1440) A Verse to Build a Life On

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Adapted from 100 Bible Verses That Changed the World, By William and Randy Peterson, pages 73-4, Revel publishing, 2001.

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     At age 22 William Penn had everything.  He was the son of a respected British admiral, had gone to Oxford, had traveled throughout Europe, and was an expert marksman.  He was also handsome, popular, and on the verge of a bright and lucrative career in law.  In addition, Penn’s family was rich.  His father had sent him to Ireland to manage the family properties there that would someday be his.  There he faced a mutiny, and enjoyed putting down the rebellion so much, that he considered a career in the military.  It seemed every option was available to him.

     What he chose shocked everyone.  He chose to become a Quaker, the least understood, most despised, and most persecuted religious group in England.  They dissented against and refused to take part in the official Church of England.  They also refused to take oaths, and thus, would not swear allegiance to king or country.  The authorities frowned on this, so for William Penn to choose this route would most certainly limit his other options.

     Most Quakers were passive and bore persecution quietly, but not William Penn.  He was used to being in control; he had, after all, put down that rebellion in Ireland.  He  was not quiet about his religious beliefs, and was arrested and imprisoned several times.

     He always spoke in his own defense, challenging the British legal system.  He wrote books, arguing that it was counterproductive for a great nation like Britain to deny religious freedom.  His mighty words would get him out of jail, but he made no impact on the British legal system.  Finally, he grew tired of the conflict.  He, like many others, longed for a new start in America.

     The king owed Penn’s late father a large sum of money and had not yet paid it back.  Instead of payment, Penn asked for a grant of land in the New World.  In the middle of the colonies there was a chunk of land that seemed worthless to King Charles, so it seemed to him to provide an opportunity to not only pay off a debt, but also to get rid of some dissenters.  The land was given to William Penn.  He, along with many more Quakers, went there.  Eventually, the place became known as Pennsylvania.

     Penn planned to establish a “Holy Settlement” in Pennsylvania to show that faith could really create a new society.  Its chief city would be ‘Philadelphia,’ Greek for ‘city of brotherly love.’  Penn would show the world what people of goodwill could do when guided by their Christian faith.

     His settlement had much success in the early years, not the least of which was a perfect relationship with the Native Americans in the area.  While neighboring colonies were constantly raiding and being raided by Indians, not one drop of Quaker blood was shed.  This is because from the beginning, William Penn assured the Native Americans of his good will and respect, and his intention to be fair and honest with them in everything.  He never went back on his word.

     William Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment’ did not last much beyond his lifetime.  Without his leadership, the Quakers started fighting among themselves.  They did not have Penn’s power and goodwill to meet the many challenges of life in the New World.  So while the whole of his dream failed, one part, the promise of religious freedom was catching on.  This New World idea found its fullest expression in Pennsylvania, and because it was working there, the idea was adopted in America’s Bill of Rights, signed a century later in William Penn’s own Philadelphia.

     What was it that changed William Penn from the powerful and skilled young lawyer who seemed to have the world at his fingertips, to a religious dissenter and an outcast among his own people?  It was a Bible verse.  When Penn was 22 years old, he heard a sermon preached on I John 5:4 which says, “And this is what gives us the victory that overcomes the world– it is our faith.”  Penn wrote later that it was that sermon, on that verse, that changed him, setting his life off in a whole new direction.  It was to be a path that would lead to a profound influence on the founding of this new nation.

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I John 5:3-5  —  This is love for God: to keep his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.  This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world?  Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

Matthew 5:14  —  You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

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FUNERAL PRAYER BY WILLIAM PENN (1644-1718):

We give back to you, O God, those whom you gave to us.  You did not lose them when you gave them to us, and we do not lose them by their return to you.  Your dear Son has taught us that life is eternal and love cannot die.  So death is only an horizon and an horizon is only the limit of our sight.  Open our eyes to see more clearly, and draw us closer to you, so that we may know that we are nearer to our loved ones who are with you.  You have told us that you are preparing a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, that where you are we may also be always, O dear Lord of life and death.  Amen.

1439) “On My Way to Heaven”

My Brother_s Keeper

We hear much about Christians, who did nothing while the Holocaust was going on all around them.  But not all Christians were passive in the face of this great evil.  Rod Gragg’s My Brother’s Keeper: Christians Who Risked All to Protect Jewish Targets of the Nazi Holocaust (2016) details the extraordinary courage of 30 ordinary people who believed Jewish lives mattered and did extraordinary things to preserve them. Among the heroes: Scottish schoolteacher Jane Haining, who, when the Nazis came, stayed with her students at a predominantly Jewish boarding school in Budapest, Hungary.  The excerpt that follows was taken from chapter 25 of that book.

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     When she heard the wail of approaching sirens, Jane Haining knew what it meant: the Nazis were coming.  The date was April 4, 1944, and Haining was a Scottish schoolteacher in Budapest, Hungary, presiding over a boarding school composed mainly of Jewish children.  Teaching and caring for her Jewish students was Jane Haining’s life work.  It was a call that she had accepted as a Christian more than twelve years earlier.  In 1932, she had been a thirty-four-year-old single woman working as a secretary in a textile factory in Scotland.  She was a member of the Church of Scotland, and one night she attended a life-changing church missions program.  There she learned about a church ministry in Hungary that included a school for Jewish orphans.  Turning to a friend sitting beside her, she stated confidently, “I have found my life-work.”

     Haining had a delicate appearance that belied a strong Scottish personality and a bold faith in Jesus Christ.  She had grown up in a large farming family, had lost her mother when she was only five, and had acquired an independent spirit and a zeal for learning.  A bright student in her village grammar school, she was awarded a scholarship to a highly regarded Scottish academy, and then attended college in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  She had become a Christian as a girl, had taught Sunday school while still a teenager, and was elated at the opportunity to become headmaster of the girls’ elementary program at the Scottish school in Budapest.

     She thrived there.  She already spoke German, quickly learned to speak fluent Hungarian, and—despite a no-nonsense style in the classroom—soon became a beloved figure to her Jewish students, many of whom were orphans.  “She was a very sympathetic person,” a former student later recalled.  “So kind.  So good.  Everyone loved her very much.”

     She returned the affection.  Perhaps because she had lost her mother at an early age, she had a tender heart for children and especially for orphans.  “We have one new little six-year-old, an orphan without a mother or a father,” she wrote in a letter home.  “She is such a pathetic wee soul to look at, and I fear, poor lamb, has not been in good surroundings… She certainly does look as though she needs heaps and heaps of love.”  About another child she wrote, “We have one nice little mite who is an orphan and is coming to school for the first time.  She seems to be a lonely little soul and needs lots of love.  We shall see what we can do to make life happier for her… What a ghastly feeling it must be to know that no one wants you.”

     As Nazism spread through Europe and war erupted, the Scottish boarding school in Budapest became a sanctuary for its Jewish students.  “Anti-Semitism presented itself in many places and forms in those times,” recalled a former student decades later, “but in the Scottish school I never sensed it either from the teachers or another student, either directly or indirectly.  The school was a warm nest.”

     …Hitler ordered German troops to invade Hungary in March of 1944 and installed a fascist puppet government…  Hitler also demanded that Hungary’s eight hundred thousand Jews be deported for annihilation as part of the Nazi Final Solution…  Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest the day the German army invaded, and with a contingent of six hundred troops took command of the Jewish deportations.  Within ten days of his arrival, Hungarian Jews were forbidden to travel, use telephones, do any work besides common labor, or withdraw money from their bank accounts—and they were all ordered to wear a yellow cloth Star of David on their clothing.  Soon thousands of Jews were being assembled in Budapest and herded into railway boxcars for deportation to Auschwitz and other death camps.

     As she sewed the yellow stars on her students’ clothing, Jane Haining wept.  Upon learning that the German army had invaded Hungary, officials in the Church of Scotland ordered Haining and the other Scots who worked at the Budapest mission to immediately return home, but she refused.  To her, the Jewish schoolgirls she taught were her ‘daughters.’  “If these children need me in the days of sunshine,” she explained, “how much more will they need me in the days of darkness?”  It was wrong, Haining declared, “to distinguish one child of one race and the child of another.”  Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto Me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”  As a British citizen, she was viewed as an enemy by the Nazi invaders, and an informer soon reported her opinions to the Gestapo.

     As Budapest’s Jewish families were rounded up for deportation, she tried to reassure the children, and kept up a brave face.  If her Jewish students were going to be deported to some terrible fate, Jane Haining was determined to go with them.  She did—and the Nazis took her first.  When the Gestapo came for her, they came in a car with a blaring siren, arrested her, and took her away… The children cried for her as they stood outside the school and watched her get into the Gestapo car. She was sentenced to deportation, and was loaded into a cattle car with the Jews of Hungary whom she had come to serve and had grown to love.

     Her destination was the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz…  In the early summer of 1944, more than four thousand Hungarian Jews were being killed at Auschwitz every day; and Jane Haining was among them.  German authorities notified the Church of Scotland that Haining had died of illness; other evidence, however, revealed that she was executed with Hungarian Jewish women in a gas chamber at Auschwitz on August 16, 1944.

     By the summer of 1944, most Jews were killed immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz, but as a political prisoner Haining was imprisoned for about two months before she was executed…  Prisoners were fed a starvation diet of meager vegetable broth, were awakened at four thirty a.m. for a grueling twelve-hour workday, and slept on wooden racks in rooms that were crowded far beyond their intended capacity.  For Jews especially, the labor was intentionally so brutal that many prisoners quickly died of exhaustion.

     In the few weeks before her death, Haining was allowed to write a postcard to her superiors at the Church of Scotland.  Her telling observation reflected her understanding of what lay ahead for her—in this life and afterward: “There is not much to report here on my way to heaven.”

     …In January 1945, Soviet forces reached the Polish city of Kraków and liberated Auschwitz…  When Soviet troops captured the giant camp, they found only about seven thousand prisoners still alive. Some of Jane Haining’s Jewish students somehow survived the Holocaust, and they never forgot her. “Those children adored her,” one recalled. “She was a real mother of her ‘daughters.’”

     After Haining’s death, her Bible was discovered at the school. In it was a bookmark, and on it—in her handwriting—was a Bible verse from the New Testament book of Mark: “Be not afraid, only believe.”

Associated Press

Some children that survived Auschwitz and were liberated in January 1945

Photo by Yad Vashem/Center Street

Jane Haining  (1897-1944)

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Mark 5:36b  —  (Jesus said), “Be not afraid, only believe.”

Genesis 4:9b  —   “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Matthew 19:14a  —  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

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O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace.  Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg, 1978, (prayer #166)

1438) What Hath God Wrought?

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     Have you checked your cell phone lately?  Do you have a computer in your home?  Do you ever look up anything on the internet, watch television, or listen to the radio?  If so, you can thank Samuel Morse (1791-1872), the “Father of American Telecommunications,” a Christian man who wanted to make sure God received all the glory.

     Samuel Morse showed excellent promise as an artist.  A career in art was recommended to him by one of the greatest artists of his day, Gilbert Stuart.  Morse’s father sent him off to Europe where he could receive the very best art education.  He did quite well for a young man, even having some of his work exhibited in London’s Royal Academy.  But when he came back to America he faced a series of tragedies.  His father, his mother, and his young wife all died within a brief period of time.  Along with all that, he was going broke, unable to make a living as a painter in America.  So he got on a ship to return to Europe where he had enjoyed at least some success and profit from his work.

     Aboard ship he heard some men discussing new experiments with something called ‘electromagnetism.’  Morse picked up on the idea quickly and caught on to the principles they were describing.  He said, “If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of a circuit, I see no reason why intelligence could not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity.”  Morse was a fast learner and an innovator, and before the ship landed in Europe he had developed a plan to make it work.  In 1837 he applied for a patent on his ideas.  He also created the Morse Code as a way of communicating the letters of the alphabet with dots and dashes.

     Now he needed the money to get his idea from the drawing board to reality, but this was going to be a problem.  People laughed in his face when he told them what he had in mind, and he could not find anyone to give him any money.  For six long years he sought backing in the United States and in Europe.  All the while, he struggled financially.  He was an outstanding artist who could not make enough money at that; and he was an inventor with an invention he believed would change the world, but he could convince no one to back him.

     Finally, in 1843, the US Congress awarded him thirty-thousand dollars to build a telegraphic line from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.  He was done within a year.  His first message was a Bible verse, Numbers 23:23, “What hath God wrought!;” or, see what God has done!

     The verse was a description of how Samuel Morse saw his work.  He saw his invention simply as the discovery of how to use one aspect of God’s wonderful creation.  He said of his first electronically transmitted message: “‘What hath God wrought!  That verse expresses the disposition of my mind at this time.  I wanted to ascribe all the honor to the one to whom it truly belongs.”

     Within months lines were being built and telegraphic communications were sweeping the nation.  Soon, businesses, newspapers, railroads, and governments were all depending on Morse’s invention.

   Today’s modern communications network, including telephones, computers, email, the internet, GPS, and everything else, are all developments of the basic idea Morse had to transmit information electronically.

     In those hopeless years when no one believed in him, Morse said that it was some words of Jesus that sustained him (Matthew 6:28): “If I clothe the lilies of the field, shall I not also cloth you?”  Morse said at that time, “My only gleam of hope is confidence in God.  When I look upward it calms any fear of the future, and I will wait patiently for the Lord.”

     Near the end of his life, he wrote, “The nearer I approach the end of my pilgrimage, the clearer to me is the evidence for the divine origin of the Bible, the more I appreciate God’s remedy for fallen mankind, and the more my future is filled with hope and joy.”

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Education without religion is in danger of substituting wild theories for the simple commonsense rules of Christianity.

–Samuel Morse

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Numbers 23:23b  —  “What hath God wrought!”  King James Version   (“See what God has done.”  New International Version)

Isaiah 24:15a  —  Therefore,…  give glory to the Lord.

Ecclesiastes 7:25a  —  I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things…

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AN EVENING SONG OF PRAISE:

All praise to thee, my God, this night,
for all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
beneath thine own almighty wings…

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
praise him, all creatures here below;
praise him above, ye heavenly host;
praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

–Thomas Ken (1637-1711)

1437) He Forgot to Sneer

     Several years ago I went to Mexico to visit some Lutheran churches and mission projects.  I traveled with an American missionary working just south of the border, and with a Mexican pastor, Rev. Encarnencion Estrada.  Encarnencion told me the story of his conversion.  He said that when he was a young man, he and his friends were troublemakers and had no respect for anyone or anything, not even God.  They had heard about a Lutheran missionary who was coming to their city to speak.  Enacarnencion had the idea that he and his friends should go to the outdoor service and pretend they were interested.  Then, in the middle of the sermon, he would sneak around behind the makeshift platform and stage and knock the whole thing over, preacher and all.  Then everyone could have a good laugh.  

     As Encarnencion quietly crept closer, he could not help but hear the sermon.  As he listened to the story of Christ’s death on the cross, the words moved him.  The preacher said Jesus died for everyone, even the worst of us.  Encarnencion wanted to hear more, so he decided to delay his prank for a few minutes.  In that brief time, the Lord started to really work in his heart, he said, and he to began shake all over and sweat.  He did not know what was happening, but he started praying.  Encarnencion forgot all about his prank, and at the end of the sermon, he went up onto the stage he had planned to demolish, and there he gave his life to Christ.

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The famous skeptic David Hume (1711-1776) once went to hear the most famous English preacher of the day George Whitefield (1714-1770).  Though Hume was probably an atheist, he came away from that service saying, “I was so taken in by that man’s sermon that I forgot to sneer.”
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Romans 5:6-8  —  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Acts 13:41-44  —  (Paul said), “Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.”  As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath.  When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.  On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.

Romans 10:17  —  Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

John 9:25b  —  “…I was blind, but now I see.”

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

–Ancient Jesus prayer

1436) The Apostle’s Creed (b)

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   (…continued)  My question for Lady Gaga and all others who want go their own, personal direction on religious faith is, Where are you getting your information about God?  This is GOD we are talking about here.  How can any tiny, temporary person, crawling around for a few moments on this little speck of dust we call earth, in the midst of this vast universe, think that whatever pops into their mind about God has any truth or value whatsoever?  Shouldn’t this sort of this be based on something?  

     The Bible was written in response to the miraculous interventions of God into his creation, especially his personal visit to this earth in the man Jesus Christ.  The church, for all its problems, has been trying to live in response to that revelation by God of Himself.  We can investigate the historical reliability and truth of that; this has been a lifelong study for me.  We can try and understand and figure out how to live in response to that; and that attempt has led to our many differences.  We should all try to live our lives by that truth; and this attempt will be filled with failures and the daily need for God’s forgiveness.  And, of course, we can decide to not believe in any of it, and then see what happens.

     But what we cannot do is think we can just invent whatever we want all on our own, and make God into whatever we want him or her or it to be.  The Apostle’s Creed says we believe in God who made this earth; we believe that Jesus, who lived and died and rose again, was God’s Son; and we believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit as promised.  And we believe no person invented all this, but that God revealed himself to us and we need to live by what God says.  This is what we are told in the Bible, and this is what we declare in the Creed.

     Becki was a girl in my confirmation class several years ago.  One day, I was teaching her class about the third article of the Creed, and the line where it says we “believe in the resurrection of the body.”  Becki raised her hand and said she did not believe in this resurrection business and heaven and all that.  I asked her what she did believe in, and she said she believed in reincarnation, and that when you died your spirit immediately passed into another life form on this earth.  And then she asked if she could believe in reincarnation and still be a Christian.

     I said, “Well, it is not for me to judge who is and who is not a Christian, but you most certainly would be a very confused and mistaken Christian.  Reincarnation is not a Christian belief because there is not a word of it in the Bible.  Christians believe in the resurrection of the body, your body, where you will wake up and still be you.  That is something very different from reincarnation where you may come back as a person, but an entirely new one with no memory of your previous life, or perhaps  you will come back as a cow, or some kind of rodent, or maybe even a maggot, depending on what good or bad karma you have accumulated in this life.”

     At this Becki got very upset with me and said, “Don’t you know this is a free country, and I can believe whatever I want, and that is just your opinion, and who are you to judge me?”  She really got on a roll.

     I said, “Yes, you are free to believe in whatever you want, but that doesn’t make it a Christian belief.  You are not free to pick and choose from other beliefs and make up whatever you want and call it Christianity.  The Christian faith is defined by the Bible, and while we may have different interpretations of some parts of the Bible, we are not just free to believe something completely different and call it Christianity.  This is not my opinion.  This is what Christianity is.”

     “You are mean,” Becki said to me.

     Seeing I was getting nowhere, I thought I would try a different approach.  I said, “Becki, you are a vegetarian, aren’t you?”

    “Yes, I am,” she said firmly.

     I said, “You believe in that strongly and are committed to it, aren’t you?”

     “Yes,” she said again.

     “So,” I said, “that means no hamburgers, no meatballs and gravy, no beef jerky, and no steaks on the grill for you, right?”

     “Right,” she said.

     Then I said to her, “Did you know I am a vegetarian too?”

     “You are?” she said, genuinely surprised.

     “Yes,” I said, “But I am a vegetarian who likes to eat steaks from the grill, pork chops, summer sausage, and roast beef.  That’s okay, isn’t it?”

     “No,” Becki said, “That’s not okay.  That’s stupid.  Being a vegetarian means not eating meat.  You can’t be a vegetarian and eat meat.”

     “Well,” I said, “That is just your opinion, Becki, and besides,” I said, “who are you to judge me?  And didn’t you just tell me this is a free country?”

     “But,” she said, “The very definition of a vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat.”

     “Oh,” I said, “so we can talk about definitions, and not just accuse each other of being judgmental.  Good, now we are getting somewhere.  You are right about being a vegetarian, Becki, and I am right about being a Christian.  Being a vegetarian means not eating meat, and being a Christian means believing some specific things about God and Jesus and life now and life forever, and one of those things is resurrection of the body, not reincarnation.”

     Becki said, “You are mean,” and that is as far as I got that day.

     Voltaire said, “If you want to converse with me, define your terms.”  The Apostle’s Creed is what defines the Christian faith.

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II Peter 2:16  —  For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

II Timothy 4:1-3  —  In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage– with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Romans 10:9  —  If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

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Lord, give us weak eyes for things which are of no account, and clear eyes for all your truth.  Amen.

–Soren Kierkegaard

1435) The Apostle’s Creed (a)

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From my Lenten meditation, March 15, 2017, series on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, (Part Two).

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Romans 10:9-10  —  “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”

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     These verses are telling you how to be saved, so pay close attention.  This is important.  Verse nine says “Do this and you will be saved.”  Verse ten repeats the same statement, saying if you do this, “You are saved.”  Do what?  Two things.  First, believe; “believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead.”  What you believe matters.  The second thing you need to do is to say, out loud, what you believe.  Verse nine says, “If you declare with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ you will be saved;” and verse ten says, “It is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”

     When do you do that?  When do you say with your mouth what you believe?  Do you do that at school, at work, with your family, friends, and neighbors?  Do you say to them, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; how about you?”  Well, that is probably not how you would want to start, but we should all try to look for opportunities to share our faith.  But in case you didn’t get around to that this week, are there any other times you declared with your mouth what you believe?  I can think of at least one time.  If you are in church on Sunday morning we almost always say the Apostle’s Creed, so when you join in and do that, you are declaring with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and God raised him from the dead—just like the verse says.  That is one of the purposes of the Creed—so we can say what we believe and be saved.

     Another purpose of the Creed, and probably the main purpose, is to define the basics of what we believe as Christians.  Romans 10:9-10 doesn’t just say believe; it also gives you something to believe in, as does the Creed.  As you well know, there are many Christian denominations, and they are all different.  In this Lenten sermon series you are hearing about Luther’s Small Catechism.  Many of you grew up with this catechism, memorized it, and was quizzed on it ahead of the entire congregation before you were confirmed.  Some of you never heard of it.  Some of you grew up praying the rosary and going to confession.  Many of us did not.  Most of you were probably baptized as infants, but I know several of you were baptized as adults after you made a decision for Jesus.  Some of you might wonder why our worship service is so stuffy and formal; for others, it is far more laid back and informal than what you are accustomed to.  There are many ways to be a Christian and lots of room for diversity in God’s family.

     But there are limits to this diversity, and being a Christian means believing in some very important truths.  Two of those truths are in the verses above: Jesus is Lord, and God raised him from the dead.  The Apostle’s Creed lists a few more.  And despite our many differences, all Christian denominations recognize the authority of the Apostle’s Creed as the outline, summary, and definition of our faith.  We might disagree on everything else, but Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, and all the rest agree on this.  This Creed was written before any denominations came to be, going all the way back to the second century.  And the Creed is brief, just over 100 words long.  This brevity allows great diversity in many things, but it does set some important parameters.

     Even this is too much for some.  A common approach to faith these days is that Christianity can mean anything you want it to mean, and it doesn’t matter what you do and it doesn’t matter what you believe.

     For example, I was watching the Super Bowl half-time show this year, and someone said, “Did you know Lady Gaga is a Christian?”  I said, “No, I did not know that.  And I don’t know much about Lady Gaga, but what I do know, makes me wonder what that means for her.”  So I did some searching on the internet and found out all sorts of things.  Lady Gaga did go to Catholic school as a girl, and she still does consider herself a Christian.  But she does not believe in the institutional church, has a wide-open approach to morality, and does not feel bound in her faith by any creeds or traditional doctrines.  She believes she can believe whatever she wants to believe, and can do whatever she wants to do, and it’s all okay with God.

     Some newspaper columnists and bloggers I read praised this new form of Christianity as a religion freed from all previous restraints, and not so judgmental as the ‘old time religion.’  They even said this is perhaps the future of the church.  Wow.  I thought I was just looking up some information on a famous entertainer, and I ended up learning all about the future of the church.  (continued…)

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THE APOSTLE’S CREED:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.

1434) Like Who?

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By Joshua Rogers, posted March 14, 2017 at:  http://www.joshuarogers.com

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     My wife and I did not intend to have another year of sweeping changes in 2016.  We never do.

     We told ourselves this year was going to be different.  The roller coaster was finally going to stop.  No more big transitions like the previous eight years of marriage.

     We had already been through the stress of getting married, buying a home in D.C., me getting diagnosed with a disruptive chronic illness, having a baby, having another baby 19 months later, a significant divorce in the family, selling our home in D.C., moving to North Carolina for a new job, moving back to D.C. for another job, and buying another home in D.C.

     Raquel and I wanted a nice, calm 2016 — one that was exciting, but in a good, non-stressful way.  It was not meant to be.

     Before 2016 was over, we began attending a new church after being at the previous one for a decade; we had a new baby who was in pain for his first six weeks; I got a new job; we dealt with a significant conflict; and I had some bizarre developments with my illness.  All this and more sucked up a ton of our emotional energy, and now three months into 2017, we’re still worn out from last year.

     Last night, Raquel and I were talking about the constant bumps during our first nine years of marriage, and we wondered out loud why this seems to happen to us every year.

     “It would be nice to have an easy year like some of our friends did last year,” Raquel said.

     “Like who?” I said.

     We couldn’t think of anyone.

     Some of the many stressful examples in our friends’ lives included cancer, having new babies, starting a church, dealing with persistent and chronic illnesses, poverty, serious marital problems, emotional breakdowns, publishing and promoting a book, buying and selling a home, caring for an elderly mom with dementia, having a falling out with siblings, getting fired, and having a toddler who went for weeks barely sleeping.

     Our friends, like us, have often felt spiritually dry and emotionally low during these times.  And a lot of it has to do with the sense that we’re doing something wrong, that the dullness in our souls is a result of our distance from God.  Fears like this take hard circumstances and convert them into hopelessness, and I think that’s exactly what the Enemy of our souls wants.

     In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis tells the story of two demons playing with a man’s mind and diverting him away from experiencing God’s love.  One tactic the demons employ is keeping the man from realizing that emotional peaks and valleys are a natural part of life.

     The senior demon explains that it is in the valleys, “much more than during the peak periods, that a human is growing into the sort of creature God wants it to be.  Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. … He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there, He is pleased even with their stumbles.”

     “Do not be deceived,” he cautions the junior demon, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do God’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

     In these times, I have to remind myself that God is not absent, and He can still work in me and through me.  The path through the valley is not an infinite one.  It eventually leads to another mountaintop or at least a plateau.  Relief often comes when I least expect it, but in the meantime, I often feel drained and have little to give.  That’s where I’ve been for the last few days and especially last night.

     I drove home tired and disappointed in myself.  I was overwhelmed at work, I felt disconnected from my church and friends, and I couldn’t find my phone.

     As soon as I opened the door, my five- and seven-year-old daughters came running up wearing their pajamas inside out and asked me to play with them.

     “Daddy, go upstairs and put on your pajamas inside out.  We’re playing the weird game tonight.”

     “Girls,” I said without smiling, “I am really not in a good place right now, and I just need to try to find my phone.”

     They wouldn’t drop it, and for the next hour they kept asking me to change my clothes.  Their persistence finally won out, and to their delight, I took off my suit and put on inside out pajamas.  I ate dinner with them, put my giggling baby boy in his crib, and watched them laughing as they passed gas for fun — and I slowly started feeling a little lighter.

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Job 5:7  —  Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.

Mark 15:34  —  At three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Psalm 34:18  —  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

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 Ah Lord, my prayers are dead, my affections dead, and my heart is dead:  but you are a living, loving God and I commit myself to you.  Amen.  

–William Bridge

1433) In God We Trust

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Bombardment of Fort McHenry, September 13-14, 1814; painting by Peter Rindlisbacher

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     Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) is best known for writing the lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem.  What is not so well know is that embedded within the lyrics of that great song was one phrase that also would have great significance for our nation.  Here’s the story.

     The war of 1812 was still going strong in 1814.  In that year, British forces stormed, bombed, and burned our capitol city, Washington, D.C.   The White House, the Capitol, and many other government buildings were in flames, and government officials had fled into Virginia.

     The British were attacking from the East, at Fort McHenry on the Chesapeake Bay.   If that fort fell, the British would go into Baltimore, and the new nation would be in great danger.  It was a desperate situation.

     Francis Scott Key was an American, but he was on a British warship, negotiating the release of a friend of President Monroe who was being held as a prisoner of war.  He had completed the negotiations and won the man’s release when the bombardment of Ft. McHenry started.  He would not be free to go back to American lines until the battle was over.  But what a view he would have of it!  He was out in the bay with all the British ships, watching the pounding they were giving the fort with their big cannons.  Could Fort McHenry survive?  He would know in the morning by seeing what flag was flying above the fort.

     Then, “By the dawn’s early light,” the flag, “what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,” was still flying, “broad stripes and bright stars,” and all.  Key was inspired to write down a few lines of a poem on that back of an old envelope he had in his pocket.

     Later on in the day, Key polished up the poem a bit and showed it to some friends.   They liked it, had it printed on handbills, and soon copies were being distributed all around the city.  A week after the battle the Baltimore newspaper published it, along with the tune of a popular drinking song.  The song’s popularity grew over the years, and in 1931 it was named our national anthem.

     Now for the ‘rest of the story.’  Seldom does anyone ever sing the last verse of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, but in that last verse are these two lines:

Then conquer we must, when our cause is just;

And this be our motto, “In God is our Trust.”

     When Key wrote those words, he had in mind Psalm 143:8 which reads as follows:  “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for in Thee do I trust.”  When he put those words into the song, he called it our motto.  At the time, this was more wishful thinking than anything else.  The United States had no national motto at the time, nor did they have any plans to establish one.

     Fifty years after the war of 1812 the words In God We Trust started appearing on our coins.  Then in 1956, that phrase was officially declared our national motto.  Not everyone is happy about that anymore, but it is still there, and it came from the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key, and Psalm 143:8.

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This two cent piece, minted 1864-1873, was the first coin to include the In God We Trust motto.

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Psalm 143:8  —  Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.  Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.

Psalm 20:7  —  Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Psalm 56:11  —  In God I trust and am not afraid.  What can man do to me?

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PSALM 71:1-3:

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me;
    turn your ear to me and save me.
Be my rock of refuge,
    to which I can always go;
give the command to save me,
    for you are my rock and my fortress.

1432) The Ragged Schools

Robert Raikes Robert Raikes 17351811 by Granger

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     Robert Raikes (1735-1811) was a newspaper editor in Gloucester, England.  His editorials often had to do with the problems of the poor children in that city.  Popular opinion at the time said it was necessary to keep what was considered the ‘crude and vulgar members’ of society in their proper place; and the proper place for many of the poor and vulgar children was the factory where they worked six days a week, ten hours a day.  

     The problem came on Sundays when the factories were closed and the children were on the streets.  With all their pent up energy they were creating a regular hell on earth for the whole community.  The kids were all out, every Sunday, cursing and swearing, fighting and stealing, breaking things and bothering everyone.  They did not attend church or school, and they could not read or write.  Raikes, like everyone else, was shocked at their language and behavior.  But what could be done?

     In 1880 Raikes started a Sunday morning school for these children, who were working every other day.  This ‘Sooty Alley School,’ as in dirt and soot, wasn’t in a church.  No church would allow such hooligans in the doors.  One Sunday when Raikes tried to take a few boys to church, they caused such a disturbance with their fighting and swearing that they were asked to leave.

     Raikes went door to door asking parents if they would allow their children to attend his new school.  Any kind of ‘free school’ was still unheard of in England, as school was only for those who could pay for it.  But people were impressed by this sincere, well-dressed man, and many agreed to send their children.  Raikes hired a teacher, and ninety children came the first Sunday.

     Raikes himself wondered if it could work. These kids were already like outlaws and gangsters.  But he tried one school, and then another, and then a few more.  Soon there were eight schools, with about thirty students in each, in what he called his “experiment.”  Raikes took care of all the expenses, and kept it on this small scale for three years.

     The kids were taught Bible stories, the catechism, and hymns, along with a little bit of reading and a little bit of math.  Raikes would also feed them a little beef and a bit of plum pudding.  He also found them decent clothes when he could.  He was pleasantly surprised to see many of them respond in a positive way.  He said, “I cannot express the pleasure I often receive in discovering the goodness and even genius among this little multitude.”

     After three years he decided to publicize the experiment and encourage others to try it.  That was then the opposition struck.  Members of parliament were shocked at the idea.  A bill was suggested for the suppression of Sunday Schools.  Clergymen also objected to the whole idea, with the Archbishop of Canterbury organizing a task force to see how these Sunday Schools could be stopped.  

     It is hard for us now to imagine the church being opposed to these Sunday Schools.  People were calling them the “ragged schools” because of the ragged clothing the children wore.  There was very little concern in proper society for the welfare of these street children.  People thought was fine for them to work all week in the factories, and on Sunday what they needed was law enforcement, not Church and Sunday School.  Church people based their objections primarily on the third commandment, saying it was wrong for Robert Raikes to hire teachers to work on the Sabbath.

     But Raikes responded with Matthew 12:11-12 where Jesus said, “If you have a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath Day, you will certainly do whatever work it takes to get it out.”  Raikies said these kids were in a pit.  They were in desperate circumstances.  They were made to work all week, and Sunday was the only chance they had for anything better.  Certainly, Jesus would not object to helping children on the Sabbath Day when he clearly said it is all right to help sheep on that day.

     Children were responding positively to what they learned in Sunday School, and eventually the people of the city began to notice that the streets were quieter on Sunday.  There was less stealing.  The children’s hearts were being changed by God’s Word and many became Christians.

     The opposition failed, and the Sunday School idea caught on.  Within four years there were 250,000 children in Sunday Schools all across England, and crime rates dropped dramatically.  Raikes wrote in his newspaper, “In those parishes where the plan has been adopted, we are assured the behavior of the children is greatly civilized.”

     It was at this time that the United States of America was gaining its independence, and the Sunday School movement had a lot to do with evangelizing this new nation.  By 1900 America had eight million Sunday School students, with an equal number elsewhere in the world.  In the twentieth century the numbers continued to multiply.

     Sunday School is now a taken for granted part of Sunday morning at church.  It is hard to believe such an idea could have been opposed, but a determined man with the right Bible verse defeated the opposition.

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Matthew 19:14  —  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Matthew 12:11-12  —   (Jesus) said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?  How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!  Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Joel 1:3  —  Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.

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 Heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children.  Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

1431) Socrates, Jesus, and Paul

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All of the wisdom of this world is but a tiny raft upon which we must set said when we leave this earth.  If only there was a firmer foundation upon which to sail—perhaps some divine word.  –Socrates

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     This thought is from Socrates’ last conversation with his friends before his death at the age of 70 in 399 B. C. in Athens, Greece.  He had been sentenced to death by the authorities for raising questions about their understanding of justice and goodness, and, for corrupting the youth of the city.  He was to be executed by drinking a cup of the poison hemlock.  At the end of this conversation, Socrates drank the poison and died in the presence of his friends.

     Plato records this conversation in Phaedo, one of many dialogues written by Plato.  These are not precise verbatim accounts of actual conversations, but the literary device Plato used to teach his philosophy.  Plato was the most famous student of Socrates, and since Socrates left no writings, most of what is known about Socrates we know through Plato.  The above quote is a summary of a longer quote from Phaedo, where Plato puts it into the words of Simmias of Thebes as they discuss the nature of the afterlife:

I think it is very difficult to acquire clear knowledge about these matters in this life.  And yet, he is a weakling who does not test in every way what is said about the afterlife, and persevere until he is worn out by studying it on every side.  For he must do one of two things; either he must discover the truth about these matters, or if that is impossible, he must take whatever human doctrine is best and hardest to disprove and, embarking upon it as upon a raft, sail upon it through life in the midst of dangers– UNLESS he can sail upon some stronger vessel, some divine revelation, and make his voyage more safely and securely.

      In the short and the long version there is a longing for a more secure word.  “If only there was a firmer foundation upon which to said, perhaps some divine word,” as it says in the briefer version.  All worldly knowledge put together is but a tiny raft—if only we could sail into the afterlife upon “some stronger vessel, some divine revelation,” as it is said in the longer quote.  “If only… perhaps…”

     Four centuries after the death of Socrates, Jesus Christ was born not far from that same Mediterranean Sea near which Socrates lived in city of Athens.  Jesus was born to bring that ‘divine revelation’ that Socrates wished for, offering us a ‘firmer foundation’ and a ‘stronger vessel’ on which to sail into the afterlife.

            Jesus, like Socrates, would leave no writings of his own, and his story would be told by his students.  Jesus, like Socrates, was executed by the authorities.  Jesus, like Socrates, had many discussions with his followers about the afterlife.  But unlike Socrates, Jesus returned from that far country, rising from the dead, and offering that same resurrection to eternal life to all who would believe in him. 

            A few years after Jesus died and rose from the dead and returned to heaven, the apostle Paul came to Athens, the city of Socrates, to proclaim the Gospel of eternal life in Christ Jesus.  450 years after Socrates and Plato, the philosophers of Athens were still gathering every day to talk about life and death and what comes next.  They invited Paul to speak to them.  This story is told in Acts 17:16-34:

      While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.  A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him.  Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?”  Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.”  They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.  Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”  (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

     Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said:  “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god.  So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship— and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

     “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything.  Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.  From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’  As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

     “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone— an image made by human design and skill.  In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

    When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”  At that, Paul left the Council.  Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.  Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

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O God, our heavenly Father, who hast taught us not to sorrow overmuch for them that sleep in Jesus; mercifully grant that after this life, we may be received into everlasting joy; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Service Book and Hymnal, Funeral Service, Augsburg Publishing House, 1958.

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The Death of Socrates, 1787, Jacques-Louis David  (1748-1825)