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Spring is here

flowers

“I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” Martin Luther

In this world, nothing lasts forever: fortunes fade or disappear, relationships end or move on, opportunities pass, and people sadly die. Therefore, change is often feared and the unknown suspected. If not in our words, our actions often reveal our true thoughts about this “reality.” We tend to make choices that are meant to protect ourselves from the world. Often based on fears and the perception of or needs or wants, they end up being choices that can hurt ourselves and others rather than bless. They can unintentionally, slowly separate us from God, others, and the abiding joy Christ promised for our present.

In contrast, spring reminds us that our struggles won’t last forever. Against stacked odds, we become witnesses to new life brought forth and the dead resurrected all around us. Birds sing, and flowers bloom. Time and again, great prophets like Isaiah shared God’s promises through such images (as in chapter thirty-five): “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad” or “the mirage will become a pool of water.” Based on such promises, he goes on to give a charge to the People of God, “Encourage the exhausted, and make staggering knees firm. Say to those with an anxious and panic-stricken heart, ‘Be strong, fear not!’”

Sowers plant seed, wait and watch for spring while longing for the harvest. It takes time and patience, intentionality and effort. Storms or droughts might come, but we break the ground to refresh the soil, remove weeds and dead growth. There’s a kind of sweat equity needed, yet many hands make lighter work. And so, we are asked to join with others trusting winter, want and war will not last forever. We plant in hope and trust spring will come and a certain harvest will follow.

This Easter, I hope we all reflect upon what God has done for us in Christ, but we should also consider what God is asking of us in response. We have been sent to this time and this place, for we still live in much the same world of Isaiah. People need our hope, help and companionship, and we need there’s. There’s much work to be done. The time is right for you and me and all to recommit to the work of the church…of being church together.

True, we and our congregation face many challenges each day, but Christ holds us in his crucified, resurrected, loving hands if we let him. Don’t hold onto the past or present with anxiety. Hold on to the promises of the Resurrection. Be strong. Fear not. Share all that you are and have with his Kingdom. Turn over all your cares to Christ. For, it is time to open our hearts and hands toward all anew and discover all the good which God intends to grow and give for our sake and the sake of the world.

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (April 2017).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2017 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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May I have a word, please.

So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

God created all that is with a word. When the world lost its way, he sent his living Word, Jesus Christ, his beloved son. Through him, we have redemption and access to an abundant, eternal life. Because of him, we learned that God can be described with one word. As John teaches, God is love (1 John 4:8).

For over twenty years, a generation, Messiah members have generously supported Messiah Lutheran School. Over that time period, our varied staff members taught children many words. Among the most important were those relating to Jesus Christ. Weekly in formal chapel, in daily classroom study, service and play, they learned about love. They experienced what it means to be loved and to love.

In my eight plus years here, I have seen remarkable things. This particular ministry didn’t get us many new members, yet it was meant to be an offering, not a membership drive. It did at times help us financially, but for the most part, we shared the love that we have with others sometimes with great sacrifice. We assisted some children make sense of their world when love was lacking or there was abuse. We helped families during loss of jobs or loss of loved ones. We offered care for those suffering severe developmental disabilities and families who struggled to earn their daily bread. Scholarships were utilized to help kids stay in school when parents couldn’t manage, and food was sent home at times when people didn’t have enough. We supported families at time of birth and adoption, and we offered counseling to those who struggled to remain a family.

All the while, we worked with our families to provide the best learning environment possible. We shared in efforts to make the world a better place through St. Jude’s Trike-A-Thon, Operation Christmas Child, MCEF, and more. Together, we struggled to make love known – to make Christ present – in our world and accomplish the work set before us. On our way, we made many friends.

Like many of you, I’m going to miss the children who have been entrusted to our care. Their laughs and tears brought life to this building. I will grieve the loss of Messiah Lutheran School with many. Yet, I don’t think the time with our school should be regretted. God’s word is still at work in the lives we have touched. The time for this ministry might have past, might have seemed all to short, but it has succeeded accomplishing what God wanted. It had its season, and our love was not wasted. Our love is never wasted. It has changed the world whether we realize it or not; whether we see all the results or not.

Now as a community, we say goodbye to some faithful employees and friends. We have many good memories to sustain us amidst any grief. Yet, I also wonder, where will God send us now as a congregation? Where will we be sent next to share God’s Living Word? I don’t know yet, but I’m sure God will make it clear to us. I trust his Word is still on the move, and I know the world is still in need of such love.

Christ’s peace,
Pastor Lou

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (August 2016).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2016 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Hearts of Stone

heart of stone image.pixabay.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

One of the great promises of the Hebrew scriptures is that God intends to give us a new heart and spirit to replace our hearts of stone. This great work has been started through Christ’s resurrection, the Spirit at Pentecost, and the gift of faith. The process continues throughout our lives as we seek to follow Jesus and grow in intimacy with Christ and his church. It is supported through our shared life and blessed Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, means of grace.

Yet even with this great promise, we can take our eyes off the goal. We can become distracted by the world and our love can grow cold. We can ignore fertile soil and choose to hide in the weeds the world offers us – sometimes not even recognizing it. So as we began our Lent together, I challenged all of us to put our hearts into this season of renewal. I asked each of us to rededicate our bodies, minds and souls to Christ, and see what fruit of the Spirit grows.

Lent is meant to be a kind of springtime bringing new life and order to our lives. Yet in the end, we are all led to the wood of the cross and cold stone of the tomb. Jesus lost his life, his body cold and stiff, so that we might truly live and our hearts beat with his love. As unlikely as it might seem, we must go to the tomb to discover abundant life.

For there like a blooming seed, the power of the resurrection sprung from Christ’s own heart on a Sunday morn more than two thousand years ago. Its power still reaches out through the ages to each of us in love. It wants to take hold of our lives and transform them, but it won’t do so through violence. We need to die to ourselves and willfully surrender.

Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. Christ taught this. We are meant to stay connected to one another and to him. We are intended to help each other grow. Don’t cut yourself off. Come back if you have been away. Don’t let human faults or failing, yours or that of others, separate us. Don’t give into the darkness of sin and shame when the light of the Resurrection offers us forgiveness. (Reach out to others with that same light!) No matter your burden or business, cast all your cares upon Jesus for he cares for you (1Peter 5:7). Let nothing keep you away!

Then, leaving your old self in the tomb, go and follow Jesus. Be church with us and all the saints. As Martin Luther said, “Anyone who is to find Christ must first find the church… Now the church is not wood or stone, but the company of people who believe in Christ.”

The tomb is empty, and our hearts newly beat with expectation. It is Easter and time for us to leave the tomb of our past behind. Jesus isn’t there. He’s among the living. He wants you and I to join him there forever.

 

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (March 2016).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2016 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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What do you expect? (Advent, Week 1)

advent 1.expectation

As we enter this busy season of Advent, we seek to dig deeper into scripture, practice spiritual disciplines, and prepare in many practical ways for Christmas to come, but do we really hear the promises of God amidst our hurry?

As human beings, we find ourselves too often really human doers. The scriptural mandate to “be still and know that I am God” probably is far from our reality. With the stress we face and time crunching around us, we probably aren’t so keen on listening to or looking for God. Life can wear us down, and instead of joy, we tend to find it difficult to believe that the ancient promises of God can leap off dusty pages of the Bible and into our busy, modern lives. We tend to expect too little from this season and from our God who loves us.

“Expect nothing and you will never be disappointed.” “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” “Expect the worst and hope for the best.” If you look up this week’s Advent theme, expectation, on the internet, that’s the kind of worldly wise statements that you’ll find. Yet as Christians, expectation really proves the breeding ground for miracles.

For long ago, a prophet foretold that a virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son. He would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Prophesy also promised that the babe would be born in Bethlehem, although it was a small and dusty town on the outskirts of civilized Jewish society. He would be a descendant of a remarkably surprising collection of people: Jews and gentiles, kings and paupers, untrustworthy shepherds and even a prostitute. He came to share our life and lose his for our sake. He would prove to be God with Us, Emmanuel.

Although this all was promised, few could say anyone really expected it to happen as it did. In fact when it finally came to pass, the story starts quite simply, “[Joseph] went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” What a child he would prove to be!

Much like those who first heard the message of the angels and encountered Jesus in the manger, please slow down. Redirect your attention to what God is doing in our world and your life. Ponder the great purpose of Christ’s coming. Don’t let this season pass without its good news touching your life. Advent invites us to expect the impossible. Jesus, who came as a baby, God in the flesh, came for you and for me. He came that we may have life and have it abundantly.

Trusting in Jesus, seek first to know what he expects from you and your life. Expect nothing less than a future full of hope and life without end. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

 

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The Christmas rush isn’t all bad

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“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” so the song goes. Unfortunately, our Advent and Christmas can seem anything but calm. As I write this, it is mid-November, and yet, our congregation’s planning teams have already been working on our Christmas together for weeks. Christmas music has started to play in stores and in some cases on the radio. One of my neighbors has already set up their Christmas tree even though Advent doesn’t begin for almost two weeks!

Our society seems impatient to experience Christmas joy and peace. Perhaps this is because there is too little joy and peace in our world. At this time of year, it gets busier at our congregation and busier in our homes. Light dims and darkness grows. Unexpected bills happen. Sickness and death comes. After Paris, Beirut, Kenya, and on and on, terrorism and war frighten us. We hope for an ideal Christmas because our lives in a fallen world are always less than perfect. Too little is calm, and our future may seem dark to us. We often hunger for a reprieve from our pain and busy, unpredictable life.

Jesus came into a time of trouble not so unlike our own. People were lucky to reach their teens. Thirty was considered old. Israel was an occupied country with isolated rebels and thieves (especially in Judea) seeking to defeat the Roman Empire and perhaps get a little economic advantage and power for themselves at the same time. For their part, the Romans wished to assert their power at all costs. Their vassal king, Herod the Great, was known to be tyrannical if not a bit mentally unstable. It would be he who ordered all babies and toddlers in Bethlehem murdered over fear that the recently born Jesus would usurp his throne. Life was hard and often unfair.

Despite these threats, Jesus came as a most vulnerable babe. He was a child of scandal, for his neighbors had heard of Mary’s pregnancy prior to her marriage with Joseph. Many in that day were poor like Jesus’ own family, and they often lived and died by the discretion and generosity of others with higher stature. Jesus didn’t come into the world to avoid our pain. Instead, he embraced and crushed it forever. As one liturgical communion prayer reminds us, “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.”

Most certainly, we can be encouraged that Jesus shared in our weakness and sorrows in order to share with us his victory over sin, suffering, death and the Devil. Against all odds, peace forcefully broke into our world to live among us and die among us through Jesus. For a moment, all was calm and all was bright because God was finally with us in the flesh. It was time for all creation to pause, worship and give thanks.

A mere 33 years later, all too soon, Jesus died, rose and ascended into heaven. We were warned life would not be easy in his absence, but it wouldn’t remain hard for ever. Similar to our wait for Christmas morning, creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” It might prove a bumpy, fearful ride at times until then, but there can be joy on our journey. For Christmas day has come, and Easter is on its way. And all the while, we’re not alone. We are the church together: enlivened by God’s Spirit, sharing both our pain and joys with one another; offering pardon to those still in darkness. We are rushing not toward our death but toward a certain future filled with hope.

With all the saints before us, we can pray with confidence as we face any darkness, “Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.” We don’t know the time, but we can trust Christ is already on his way. And when he comes, all will be calm and bright forevermore. For this time, Christ will be here to stay, and despite whatever might go on around us until then, I for one can’t wait. If that’s our future, let time fly.

 

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (December 2015 – January 2016).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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Hanging Around With God

amy

Amy Delph of Messiah Lutheran goes Over the Edge for Special Olympics Virginia.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. (Psalm 91)

 

As our Virginia Synod team, “Fools for Christ,” prepared to rappel down 25 stories as part of Over the Edge for Special Olympics Virginia, there was indeed noticeable anxiety. One heard some nervous gallows humor about last words and breaking ropes. People pointed to those they blamed for getting them into this mess. Some people ascended to the roof top only to think better of it when looking at the edge separating them from the cold, hard ground below.

It isn’t unusual or foolish to feel fear at such moments, as fear is ultimately a God-given survival mechanism. Yet, some overcame their fear trusting in a greater purpose. Even for those who turned back, there was no shame. They had made the attempt. We all recognized our fear and vulnerability, and it created a comradery on that roof top; a sense of community. People sought to support each other with their prayers and kind words of encouragement in success or defeat – much like any church should do.

Yet for those of us who believe, it struck me that there was even greater comfort to be found. The certainty of God’s promises. When Jesus faced temptation on the pinnacle of the Temple, he thought of such comfort too.[i] He quoted Psalm 91 in the face of the Devil. It was the words he clung to for encouragement and safety.

Jesus understood his Father in Heaven and the heavenly host remained on guard. He could trust God as his dwelling place, and nothing could truly harm him. No fear need stop him from his mission. It is the same with our lives as we face whatever highs or lows, blessings or curses that might come. God is with us. God intends to protect those who love him and know his name. These are God’s promises, “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (emphases added). We can go over the edge into our future with confidence.

Yes, fortunately for us, God never lies. We need not let fear dictate our choices or behaviors. Failure need not define us. We are the beloved children of God together. Whether barely making it on a wing and a prayer, finding ourselves out on a limb, or hanging by a thread (or perhaps even a rope 400 feet above Cary Street), we are not alone for we have one another to turn to. Perhaps better still, God and the Heavenly Host is not only ready to catch us if we fall but has plans to lift us up to new life no matter what happens.

This month, we can rightly give thanks to God even if we feel at the end of our rope. God is with us, and God will never let us go.

[i] Matthew 4

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (November 2015).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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A difficult way…but true

baltimore 2As I write this, Baltimore is in flames. Pundits are spouting off. Peace seems a mirage; very much out of reach. Yet the peace Christ offers us isn’t of this world. It is both available to us here and now but also on its way.

If we say we want peace and justice, I found through the years that it isn’t achieved by pointing fingers of protest or in harsh judgments. It begins with a searching, fearless and ongoing look at my life and how I contribute to the injustices around me. Then, I make amends where I can.

It requires listening to the voices, pain, and problems of those I disagree with or who might not wish to listen to me. It comes from loving your enemies, and doing the good to those who hate you.

This is all difficult, but I think it is the only way for real and lasting change – Christ’s way.

We don’t offer such a love based upon people deserving it. We love because Jesus loved us even when we were his enemy. It is a conscious, heart centered choice. We make this offering even though we might be rejected, made fun of or worse.

This doesn’t mean we become doormats, for even the first disciples needed to dust off their sandals and walk away at times. Yet we might at other times be called to a form of martyrdom, where our pride, prejudice and preference are surrendered to the will of God despite the cost.

Our relationship with Christ calls us into relationship with others, even our enemies. That has to be our intentional goal. We need to seek them out. Again like the early disciples, we might have to return multiple times to try just once more to offer our faith and friendship. The person we seek to love might never get it. They may never understand and remain suspicious of us. Yet, change is possible.

If nothing else, you’ll witness the peace of Christ breaking into your heart and your world in a new way. Christ promised this. And maybe…just maybe…one who was your enemy might become your brother and sister, an unexpected gift in your life and to the world.

This is a difficult way, but it is true. Let’s seek to walk this way together, no matter what others might choose.

Christ’s peace,
Pastor Lou

This post originally appeared as a pastoral letter in Messiah Lutheran‘s newsletter, The Messenger (May 2015).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

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