As many of you probably have heard by now, my stepfather passed away a couple of weeks ago. Our family gathered together on January 2nd, 2008 to celebrate the life and times of Dennis Neil Larson. I was honored with the privilege and responsibility of officiating the memorial service. My hope was to honor his requests while simultaneously creating an atmosphere where friends and family could best grieve. Considering that their loss was mine also – my thoughts and prayers were very much with all of them. I relied upon the encouragement of scripture – namely the promises of Psalm 145-18-19 in the NLT – which remind us, “God’s there – listening for all who pray. For all who pray and mean it. He does what’s best for those who fear him. He hears them call out and saves them.” My prayer was that this would be a gathering to remember and honor the precious life of my stepfather – an opportunity to say goodbye as well as to celebrate the life that he enjoyed here on earth. I am truly thankful for each and every precious moment and memory that I have shared with him. That the peace and presence of God will truly be with all of us during this difficult time.

What words would I use to describe Denny’s life? Why that particular language? Denny was many things . . . a gifted storyteller, clever jokester, talented singer, and snazzy dresser. Above all else . . . Denny was a hard worker. Whatever his role or responsibility – baseball player, military personal, PUD employee, small business owner, or school district custodian – he did his very best all of the time. He often pulled the weight of others. The family joke was that he did my mother’s work for her (he was always by her side as she managed apartments). We all often wondered when and if he would ever slow down and just rest. 

What can we learn from Denny’s laborious years on this planet? What was his request? Often the mistake at memorials is to make the deceased sound as if he or she was someone she really was not . . . perfect. Denny was not perfect. He was far from it. He would rather be remembered as he really was. A fighter. He spent much of his life battling the destructive habit of alcohol abuse. His last few months were filled with excruciating cancer which ravished his entirebody. Still . . . he fought. He worked. During those last few months I was able to shared two very incredible conversations with him concerning his final wishes. He definitely wanted relief from the painful symptoms at work in his body. However, his greatest concern was that he would be granted forgiveness. There was no doubt in my mind that his thoughts were filled with regret, remorse, and even repentance.

Here is the good news that I shared with him . . . grace is when God gives us what we do not deserve. The bible records an incredible story which reads, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:1-16, NIV).

Jesus described his Kingdom to be like a landowner who hired employees. In his day the workday extended from sunup to sundown. Since the grape harvest ripened toward the end of September we can estimate that people were working from around 6am to 6pm each and every day. The landowner found some workers who agreed to be paid one day’s wage for one day’s work. The businessman then brought more personnel in about three hours later (we can relate to economic conditions being so poor that many were waiting around just looking for a place of employment). Again, the employees were promised a fair wage – whatever seemed just in the eyes of their employer. This process of hiring more workers was repeated at midday, 3pm and even with just one hour left in the workday. He was handing out jobs left and right . . . . He did ask the final hires, “Why have you spent an entire day idle?” There seemed to be a slight bit of scolding in that question. There only response (or excuse) was that no one had yet hired them. Some of are seeking a little more than others. 

The day ended with the landowner instructing the foreman to send for the laborers to come and receive their earnings. In Jesus’ day the employees were often paid at the end of the same day (so that the poor would not go hungry). The boss began with those who were hired last – and shockingly gave them a full day’s wage. I can only imagine what a surprise this was to the others – one would logically expect for the income to increase with the hours worked – which meant that many were then expecting a sizable check. However, everyone received the same. A full day’s wage. Immediately the workforce began to grumble and complain (I am shocked that a grape harvesters union was not formed immediatly). Why were they so upset? Didn’t’ they get what they deserved? What they supposedly earned? However, deep down inside they knew that they did not really deserve to be hired. The landlord was not unjust – he was far from it – they agreed on the acceptable wage and he more than came through. The salary was set at his own digression. It is his money to begin with. Jesus used this story to reveal the unmatched generosity of God – always giving what we do not deserve.

Anyone who knew Denny had to notice the drastic difference that took place in him during his final hours. I am convinced the transformation can be attributed to the fact that he stopped “working” for himself and began “working” for his Creator. Facing death in the face . . . he finally came to realize that he could not lead his own life . . . he finally asked for forgiveness from God for his rebellion. In fact, upon my last visit with him, I overheard him talking on the back porch . . . he began by reciting the Alcoholics Anonymous Prayer and continued on by sharing his deepest thoughts with Christ . . . he was sorry for much of what he did . . . and he understood that all he had left was today. He thus spent much of his final months asking forgiveness from those who he loved . . . even reconciling with his daughter who he had not talked to for nearly twenty years. Denny had truly admitted that he had sinned against God, he had come to believe that Christ offered him the life he had always been looking for, and thus committed to trust and obey him with what little time he had left. Is God’s grace big enough to forgive a man in thee last hour of the workday?

How can we best toil on behalf of Denny from this point forward? First, we must forgive him for any wrongs he has done towards us. Matthew 6:14-15 simply states, “If you forgive those who sin against you then your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others then your Father will not forgive your sins.” If God is willing to forgive us for all we have done . . . to hire us when we have nothing to offer . . . who are we to refuse imparting that forgiveness towards someone else? For many this means that we must first ask for forgiveness from God for what we have done wrong against him . . . we must take him at his offer. Denny would have been the first to admit that he wished he would have returned to Christ a whole lot earlier in life . . . so much would have been different . . . why wait (and who is to say that we will have the opportunity to)?

Some still have a difficult time believing that God’s grace is big enough . . . that they too can be reconnected to Christ in relationship. It just is not fair. You are right . . . it is not fair . . . it is just. God gave his one and only Son to pay the penalty for your rebellion and mine . . . so that we may know him once again. I offer you the hope found in Luke 23:43. The author records a conversation between Jesus and a thief . . . both being publicly crucified (Jesus did not deserve such punishment but the other man was getting exactly what he deserved from the Empire). The man came to the realization that Jesus was who he had claimed to be and thus asked for forgiveness . . . right there in his final moments . . . right there at the last hour of labor . . . and Christ replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Today. Grace is truly for today. Grace is truly amazing. “Amazing grace – how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost – but now am found. I was blind but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved. Precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come. He ‘hath brought me safe thus far – grace will lead me home.” Grace has led Denny home . . . he did not deserve it . . . neither do I . . . and neither do you. He gives us the wages anyways.

Father, I thank you for Denny Larson – the lives he impacted and the memories he has left us with. Thank you for your forgiveness – and with it we now commit to love you and love others. Comfort all family and friends (especially his wife and daughter). Let’s live our lives laboring for the one who gave us this opportunity . . . . Amen.



Recently I had the privilege of working alongside a student who is completing her senior project on pastoral ministries. As a part of the assignment we were able to preach together at a Merge Student Gathering. Jana and I have entrusted Courtney with a lot of responsibilities (i.e. designing the small group curriculum, planning an upcoming special event, etc.). She has shined all along the way. You can tell a whole lot about a person by the way in which they respond to challenges. How do you respond? Courtney told the story of a time when she was entrusted with a simple but crucial job as a middle school student . . . preparing the hot chocolate for a family get-together. While on assignment, she had a strange thought, “No one would ever know if we ever did anything to this cocoa.” They decided to test their hypothesis by spitting in the hot drink, stirring the saliva in, and then serving the beverage to the group. No one ever suspected a thing (until a few of them heard the story as she shared it at our service). We all learn from experience.

Why do we have such a difficult time taking responsibility for our own actions? What causes us to succeed? Where do end up failing? I still cannot shake the image of the YouTube video filmed at Hartford, Connecticut. A seventy-eight year old man was hit by car while crossing the street. Nearly two terrible minutes unfold as no one stops to help. Cars actually swerve to miss him . . . but keep on going. Crowds gather . . . but nobody approaches him. I am sure there were a few who used their cell phones to dial 911. There were probably those who were afraid to pick him up in fear that they might injure him worse. Nevertheless, we often make excuses a whole lot easier than we lend a helping hand. It comes naturally. We convince ourselves that someone else can take care of the problem, someone else would do a better job bring resolution, or no matter what we do – it really won’t make much of a difference. Try telling that to the man laying in the middle of the road. How would our world look if we actually took the time to just try? If we actually gave our very best? If we actually took others seriously? If we put forth the time, energy, and needed resources?

That is one of the many reasons our student ministry found it beneficial to walk through a Fall Focus on the book of Ephesians. What would we look like if only we decided to “Be the Church that God Dreams of?” Could you imagine if students actually began a new journey with God and below his authority? What if this generation actually believed in his grace and belonged to his family? What would transpire if they saw themselves as beloved by his Son and became united as a team? Can you see the possibilities of a group walking beside each other and behaving like Christ? Imagine what they could accomplish for God’s Kingdom as they befriended others and besieged the enemy’s territory. John F. Kennedy once asked our country to envision a higher mission by saying the words, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country?” Maybe Paul’s letter to the church and Ephesus (and today’s church likewise) was, “Don’t ask what the church can do for you but what you can do for church.”

God entrusted his church with the mission of connecting our world to the love and truth of Christ. Paul caught the cause. He carried the call so far that he was willing to be imprisoned. He lost freedom by bringing others their liberty. Even so, the mission was bigger than him . . . so big that he had to request the service of an entire team. One of those teammates was a man named Tychicus. He was to represent Paul’s message and ministry. Paul ended his letter to the Ephesians by saying, “Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you” (vv. 21-22).

Paul would not have given the epistle to just anyone. Tychicus was reliable (dependable to deliver the letter to where it needed to go). The letter was written not only for Ephesus but to the entire region of Asia Minor. A lot of churches would benefit from the content. Nevertheless, there was a real risk for Tychicus. The content of the letter directly contradicted Roman (Jesus is Lord – not Caesar) and religious (many Christ-followers were banished from the synagogues) law. By carrying the letter, he was making himself a direct accomplice to Paul’s crimes (the very crimes that put Paul in prison to begin with).

Tychicus might not have really understood how important this letter would become (Paul probably did not fully realize it either). The letter to Ephesus was inspired by the Holy Spirit . . . God-breathed. This work would be passed along not only from church to church but from generation to generation – thus transforming even our churches today through encouragement and correction. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Paul for creating it, to God for keeping it, but also to faithful Tychicus for carrying it. This was really nothing new for him. He was always available to Paul (ready for any responsibility). I confess, before speaking on this portion of Scripture, I had no real idea who Tychicus was. Surprising, if you consider that he was mentioned no less than four times in Paul’s writings (this passage, Col 4:7,8, Tim 4:12, and Titus 3:12). He might have been one of the first to read four books of our bible! Paul would not have counted on him so many times if he was not worthy of such a task. We can learn a whole lot from Tychicus . . . he did not ask what Paul could do for him but what he could do for Paul.

Maybe Tychicus was just following the example of Christ. Jesus never asked what the Father could do for him but what he could do for the Father. The church is to represent the actions and attitudes of Christ. Paul wrote, “Peace to the brothers, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 24Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (vv. 23-24). God loves all of us with an undying love . . . and he sent his one and only Son to display it. He sent the Messenger to die for us while we were still rebelling against him. He conquered death, hell, and the grave before we could even admit that we were spiritually dead. Jesus willingly came in hopes that you and I would one day confess our sin, ask for forgiveness, and commit to trust and obey his leadership (rather than our own). Jesus put aside all personal comfort to make a lasting and loving eternal contribution. What if we had Christ’s perspective? What if we stopped asking what the church could do for us and instead what we could do for the church? We might just become the church that God dreams of! A church that returns that undying love back to Christ in worship and in the Word. We might even begin reflecting that undying love towards others in our community and world.

Don’t ask what church can do for you – but what you can do for the church. What is the responsibility that has been entrusted to you? Where will your letter take you? A tax collector turned disciple tells the story of Jesus’ last moments on earth (weeks after his resurrection and minutes before his return to heaven). His closing statement. He told his followers to make more disciples. Go out and share my life and love . . . watch as people from all cultures and situations actually admit they are seeking me, that they believe in me, and join my movement. Jesus envisioned the day that millions upon millions would share in water baptism . . . . an outward sign to an inward work . . . a public step of identifying with the life of Christ instead of the death of this world.

He then ended the commission with these astounding words, “You will not be on your own.” All authority has been given (aka entrusted) to us. God’s very Spirit would be the source of our influence and integrity. Just as Paul gave approval to Tychicius to represent him so does Jesus give us to represent him. He would not leave us alone. That being said, he said, “As you go” instead of “If you go.” Meaning, we are to go out in our day-to-day life. He did not ask – he expected. If we are not going – we are not being the church. The Great Commission must be lived out. You and I must take time out for people (showing them that they matter and that we can be trusted). I pray that we become the kind of people worth listening to.

What responsibility do our churches have in being about the mission? How can we build bridges to people by connecting people to Christ and to one other? Reaching out to those across the street and around the world. In just a few days I leave for a set-up trip to Swaziland, Africa. Our church will take the entire team in August of next year. I cannot wait to volunteer at local orphanages, install water purification systems, feed the hungry, and assist in children and youth ministries. This is one more reason that I am a believer in student leadership . . . mobilizing this generation to engage with the church at a younger age. Our church’s primary strategy is called Catalyst. The program challenges students to grow (strengthening the foundation of their faith), give (investing in the mission), and guide (taking others along in the journey).

Much, if not most, of this message was written and communicated by Courtney. She is one who has given herself to the mission. The journey really escalated one Sunday while hearing the stories of a missionary to Japan. The idea of global work really intrigued her. The following Wednesday, during a student gathering, she wrestled with that thought . . . coming to the conclusion that she would go anywhere and do anything for Christ. She would take the letter with her at all times. Courtney would be the first one to tell you that she still has no real idea what is in store . . . the details are still extremely shady. Small steps of obedience. Maybe that is why Paul wrote, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (vv. 19-20). Let’s go above and beyond in being his church . . . .