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Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Happens Next?

Below is the text of the message I gave in the Wheatland Parish on July 31, 2011.  The text is Matthew 14:13-21.


            Imagine you’re one of the crowd on that day described in Matthew.  You know who Jesus is, of course; you don’t know everything about him, but you know a lot of things.  He’s pretty famous, after all, this Jesus.  He’s done a lot of things.  He’s preached a lot of sermons, and there’s a lot of difference of opinion about him.  The people who are for him say he’s the Savior, the King who was promised by scripture.  They even say he has the power to forgive sins.  The people in charge, though, the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the scribes, all say he’s a dangerous man and needs to be stopped.  The Roman authorities say that, too, although that does not mean much to you—after all, who trusts them?
You’ve heard some other things, too, some stories.  Supposedly, he’s got some sort of special power to heal people.  You’ve even heard a story about him having raised someone from the dead, although you’re not real sure about that one.  That’s not possible, is it?
At any rate, he’s in the area, and there are a lot of people going out to see him, so you decide you’re going to go out there, too.  If nothing else, this guy’s a celebrity, so it should be interesting to go see him.  
Apparently, he’s out on a boat somewhere.  The word is that his famous cousin, John the Baptist, was killed, and Jesus decided he wanted to get away for a while.  You think, well, maybe we should just leave him alone, then.  No one else seems to think so, though.  There’s a pretty big crowd gathered, and they seem to know where Jesus was headed, and they’re going to follow him.  So, you figure you might as well follow him, too.  After all, one person more or less is not going to make any difference.

You see that a lot of these people have brought sick people along with them, relatives or friends.  They must have heard those stories about Jesus healing people, too.  You keep moving with the crowd, keep going, and eventually there he is!  There’s Jesus, big as life, still in the boat, but not very far from shore
.
Jesus turns and sees the crowd.  Well, how could he not, really.  People are calling to him, wanting him to come and provide healing.  It’s interesting, the different ways they ask. Some of them don’t ask.  They demand.  They act like Jesus has some sort of obligation to heal them, like he owes it to them or something.  Others, though, are more polite, asking calmly. Some of them are begging.  You can see that they’re desperate.  They look like they’ve been sick a long time, and that there’s nothing any other doctor can do for them.  Jesus is probably their last chance.
Now Jesus is bringing the boat to shore.  He gets out of the boat and looks at the crowd.  You can see in his face that he feels for those people.  So, he starts healing them.  At first, the scene seems chaotic, totally disorganized, and yet, Jesus does not seem at all rattled or bothered by it.  In fact, he seems to be in total control.  There’s no visible organization to anything, yet everything seems to make sense.  Somehow, it all seems to be going just like it’s supposed to go.

Jesus continues to heal people.  It’s an amazing thing to see.  When you heard these stories of healing, you thought it was probably some big, theatrical production.  You expected to see flashes of light, puffs of smoke, maybe even hear a loud, almost unearthly voice or something.  There’s none of that.  Jesus simply talks to people.  You cannot quite hear what he’s saying, but he seems to be quite calm.  As he talks to them, the people who’ve come to him calm down, too.  There are a lot of people in front of you, so you really cannot see what happens next, but all of a sudden, the person is healed.  Whatever was wrong with them is gone.  It’s more than a cure; it’s like they were never sick in the first place.  They instantly seem to be totally healed, perfectly normal.  Then, Jesus goes on to the next person, and the same thing happens, over and over again.  It’s the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen.  This Jesus guy is better than a doctor.

Then, all at once, you do hear a loud, almost unearthly noise.  You look around, and then you realize it’s coming from your stomach.  You look up, and you notice the sun is getting pretty low in the sky.  It’s getting late, and you’ve not eaten since breakfast.  You realize that you’re getting pretty hungry.  You also realize that you did not think to bring any food with you, and this place you’re in is pretty desolate.  It’s a long way home, and it’s also a long way to any town.  You ask around, thinking maybe you can buy some food from someone else, but no one else seems to have thought to bring any food with them, either.
You’re not the only one who’s starting to get hungry.  You hear some murmuring through the crowd.  Even the people who’ve been healed are starting to get a little upset.  No one has the guts to actually talk to Jesus about it, but they talk to a few of his friends, asking them to relay the message.  Sure enough, a little while later, you see Jesus’ friends talking to him.  You don’t really hear what they’re saying, but you know it’s got to be about the food situation.  Then, the crowd suddenly quiets down, and you hear Jesus tell his friends, “You give them something to eat.”

You think, just for a minute, that maybe his friends have brought a bunch of food with them, but the looks on their faces tell you that’s not true.  They obviously have no idea what Jesus is talking about.  They don’t have any food to give anyone.  They huddle for a minute, then scatter.  Are they going somewhere to get some food?  But where would they go?  Are they just leaving, taking off so they don’t have to deal with the situation?  No one knows.  The crowd is getting restless, and so are you.  Meanwhile, Jesus just sits there calmly, as if he’s completely unaffected by what’s going on.
His friends come back, and one of them is holding a basket.  It looks like it has a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  Whoop ti do.  That’s not even going to be enough to feed Jesus and his friends, much less this huge crowd.  People are starting to get upset.
Jesus takes the food, and he tells everyone to sit down.  Surprisingly, they do.  You do, too.  Jesus says grace.  What’s going on?  They’re not all going to eat while we just sit here and watch are they?  That does not make sense, but no one seems to be able to make any sense out of what’s going on.
Jesus breaks the bread into pieces and tells his friends to start passing the pieces out to the crowd.  There’ll never be enough, of course, but at least a few people will get to eat something.  You start pushing your way to the front, trying to be one of those few, but everyone else has the same idea.  You give up, knowing you’ll never be able to get anything.
You sit down again.  Some time passes.  It sure is taking a long time for them to hand out that little bit of food.  Then, there’s a shadow over you.  You look up, and there’s one of Jesus’ friends, holding out some bread.  He says, “Do you want something to eat?”

You reach out for it, amazed.  How can there still be some bread available?  You look around, and everyone has bread.  In fact, they have more than they can eat.  There seems to be plenty left over.  Where’d all this bread come from?

You look at Jesus, and he’s got this big smile on his face.  He looks back at you, and you know he knows exactly what you’ve been thinking this whole time.  Jesus had planned this out from the beginning!  That’s why he had not been worried about anything.  Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen and how it was going to happen.
You suddenly realize that the stories you’ve heard are true.  This Jesus really is who his supporters say he is.  He really is the King.  He really does have the power to forgive sins.  He really is the Savior.

Jesus tells everyone to leave, so everyone gets up to go home.  And you know what? That’s where the Bible leaves the story.  So, if we’ve really imagined ourselves as part of the crowd that day, each of us is going to have to write what happens next.

What do you do?  What do I do?  Do we try to stay with Jesus, or do we go back home? If we go back home, what do we do?  Has this meeting with Jesus, this realization of who he is, made a difference in your life?  Has it made a difference in my life?  Or are we going to just go back and go about our business, with a story to tell and a memory to keep, but no more?  If we are changed, is it going to be a permanent change, something that makes our lives different from now on, or is it like so many other things, something that gets us excited for a while but that eventually fades away.
We’ve heard the story.  The ending is up to each one of us.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Key to Paradise

            There’s a country song that’s popular right now by the Zac Brown Band with Jimmy Buffett.  The song is called “Knee Deep”.  If you’ve not heard it before, you can listen to it here. I’ve also included the lyrics below.

Gonna put the world away for a minute
Pretend I don't live in it
Sunshine gonna wash my blues away
Had sweet love but I lost it
She got too close so I fought it
Now I'm lost in the world tryin to find me a better way

Wishin' I was
Knee deep in the water somewhere
got the blue sky, breeze and it don't seem fair
the only worry in the world
is the tide gonna reach my chair
Sunrise, there's a fire in the sky
never been so happy
never felt so high
and I think I might have found me my own kind of paradise

Wrote a note, said "Be back in a minute"
Bought a boat and I sailed off in it
Don't think anybody's gonna miss me anyway
Mind on a permanent vacation
The ocean is my only medication
Wishin' my condition ain't ever gonna go away

Now I'm knee deep in the water somewhere
Got the blue sky, breeze blowin' wind thru my hair
Only worry in the world
is the tide gonna reach my chair
Sunrise, there's a fire in the sky
never been so happy
never felt so high
and I think I might have found me my own kind of paradise

This champagne shore washin' over me
It's a sweet, sweet life livin' by the salty sea
One day you can be as lost as me
Change your geography and maybe you might be

Knee deep in the water somewhere
got the blue sky, breeze blowin' wind thru my hair
only worry in the world
is the tide gonna reach my chair
Sunrise, there's a fire in the sky
never been so happy
never felt so high
and I think I might have found me my own kind of paradise

Come on in
the waters nice
find yourself a little slice
grab a backpack
otherwise you'll never know until you try
when you lose yourself
you find the key to paradise

What does paradise mean to you?  Maybe it’s what the song says:  stepping out of the world, going off to a beach where no one can find you, with nothing to do but just relax and look out over the water.

I have to admit there are times when that sounds tempting.  I’m not complaining, but I get pretty busy sometimes.  I’ll bet you do, too.  There are times when it sounds like it would be really nice to just leave the world behind and get away from everything.

For me, though, those times don’t last too long.  For one thing, I really like what I do.  I like writing and preaching sermons.  I like visiting with people.  I like working on projects to grow the church and spread God’s love.  I like writing this blog.  It’s rare when my job requires me to do something I really don’t want to do.

For another thing, I think people are designed to want to accomplish something with their lives.  We want to feel that we’re making a contribution to something, that our lives make a positive difference to someone or something.  Just sitting on the beach staring out at the water, as nice as that might be for a little while, would not be a very productive life, and I think most of us would get bored with it eventually.

There’s at least one more thing about that vision of paradise that sounds unappealing to me:  the loneliness of it.  This paradise does not seem to have room in it for anyone but the person telling the story.  Again, while most of us have times when we dream of getting away from it all, most of us were not designed to live our lives alone.  We need other people, whether they’re family or friends or someone else.  People were not designed to live their lives in vacuums.

There is one thing about this song I like, though.  Look at the last two lines.  “When you lose yourself, you find the key to paradise.”  I think there’s a lot of meaning in that line, maybe more than the songwriter intended.

It seems to me that one of the biggest barriers to our happiness on earth is ourselves.  Not always, and not all the time; we all have times when we get knocked down by things we can’t control.  A lot of times, though, our own desires get in the way of our happiness:  our ambition, our pride, our envy, our selfishness.  We keep thinking “If only I had this, I’d be happy.  If only this would happen, I’d be happy.”  Then we get what we want, and we suddenly decide want something else.  We get in our own way.

If we could lose ourselves, lose that ambition and pride and envy and selfishness, and just surrender to God’s will, we would be a lot happier.  The earth might not be a paradise, but it would be a lot closer for a lot of us.  Not only would we get out of our own way, but we’d feel the satisfaction and peace of being in tune with God and following God’s will.

Let’s try to lose ourselves.  We just might find that it really is the key to paradise, both in this world and the next one.

Monday, July 25, 2011

I Can See For Miles and Miles and Miles

            As the pastor of three churches, I spend a good deal of time on the road.  I’ve only been here about a month, but I’ve already driven the road between Gettysburg and Onida numerous times, often with a stop in Agar, which is between the two.

            The main road between Gettysburg and Onida is U. S. Highway 83, a north-south road which runs through the middle of South Dakota.  What’s amazing about that road is how far you can see on it.  The ground is pretty flat, the road is pretty straight, and there are not very many buildings, or even trees, to block the view.  You can literally see for miles.  In fact, sometimes it’s a little deceptive.  I often think I’m getting close to Onida, because I can see it up ahead, only to realize that I’m still six or seven miles away.

            I enjoy traveling on a road where I can see a long way ahead.  Sometimes I wish I could see the road of my life that way, too.  Sometimes I wish I could see where my life was headed several years down the road, just like I can see several miles down the road on Highway 83.

            In fact, some people say we should try to do that.  They tell us that we should make a plan for our lives, that we should figure out where we want to be five or ten years down the road and then do whatever is necessary to head down that road and reach our destination.  

            Maybe you’ve tried to do that in your life; maybe you’ve even been successful at it.  If so, that’s great.  It doesn’t work for me, though.  I’ve tried it a couple of times, and not only do I not get where I wanted to go, but if seems like God purposely throws roadblocks in my path to keep me from getting where I want to go, forcing me to head in a different direction.

            It could be that I’m just not very good at making these sorts of plans.  What I think, though, is that when I try to make these plans for my life, that’s exactly what I’m doing:  making my plans.  I’m trying to figure out what I want for with my life, rather than trying to figure out what God wants for my life.  I think, when I do that, God does things to remind me that it’s God’s plans that are important, not mine.

            Certainly, when I look at my life, it’s gone a lot differently from what I would have thought it would twenty years ago, ten years ago, or even six years ago.  When I looked down the road at that time, I could never have seen a life for myself in which I would change from being a lawyer to being a pastor, then move from Wessington Springs to North Sioux City, and then move again to the churches of the Wheatland Parish.  Yet, I would not change that life for anything, even if I could.

            It’s great to be able to see a ways down the road.  On the other hand, the things we can’t see coming are sometimes the most wonderful.  It’s okay to make plans, but be sure that those plans leave room for the wonderful surprises God may have in store for you.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Everybody's Working for the Kingdom

This is the sermon I delivered in the Wheatland Parish on July 24, 2011.  The scripture is Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

            I was always pretty good at arithmetic.  I think it’s because I love baseball so much—I learned at a very early age how to figure out batting averages and earned run averages and winning percentages and things like that.  I learned how to figure out bowling scores at a young age, too.
            As I got older, though, I started to realize that there’s a difference between arithmetic and mathematics.  The higher up I got in math, the worse I did.  I was pretty good at algebra, and geometry was still okay.  On the other hand, when we got to trigonometry I started to struggle, and when we got to calculus, well, forget it.  I didn’t understand it, and I still really don’t understand it.
            I tried to read and re-read the math books, but that did not do me much good.  Remember how math books read?  They go through a whole bunch of equations, and then at the end they say something like “From this we can clearly see that x=27+(3y-24/39).”  And I’d say “What?  We can clearly see that?  I can’t clearly see it!”  I could not even dimly see it.  I had no idea how they’d gotten from where they started to where they finished.
            I thought of that when I read our scripture from Matthew for today.  Jesus goes through a bunch of stuff about what the kingdom of heaven is and why they should be working toward it.  He gets to the end and says to his disciples, “Do you understand?”  And they all say “Yes.”  And I’m going “What?  You understand that?  I don’t understand it.”  I don’t really even start to understand it.
            You know, I suspect the disciples really did not understand it, either.  They just did not want to look stupid.  You’ve done that, too, I’ll bet.  I know I have.  Someone explains something, and we don’t have a clue about it, but we’re afraid they’ll think we’re dumb if we admit we don’t have a clue about it, so we nod our heads and go, “Yes, yes, of course.  I understand.”  All the time we’re hoping it’s not something we really need to know, because we’ve not understood the first thing about what we we’ve just been told.
            Unfortunately, Jesus was not talking about calculus, which I’m sure is a fine and useful subject but is one that I’ve not used at all since I got out of college.  Jesus was talking about the kingdom of heaven.  As I said, he was telling us what the kingdom of heaven is like and why we should be working toward it.
            That’s something that it’s pretty important to know.  It’s important to know not just because we hope to go to heaven some day.  That’s part of it, but you know, we know that, whatever heaven is, it has to be pretty good, because that’s where God is.  We’ll have plenty of time to get into the details once we get there.
            The main reason it’s important is that, as Christians, we’re supposed to be trying to do what we can to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth.  Every week, we say the Lord’s Prayer, and in that we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”  We’re praying for God’s kingdom to come on earth.  If that’s what we’re praying for, it’s pretty important that we know just what it is and why we’re supposed to try to bring it about.
            In our reading from Matthew, Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven is like.  First, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  It starts out as something really small, but by the time it’s done growing, it becomes really big.
            Let’s think about that.  How many times have you looked at a situation and said, “Well, you know, what I could do about that would not amount to anything.  It’d be a drop in the bucket.  There’s no point in my even trying to help there, because it would not do any good.”  I’ve said that.  I’ll bet you have, too.
            What Jesus is telling us is that we should not fail to do things just because they seem like little things.  The kingdom of heaven is going to grow by people doing little things.  The kingdom of heaven starts to come with something so small that no one even notices.  Then it grows and grows, until suddenly it’s there and no one can ignore it. 
It’s like what Jesus told us in the parable of the sower, which we talked about a couple of weeks ago, when he said that one good seed that takes root can produce a hundredfold.  Even when it seems like there’s very little that we can do, we still need to do the little that we can.  If we do what we can do, and everyone else does what they can do, God will do what God can do and the kingdom of heaven will actually come on earth.
Jesus then says the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that’s mixed in with flour.  Again, it starts with something small—it does not take much yeast to make dough rise.  That little bit of yeast, though, goes through a whole big lump of dough.  See, it’s not just that the things we do combine with the things others do.  It’s that the things we do influence others to do things.  Just as that little bit of yeast makes the whole batch of dough rise, the good things we do influence others to rise above where they are.  We create a rising tide that lifts everyone and, again, brings the kingdom of heaven closer to coming to the earth.
The things we do, whether we do big things or small things, can help make the day closer when the kingdom of God actually does come on earth.  Is that really important, though?  Our answer to that question may not be as obvious as it seems. 
I mean, I’m sure that, in theory, we’d all like to see the kingdom of heaven come on earth, but on the other hand, we’ve got a lot of other things to do, too.  Besides, for most of us, our lives really are not all that bad right now.  They may not be perfect, but they’re okay, and in fact sometimes their pretty good.  Would the kingdom of heaven really be all that much better?  Would it be so much better that you and I should disrupt the good lives we have now just to try to help bring it about?  Is the kingdom of heaven really worth giving up all the good things we have going on right now?
Jesus says it is.  Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is worth everything.  That’s what the statements about the treasure in the field and the pearl of great value are about.  Jesus says that if we really understood what the kingdom of heaven is, we’d be willing to give up everything we have to get it.  Everything about our earthly lives pales in comparison to the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus is telling us, in effect, to do the math.  He says that no matter how great our lives may be, no matter how much fun we might have, no matter how much satisfaction we may get out of life, all of it put together is not worth as much as the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus says we should be willing to get rid of all of it if we can get the kingdom of heaven in exchange.
Jesus’ disciples said they understood.  Maybe they did, but I doubt it.  I doubt if we understand, either.  We may understand in theory, but there are very few of us who live our lives that way.
I know I don’t.  I don’t live my life trying to bring about the kingdom of heaven.  I do some good things, sometimes, but there are a lot of times I don’t.  When I look at myself, I don’t see someone who’s willing to give up everything for the kingdom of heaven.
How about when you look at yourself?  Do you see someone who’s willing to give up everything for the kingdom of heaven?  Or do you just see someone who does some good things, sometimes?
The stakes are pretty high.  Look at the next thing Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.  So it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Now, you may be saying, “Wait a minute.  Just because I’m not willing to give up everything for the kingdom of heaven, that does not make me evil.”  Well, okay, probably not.  But it does not make us righteous either, does it?  So where does that leave us?  After all, Jesus does not talk about any sort of middle ground here.  His statements don’t really see to allow for us to claim to be sort of righteous, with just a little evil thrown in.  It’s one or the other.
I don’t claim to have the whole answer, but here’s where I think it leaves us.  I don’t think Jesus talked about the furnace of fire just to scare us.  The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom of fear—I don’t see anything Jesus ever said that would indicate that.  Jesus wants our faith to come from love, not fear.
I think Jesus talked about the furnace of fire because he wanted to emphasize that this is serious.  We’re not supposed to just play at being Christians.  Our faith is not supposed to just be one of things we do, something that competes for our time and attention with all our other interests.  Our faith is supposed to be at the center of everything we do.  Whether we’re at work or at home or at coffee or at the ball game or wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, our faith is supposed to be at the center of it.
Sometimes, as Jesus said, that may involve doing small things.  Sometimes, it may involve giving up some things.  It will be worth it, though.  It will be worth it, because when we do it, we will be doing our part to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth.  There is nothing in this world which can compare to that.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Right On Schedule

            I wrote a few weeks ago about how I like to be able to establish a routine.  I’ve taken some steps toward doing that, and I think that I now know what my routine here will look like.  The trouble is that things keep happening to keep me from actually enjoying the routine that I think I’m going to establish.
            One of the things that’s happened is that Wanda has come down with iritis.  This is an inflammation of the iris of the eye.  She’s had it numerous times in her life, and while it’s serious in the sense that it can lead to blindness if it’s not treated, and while it’s painful and causes temporary vision problems while you have it, the good news is that it is treatable and can be handled with no lasting effects.  The main thing about it is that you have to jump on it early and hard, so Wanda’s treatment has involved numerous trips to Pierre and one to Rapid City.  I’m happy to take her to these appointments, but still, it takes me out of my routine.
            Other things have happened to take me out of my routine as well.  The Gettysburg church had Vacation Bible School last week.  I’ve had hospital visits to make.  I have a regional ministry team meeting in Cresbard today, and a graveside service to do tomorrow.  There are various issues going on in the parish that have required my attention.  None of these is a bad thing; in fact, they’re all just a part of ministry.  The point, though, is that they are not regular things.  They take me out of my routine.
            I’ve noticed, though, that being taken out of my routine does not bother me nearly as much as it used to.  That’s not to say that it does not bother me at all, but I used to get into a near-panic if my schedule was disrupted too much.  I’d get somewhat frantic, wondering how in the world I was going to get everything done.  Now, I’m handling these disruptions much better, and I started thinking about why.
            I think there are at least a couple of things going on here.  One is that I’ve come to realize that one of the clich├ęs that veteran pastors have told me is actually true:  quite often, the ministry is in the interruptions.  The things that I’ve done when I’ve been “interrupted” have often been much more important than the things I’d planned to do.  It’s rather humbling to realize how unimportant God considers my schedule to be, but when I try to keep to God’s schedule, rather than my own, I usually accomplish a lot more for God.
            The other thing going on is that I’ve come to realize that God will provide me with enough time to get done all the things I really need to get done.  I started really noticing that when I was in seminary.  I’d have a long list of things I needed to get done for school, plus things I needed to get done for my work and for my church, and I’d think, “I’ll never be able to get that done.”  Yet, somehow, I always would.  A project wouldn’t take as long as I thought it would, someone would volunteer to do something I’d thought I was going to have to do, a deadline would be extended, and somehow, there was always just enough time to get it all done.  God has done that for me so many times in the past that I’ve begun to trust that God will continue to do it in the future.
            It’s okay to like a routine and a schedule, but it’s more important to follow God’s schedule.  After all, our faith should never get to be routine.  It should be an amazing, wonderful, joy-filled thing that we feel honored to experience every day of our lives.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jesus of Walmart

            Did you see this last week?  An engaged couple in Anderson County, South Carolina, says the face of Jesus showed up on a receipt from their local Walmart.
            You can see the receipt at http://www.wyff4.com/r/28568416/detail.html.  I’m normally pretty skeptical of these sorts of things, but I have to say that the picture in question does look like a face, and the face does resemble the pictures of Jesus that you see in our society.
            Frankly, I don’t know what to think about this.  On the one hand, as I said, I tend to be pretty skeptical about these things, and I’m pretty sure something like that could be faked.  On the other hand, the article does not give any reasons to believe that the couple in question has actually faked it or would fake it.  On the one hand, we have no idea what Jesus actually looked like, so even if this is a face, there’s no way to know whether it’s actually the face of Jesus.  On the other hand, it seems likely that, if an image of Jesus was to appear to someone, that image would be in a form that would allow the person to whom it appeared to recognize it.
I don’t know why Jesus’ image would appear on a receipt at Walmart, but there are a lot of things that I don’t understand.  I’m not saying I believe that this actually was the image of Jesus Christ, but I’m not prepared to totally rule out the possibility, either.
            Personally, I’ve never seen an image of Jesus on a Walmark receipt, or on anything else for that matter.  I have seen images of Jesus, though.  They’re all around us.  The image of Jesus is in the beauty of a sunrise.  The image of Jesus is in children playing in the park.  The image of Jesus is in people helping each other and sharing with each other.
            The Bible says that each of us is made in God’s image.  As Jesus is the divine Son, part of the trinity, that means we’re also made in Jesus’ image.  We could, then, say that the image of Jesus can be seen in everyone we meet, no matter who they are.
            If seeing the image of Jesus on a receipt helps someone believe, that’s fine with me.  We don’t need miracles to see the image of Jesus, though.  We can see the image of Jesus all around us, if we only open our eyes and take the time to look.
            In fact, if we look really closely, we may even be able to see the image of Jesus the next time we go to Walmart.

Awesome!

Below is the sermon I gave in the churches of the Wheatland Parish Sunday, July 17.  The scripture was Romans 8:12-23.

           To me, our reading from Romans today is one of the most exciting passage of scripture.  Paul tells us in these verses that we are the children of God.
           You may be thinking, “So what’s so exciting about that?  Yes, of course we’re children of God.  We’ve heard that all our lives.  What’s the big deal?”
           Well, I think it is a big deal.  See, some of us have heard for so long that we’re God’s children that we’ve kind of come to take it for granted.  We really should not do that.  God did not have to make us God’s children.  God chose to make us God’s children, and in this passage of scripture, Paul explains a little about just how that works.
           Paul tells us that we have received a spirit of adoption.  Think about that:  a spirit of adoption.  Think about how special that is.
           When a child is adopted, that only happens by a deliberate, constant, persistent choice by their parents.  That’s not to say that natural-born children are not planned, or that they’re not loved, but think about what takes place when a child is adopted.
When a child is adopted, the parents involved are specifically choosing to love a child that they have no obligation whatsoever to love.  After all, they had nothing to do with bringing that child into the world.  They’re not responsible for that child.  It’s not their flesh and blood.  If they did not adopt that child and love that child, no one would think any less of them. When someone adopts a child, they are making a conscious, deliberate choice to love someone to whom they do not owe any love at all.
           That’s what Paul says God did for us.  When Paul says we’ve received a spirit of adoption, Paul is saying that God specifically chose to love us without being under any obligation to do so.  I think that’s a pretty big deal.  I think that’s pretty exciting.  In fact, I think it’s pretty awesome and pretty incredible.
           It’s really kind of a shame that we sometimes take this stuff for granted.  We’ve heard things like “God is love” and “we’re all God’s children” so much that we forget sometimes how special that really is.  It’s true that God is love, but God would not have to be love.  There are lots of societies that do not believe in a loving God.  There are lots of societies that believe in a vengeful God, or in an arbitrary God.  There are societies that live in fear of God.  The fact that God is love is an awesome, incredible thing.  The fact that we’re God’s children is an awesome, incredible thing.  We should never take those things for granted.
           But that’s not the most exciting, awesome thing about this scripture.  Let’s look a little farther.  Paul says that when we refer to God as our Father, that’s the Holy Spirit meeting our spirit and testifying, to ourselves and to everyone else, that we really are children of God.  Then, get this:  Paul says if we’re children of God, we’re heirs of God.  That means that we’re joint heirs with Jesus Christ, and will be glorified with Jesus Christ.
           Think of who we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about Jesus Christ.  We’re talking about the divine Son of God.  We’re talking about someone who could walk on water.  We’re talking about someone who could feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish.  We’re talking about someone who could bring the dead back to life.  We’re talking about someone who went to the place of the dead and conquered death itself.  We’re talking about someone who then returned to heaven and took his place next to God the father.
           On our own merits, we’re so far below Jesus Christ that there’s no comparison.  Yet Paul says that God, by giving us a spirit of adoption, makes us joint heirs with that same Jesus Christ.  In other words, Paul says God has elevated us, we lowly, weak human beings, to the same awesome level as Jesus Christ himself.
There is no way in the world we deserve that.  There’s nothing we could do to earn it.  Even granting that God loves us, even granting that God adopts us as God’s children, this is such an unexpected, really unimaginable gift that God has given us.  I mean, Jesus is Jesus.  We’re—us.  Yet, Paul says we are just as much God’s children, just as much heirs of God the father, as Jesus Christ is.  Jesus is the Son of God, but I’m a son of God, too.  Even as I say those words, I can hardly believe them, but that’s what Paul is telling us.  I’m a son of God.  You are a son or a daughter of God.  That’s an exciting thing!  That’s an awesome thing!
           Now, of course, being children of God and joint heirs with Jesus does not mean that our lives on earth will always be easy.  That, of course, is the other thing about being put on Jesus’ level—Jesus’ life on earth was not always easy.  In fact, a lot of the time it was not easy.  Jesus went through times of great frustration.  He went through times of great suffering.  He went through times of loneliness.  He went through times of feeling abandoned.
           Paul tells us that, as children of God and joint heirs with Jesus, we’re going to have to do our share of suffering, too.  That’s one of the great misconceptions that people have about faith:  the idea that if we’re truly Christian and if we love God then we should not have to suffer.  Paul says that’s nonsense.  Of course, we’re going to suffer.  Paul says that suffering is a necessary part of the process.  But, Paul says, the suffering will be worth it.
           Paul reminds us that Jesus had to suffer what he suffered in order to be glorified as he is now glorified.  In other words, Jesus had to suffer in order to get his inheritance as an heir of God the Father.  In that same way, we have to suffer, too, so that we can get our inheritance as heirs of God, too.
           Now, that does not make our suffering any less real.  It did not make it any less real for Jesus, either.  Suffering is suffering, and it’s not any fun.  It’s hard.  It’s painful.  It takes a toll on us physically, it takes a toll on us mentally, it takes a toll on us emotionally, it takes a toll on us in just about every way you can imagine.  The promise of a reward later does not make our suffering any easier to handle now.
           What that promise does, though, is give us hope.  That’s pretty awesome, too.  Think about it:  what’s the worst thing that you could think of happening?  To me, the worst thing would not be to be suffering, no matter how bad the suffering was.  To me, the worst thing would be to be suffering without hope.  To be suffering, and to believe that there was no hope that I would ever get any better, and then to believe that there was no life after this one, so that all I’d have in my future was suffering and then death.  That kind of complete hopelessness would be about the worst thing I can imagine.
           What Paul tells us is that we will never have to face that.  No matter how bad things get, we always have hope.  We can always live in hope.  That hope is part of what God promised to us through our adoption as children of God, through our status as heirs with Jesus Christ.
           It’s that status as heirs with Jesus Christ that gives us that hope.  Jesus suffered, but Jesus overcame it.  If Jesus was able to overcome death, and if God, despite how unworthy we are, puts us on the same level with Jesus, then, we, too, will eventually overcome suffering.  We’ll overcome death itself.  We’ll overcome it, not because of who we are, but because of who God is.  By putting us on the same level with Jesus, God gives us the hope that we can do what Jesus did.  Not in the sense of having the same power Jesus had on earth, but in the sense of being able to do what Jesus did—to overcome death and be taken up into God’s presence in heaven.
            That’s the great hope we have.  It’s not hope in the sense we normally think of it, though.  It’s not a matter of us saying, “Well, I hope we’ll overcome suffering and death, but I really don’t know.”  It’s hope in the sense that it’s not something we can see.
The fact that we cannot see it, though, does not make it less real, nor does it mean we cannot be certain of it.  We cannot see the town of Pierre right now, but we know it’s there.  We cannot see the president of the United States at this moment, but we know he exists.  We cannot see the air we’re breathing, but we know there is air here.  That’s what our hope of overcoming suffering and death is—it’s not something we can see, but we can know that it is real, and that it exists.  We know it because it was something that was promised to us by God, and we know God keeps God’s promises.  It’s the most exciting, incredible, awesome promise ever made, but there it is.
God puts us on the same awesome level as Jesus Christ.  That means you, yourself, are awesome.  So am I.  Whether we feel awesome or not, we are.  You’re awesome, and I’m awesome, not because of who we are, but because of who God is.
Each of us is a child of God.  Each of us has received a spirit of adoption.  That spirit means that we are joint heirs with Jesus Christ.  God puts us on the same level as the divine Son, not because we deserve it, but because God has chosen to love us that much.
That’s pretty awesome.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Remember and Trust

Below is my message at Oahe Manor during the communion service of July 14.  The text was Psalm 22:1-5, 9-11.

            One of the reasons we take communion, of course, is in commemoration of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.  Jesus broke the bread and distributed the wine, said this was his body and his blood, and told the disciples to do this in remembrance of him.

            This happened right before Jesus was arrested, an arrest that would lead to his death.  Jesus, obviously knew what was going to happen to him.  He did not have to go through with it, you know.  Jesus could’ve stopped Judas from going to the authorities.  He could’ve used his power to stop the arrest.  He could’ve even run away.  He could’ve done a lot of things other than what he did.

            Yet, Jesus did go through with it.  First, though, he had one last meal with his disciples, one last time together.  Part of the reason may have been for Jesus’ own benefit—after all, knowing what was going to happen, he may have felt he needed all the strength and support he could get.  I think even more, though, Jesus had this last time together for the sake of the disciples.

            After all, the disciples had put a lot of trust in Jesus.  In fact, they’d given up everything to follow him.  They’d abandoned their homes, their families, their businesses; they’d left everything to follow Jesus.  They did that because they believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the great King they’d been waiting for.  Now, in just a few days, that great King was going to be killed.  The disciples did not know that, of course, but Jesus did.

            Once that happened, I suspect the disciples may have felt like the author of Psalm 22, the one we just read part of.  Maybe they even remembered the psalm; after all, Jesus quoted the beginning of it, while he was hanging on the cross.  They may have felt like God had forsaken them; like God was far away; like God was not answering their prayers.

            Maybe you feel like that, too, sometimes.  I suspect a lot of us have times when we do; I know I’ve had those times.  Those times are not a lot of fun, are they?  They’re pretty depressing.  Something is going wrong in our lives; maybe it’s a physical problem, maybe it’s something to do with our families, maybe it’s something else entirely, but we’ve all had those times when we feel that things just are not the way they’re supposed to be.  We try to handle the problem by ourselves, we do what we can, but nothing happens.  In fact, sometimes the problems seem to just get worse.

            So, we pray.  We pray, and we wait, and we try, and nothing happens.  So we pray some more, and we wait some more, and we try some more, and still nothing happens.  It seems like our prayers just hit the ceiling and bounce back at us.  We start to wonder where God is.  We wonder why God does not hear our prayers, and if God does hear them, why God does not seem to care about them.

            God understands why we feel that way.  What we need to do, though, is exactly what the author of our psalm did.

            The author of our psalm did two things.  First, he remembered that God had always been there for his ancestors.  He remembered that, in the past, when the nation turned to God, God saved them.  When they trusted God, God always came through for them.

            Then, the author thought of his own life.  He remembered all the times God had been there for him in the past.  He thought about how, from the time he was born, God had always kept him safe.  He had trusted God his whole life, and God had never let him down.

            That’s true of us, too.  I know that no one here has lived an easy, carefree life.  You’ve all had your share of problems, and you’ve all had your share of struggles.  If you think about it, though, I suspect you’ll be able to remember times when God has been there for you.  I suspect you can remember times when God kept you safe.  I suspect you can remember times when you trusted God, and God did not let you down.

            By sharing in the sacrament of Holy Communion, that’s what we’re doing.  We’re remembering those times when we’ve trusted God, and God has been there for us.  We’re also saying that we’re going to trust God to be there for us again, now and all the days of our lives.

            That’s what the disciples did, in the days after Jesus’ death.  They were confused, and they did not understand, but they kept trusting that something was going to happen.  Eventually, of course, something did happen.  God answered their prayers in a way they never expected: by bringing Jesus back from the dead.

            We get confused sometimes, too, and we don’t understand.  If we can keep trusting, though, God will answer our prayers, and that answer may come in a way we never expect.

            Let’s prepare for holy communion, trusting in God to answer our prayers.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

You Don't Have to Be an All-star to Be in God's Show

         The major league baseball All-star Game was played the other night.  Baseball fan that I am, you might have thought I’d be glued to the television, watching the game.  I wasn’t, though.  Instead, I walked down to the park and watched some local kids play baseball and softball.

         Given the length of the All-star Game, I did get home in time to see the last three innings.  It’s a funny thing, though.  I literally enjoyed watching the Gettysburg kids play ball more than I enjoyed watching the major league stars play.

         I thought about why this would be, and a few reasons came to mind.  The stars are all wealthy athletes playing for money; the local kids play for love of the game.  I could sit outside on a beautiful evening to watch the local kids; I’d have been inside watching the TV to watch the all-stars.  The All-star Game, for all it’s hype, is basically a glorified exhibition game; the kids are out there trying to win.

         As I thought about it, though, I realized what the real reason is that I enjoyed the local kids more than the stars.  The stars are people I don’t know.  There was only one player from my team, the Twins’ Michael Cuddyer (I don’t really know him either, of course, but that’s another issue).  Because of that, I really didn’t care whether the National League beat the American League.

         On the other hand, even though I’ve been in town less than three weeks, there are at least a couple of kids on the Gettysburg team that I know.  I know a few of their parents’ too.  Because of that, I cared how they did, and I cared how their team did.  I cared, because I knew them.

         I think that’s a basic fact of life:  we can’t care for people we don’t know.  I’m not saying we’re totally indifferent to them—a lot of people gave very generously in the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan, for example—but those of us who don’t know anybody there do not and cannot have the same feeling about it that someone who actually knew people there would have.  We need to know someone, or at least feel like we do, to truly care about them.

         The Bible goes out of its way sometimes to tell us God knows each of us individually.  We’re told that God knows when we get up and when we lie down.  God knows when we go out and when we come in. God knows the number of hairs on our heads.  God knows all there is to know about each one of us.

         Some of us may take that for granted, but it’s an important thing for us to know.  It’s possible to imagine a god who does not know us as individuals, a god who’s just the “god of the big picture”.  Some people even believe in that kind of god.  One thing the Bible makes clear, however, is that’s not the God we have.  We have a God who knows each of separately and personally.

         I think at least part of the reason the Bible makes that clear is that it’s a way of saying that God cares about each one of us personally.  A “god of the big picture” would not care about us, because that god would not know us.  The God we have does know us.  Because God knows us, God cares about us.  In fact, it goes beyond just caring about us; God loves us.

         God does not love us because we’re all-stars.  God loves us because we’re God’s children.  God knows you, and because God knows you, God cares about you.