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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Walking Through the Door

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 15, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 19:17-30.
            Many of you know that I was a lawyer before I became a pastor.  For my first two years of seminary, before I had my first United Methodist appointment, I continued to work part-time as a lawyer.  I knew, though, that once I had an appointment, my days as a lawyer would come to an end.
            Once in a while, during those two years, I wondered how I would feel when I walked out the door of the law office for the last time.  Don’t get me wrong, I was confident that going into the ministry was the right thing for us to do.  Still, I’d worked in that law office for seventeen years.  How was it going to feel to leave it?  Would I feel sadness?  Regret?  Nostalgia?  How was it going to feel when I closed that office door for the last time?
            Well, as it turned out, I did not feel any of those things.  What I felt, really, was a sense of appropriateness.  It felt right to be leaving the law office.  Not that I had hated my time there or anything, I don’t mean that.  I just had this sense that things were going the way they were supposed to go.  I had enjoyed my time in law, I had done everything I was supposed to do there.  Now it was time to walk through that door and go on to find out what would happen next.
            When I thought about it later, it occurred to me that it would be really cool if death felt like that.  If, in fact, we’re blessed to live a long and full life, it would be nice to have that feeling at the end of life.  To have no sadness, no regret, no nostalgia.  To feel that death, at that time, is simply appropriate.  To have it feel right to be leaving this life.  Not that we hate our time here.  But just to have the sense that things are going the way they’re supposed to go.  We’ve done everything we’re supposed to do here.  Now it’s time to walk through that door and go on to find out what happens next.
            I don’t know if that’s how it actually will feel.  I don’t think we can possibly know how it will feel until we actually experience.  But I have hopes.  And one of the reasons for my hope is the description of Jesus’ death on earth in our reading from the gospel of John.
            Jesus is led out to the place of crucifixion.  Jesus had known for some time that this was going to happen.  He had told the disciples many times that he was going to be killed.  He had told them how he was going to be killed.  None of this came as a surprise to Jesus.  It was what he had been sent to earth to do.
            Jesus is on the cross.  His work on earth is done.  And in looking into this, to help me picture it, I discovered that the way we sometimes picture Jesus’ crucifixion is probably wrong.  We picture him way up on the cross, several feet off the ground.  What I read was that this was not true.  When you were crucified, you were just barely off the ground, maybe a foot at most.  Nobody would’ve had to lean way back or crane their necks to see Jesus.  Jesus and the other people who were being crucified were not towering over everyone.  They were not that far from eye level.
            Jesus is on the cross.  His work on earth is done.  Except for one thing.  Hanging on the cross, Jesus sees one more thing he can do.  He sees his mother, Mary, standing there near him.  Next to Mary is someone described as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, which we assume is John.  He says to Mary “Woman, here is your son” and he says to John “Here is your mother”.  Jesus, hanging on the cross, does one last thing out of love.  He makes sure that his mother, Mary, has someone to take care of her now that he’s going to be gone.
            After that, were told that Jesus knew “that everything had now been finished”.  He asks for a drink and gets one.  Then he says “it is finished”.  And he dies.
            It sounds to me like Jesus had that feeling I talked about earlier.  At the end of his life on earth, he had no sadness, no regret, no nostalgia.  He knew that death, at that time, was simply appropriate.  It was right for him to be leaving this life.  He had the sense that things were going the way they were supposed to go.  The Scriptures had been fulfilled.  Jesus had done everything he was supposed to do here.  Now it was time to walk through that door and go on to find out what would happen next.
            The difference between Jesus and you and me is that Jesus knew what would happen next.  He knew that he would rise from the dead, that he would spend a little more time with his disciples, and then he would go back to heaven.  Jesus had been in heaven before he came to earth.  He knew what it was like.  He knew that he would be going back to be with God the Father.  In effect, Jesus knew that when he left earth, he would be going home.
            Now, that’s a phrase we use a lot, too.  We talk about dying as going home or as God calling us home.  And there’s truth in it, of course.  Earth may be our home for now, but we know our time here is only temporary.  We know that, if we believe in Jesus as our Savior, we will go on to our future home, our permanent home, our eternal home.  We, too, will go to be with God the Father in heaven.
            But while we believe that, and we may even say we know it, you and I have never been to heaven.  We don’t know what it’s like there.  We cannot picture it.  The Bible tells us a few things about it, the streets being paved with gold and so forth, but we don’t really know whether that’s something we’re supposed to take literally.  The fact is that we don’t really know what heaven is like.  We don’t know what we’ll be like there.  For us, even if we believe in heaven, what happens next is still a mystery.
            But you know, I wonder if it might have been a mystery to Jesus, too.  Now, don’t take that the wrong way.  I believe what I said earlier, that Jesus had been in heaven before he came to earth and that he knew that when he left the earth he would be going back there.
            What I wonder is, while Jesus was on earth, was he able to remember everything about what heaven is?  This is one of the many things we don’t understand about the fully human and yet fully divine Jesus.  While Jesus was on earth, he was not connected to God the Father in the same way that he had been in heaven.  That’s why he would often go off by himself to meditate and to pray.  He was trying to get that connection to God the Father again.
            Now, Jesus knew who he was.  He knew he was the divine Son of God.  And he knew what that meant.  He knew that he had come from heaven and would return to heaven.  Jesus knew all that.
            What I’m wondering is how well he was able to call to mind what heaven really was.  We think Jesus was about thirty-three years old when he was crucified.  That means it had been thirty-three years since he had been in heaven.  Now, thirty-three years is the blink of an eye in heavenly terms, but it’s a long time in earthly terms.  I mean, thirty-three years ago Ronald Reagan was president.  The big pop song of 1984 was Tina Turner singing “What’s Love Got to Do with It”.  The big movie of 1984 was the original Police Academy movie.  Thirty-three years ago I was twenty-five and just starting my career as a lawyer, with no thought that I’d ever become a pastor.
            The point is that, in human terms, thirty-three years is a long time.  And again, Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.  Could the fully human Jesus really remember what heaven was?  Could he remember what it looked like?  Could he remember what it smelled like?  Could he remember how it felt to be there?  
            Maybe he could.  But we really don’t know.  And maybe he did not need to.  Maybe Jesus did not need to know exactly what was waiting for him in heaven because he knew who was waiting for him in heaven.  Jesus knew that when he returned to heaven, he would be reunited with God the Father.  And maybe that was really all he needed to know.
            And maybe that’s all you and I need to know, too.  Yes, it would be nice if we could picture heaven.  It would be nice if we knew what it looked like and what it smelled like.  It would be nice if we knew how it feels to be there.  But you and I really don’t need to know that.  We don’t need to know what’s waiting for us in heaven because we know who’s waiting for us in heaven.  We know that we’ll be in the presence of the almighty, all-powerful, and yet all-loving and all-caring God.  And that’s really all we need to know.
We all know that, for each of us, the day will come when it’s time for us to walk through that door.  Whenever that day comes, may we meet it with no sadness, no regret, no nostalgia.  May we have that feeling that what is happening is simply appropriate.  Things were going the way they were supposed to go.  We have done everything we are supposed to do.  May we walk through that door eager to find out what happens next.  And may we be confident that the door will lead us to the almighty, all-powerful, all-loving, all caring God.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Go-to Music

You probably know how much I love music.  I love lots of kinds of music.  I love the old hymns and I also enjoy much of contemporary Christian music.  I enjoy the big band music that my parents love.  I enjoy some of the classic country music that Wanda likes so much.  I even enjoy some of the newer country and some of the current pop music.  I enjoy cowboy music and folk music.  There’s just so much music that I enjoy.

But my go-to music, the music that I love the most, is the music of the ‘70s, the music I grew up with.  I’m not talking about disco--that’s more late ‘70s to early ‘80s.  I’m talking about Fleetwood Mac and Chicago.  I’m talking about ELO and Crosby, Stills and Nash.  I’m talking about Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot.  I’m talking about Gerry Rafferty and Al Stewart.  And as you’ve probably guessed by now, I could go on and on and list a whole lot more individuals and groups from that time.

The thing is, though, I’m not sure why I love that music so much.  I mean, I could say, “Because it’s great music”, and of course I think it is.  But that’s not really an explanation.  After all, “great music” is in the ear of the beholder.  What I may think is great music you may think is lousy, and vice versa.  It’s not like there’s some universally recognized standard of what makes great music.  “Great music” is whatever you happen think it is.

I could say it’s because listening to the music I grew up with takes me back to that time.  It makes me think of my high school days and takes me back to a happier time.  The problem with that, though, is that I was not really all that happy in high school.  I was actually pretty lonely most of the time.  I wanted nothing more from high school than to leave it, to be able to go out into a bigger world where, I hoped, I would find some people who would accept me and like me for who I was.  Which I did, and I don’t mean to get off on a tangent whining about my high school days.  The point is, though, that listening to ‘70s music does not take me back to a happier time.  I’m much happier now than I was then.

But perhaps it doesn’t really matter anyway.  Maybe it doesn’t really matter why something makes you happy, as long as it does.  I mean, if something that’s hurtful to you or someone else makes you happy, that’s a problem.  But if something makes you happy and it doesn’t hurt anyone else, then maybe you don’t worry about why.  Maybe the thing to do is just go with it and be happy.

I’m not saying that our own personal happiness should be our only goal in life.  I think God wants us to be happy, but God also wants us to love our neighbor.  God also wants us to go and make disciples.  God also wants us to love God and to serve God in whatever way we can.  The process of doing that will make us happy in a much deeper way than just listening to music ever will.

But music, and art, and sports, and lots of other things, can bring some happiness in our lives, too.  And in proper proportion, there’s nothing wrong with that.  So I’m going to keep listening to my ‘70s music.  And I hope this week, you’ll spend some time doing something that makes you happy, too.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Changing the World

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 8, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 23:13-25.

            Our Bible reading today picks up where we left off last week.  Jesus has been arrested, he’s been questioned by the high priest, and now he’s been brought to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  Pilate thought he’d gotten rid of this problem of Jesus by sending him to Herod, but Herod sent Jesus right back.  So now, Pilate has no choice but to deal with him.
            Pilate tells the people there’s no basis for the charges against Jesus.  He says he’s going to release Jesus.  Three times he says that.  And each time, all the people say no.  They don’t want Jesus released.  They want him crucified.  They want him killed.  So Pilate, who really does not care about Jesus one way or another and just wants to keep the peace, agrees.  Jesus is led away to be crucified.
            This whole crowd of people wanted Jesus killed.  Listen again to how Luke says it:  “With one voice they cried out, ‘Away with this man!  Release Barabbas to us!’”  “They kept shouting, ‘Crucify him!  Crucify him!’”  “With loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified.”
            I wonder if that’s really the way it was.  I mean, I’m not questioning the accuracy of the Bible or anything.  I’m just thinking about it.  We’re not told how big the crowd was.  It’s described as “the chief priests, the rulers, and the people.”  Maybe it was a hundred, maybe it was a thousand, maybe more, we don’t know.  But out of all these people, was there not one who disagreed?  Was there not one who thought, “Wait a minute.  Does this man, this Jesus, really deserve to die?”  Was there not one person there who thought, “Maybe Pilate’s right.  Maybe we should think about this a little more”?  Is it literally true that every person there was shouting for Jesus to be crucified?
            It may be.  Remember when we talked about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday?  We talked about how a lot of people there probably did not believe in Jesus.  They just got caught up in the emotion of it.  That may well have happened here, too.  People who did not know who Jesus was might have been there demanding his death.  People who had heard Jesus and had questions might have been there demanding his death.  In fact, some of the same people who, not very many days before had been shouting “Hosanna” and waving palm branches might have been there demanding Jesus’ death.
            It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of a situation.  Most of us have probably had it happen at one time or another.  But there’s another thing going on here, too.  There may very well have been people who did think Jesus should not be killed, but who simply did not have the courage to say so.  They may have, privately, been on Jesus’ side, but simply have been afraid of what might happen to them if they spoke up about it.
            What do those two things have in common?  Peer pressure.  Going along with the crowd.  Not wanting to rock the boat.  Doing what everyone else does.  Thinking the way everyone else thinks.  Believing what everyone else believes.  Living the way everyone else lives.  Wanting to fit in.  Wanting to be popular.  Not wanting to be different, not wanting to be the oddball.  Wanting to be part of the crowd.
            We talk about peer pressure in regard to young people a lot, but it’s not just young people who feel it.  I think every person here probably feels peer pressure at one time or another.  We might not realize it, we might not think about it that way, but we do.  In fact, one reason we don’t realize it or think about it that way is that we’ve done it for so long we no longer realize we’re doing it.  We think we’re making independent decisions, entirely on our own, when in fact we’re just doing things the way everyone does them and thinking about things the way everyone else thinks about them.
            But here’s the thing.  As Christians, fitting in should be the last thing we think about.  It should not matter to us whether we think or believe or live the way other people do.  What should matter to us is whether we think or believe or live the way God wants us to.  Our goal as Christians is not fit into the world.  Our goal as Christians is to change the world.
            That was Jesus’ goal too, of course.  Jesus could’ve saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d been willing to go along, to fit in.  If Jesus had just gone along with what the high priests and elders wanted, he would not have been killed.  In fact, I think that even at the point of our reading for today that option was still open to Jesus.  If Jesus had apologized, if he’d said that the chief priests were right and he was wrong, he’d probably have saved his life.  He might’ve even gotten praise from the chief priests as a sinner who’d seen the light.  Things would’ve been so much easier for Jesus if he’d just tried to fit in.  Just as, many times, it seems like things are easier for us if we just try to fit in.
            But Jesus was not sent to Earth to fit in.  Jesus was sent to Earth to change the world.  And you and I, as Christians, were not put here fit in, either.  You and I were put here to change the world, too.
            Now that sounds like a pretty lofty goal.  In fact, it probably does not sound very realistic.  You and I are just ordinary people.  We’re out here living in a small town in a state that most people consider the middle of nowhere.  How in the world are you and I supposed to change the world?  It sounds ridiculous.
            But it’s not.  For one thing, Jesus was just a guy from a small town in the middle of nowhere, too.  Remember in John Chapter One, when Jesus is gathering his first disciples?  Jesus calls Philip, and Philip goes and tells his friend Nathanael about how they’ve found the Messiah, and it’s Jesus of Nazareth.  Nathanael says, “Nazareth!  Can anything good come from there?”  Nazareth was considered nowhere.  Nobody worth knowing could come from there.  But Jesus did, and he changed the world.
            But we think, sure, but Jesus was the divine Son of God.  I’m not the divine Son of God.  I’m not the divine anything.  How am I supposed to change the world?
            But we can.  And we do.  You and I change the world every day, in a hundred ways, large and small.  Because every action we take is seen by someone.  Every word we say is noticed by someone.  You and I have influence over more people than we will ever know.  That influence changes the world, every day.  The question is whether we’ll have the courage to not fit in.  The question is whether we’ll have the courage to change the world in a way that brings people to Jesus Christ.
            When you decided to come to church today, rather than staying home or going someone else, someone saw that.  Maybe it was your kids or your grandkids.  Maybe it was your neighbor.  Maybe it was somebody driving by who saw you pull up to the church or walk in the door.  But somebody noticed.  And them noticing that changed the world.  Maybe just a little bit, maybe not even enough to be noticeable.  But it still changed the world to some small extent.
            Everything we do is noticed by someone.  When the cashier at the convenience store gives us too much change, how we react to that will change the world.  When we’re talking to someone and they criticize someone else, how we react to that will change the world.  When someone wants us to do something we know is wrong, but we know will be popular, how we react to that will change the world.  When we do something we know is right and we get criticized for it, how we react to that will change the world.
            And when we have the chance to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, how we react to that will change the world.  And when we have the chance to show God’s love to people, how we react to that will change the world.  It won’t change the whole world all at once, but it will change some part of it.  It will change the world for at least one person.  And that one person will change the world for someone else, who’ll change the world for someone else, and on and on it goes.  And when enough of these changes happen, the whole world will be changed.
            If Pontius Pilate would have had the courage to stand up to the crowd, he might have changed the world.  If someone, even just one person, in the crowd shouting “crucify” would have had the courage to stand up and say no, that person might have changed the world.  But none of them did.  And the thing is that by not having that courage, they still changed the world.  They just did not realize it.
            You and I claim to be Christians.  The way we live out our Christian faith will change the world.  We will either change the world by going along with the crowd, or we’ll change the world by loving our neighbor and making disciples of Jesus Christ.
            Which way will we choose?

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Outside of the Asylum

One of my favorite authors is Douglas Adams.  He wrote a series of books which are known as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.  They follow the life of Arthur Dent, a rather ordinary Englishman who, without any real warning, suddenly finds himself on a series of adventures traveling through time and space.

On a trip back to Earth, Arthur meets a man named John Watson.  Mr. Watson--well, I’ll let wikipedia explain it:  

John Watson, also known (at his own request) as Wonko the Sane, was a marine biologist and scientist.  He and his wife lived in a curious place called The Outside of the Asylum.  John calls himself “Wonko” in order to remind himself that a scientist must be like a child in having no preconceived notions--”Wonko” being a childhood nickname bestowed by his mother.  Wonko added the epithet “the Sane” to his name in order to reassure people of his sanity.

The Asylum was set up one day after Watson came across a set of detailed instructions on a set of toothpicks:  “Hold stick near center of its length.  Moisten pointed end in mouth.  Insert in tooth space, blunt end next to gum.  Use gentle in-out motion.”  Watson, distressed and fearing for the sanity of a world which needed detailed instructions in order to use a toothpick properly, built the Asylum to put it in and help it get better.  The Asylum is a four-walled house turned inside out.  That which one would be inclined to take as the door into the house opens into a lawn with benches and walking paths.  This is the area Watson calls outside the Asylum.  Thus, the Asylum contains the entire world, save for that small outside area.  Within that small outside area, Watson has mounted the instructions for the toothpicks, in order to discourage himself and others from going back into the Asylum.

So other than showing I like strange books, what’s the point?  The point is that I sometimes have days where I feel like Wonko the Sane.  I watch the news and I feel like the whole rest of the world has gone crazy, and I’m the only sane one left.  The idea that men should use the men’s room and women should use the ladies’ room has become controversial.  Choosing whether to watch an NFL game has become a political statement.  And then, of course, we have things like the Las Vegas shooting that make the feeling even stronger.  I could go on and on, and so could you.  And I suspect, sometimes, you feel the same way--like the world has gone crazy and you’re the only sane one left in it.

It’s tempting, when we feel like that, to do what Wonko did.  It’s tempting to just withdraw from society.  Let the crazy world go crazy.  Don’t try to do anything about it.  Live a quiet life, keep to yourself, and just watch the world go by in whatever way it decides to go.

The thing is, though, that’s not what Jesus told us to do.  Jesus told us to go and make disciples.  Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  It’s pretty hard to make disciples if we’ve withdrawn from society.  It’s pretty hard to love our neighbors if we keep to ourselves and watch the world go by.  The only way we can make disciples of Jesus Christ is to go out and be part of the world.  The only way we can love our neighbors is to go out and meet them where they are and become a part of their lives.  In other words, the only way we can really be followers of Jesus Christ is to be a part of the messy, crazy world that’s out there.

Jesus never withdrew from the world.  We shouldn’t, either.  Wherever you are, whatever you do, find a way to be engaged and involved in the world around you.  Interact with the people you can interact with.  Influence the people you can influence.  Do what you can to bring people to faith or to strengthen the faith of those who already have it.

It’s okay to step out of the Asylum once in a while, to recharge--Jesus did that, too.  But ultimately, we need to get back into the world and do what we can to love our neighbors and make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

When God Says No

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 1, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 23:1-12.

            We continue looking at the last days of Jesus’ life on earth.  Jesus has been betrayed.  He’s been arrested.  He’s been questioned by the high priest.  Now, he’s been brought before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
            A Roman governor, at that time, served at the pleasure of the Roman emperor.  In other words, the Roman emperor could appoint anyone he wanted to serve as a governor, for any reason or no reason.  And the Roman emperor could remove any governor and appoint a different one, again for any reason or no reason.  
So, if you were a Roman governor, one of your main concerns was to keep the emperor happy.  And what was the best way to do that.  Well, two things.  One, make sure that money keeps flowing to the emperor’s treasury.  In other words, make sure all the taxes from your area that are supposed to go to Rome get to Rome.  And if you can send a little bit more than that, well, that would be appreciated.  Two, keep the peace.  Keep things under control.  Don’t let there be any unrest, don’t let the people get stirred up to the point where they try something.  Don’t make Rome have to send troops to your area to calm things down.  Keep them calm yourself.
So, knowing that, what are the two things the chief priests, the people out to get Jesus, tell Pilate?  First, they tell him Jesus opposes paying taxes to Rome.  Second, they tell him Jesus is getting the people all stirred up and things might get out of control.  The chief priests tell those things to Pilate precisely because they know those are the things that will get Pilate’s attention.
So, you’re Pilate.  You have the chief priests telling you these things about Jesus, and you’re concerned.  But on the other hand, you’ve heard that this Jesus guy has quite a following.  If you come out too strongly against him, maybe his followers will get even more out of control.  What do you do?
Well, you’re a politician, so you look for a way to pass the buck.  And Pilate thought he’d found one.  He finds out that Jesus is from Galilee, and he says, well, I’m the governor for Jerusalem. Herod’s the governor for Galilee.  I’ll let Herod deal with him.  And that’s the part of the story I want to talk about.
Now, this is not the same Herod the wise men talked to in the Christmas story.  This Herod, we’re told, had heard about Jesus and was eager to see him.  Why?  Because he was hoping Jesus would work some sort of miracle.  He wanted to see a show.  You can just imagine Herod pleading with Jesus to work a miracle, suggesting things he might do.  He had no interest in actually learning about Jesus or following him.  He was treating Jesus like a magician who was supposed to do tricks for him.  And when Jesus refused to do that, Herod sent him back to Pilate.  When he saw Jesus was not going to perform on command, Herod lost interest.
Now, when you put it like that, what Herod did sounds pretty crass.  It sounds really disrespectful of Jesus.  How could he treat Jesus like that?  How could he act like Jesus was one of his court jesters, someone who’s only worth was to entertain Herod?  How could Herod act so arrogantly to the divine Son of God?  You and I would never do anything like that.
And yet.  We’re tempted to.  We’re tempted to all the time.  And sometimes we give in to that temptation.  Not in that exact way, of course.  Not as obviously and crudely as that.
But think about it.  Have you ever been in a tough spot and asked God to bail you out of it?  Or, have you ever prayed for God to do something specific, and been disappointed when God did not do it?
Now, I’m not saying we do this just out of a desire to see God perform a magic trick.  We turn to God in this way for lots of reasons, and sometimes they’re very good reasons, or at least they seem that way to us.  Sometimes we’re convinced that what we want would be a good thing, not just for ourselves, but for everybody involved.  Sometimes we sincerely believe that what we want is, in fact, God’s will.  And of course, at other times, we turn to God in this way because we’re desperate.  We’re in a spot where we see no way out and have nowhere else to turn.  And of course, there can be lots of other reasons we pray this way, too.
But for whatever reason, we pray for God to do some specific thing.  And sometimes, God does those things.  But sometimes, God does not.  And so, the question is, how do we react to that?  How do we react when, maybe with nothing but the best of intentions, we ask God to do something and God does not do it?
Well, we’re probably disappointed.  And that’s pretty natural.  But what then?  Once we get over our disappointment, or at least get reconciled to it, then what?  Where do we go from there?
We saw what Herod did.  Herod completely lost interest in Jesus.  Herod decided that if Jesus was not going to do what he wanted, then he wanted nothing to do with Jesus.  He sent Jesus away and essentially decided that Jesus was never going to be a part of his life again.
But of course, Herod never really believed in Jesus in the first place.  He was curious about him, he’d heard some things, but he never actually believed.  And in fact, it appears that there was no chance that he ever would believe.  Again, he was not interested in faith.  He wanted to see a show.
You and I, presumably, do believe.  Or at least we’re interested.  I don’t know why we’d be here, in church, if we did not.  But what is it that we actually believe in?  Do we believe in a God who’s supposed to do what we want, at least if we ask sincerely and with good intentions?  Or do we believe in something more than that?
Because here’s what makes this hard.  A lot of us have prayed for very serious and important things.  The restoration of a relationship.  The healing of a loved one.  Protection and safety in a frightening situation.  All sorts of things that are very serious and very important.  And again, sometimes God does what we want.  But sometimes God does not.  So the question is, can we accept that?  Can we accept that God heard our sincere and heartfelt prayer, that God considered what we asked for with the best of intentions and with love in our hearts, and said no?  Can we continue to have faith in God when God does not do what we know God could do and what we truly believe God should do?
We know what the answer should be.  And it’s easy to say it when we’re not faced with it.  But I know some of you have been faced with it.  Some of you may be facing it now.  And if not, then at some point in your life you will.  It happens to all of us eventually, where we ask for God to do something, something that’s very important to us, something that we believe with all our hearts is the right and best thing, and God says no.
That’s when we find out how real our faith is.  That’s when we find out if we truly have faith in God.  When God says no to something that’s very important to us, something we think would be the best thing not just for us but for everyone, that’s when we find out if we have enough faith in God to trust that God’s way is better than our way.  When we’re convinced that our plan is the best plan, when we cannot see that there could possibly be a better plan, can we still believe that somehow, God must have a better plan?  Do we trust God enough to believe that?
Again, we know what the answer should be.  But this is not a question we can answer with our heads.  It’s a question we have to answer with our hearts.  It does not matter what we should believe.  What matters is what we do believe.  It does not matter that we should have faith and that we should trust God.  What matters is whether we do have faith and do trust God.
            Now, if you struggle with this, it’s okay.  This is not an easy thing to deal with.  God knows that.  I have to think there are times when it’s hard for God to say no, even when God knows that’s the right answer.  Because in these situations, God knows how we’re going to feel when God says no.  God knows how much we’re going to hurt.  God does not want us to hurt.  But God knows that God’s plan is better than what we want, even if we cannot see how it possibly could be.  And so God has to say no, even knowing the hurt it’s going to cause us.
            Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about aligning our hearts with God’s heart.  We’ve talked a lot about doing God’s will rather than our own.  But this is where it gets real.  This is where we find out just how real our faith in God truly is.  This is where we find out if we can really mean those words we pray in the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday:  “Thy will be done”.
            It’s a question each of us has to answer for ourselves.  I’ll be happy to talk with you about it, of course.  If you’re struggling with something, please contact me.  I’ll do anything I can to be there for you and help you work through this.  And I’m sure there are other people who would do that, too.
            But ultimately, we each have to answer the question for ourselves.  May we get whatever help we need, and do whatever is necessary, to keep our faith strong, even when God says no.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Radical Act of Happiness

I wrote last week about not complaining.  Let’s take that a little further.  What if, instead of simply not complaining, we went out of our way to try to be happy?  What if we made a specific effort to be cheerful and find joy in every day?

Now, I understand that there are some days this is not going to work.  No one can be cheerful and happy every day.  Also, there are sometimes real life situations that make being cheerful and happy an unnatural act.  If you’re sick, if you’ve just lost a loved one, if you or someone you care about has lost a job, those and many other situations are ones in which you are not going to be happy and cheerful.  In fact, if you were, people would start to question your grip on reality.

But I’m talking about the ordinary sorts of days, the ones we generally live in everyday life.  Those are days in which we can be happy and cheerful and joyful.  But for most of us, it’s not going to happen by itself.  We have to make a specific effort to feel those things.

Patch Adams once said that the most radical act anyone can commit is to be happy.  Why is that?  I think a major reason is that society discourages it.  Think about it.  When you turn on the news, do you ever see any people who are happy?  Very rarely.  The news, by its nature, is bad news.  Not only that, but every day on the news you see people who are upset and angry about something.  I’m not passing judgment on the validity of their anger.  The point is that those are the only people you ever see.  Happy people never make the news.

It’s the same on TV shows.  Very seldom do you see a character on a show who is happy and joyful about their life, and if you ever do they’re usually made fun of by the rest of the cast.  They’re treated like there’s something wrong with them. Society tells us that we should not be happy, that we should not feel joy in our lives.  Society tells us that we should either be angry or depressed or discouraged with our lot in life.

But you know what?  As Christians, we’re not supposed to do what society tells us.  We’re supposed to do what Jesus told us.  And Jesus told us to love people.  It’s pretty hard to love people if you’re angry or depressed or discouraged.  The only way we can truly love people is if we’re feeling happy ourselves.  So if we want to love people the way Jesus told us to, we need to make an effort to be happy ourselves.

So let’s do that.  How?  Well, I think a good first step is to think of all the things God has done for you.  There have been a lot of them.  Most of us have family members who love us.  Most of us have enough to eat, a warm place to sleep, and clothes to wear.  If nothing else, we all have the incredible gift of life and the incredible gift of love and salvation that God offers us through Jesus Christ.  Thinking of that should always give us something to be happy about.

So this week, don’t worry.  Be happy!  And have a great week!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

No Rejection, No Argument

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 24, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 18:12-14, 19-24.

            In our sermon series about the earthly life of Jesus, we’re approaching the end of Jesus’ time on earth.  Judas has betrayed him.  Jesus has been arrested.  Now, he’s been taken to the high priest for questioning.  The questions, we’re told, are about Jesus’ disciples and about Jesus’ teaching.
            The more I think about the way Jesus answered those questions, the more remarkable it seems to me.  Because there were a lot of ways Jesus could’ve played this, you know.  He could’ve denied everything.  He could’ve claimed he’d been taken out of context, that the things he’d said did not mean what it was claimed they meant.  He could’ve said that the accusations against him were a pack of lies--which, according to some of the other gospels, they actually were.  
There were other options.  He could’ve gotten angry, the way he did in the temple courts when he chased out the money changers.  He could’ve questioned their authority--he could’ve told them that he was the divine Son of God and that they had no right to question him about anything.  He could’ve even called on divine help--last week we read where Jesus said that all he had to do was ask and God the Father would send twelve legions of angels to help him.  These are just some of the ways Jesus could’ve played this, some of the ways he could’ve reacted to the questioning from the high priest.
But Jesus did not do any of that.  Here’s what Jesus said:
I have spoken openly to the world.  I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together.  I said nothing in secret.  Why question me?  Ask those who heard me.  Surely they know what I said.
Jesus knew that the high priest’s mind was closed.  He did not know who Jesus was and was not interested in finding out.  The high priest was not looking for information.  He was looking for a reason to have Jesus killed.  It did not matter what Jesus said.  The decision had already been made.  So Jesus refused to play along.  He was not going to get angry.  He was not going to argue.  He simply says, everyone knows what I said.  What’s the point of asking me?  Without saying so, he makes it clear to everyone that the high priest has no intention of giving him a fair trial.  This is just all for show, and Jesus is not about to put on a show.
And it’s interesting, I think, that the officials had no idea how to handle that.  One of them gets mad and slaps Jesus.  And Jesus again refuses to play along with the charade.  He simply says, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong.  But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”
I think there are some important lessons here for us.  We’ve talked before about how Jesus told us to go and make disciples.  In doing that, it’s important that we live lives that show our Christian faith, but it’s also important that actually spread the word.  It’s important that we tell people about our church and about our faith in Jesus Christ.  
One of the things that keeps us from doing that is fear.  That fear can take several forms, but among them are the fear of rejection and the fear of starting an argument.  But I think that the way Jesus handled this shows us ways we can deal with those fears.
Let’s look at the fear of rejection first.  Now, Jesus was rejected.  Absolutely he was.  But look at the people who rejected him.  They were people, like the high priest and like the officials surrounding him, whose minds were closed.  They were people who were not receptive to Jesus’ message in any way, shape, or form.  They were not interested in hearing anything Jesus had to say.  They were not interested in hearing why he said what he said.  Without even hearing what Jesus had to say, they were already opposed to him.
These were not the first people Jesus had run into who had that attitude, of course.  It happened at various times during his ministry.  And basically, Jesus reacted the same way to all of them, which was that he was not going to waste his time with them.  Essentially, Jesus knew that there’s no point in talking to a brick wall.  He tells the disciples the same thing.  In Matthew Ten, Fourteen, Jesus says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”  Jesus knew there would be plenty of other people who would be receptive, or at least open-minded, so there was no point in wasting time on those who were not.
            When we look at this way, we can see we don’t need to fear rejection.  We just need to move on from it.  If we’re talking about Jesus and we get rejected, it’s okay.  You and I don’t need to take it personally, because they’re not rejecting us personally.  They’re rejecting Jesus.  It’s not an insult to us.  It’s an insult to Jesus.  So let Jesus handle it.  Move on.
            So let’s look at the fear of starting an argument.  That can happen, of course.  We all know people who love to argue, right?  And they’ll argue about almost anything, including religion.  But just because someone wants to argue does not mean that you and I have to join the argument.
            Now we should make clear, there’s a difference between an argument and a discussion.  Jesus welcomed discussion.  You and I should welcome it, too.  If someone wants to know more about Jesus, if someone wants to know more about the Christian faith, that’s an awesome thing.  We need to encourage that.  If someone has honest questions about God and is really interested in finding the answers, that’s a great thing.  Asking honest questions is one of the best ways to learn.
            That’s far different from an argument.  And again, it gets back to the distinction between someone whose mind is closed and someone whose mind is open.  And we can usually tell that difference through the course of talking to someone.  If the person we’re talking to is actively engaged in hearing what we have to say, if they’re responding to it, if they’re being respectful and asking questions out of a desire to learn more, we can usually tell that.  If the person we’re talking to is not interested in hearing what we have to say, if they’re just interested in making their own points and don’t even seem to be paying attention to what we’re saying, we can usually tell that, too.  That’s when it becomes an argument.
            Jesus showed us how not to get involved in an argument.  The more I read what Jesus said, the more impressed I am by it.  He says, basically, you don’t have to ask me what I taught.  Everyone knows it.  Everything I said was out in the open, in public.  If you really want to know what I said, ask the people who heard me.  If I said anything wrong, say what it is.  If not, what are we doing here?
            That’s an example for us.  If someone is not interested in hearing what we have to say, if they just want to argue, we don’t need to fall for it.  And again, we don’t need to take it personally, either, because the fact is that they’re not really arguing with us.  They’re arguing with Jesus Christ.  All we need to do is say, hey, I’m just telling you what Jesus said.  I can show you where Jesus said it, if you like.  But if you don’t want to like it or don’t want to hear it, that’s your choice.  Your problem is with Jesus, not with me.
            Jesus had told the disciples that was going to happen, too.  In Matthew Ten, Forty, Jesus says, “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  The implication, then, is that anyone who does not welcome the disciples does not welcome Jesus, and does not welcome God the Father who sent him.  So it’s not us that’s not welcomed.  It’s Jesus.  It’s not an insult to us.  It’s an insult to Jesus.  So again, let Jesus handle it and move on.
            There’s one other point to make about moving on.  By moving on, we’re not giving up on anyone.  If someone changes their attitude, if they become receptive to God’s word, if they want to hear about Jesus, we should always be ready to talk to them.  Jesus would’ve been more than happy to talk to the high priest if the high priest had actually been interested in hearing what he had to say.  Moving on does not mean slamming a door on anybody.  We should always make clear that, if someone truly wants to know more about Jesus Christ, we’ll be more than willing to talk with them.  
            But if not, then we need to do what Jesus told us to do.  Focus on the people who are interested, not on the people who are not.  And know that they are not rejecting us and they are not arguing with us.  They are rejecting Jesus and arguing with Jesus.  So we can let Jesus handle it and not worry about it.
            Jesus told us to go and make disciples.  You and I can do that without fear.  If we keep our eyes open and our hearts open, God will show us people who’ll be interested in Jesus’ message.  Pray for God’s Holy Spirit to lead you to those people.  Then, trust that God will tell you what to say, so that they may be led to faith in Jesus Christ.