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Saturday, May 19, 2018

It's a Joke, Son

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 20, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Proverbs 11:22, 21:9, 26:12-15, 18-22.

            This may be the first time, other than funeral messages, that I’ve ever preached a sermon on the book of Proverbs.  If it’s not the first time I’m sure you could count them on one hand. 
            It’s not that I don’t like the book of Proverbs.  I do.  In fact, it’s one of my favorite books of the Bible.  It’s just that it’s really hard to preach from.  And when you listened to our Bible reading for today, you heard the reason why.
            There are almost no long passages in the book of Proverbs that develop a theme.  For the most part, it is what you heard this morning.  It’s one or two sentences on a topic, then one or two sentences on another topic, and then another one or two sentences on yet another topic.  Other than the passage at the very end of the book, the one about the woman of noble character that’s used at funerals a lot, that’s all the book of Proverbs is.  There are lots of good quotes, but it’s hard to come up with a passage to use in a sermon.  And just so you know, it’s not just me.  You can look through the whole Revised Common Lectionary and you’ll almost never see Proverbs as one of the suggested Bible readings.
            But at the same time, you really cannot do a sermon series on Humor in the Bible without talking about the book of Proverbs.  Because some of these proverbs are just plain funny.  You heard some of them.  Listen to these: 
“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.”
“A sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth.”
“Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.”
I mean, if you don’t find stuff like that funny, I don’t know what to tell you.  Because it is funny.  It uses exaggeration to make a point, which is one of the most common techniques there is in humor.
But at the same time, real humor always has an element of truth in it.  And you cannot deny that those things, and all the other proverbs we read today, have an element of truth in them.  In fact, one of the best ways to tell people truths is to use humor in doing it.
Jesus used humor all the time.  We’ve talked about a couple of examples in this sermon series already.  The judge who was constantly nagged by the widow who wanted justice.  The Pharisee who stood up in front of everyone in the temple and said a prayer about how much better he is than everyone else.  There are other examples we could think of.  Telling people the reason they cannot take a speck out of someone else’s eye is that they have a plank in their own.  Giving the picture of a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle.  These are just a few times that Jesus used humor to give people his message.  And of course, there are plenty of examples of humor in the Old Testament, too.  We’ve also talked about some of those in this sermon series.
So, with all this humor in the Bible, why don’t we ever laugh when we read the Bible?  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that we should not take the Bible seriously.  We should take it very seriously.  The Bible is the divinely inspired word of God.  It’s our best source for understanding the things God wants us to know.  It’s our best source for knowing how to live our lives in the best way, the way God wants us to live them.  I’m not at all suggesting that we don’t take the Bible seriously.
But as we’ve seen, there are sayings in the Bible that are intended to be humorous.  There are scenes in the Bible that are, in fact, funny.  So why don’t we laugh at them?
Well, I think there are probably a lot of reasons.  One of them is simply our expectations.  We don’t really expect humor when we read the Bible.  We don’t go to the Bible looking for a laugh.  That’s probably the first reason we don’t see the humor in the Bible--we’re not looking for it.
Another reason is that a lot of the humor in the Bible is what we call “deadpan humor”.  In other words, the Bible does not come out and tell us, “This is a joke.  This is supposed to be funny.”  The humorous parts of the Bible are written in the same style as the other parts of the Bible.  There’s no signpost that distinguishes the humor.  And so, we take it seriously.  We don’t see the humor because it’s not made explicit that there’s supposed to be humor there.
But I think the biggest reason we don’t see the humor in the Bible is simply because of our view of who God is.  And it’s not that our view of God is necessarily wrong.  It’s that our view of God is incomplete.
There’s an extent to which we cannot help that.  God is more than human beings have the ability to imagine.  And so, all of us tend to focus on some aspects of God and minimize others.
Sometimes we focus on the power of God.  And again, that’s not wrong.  God is all-powerful.  God has more power than you and I can imagine.  God created the entire universe out of nothing, just by speaking the words.  That’s a lot of power.
Sometimes we focus on the wisdom and knowledge of God.  And that’s not wrong, either.  God is all-knowing.  God is all-wise.  There’s nothing that God does not know.  That includes, of course, everything we do and everything we say and everything we think.  God knows all of our hopes and all of our fears and all of our desires.  And of course, God knows everything else, too.  That’s a lot for God to know.
Sometimes we focus on the righteousness and justice of God.  And of course, that’s not wrong, either.  God is righteous and justice.  That’s where the judgment of God comes into the picture.  We know that God, being perfect, has the right to judge we human beings, who are not.  And that kind of scares us, because we know how that judgment might go.
And so, then we focus on the forgiveness of God.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.  God is forgiving.  God will always forgive our sins, if we sincerely turn to God and ask for forgiveness.  But of course, that word “sincerely” is a big one, too.  That implies that we repent of our sins.  It means we are truly sorry for what we have done and are going to change our ways.  But when we do that, God will forgive our sins every time.
But none of those things really gets to the humor of God, does it?  I mean, we may feel joy at the thought that our sins are forgiven.  But it’s not humorous.  But I think there is one aspect of God that gets to God’s humor.  And maybe you’ve thought of it.
It’s the part of God we like to focus on most of all, really.  The love of God.  God is love.  We say that so often it almost sounds like a cliché, but at the same time, it’s absolutely true.  God is love.
So what does love have to do with humor?  I think it has everything to do with it.  When you love someone, what’s one of the things you do with them?  You laugh with them, don’t you?  You laugh with your spouse.  You laugh with your kids.  You laugh with your friends.  When you feel comfortable with someone, when you’re happy to be around them, you laugh with them, right?  Could you really be close to someone, could you really love someone, and never laugh with them?  I don’t think it’s possible.
And when tensions come between you and someone you love, when you get frustrated or maybe even get angry with them--which pretty much always happens with the ones we love at some point--what’s the best way to defuse that tension?  Humor, right?  Finding a reason to laugh at what happened or at the ridiculous situation you find yourselves in.  Again, I don’t know that a close, loving relationship can exist with someone if we don’t share some humor with them, if we don’t laugh with them.
And so, if God loves us, I think God wants to laugh with us.  God wants us to laugh with Him, too.  God wants us to laugh with Him because we feel comfortable around God.  God wants us to laugh with Him because we’re happy to be around God.  God wants us to laugh with Him because we feel close to God.  And when we find ourselves in a ridiculous situation, God still wants us to find a way to laugh with Him.  God wants us to laugh with Him because we love God.  And God wants to laugh with us because God loves us.
We talked about the power of God, creating the universe just by speaking words.  Well, one of the things God created with God’s power is laughter.  God gave us the ability to laugh.  That’s a gift God gave us.  God wants us to use it, just like God wants us to use all the gifts God has given us.  And God shows us how to use it, by giving us examples of humor.
We should and do take the Bible seriously.  We should and do take God seriously, too.  But God loves us.  And because God loves us, God gave us the gift of laughter.  God shares that gift with us.  May we share the gift of laughter with God and with each other.  Because laughter is a sign of love.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Being the Menards Guy

Ray Szmanda passed away this week.  And you think, “Who’s that?  I don’t know Ray Szmanda.”  But you do.  You know who he is, at least.  If you watched local television from 1976 through 1998, you saw him any number of times.  Ray Szmanda was “The Menards Guy”.

If you saw the ads, you remember them.  He was an older guy, white hair, big glasses.  He would, with great enthusiasm, tell you all the specials at Menards and encourage you to use “The Menards BIG card” to pay for them.  You could “Save BIG money at Menards!”

When I heard of his death, I wondered.  How did he feel about going through life as “The Menards Guy”?  I mean, it’s not like that’s something you dream about when you’re a kid.  You dream about being a ball player or an actor or a musician.  You dream about being a doctor or a lawyer or a CEO.  Or, maybe you dream about being a farmer or a mechanic.  But you probably don’t dream about being “The Menards Guy”.

But on the other hand, it’s something.  Most of us, throughout our lives, are not really known for anything.  I mean, our family and friends know who we are.  Depending on what we do in our lives, there might be a handful of other people who know who we are.  But for most of us, that’s about it.  Ray Szmanda for better or worse, was at least known for something.  His obituary appeared in newspapers all around the country.

But in the end, it really doesn’t matter that much one way or another.  Because any fame that we achieve on earth is fleeting.  Think about it.  How many people who were alive a hundred years ago are still remembered today?  Very few.  I mean, you might know you ancestors in your family, but generally, how many are there?  A few political leaders.  A few entertainers, maybe.  A handful of authors.  That’s about it.  And if you go back two hundred years, three hundred years, the number gets smaller.  It’s such a low percentage of people that it probably wouldn’t even register.

But the thing is, God knows all of them.  God knows every person who was alive a hundred years ago.  God knows every person who was alive a thousand years ago.  God knows every person who was alive two thousand years ago, three thousand years ago.  God knows everything they did, everything they said, everything they thought.  Because each and every person is important to God.

And of course, that includes you.  And it includes me.  God knows everything we do or say or think.  As Psalm 139 says:  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.”  The world may never know or soon forget who we are and what we do.  But the Lord God never will.  And I think that’s pretty cool.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Little of Both

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 13, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Luke 18:9-14.

            Our Bible reading today follows right after the passage we read last week.  And as we continue our sermon series on Humor in the Bible.  Jesus is kind of getting on a roll.  He just told a story about a widow and an unjust judge.  Now, Jesus tells another story.  This one is about a Pharisee and a tax collector.
            This is one where the humor is a little more obvious, at least if we can put ourselves into the story.  You know, one of the many incredible things about Jesus is how he was able to put such instantly recognizable characters into his stories.  Remember last week, I told you that when Jesus described the judge it instantly brought to mind a judge I’d had dealings with.  It’s the same thing here.  The people listening to Jesus would immediately recognize the characters in this story.  In fact, they probably thought of specific people they knew when they heard this story.
            Jesus sets up the story, and he keeps it simple.  In fact, it’s such a simple, well-crafted story that I wonder if Jesus might have worked it out ahead of time and was just waiting for a chance to use it.  There are only two characters.  We have a Pharisee, and we have a tax collector.  That’s it.  No extraneous characters to muddle the story.  And we have only one location.  The temple.
            Let’s start with the Pharisee.  The Pharisees were the leaders of the most powerful religious group in Jerusalem at the time.  People respected them for that.  That respect was real--there was nothing phony or artificial about it.  The Pharisees were considered to be Very Religious People.  But at the same time, people knew that the Pharisees could be pretty arrogant and full of themselves sometimes.  Not, probably, to the extent Jesus suggests here, but still.  They had that attitude about them that they thought they were better than everyone else. 
            So Jesus has this Pharisee go to the temple to pray.  And of course, as a Very Religious Person, the Pharisee addresses his prayer to God.  The prayer is addressed to God, and yet--the Pharisee’s prayer is really all about himself.  And he’s praying good and loud, to make sure everyone can hear him.  He may technically be talking to God, but he’s clearly playing to his human audience, too.
            Jesus has the Pharisee going on and on and on about how great he is.  How he’s better than this person and that person and another person.  And as he does, I can just hear Jesus’ audience start laughing.  They’re going, yep, that’s a Pharisee, all right.  That’s exactly how they are.  They’d have been getting a good laugh about this Pharisee Jesus was telling them about.
            Then there’s the tax collector.  The tax collectors were almost universally disliked at that time.  Not that tax collectors are so popular now, but remember how the tax system worked back then.  The tax collector’s job was to send a certain amount of money to Rome.  That was it.  How the tax collector got the money was his problem.  He just had to get it and send it to Rome.
            And the thing was, the way the tax collector got paid for his job was by collecting more money than he was required to send to Rome.  Anything he could collect over and above what he had to send in was his to keep.  So what we’re basically talking about is legally authorized theft.  The tax collector had an incentive to collect as much money as he could, because that was what his income was based on.
            Now, I’m sure there were some tax collectors who were fair and honest and just and they only taxed people enough so that they could get a fair wage for their services.  But there were enough who were not that it ruined the reputation of all of them.  People may not always have liked the Pharisees, but they did respect them as religious authorities.  People neither liked nor respected the tax collectors.  They may have feared them, but that was all.
            So again, when Jesus starts talking about the tax collector, an instant picture forms in people’s minds.  And when Jesus has the tax collector asking for mercy from God, people probably laughed again.  Not because they could imagine a tax collector praying that way, but because they could not.  Like any tax collector would care about God.  And like God would give mercy to somebody like that anyway.
            So people are laughing at both of these characters.  And they’re ready for the punch line.  And Jesus gives it to them.  Jesus says it’s the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, who was justified before God.
            And all of a sudden, the laughter stops.  Everyone goes, “Huh?”  They look at each other, puzzled.  That was not the punch line anyone expected.  They might, possibly, have expected the Pharisee to get knocked down a peg or two.  But they certainly did not expect the tax collector to be the hero of the story.  A tax collector?  Getting forgiveness and honor before God?  Instead of a Pharisee?  How does that make any sense?
            Jesus goes on to tell them the point.  “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those humble themselves will be exalted.”  Once again, I’m struck by how many times the Bible talks about the sin of arrogance.  It’s all through the Old Testament.  It’s all through the New Testament, too.
            I think the reason why is that it’s such an easy sin for us to fall into.  It’s so easy for us to start thinking we’re better than we are.  It’s easy for us to think we’re better than others, too.  And every time we do, we commit the sin of arrogance.
            Because here’s the other thing about how great Jesus was at describing the characters in his stories.  I said that we all can recognize someone we know when we hear Jesus describe those characters, and that’s true.  But if we’re honest, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we can also recognize ourselves.
            Because the truth is that each one of us has some of both of these characters within us.  Each one of us has a little bit of the Pharisee in us.  We would never come out and say it the way the Pharisee in Jesus’ story did, but we still have that in us.  We look at certain people--the people who are looked down upon in society--and we say, well, I may not be perfect, but I’m a lot better than they are.  I go to church, at least sometimes.  I’m honest--more or less.  I don’t cheat people--well, not to any great extent, anyway.  I’m not claiming to be perfect, but there are a lot of people out there who are worse.  So overall, I think I’m probably pretty much okay.
            It’s arrogance.  We make excuses for ourselves.  We give ourselves a break for all the things we do wrong.  We look down on others, thinking they’re worse.  We convince ourselves that we’re better than we are, and we convince ourselves we’re better than others.  Arrogance.
            But at the same time, each one of us has a little bit of the tax collector in us, too.  Deep down, we know that those excuses we make for ourselves don’t really work.  We know that we’re not as good as we try to convince ourselves we are.  We know that, no matter how hard we might try to convince ourselves, we’re not really any better than others, either.  And we know that, ultimately, it does not matter whether we’re better than others, because God is not going to compare us to any others.  God sees each one of us, and sees in each of us a sinner, in need of forgiveness and salvation.  We know that we are the tax collector, that we don’t even belong in God’s presence, and yet knowing that we need to humbly ask God to have mercy on us for all of our sins.
If we’re really honest with ourselves, we can see ourselves in both of the characters of this story.  So the question is, which one will we ultimately be?  Will we be the Pharisee, convincing ourselves that we’re better than others?  Or will we be the tax collector, knowing that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and mercy?
            We cannot just answer that question today.  We need to answer it tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and every day of our lives.  Every day, we decide whether we’re the Pharisee or the tax collector.  We may not be conscious of making the decision.  But we make it just the same.
            The Pharisee was convinced that he was better than others.  He even cited evidence to prove it.  But the tax collector knew that he was a sinner who did not even deserve to be in the presence of God.  All he could do was ask God for mercy.  And God gave it to him.  If you and I go to God and humbly ask for mercy, God will give it to us, too.  And then, like the tax collector, we’ll find ourselves justified and exalted by God.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A One-Way Conversation

So, what’s new?

It struck me, as I was thinking about what to write about this week, that this blog is really pretty much a one-way conversation.  I write and you read.  You’re free to post comments, of course--in fact, you’d be welcome to—but people rarely do, and I don’t really expect you to.  But as a result, I have no real idea whether these blog posts are interesting to you or not.  Google gives me the number of page views, and that gives me some information, but not all that much, really.  I certainly hope you find these posts interesting, but I have no way to know.

It strikes me that too often our prayers are like that, too--a one-way conversation with God.  We pray, and we trust that God will listen.  God’s free to answer, of course, but a lot of times we act as if we really don’t expect God to answer.  In fact, we have no idea whether God is actually interested in our prayers.  We certainly hope God is, but if we act like we don’t expect God to answer, then we really have no way to know.

So here’s what I suggest you do.  The next time you pray, don’t just say “amen” and go about your business.  When you pray, spend some time in silence.  Go ahead and say what you have to say to God, but then be silent.  Try to clear your mind.  It can be hard to do that--it is, after all, hard to intentionally think about nothing--but try it.  It may take some practice before you can do it--if so, then take the time to practice.  Try to just let your mind drift.  Let it go where it will, without trying to direct it in any way.

What you may find is that, in that silence, God will answer.  In fact, sometimes God may have been waiting for us to be quiet so we can hear God’s answer.  Not always--after all, God does not work on our schedule.  God will not always answer just because we’d like an answer.  But we’re probably not going to hear an answer if we don’t take the time to listen.  Sometimes, it takes a silence, a deliberate silence in the presence of God, for us to hear a message that God wants us to hear.

So this week, spend some time in silence with God.  You never know.  You may get just the answer you need to hear.

Saturday, May 5, 2018


This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 6, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Luke 18:1-8.

            When you heard our reading for today, you might have wondered how it fit into our sermon series on Humor in the Bible.  And I’ll admit this is not one that makes any of the lists of the funniest Bible passages.  But I find it funny.  Maybe it’s just because I’ve had experience with judges, I don’t know.  But I am amused by this scene that Jesus describes.
            There’s a judge in town.  And this judge does not fear God.  He also does not care what anybody thinks.  And I have to tell you, when I hear Jesus’ description of this judge, there’s a certain judge I had dealings with who comes to mind.  I don’t know whether he feared God, but he certainly did not care what anyone thought.  This judge had figured out that he could make any rulings he wanted, whether they followed the law or not, and there was nothing much anybody could do about it.  They could appeal his decision, but even if they got his ruling overturned nothing was going to happen to the judge.  He was not going to be disciplined for making a bad ruling.  He was just going to go on being a judge as if nothing had happened.  And in fact, for him, nothing had happened.  So that’s what he did.
            So anyway, we have this judge who really does not care about anything.  And we have a widow who keeps coming to him with this plea.  “Grant me justice against my adversary.”
            Now, again, having once been a lawyer, I want to know the details of this case.  What’s the widow’s complaint?  Who’s on the other side of the case?  What does she actually want?  I mean, yes, justice, but what does that mean to her?  I want to know what this case is really all about.
            Jesus does not tell us that.  And probably the reason Jesus does not tell us that is because it’s not relevant.  It’s not relevant to the judge--he does not care about the widow or her case.  And it’s not relevant to the point Jesus is trying to make, either.
            But the widow keeps coming to the judge with the same plea.  “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  I mean, try to picture this.  The judge gets up in the morning--probably late, because he’s a powerful man who does not have to live his life according to anyone else’s schedule.  He looks out the window, and there’s that widow, calling “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  He leaves the house to go to the court, and there’s the widow, following him.  And every step of the way, she’s saying, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  He leaves at noon to have lunch and there she is again.  “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  He leaves the courthouse in the evening, and she’s still there.  “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  He gets ready for bed, and she’s still outside, calling, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”
            I mean, this would drive you nuts, right?  Everywhere you go, there’s this widow.  You cannot get away from her.  You never get a moment’s peace.  You probably start to hear her in your dreams, saying that same thing, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”
            Maybe I should’ve tried this approach against that judge I was telling you about earlier.  Because the fact is that, for this widow, it works.  She just wears this judge down.  He thinks to himself, I still don’t fear God, and I still don’t care what anybody thinks, but I cannot handle this widow constantly nagging me and bothering me anymore.  I’ve got to get rid of her.  I’ve got to shut her up, and the only way I’m ever going to do that is to give her what she wants. 
            And of course, that’s what the judge does.  He gives the widow justice.  Not because he cares about the widow, and not because he cares about justice, but because it’s the only way he’s ever going to have any peace.  The widow gets what she wants, just be sheer persistence.
            Now again, maybe you see the humor in that, maybe you don’t.  But either way, as we’ve always done in this sermon series, we ask the questions:  Why did Jesus tell this story?  What are we supposed to learn from it?
            Well, the Bible tells us.  That’s unusual.  Most of the time, in Jesus’ parables, we’re not told what the message is.  In fact, sometimes even the disciples had a hard time figuring it out.  But this time, Luke comes right out and tells us.  He says, in the first sentence, “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”
            That’s what the widow did, of course.  She kept going to the judge over and over again.  Day after day after day.  She never gave up.  And finally, even though the judge did not care about her or what happened to her, she got what she wanted.  So how much more should we expect God, who does care about us and what happens to us, to answer our prayers, as long as we keep praying and don’t give up?
            But why should we need to do that?  I mean, if God cares about us and cares what happens to us, why should we have to keep praying over and over again?  Why should we have to nag God over and over and over again?  After all, Jesus told us Matthew Chapter Six, Verse Eight that God the Father knows what we need before we ask.  And a little later, in Verse Thirty-two of that same chapter, Jesus says we should not worry about the things we need because God the Father knows that we need them.  So why do we need to keep bothering God with this stuff?  Why do we need to keep asking God for things that God already knows we want?
            Well, what does Jesus tell us we should be praying for?  Justice, right?  That’s what the widow prayed for:  “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  And at the end, Jesus says, “Will not God bring justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?...I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”
            So that’s the first thing.  When Jesus tells us to keep praying and not give up, he’s not telling us that God will give us everything we want as long as we just keep asking.  Jesus is telling us that God will give us justice.
            But that brings up the question, what is justice?  Well, the dictionary tells us that “justice” means “just behavior or treatment.”  So we say, well, okay then, what is “just”?  The dictionary tells us that “just” means “based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.”
            So what we’re being told here is that if we keep praying and don’t give up, God will treat us in a way that’s right and fair.  Well, I guess we’d expect that, right?  It’s an important point to make, because there are people who believe that God is arbitrary and just does whatever God feels like doing.  But still, as Christians, we would certainly expect God to treat us fairly.
            But here’s an interesting thing.  We’re told that the judge finally decided to give the widow justice.  But that’s all we’re told.  We’re not told what justice meant to the widow.  We’re not told what it meant to the judge, either.  What if the judge, in all fairness, decided that the widow should lose her case?  What if that truly is what was right and what was fair? 
            The judge would’ve done what he’d promised to do.  He’d have given the widow what she said she wanted.  But how would the widow react to that?  Would the widow be satisfied that justice had been done?  Or would the widow be angry because she did not win?
            It can be a tricky thing to pray for justice.  Because we all think that “justice” is on our side.  We all think that justice means we win.  But what if we’re wrong?  After all, in every case, there’s someone on each side.  And each of them thinks they’re right and that justice is on their side.  Somebody has to be wrong.  What if the right and fair and just thing for God to do is not to do what we want done?  How will we react to that?  Will we say thank you, God, for doing what was right and just and fair?  Or will we be angry because God did not do what we wanted God to do?
            We should pray for justice.  We should always pray for justice.  We should not give up praying for justice.  But we need to realize that justice may not mean that things happen the way we want them to.  Justice does not necessarily mean God does what we want God to do.  And we need to be able to accept that.
            But Jesus did not say justice is all we should pray for.  In fact, it’s important that we pray for more than justice.  Because justice would mean that each of us would be judged for our sins.  Justice would mean that each of us would need to take the punishment for our sins.  And because, as the Apostle Paul says in the eighth chapter of Romans, we have all sinned, justice would mean that each of us would be punished for our sins.
            So what we also need to pray for is forgiveness and mercy.  We need to repent of our sins and ask God to forgive them.  And because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we know that God will forgive our sins.  We won’t be punished for our sins because Jesus took the punishment for us.  All we need to do is accept Jesus as our Savior.  When we do that we will get, not justice, but forgiveness and mercy.  And that’s something we all need.
            We will all be judged.  But our judge is not a judge who does not care about justice or anything else.  Our judge is a judge who cares about us.  Our judge is a judge who loves us.  If we accept Jesus as our Savior, our judge will forgive our sins and pronounce us not guilty.  Not because that’s fair or just.  But because God loves us.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

I Can See Clearly Now

Last week I got some new glasses.  I’d needed them for some time, but just kept putting it off.  Not only did I need a different prescription, but the anti-reflective coating they had put on my glasses was flaking off.  So it was well past time to get them replaced.

The difference between the new glasses and the old is amazing.  It’s not just that things sharper and clearer, although they are.  The big difference is that, when the anti-reflective coating flaked off, it made it like I was looking through a haze.  Now I can see things as they truly are.  The world not only looks clearer, it actually looks brighter.  I put the old glasses on and then the new, just so I could better see the difference.  It’s incredible.

Before I put the new glasses on, though, I never would’ve believed the difference was that big.  As I said, I knew I needed new glasses, but I had no idea how bad things had gotten with the old glasses.  I’d able to function okay with them--I was fine to drive or to read or to do any of the other things I need to do--so I hadn’t thought it would be that big a deal to replace them.  Boy, was I wrong.

So I wondered, how could that be?  How could my vision, through those old glasses, have gotten so much worse without my noticing it more?  Well, the answer is that it happened gradually.  My eyesight changed, so that I needed a new prescription, but it happened gradually, so that I did not notice it at first.  The anti-reflective coating did not all come off at once--it might actually have been easier to see if it had.  But in fact, it came off gradually, a bit at a time, so that it did not seem like that big of a deal at first.  Ultimately, my sight through those old glasses changed tremendously, but it changed so gradually that I did not notice how big the change was.

It seems to me that something similar can happen when we drift away from God.  It happens gradually.  We don’t even notice it at first.  Eventually, we start to notice that something’s not quite right, not the way it should be, but we don’t think it makes that much of a difference.  We know we really should do something about it, just like I knew I really should get new glasses.  But we don’t think it’s that important.  So, we let it slide.  We put it off.  We tell ourselves that we’ll get back in touch with God later, when we have time.

The thing is that when I did not get new glasses, when I waited, the only person I was hurting was myself.  I was making things harder on myself than they needed to be.  I was getting by, but I was missing out on a lot of stuff.  That’s true of our relationship with God, too.  When we drift away from God, and we don’t get back in touch with God, the only person we’re hurting is ourselves.  And we’re hurting ourselves by making things harder on ourselves than they need to be.  We may be getting by, but we’re missing out on a lot of stuff.  We’re missing out on feeling God’s love and God’s guidance in our lives.  And that’s too bad.

Our eyesight is very important.  But our relationship with God is even more important.  Let’s not neglect either one.  Get your eyes examined, so your vision can be all that it should be.  But examine your relationship with God, too, so it can be all that it should be.  If we can see God clearly, everything else will fall into place.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Who Do We Worship?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 29, 2018.  The Bible verses used are 1 Kings 18:20-39.

            As we continue our sermon series on Humor in the Bible, today we hear about a contest.  On one side is Baal and all of his prophets.  Four hundred fifty of them.  And on the other side is the Lord God with one prophet.  Elijah.
            This is one of those periods, as happens repeatedly in the Old Testament, where the people of Israel have abandoned God.  It really is a regular cycle in the Old Testament.  God helps the people, and things are going well.  After things go well for a while, the people abandon God and worship other gods.  God leaves them to their fate, and the people get into trouble.  The people repent and ask God for forgiveness.  God forgives them and helps them.  Things start going well again.  After things go well for a while, the people abandon God again.  And the whole thing starts up all over again.  Not that much different from how things are today, when you think about it.
            So this is one of the periods in which people have abandoned God.  And things are not going well.  There’s been a severe drought, which is something that Elijah had prophesied back in Chapter Seventeen, which we did not read today.  And because Elijah had prophesied it, the king and lots of other people were blaming Elijah for it.
            So, Elijah had been on the run for a while.  But then, God told Elijah to go back, and that when he does, God will make it rain.  So now he’s back, and the king is not exactly pleased to see him.  The king still blames Elijah for this.  But Elijah says the reason for the drought is that the king and everyone else has abandoned God. 
And so, Elijah proposes a contest.  Baal and his prophets versus the Lord and Elijah.  They’ll each get an offering ready.  They’ll cut up a bull and put it on an altar.  They’ll get the wood already to be burned, but they won’t set it on fire.  Instead, they’ll each ask their god to provide the fire.  The prophets of Baal will call on Baal, and Elijah will call on God.  Whoever provides the fire is the true god.
Everyone agrees.  Elijah says the prophets of Baal can go first.
Now, to see the humor in this, you really have to try to picture it.  They start in the morning, and until noon they’re calling on the name of Baal.  Four hundred fifty prophets.  And at first, they’re probably fairly calm.  They’re confident.  They truly believe in Baal.  They’re praying “Baal, answer us.”  And nothing happens.  And nothing continues to happen.  So they get louder.  “Baal, answer us!”  And still nothing happens.  And they get louder.  They start shouting.  “Baal, answer us!”  They get desperate.  They start dancing around, frantically trying to get the attention of their supposed god who’s not responding.
So now it’s noon.  And nothing has happened.  And Elijah starts mocking them.  Elijah is having a great time.  He knows what’s going to happen.  He says, well, you just have to call out louder.  I mean, Baal is a god, right?  So, he’s probably just lost in thought.  Or maybe he’s busy.  Or, hey, maybe he’s out of town.  Maybe he’s traveling someplace.  Or wait, I know.  I’ll bet he’s asleep.  Just yell louder.  Wake him up.  I bet that’ll do it.
I mean, Elijah’s having a great time with this.  It was maybe not the kindest, most loving thing for Elijah to do, but you cannot really blame him, either.  He’d taken the blame for this drought, he’d seen the people worshiping this false god that did not even exist.  I mean, Elijah’s getting even, and he’s loving every minute of it.
Meanwhile, the prophets of Baal keep going.  They keep yelling louder and louder.  They get more and more frantic.  They’re dancing like crazy people.  And nothing happens.  Finally, evening comes.  No response from Baal.
So now it’s Elijah’s turn.  And this is funny, too.  Because he says, I’ll show you how great God is.  We’re going to make this even harder for God to bring this fire.  Soak all the wood with water.  Then do it again.  Then do it again.  Make sure all that wood is just completely, soaking wet.
And you heard the rest.  Elijah prayed to God.  God sent the fire.  And the people all believed in God again.  And in a part of the story that we did not read, God eventually did end the drought and bring rain.
So okay.  There’s some funny parts to the story.  The prophets of Baal frantically dancing around and shouting, Elijah mocking them, all that.  But we’ve said before that everything in the Bible, even the humor, is there to make a point.  So what’s the point of this story?  What are we supposed to learn from it?
Well, when I look around at society, it seems to me that we worship a lot of little--and not so little--gods, rather than worshiping the real God.  And I don’t want that to sound like I’m so superior to everyone else.  I’m susceptible to worshiping some of these other gods, too.  I think we all are.  
A lot of times we don’t intend to.  A lot of times we don’t even realize we’re doing it.  It may not be a conscious decision we’ve made at all.  The thing is that what we worship is revealed in the casual conversations we have.  It’s revealed in the small decisions we make.  It’s revealed in the way we live our lives.
One of the ways what we worship is revealed is what we spend our money on.  It’s been said that if you really want to know what a person values, go through their check register.  These days it’d be their credit or debit card receipts.  But regardless, the ways we spend our money shows what we value.
Another way what we worship is revealed is by what we spend our time on.  Think about how you spend your day.  A lot of it, of course, is spent on our work, and that’s natural and normal.  We need to work.  But how about our leisure time?  What do we spend that on?  The way we spend our time, again, shows what we value.
Another way what we worship is revealed is by what we think about.  When we have some time to just sort of let our minds drift, what do we think about?  Do we ever think about God?  Or do we always think about something else?  What we think about is something else that shows what we value.
So, what do you value?  What do I value?  What are you worshiping?  What am I worshiping?  Is it God?  Or is it something else?
This is not an easy question.  It’s not intended to be.  It’s easy to say, well, of course I worship God.  But do you really?  Do I really?  When we think about how we spend our money, how we spend our time, what we think about, does it show that we worship God?  Does it show that we’ve put our full faith and trust in God?  If we say yes, would an objective person agree with us?  Or would they look at these things and decide that we’re really worshiping someone else or something else?
Now, don’t take this the wrong way.  I’m not saying we should spend one hundred percent of our money or one hundred percent of our time or one hundred percent of our thoughts focused on God.  That’s not practical or realistic.  I don’t think it’s what God requires of us, either.  Also, I know a lot of you have and continue to give a lot of money and a lot of time to this church.  I know it’s important to you and you think about it a lot.  None of this is meant to be critical or to point fingers at anyone.  And again, any finger I’m pointing goes to me as much as it does to anyone.
What I am saying, though, is that we really need to think about this questions.  Because, as the people of Israel found out, false gods cannot hear us.  False gods cannot answer us.  False gods cannot save us.  Only THE God, the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, only that God can hear us.  Only that God can answer us.  Only that God can save us.  No one and nothing else can.  Only God.
So let’s all think about where our money goes.  Let’s think about where our time goes.  Let’s think about, well, what we think about.  And each of us has to do this for himself or herself.  No one can do it for us.  Take the time to think about these things.  If each of us can honestly say that these things show we worship God, then great.  But if we cannot say that, well, then, then obvious question is, what are we going to do about it?
When the people of Israel realized that their gods were false, they cried, “The Lord--he is God!  The Lord--he is God!”  May each of us realize that the Lord--and no one else--is God.  And may the way we live our lives show that we truly believe that the Lord--and no one else--is God.