft and so dishonor the name of the Lord. Our ears hear that our heavenly Father knows we need food and clothing and shelter, and that he desires to give us these things. Our ears, not our eyes, fill us with such peace.

Our eyes see the pleasures of the world around us. Our eyes lust after the flesh, after the bottle, after the next high or the next thrill. Our ears hear the voice of our Lord calling us back to his fold. These other voices are not the shepherd. They have not entered our lives or our hearts or our minds by the door, but have climbed in by some other means. They come to steal and kill and destroy. To steal our joy and kill our relationships and destroy the life our Lord has designed for us – a life of faith toward him and love toward others. Jesus has come that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus has come, and he speaks. He comes with his Word. He comes to our ears, not our eyes.

He comes in a splash of water on a baby’s forehead. The eye sees tap water. The ear hears the Word of God and knows that by itself that water would be plain water, but because it is combined with God’s Word it is the life-giving water of baptism.  The eye sees bread and wine. The ear hears the Word of God and knows that the crucified and risen Christ himself is present in this meal to bring us forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. It is our ears, not our eyes, to which our Lord makes his appeal. It is through our ears, not our eyes, that our Lord is present among us today.

When a person loses their sense of sight, their body responds by directing some of the parts of the brain that would normally be used to process visual stimuli to process sounds, smells, tastes, and touch instead. That’s partly why people close their eyes when the kiss or when they take a bite of a particularly tasty steak or when they take a long deep breath to absorb the smell of flowers in the springtime. Our other senses are strengthened when sight is taken away. Jesus says that he came into the world so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind. Those who trust the eyes more than the ears will never see the Lord for who he is. As far as we trust our eyes, the painful and disappointing circumstances of our lives, the temptations and siren songs of the world around us, more than we trust the Word of the Lord in our ears, so far will we miss Jesus for who he truly is.

Repent of idolizing your eyes. Hear the voice of your Shepherd. Learn to recognize the voice of your Shepherd. When you hear the voice of another, do not follow it. Flee. Learn to hear the voice of your Shepherd in the proclamation of his Word, and follow that voice. For he alone is the Good Shepherd. All others are thieves and robbers. Do not listen to them. Hear the voice of your Shepherd calling you to repentance. Hear the voice of your Shepherd promising you forgiveness. Hear the voice of your Shepherd and follow him. For He has come to give you life, and to give it to you abundantly.

Waiting to Be Revealed – Sermon for April 23/24, 2017

Waiting to Be Revealed
1 Peter 1:3-9
2nd Sunday of Easter
April 23rd/24th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

Christ is risen! Alleluia!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Everyone loves going on vacation. A little time away is often medicine for the soul. A trip someplace warm in the middle of winter, a visit to a national monument, or just a few days with family who live out of state.  But when does your vacation actually start? If you’re going on a particularly special trip, the tendency is to count the days. For the last week or two before your vacation, you count down to the moment when the clock strikes five and you’re done with the last shift. Maybe you’ve got an app on your phone. Maybe you’ve literally circled the date on the calendar on your wall. You have the date in your crosshairs, and your excitement grown with each step toward that day.

But that’s not when vacation starts. Usually, that’s when a whole new slate of headaches starts.  If you’re flying, you’ve still got to unload your car and get all your luggage onto the little shuttle bus that takes you to the airport. Then you’ve got to get in line and make it through the baggage check. Then comes the TSA line and trying to get through security. All of that usually adds up to one of two extremes – you’re either running to your gate trying not to miss you flight, or you’re sitting at your gate 3 hours early. There’s usually not much in between. Driving can be even worse. You count down the minutes at work until that last day is done, but what are you really counting down to? Trying to fit all those suitcases into the back of your car? Sitting in construction or rush hour traffic? Stopping for bathroom breaks and snacks? Trying to stay awake as you push on toward your destination? The pain in your back from driving for so long?

The point is – we often count the minutes to vacation, but we tend to count to the wrong place. We tend to count to the moment work ends, not the moment vacation begins. Those usually aren’t the same thing. Of course, loading the car and walking through the airport on your way to vacation have an air of excitement, much more than having to do those things for the trip home. But they aren’t the best that vacation has to offer. That comes at the end of travelling. That comes at the destination itself. That’s when vacation really starts.

In some ways, that’s how the Christian life works. Our life as the children of God in this world are like that time between leaving work the last time on your way to vacation and actually arriving at the resort. That’s what Peter says in today’s Epistle reading. He says that we have been born to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He says that we have been born to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That’s the vacation part. But Peter also says that this inheritance is being kept in heaven for us. It’s in heaven, we’re on earth. Peter says this inheritance is being kept for us who are being guarded for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. The hope is ours. The inheritance is promised. But it hasn’t been revealed yet. And Peter says that we rejoice in this inheritance, but also that until we actually receive it we will be grieved by various trials that test our faith. It’s like we’re on vacation, but we haven’t actually gotten there yet. Instead, we’re struggling to make it to our destination.

The reading from Acts today is an example of one such moment from the life of Peter himself. Peter and the other Apostles were fulfilling the commission Jesus had given them to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. They were taking the good news of the resurrection out into the towns and villages, and they were performing many signs and wonders to validate their words. But not all wanted to hear. Peter and the other Apostles faced trials. In today’s reading from Acts, they were arrested for proclaiming the gospel. They were beaten. They were chased out of the Temple. But they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus. They would not be deterred. They did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. With their eyes on the imperishable, unfading inheritance being stored for them in heaven and waiting to be revealed, they were able not only to make it through the trials of the moment, but to rejoice in them.

The fact is, our life in this fallen world is marked by similar hardships. Our life in this fallen world is confusing. We have the great joy of the forgiveness that is already ours, but we aren’t in heaven yet. It’s like we’re done with our last day of work before vacation, but we still have to load the car. Or we’re stuck in traffic. Or we’re the 178th person in the TSA line. Except it’s not minor inconveniences that we’re dealing with. It’s real burdens. It’s death and disease. It’s perpetual temptation and the threat of falling away from the faith. It’s the hostility of the world around us as the animus toward Christianity continues to grow. And what is our response to these threats?

Often our instinct is to lock the world out like the disciples did on that first Easter. On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. They were afraid that they were going to be hunted down and executed just like Jesus was. And their fear blinded them to the promises Jesus had made before his crucifixion. But Jesus came and stood among that fear-filled group and brought peace. He brings the same peace to you today – the peace of knowing that you have an inheritance stored up for you, waiting to be revealed. Often we want to lock out the world, afraid of the dangers outside our door. But Jesus comes and speaks peace. He speaks peace and then sends us back out into the world. He knows we will face hardships. He knows we will face temptation. He knows our life will not look particularly comforting. He knows we won’t be able to see ourselves as being all that different than anyone else in the world around us. But blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Blessed are those who realize that there is something more than this life in store for the children of God.

We are often tempted to lose hope. We are tempted to let the challenges of life overwhelm us. In these moments of despair, our Lord gives us the gift of a living hope. He comes to us through the proclamation of his Word and calls us to remember the promised inheritance. When death fills us with fear, our Lord reminds us that we have an inheritance that is untouched by death. When the evil of the world fills us with fear, our Lord reminds us that we have an inheritance that is unstained by evil. When the fleeting and temporary nature of this creation fills us with fear, our Lord reminds us that we have an inheritance unimpared by time.  This inheritance is yours. Moth and rust will not destroy it. Sin and evil will not defile it. It will never wither. It will never fade. It will never wear out. For it is being guarded by Jesus himself.

The trials of this life will not destroy you, for you are a precious child of God. Instead, they reveal your true character, like fire reveals the true character of gold. The true character of the Christian life is faith in the promises of God. It is not financial security. It is not perfect health. It is not perfect family life or relationships. The character of the Christian life is not defined by things of this world. Our Lord has not promised us that life will be easy. He has not promised us that we will always feel good. He has not promised us that we will be immune from the effects of sin and decay in a fallen creation. What he has promised us is the outcome of our faith: the salvation of our souls.

That is your final destination. Salvation is yours, right here and now. You are on vacation, so to speak. But you aren’t all the way there yet. You will be soon, but not yet. And yet all the sufferings of this life are nothing but a small drop in the ocean of eternity. So rejoice in the life you have now. Rejoice even in your trials. Rejoice if you are counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. Rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of your future resurrection Much like even the longest TSA line can’t totally kill your joy when you’re on your way to Disney World, the promise of resurrection fills you with a joy that is inexpressible. Let the word of Christ fill you with a living hope, one that will sustain you in the trials of this life until our Lord brings you home.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!