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Monday, August 29, 2011

Time Marches On

            Have you heard of the Mindset List?  It’s a list put together every year by Beloit College.  What the list tries to do is give us information about the world in which each year’s incoming college freshmen live.  Here are some things from this year’s list:

            --The internet has always existed.

            --The only significant labor disputes in their lifetimes have been in major league sports.

            --There have always been at least two women on the Supreme Court.

            --“Don’t touch that dial”?  What’s a “dial”?

            --“LBJ” means LeBron James.

            --There has never been an official Communist Party in Russia.

            --Music has always been available by free downloads.

            --No state has ever failed to celebrate Martin Luther King day.

            --People have always been able to create wills and other legal documents online.

            --Michael Jordan is the guy who does underwear commercials.

            --They won’t go near a retailer who doesn’t have a website, and they have never shopped out of a catalog.

            --The first president they remember is Bill Clinton, and the first president they really remember is George W. Bush.

            Sometimes, older people (meaning people my age) look at a list like this and don’t like it.  We feel like a part of history is being lost forever, and we’re unhappy about that.  We think it’s sad that young people don’t remember the things we take for granted.

            Here’s the thing, though.  Whether we like these changes is irrelevant.  The world has changed, and we have to deal with it.  I’m not knocking history; it’s important that we understand the past, so we can know how we got to where we are.  We cannot live in the past, though.  We need to live in the present, with an eye toward the future.  The world our young people have grown up in is the world that exists now.  People my age and older need to understand that world and figure out how to relate to it, not lament the fact that the world is not the way it was when we were young.

            That applies to the church, too.  If we want young people to come to church, we need to understand the world young people live in.  We cannot conduct a 20th century church service and expect 21st century people to come to it, because most of them won’t.  Whether they should or not is irrelevant; they won’t.  If we want to attract 21st century people, we need to develop a worship service that fits a 21st century world.

            That’s not something that’s going to be easy.  I’m not claiming I have all the answers for how to do it.  It’s something we’re going to need to work on together.  One thing we’re going to need to do is ask some of these 21st century people what would attract them.  We cannot assume we know the answers; we need to find them out.

            People my age and older can lament the fact that the world has changed, but we cannot change that fact.  The world I grew up in is gone, and it’s not coming back.  We need to live in the world that exists now.  We need to make disciples of Jesus in the world that exists now.  The only way we can do that is by learning to relate to the people who live in that world. 

Not What We Signed Up For

Below is my message in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 28, 2011.  The scripture is Matthew 16:21-28.

            Our reading from Matthew for today is one of the less comfortable scriptures we have.  First, Jesus tells the disciples that he’s going to be killed.  Then, Jesus tells the disciples they need to be willing to follow him completely, wherever following him leads, even if it leads to death.

            It was an uncomfortable thing for the disciples to hear, too.  When Jesus told them that he was going to be arrested and killed, Peter’s response was “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.”  He did not want to hear it.  This was not the way he thought things were supposed to go.  We’re not told about the response of the other disciples, but I think we can pretty safely assume that they’d have agreed with Peter.

            Jesus gets kind of upset with Peter.  The part of this we tend to remember is when Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan”, but that’s not the most important part of this.  The most important part of this is the next sentence, where he explains why Peter has things messed up.  He says to Peter, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

            The Bible leaves that scene there, and then goes on to Jesus talking to all the disciples again.  He tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

            We’re not told what the Peter’s reaction to this was, nor are we told the reaction of any of the other disciples.  I’ll bet they did not like hearing this either, though.  They knew, of course, what “take up their cross” meant.  It meant they had to be willing to be crucified.  I suspect that, when Jesus called them and they became disciples, none of them realized they were signing up for that.  They may have known they were in for some tough times, they may have even known they would have to fight and risk death, but they were confident that they were going to win.  After all, they were following the Messiah, and their whole idea of a Messiah, as we talked about last week, was that the Messiah was going to be the conquering king.  This idea that Jesus was going to give up his life on earth, and that if they wanted to follow Jesus they each had to be willing to give up their lives on earth, too, was not how the game plan was supposed to go.  It was not what they’d signed up for at all.

            When we hear these words, we don’t really like them very much, either.  After all, Jesus did not just mean these words to apply to the disciples; he meant them to apply to us, too.  He said, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

            We do want to be Jesus’ followers, or at least we say we do. I wonder, though, when we decide to follow Jesus, if we really realize what we’re signing up for.  How many of us, when we decided to become Christians, thought about having to give up our lives to follow Jesus?

            What we sometimes do, when we get to this point in the discussion, is to talk about giving up our lives to follow Jesus as something that only exists for us in theory.  We talk about the Christian persecutions of the past.  We may even talk about places in the world where, right now, Christians can be killed for their faith.  We don’t think about having to give our lives to follow Jesus as something that could actually happen to us.

            The fact is that’s probably true.  As long as we live our lives here in rural South Dakota, we probably won’t have to give up our physical lives because of our faith in Christ.  The thing is, though, that Jesus was talking about more than that.  He said that, to really be his followers, we need to be willing to deny ourselves and follow him.  When we became Christians, is that what we thought we were signing up for?

            Now, in asking that question, let me recognize that I know that there are people here who have done and are doing a lot for this church.  You’ve taken time and effort to do things that you did not have to do.  There have been times when it would have been much easier for you to go somewhere else, to do other things, or to just stay home and relax, and instead you gave your time and your effort to the church.  I know that, and I appreciate it.  I don’t want this to be taken as me saying that nobody here does anything, because I know that’s not true.  There are a lot of people here who do a lot.

            Even so, though, we all have the tendency to do what Jesus said Peter was doing.  We all have the tendency to set our mind on human things instead of on divine things.

            I do, too.  You know why?  Because I really enjoy the human things I set my mind on.  I like them.  They give me pleasure.  I don’t want to give them up.

            The thing is that those human things are not necessarily bad things.  They can be, but not necessarily.  It’s not a bad thing to enjoy sports, for example.  It’s not a bad thing to like music.  It’s not a bad thing to enjoy visiting with people.  None of those are bad things.  In fact, some of them would be considered good things.  They can be bad, though, if we set our minds on them too much.  They can be bad if we value them so much that they get in the way of following Jesus.

            There’s nothing wrong with enjoying our lives, but we can put too much emphasis on it.  If our lives on earth become too important to us, we run the risk of doing what Jesus warned the disciples about:  wanting so much to save our earthly lives that we risk losing our eternal lives.

            Now, if anyone remembers last week’s message, you may think I’m contradicting myself here.  After all, last week I said that God wants our service to be joyful.  Last week I said that what we should do is take the things we enjoy doing, find others who enjoy doing them, too, and find a way to make that into a ministry.  Now, I’m warning against enjoying things too much.  Is that not a contradiction?

            I don’t think so, and here’s why.  What Jesus is warning about is enjoying things for their own sake, and enjoying life for its own sake.  If we find ways to make those things into a ministry, though, we’re not enjoying them for their own sake.  We still can enjoy them, but we’re taking those things we enjoy and using them to serve God.  Our minds may at first be on human things, but we’re finding ways to move them toward divine things.

            See, here’s the thing:  we cannot try to be someone we’re not.  I cannot stop being a sports fan; it’s part of who I am.  I cannot stop liking music; it’s part of who I am.  God created each of us with likes and dislikes, with various talents and abilities.  When Jesus told us to deny ourselves, he did not mean that we should deny who we are, because that would be to not be the people God created us to be.

God created us each of us with those likes and dislikes, with those talents and abilities, for a reason.  We’re expected to use them in God’s service.  If we keep the things we enjoy to ourselves, if we use our talents and abilities selfishly, then we’re setting our minds on human things and failing to deny ourselves.  On the other hand, if we find a way to use the things we enjoy to serve God and others, if we use our talents and abilities to serve God and others, then we’re setting our minds on divine things.
It’s kind of ironic, when you think about it.  Jesus told us to deny ourselves and follow him.  Yet, it’s only by denying ourselves that we can become the people God created us to be.  In other words, it’s only by denying ourselves that we can truly become ourselves; not the selfish selves that we’re sometimes tempted to be, but the Christian selves that we want to be and that we can be.
When we hear Jesus tell us to deny ourselves and follow him, we don’t want to hear it.  It scares us.  It does not sound like what we signed up for when we became Christians.
The truth is that for most of us it’s probably not what we thought we signed up for.  The good news, though, is this:  it’s something better.  There is no greater feeling than the feeling we have when, even if just for a moment, we feel that we are where God wants us to be and are doing what God wants us to do.  When we deny ourselves, and follow Jesus, we truly become what God intends us to be.  Then, we can have that great feeling, not just for a moment, but for always.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Change, Part 3

            I have just a little more I want to say about change.  I promise next time I’ll move on to something else.

            One thing we can be sure about is that, whenever a change is proposed, people will have opinions about it.  Some of those opinions will be favorable.  Some of them will be unfavorable.  Some people will not understand what’s going on or why.  Some people will be afraid of doing things differently.  Some people will be eager to make changes.  Some people will see change as the solution to our problems.

            None of these opinions is necessarily right or wrong.  The point is that everyone is going to have an opinion.  That’s a good thing, especially when it comes to the church.  Each of us should have an opinion about what’s going on in the church.  If we didn’t have an opinion, it would mean we don’t care, and that would be a bad situation to be in.

            The important thing, when we have an opinion about what’s going on in the church, is that we don’t keep those opinions to ourselves.  We need to talk to people.  We especially need to talk to the people who are in a position to do something about the situation.  Talk to me.  Talk to the people on the church council.  Talk to the lay leader.  Talk to the people on the relevant committee.

            Sometimes, people get the impression that their opinion doesn’t count.  That’s not true.  Your opinion does count, but it only counts if the people who have been entrusted with making decisions know what your opinion is.  Those people can only know what your opinion is if you tell them.  It would be nice if they taught a seminary course on mind-reading, but they don’t.  They don’t have that course for people on church boards or committees, either.  The only way for the people entrusted with making decisions to know your opinion is for you to tell them.

            Those people want to know your opinion.  No one wants to do something in the church if the people of the church don’t support it.  It won’t work that way.  For the things the church does to succeed, we need to move forward together.

            We won’t always have unanimous agreement on everything, of course.  Nor should we.  There’s an old saying that if everybody’s thinking alike, somebody’s not thinking.  We need to hear from a lot of people with a lot of viewpoints.  That’s the way the best decisions are made.  We need to be respectful in our disagreements, recognizing that others want what’s best just as much as we do, but we still need to be willing to state those disagreements and not sweep them under the rug.

            The fact that each opinion counts, though, does not mean that each opinion will be followed.  That’s not possible.  It would be wonderful if everything could be compromised so that we all felt we were getting our way, but it’s not possible.  Sometimes we have to make choices.  We can either do A, or we can do B, but we can’t do both.  Or, sometimes we’re choosing between doing A or not doing A.  If you believe one way, and a decision is made to go another way, that doesn’t mean that your opinion didn’t count.  It just means that a different decision was made.

            It’s good when we have opinions, and it’s good when we make our opinions known.  At the end of the day, though, each of us needs to remember that the church is not about what any individual wants.  The church is about doing God’s will.  Once a decision is made, even if it didn’t go the way we thought it should, we need to get behind it and help the church move forward.  If the church is doing something we were skeptical about, we need to do all we can to prove our own skepticism wrong and help the church succeed.

            Everyone involved in the Wheatland Parish wants what’s best for the church.  If we remember that, if we pray, and if we resolve to stay united, we can handle whatever changes may come our way.  Then, we can move forward to make this parish the parish God wants it to be.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who Do Our Lives Say He Is?

This is the message given today at Oahe Manor.  The scripture for today was Matthew 16:13-20.

            The question Jesus asked the disciples is probably the most important question we’ll ever need to answer.  In fact, it’s not too much to say that our salvation depends on it.
            Jesus told us in a number of ways that the way to heaven is through our faith in him and our belief in him as the divine Son of God.  He said, “No one can come to the Father but through me.”  He said that those who recognize him as the Savior on earth he will recognize in heaven, but those who deny him on earth will be denied in heaven.  Those of us who’ve been given the chance to know who Jesus is need to know how to answer the question Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
            In Jesus’ time, a lot of people did not know.  You heard the responses from the general public.  Some said John the Baptist, some said Elijah, some said Jeremiah, some said another of the prophets.  Those were all great people, of course, and the people who said that’s who Jesus was probably thought they were giving Jesus great honor.  The thing is, though, that all those great people were still people.  Comparing Jesus to a human being, no matter how great the human being is, is not giving him honor, because Jesus is greater than any human could ever be.
            Those people recognized Jesus’ greatness, but they could not go all the way.  They did not recognize that Jesus was, in fact, not merely a human being at all; that while he was fully human, he was also the fully divine Son of God.
            It’s understandable why they would not recognize him that way, though.  After all, we still don’t know exactly how that works, that Jesus could be fully human and fully divine at the same time.  Besides, while Jesus worked miracles, the prophets had worked miracles at times, too.  It was only natural, then, that the people of Jesus’ time would see him as a prophet.  They were relating to Jesus in the only way they really knew how, the only way that would make sense to them.
            While it was understandable for the people of Jesus’ time to not recognize who Jesus was, it is not as understandable for us.  After all, we know some things the people of Jesus’ time did not know.  Most importantly, we know that Jesus was raised from the dead.  That is the ultimate proof, if we need proof, that Jesus was who he said he was—the fully divine Son of God.
            We need to know how to answer Jesus’ question.  “Who do you say that I am?”  I hope, and I suspect, that most of us would say what Peter did, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Here’s the thing, though.  It’s not enough for us to just say the words.  We need to truly believe them.  If we truly believe them, then our lives will be consistent with a belief that Jesus is the Son of the living God.
            So, I encourage you to take a look at your life, just as I need to take a look at my life.  Does your life show that you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God?  If someone did not know you, but knew the things you’ve done and the things you’re doing now, would they be able to tell that you’re a Christian?  Would they be able to tell, just from observing the way you live, that you believe in Jesus as your Savior?
            It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer.  It’s not always an easy question for me to answer about myself, either.  There may be times when people could tell I’m a Christian, but I’m sure there are times when it’s not very obvious.  In fact, there are probably times when it does not look like I’m a Christian at all.
            You may have noticed that, when Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?”, only Peter responded.  I suspect this may not have been an easy question for all the disciples.  I suspect some of them, even though they were with Jesus all this time, still had questions about just exactly who Jesus was.  I suspect some of them, when Jesus asked this question, were not sure exactly what to say.
            We have an advantage over the disciples.  We know what we should say.  On the other hand, God knows what’s in our hearts.
            Let’s all resolve this week to take a look at our lives.  Let’s live lives that show we believe it when we say that Jesus is the Messiah.  Let live lives that show we mean it when we say that Jesus is the son of the living God.

Gifts From the Heart

This is the sermon I gave Sunday, August 21, 2011 in the churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The scriptures for this day were Matthew 16:13-20 and Romans 12:1-8.

            Our reading from Matthew is another one of those scriptures that can lose its impact because we’ve heard it a lot of times.  Jesus asks the disciples who people are saying he is, the disciples give him various responses, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”, and Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  We hear that, and we think, “Okay, good for Peter.  He got one right.  I’m sure Jesus was happy that at least someone gave the right answer for a change.”  Then, we move on, ready for the next scripture.  We know that, as Christians, we’re supposed to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and so Peter’s statement does not make much impact on us.
            That’s too bad, because it was a pretty bold statement that Peter made.  It took a lot of courage.  There’s a reason that, when the disciples told Jesus who people were saying he was, the word “Messiah” doesn’t show up on the list.  There’s also a reason that, when Jesus asked the disciples who they said he was, only Peter came up with the word “Messiah.”
            In fact, how many of us really know what the word “Messiah” even means?  What was Peter saying, and what are we saying, when we call Jesus the Messiah?
            Well, in Jewish tradition, the Messiah was and is the promised deliverer of Israel.  He was the one who would establish God’s rule.  We’re talking about God establishing a literal, physical kingdom on earth.  In Jesus’ time, we were talking about God rescuing the Jewish people from being ruled by the Roman government, giving them their own country, and protecting them from everyone who would try to conquer them.
            The Roman government did not like hearing people talk like that.  The Roman government had every intention of continuing to rule Israel.  It did not want to hear about some Messiah, someone who was going to come and defeat them and give independence to Israel.  The Roman government was determined to squelch any rumors about a Messiah, as well as anything else that might encourage the Jewish people to think about independence.
            That’s why I say that Peter made a bold statement.  That’s why I say that what he said took courage.  Saying that Jesus was the Messiah could get both Peter and Jesus himself in a lot of trouble.  If the Roman government found out what Peter said, both Jesus and Peter could’ve been killed.
            By now, though, some of you are probably wondering, “So what?”  I mean, maybe you find this interesting and maybe you don’t, but what’s it got to do with anything?  Maybe it was courageous to say that Jesus was the Messiah two thousand years ago, but it’s not courageous now.  We say it all the time.
            That’s really the point.  It does not take much courage to say that Jesus is the Messiah.  We do say it all the time.  The question is whether we live in a way that shows we actually believe it.
            Remember what we read from Paul’s letter to the Romans a couple of weeks ago?  Paul wrote, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  Saying that Jesus is Lord, saying that Jesus is the Messiah, is the first step, but it’s not enough.  We need to do more than just say who Jesus is.  We need to truly believe it in our hearts.
            That brings us to our reading from Romans for today.  Paul tells us that we need to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.  Paul is not just talking about physically presenting our bodies to God.  What Paul is saying is that we need to give everything of ourselves to God.  Everything we have, everything we do, everything we are, is to be given in the service of God, with nothing held back.
            That sounds pretty hard.  I’m not going to tell you that I always do that, because I don’t.  Still, that’s what we should always be working toward.  It’s what we need to do if we truly believe that Jesus is the Messiah and if we truly want God’s kingdom to come on earth.  And it can be done, if we take the right attitude toward doing it.
            It’s really interesting how Paul says we should go about doing this.  Listen to what he writes:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.  We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us; prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Think about what Paul is saying here.  He’s not just saying that each of us has different gifts, although that’s part of it.  He’s also saying that those gifts can take a lot of different forms.  They don’t necessarily take years of learning and study.  They don’t necessarily take physical strength.  They don’t necessarily take a lot of money.  Encouragement is a gift.  Diligence is a gift.  Compassion is a gift.  Cheerfulness is a gift.  There are all kinds of gifts, and each of us has at least one of them.  Most of us have a lot more than one.
Paul says that not all the parts of the body have the same function.  Here’s what we sometimes miss, though:  that also means that each part of the body has some function.  Each part of the body is important.  Each part of the body needs to do its job properly if the whole body is to function properly.  If any part of the body is not functioning properly, for whatever reason, the whole body is affected.
Let’s look at that in terms of the mission statement Jesus gave us:  to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded us.  If we’re going to fulfill that mission statement, each part of the body of Christ is going to have to do its job.  In other words, this is not something that just some of us are supposed to do.  It won’t work if just the pastor does it.  It won’t work if just a few people do it.   Each one of us is going to have to do our part to bring the love of God to others if we’re going to do make disciples the way Jesus told us to do.
See, when we say Jesus is the Messiah, we’re actually challenging ourselves.  We’re challenging ourselves to do everything we can so the kingdom of God can come on the earth.  We’re challenging ourselves to give ourselves completely and totally to God, making everything about ourselves a sacrifice to God.  We’re challenging ourselves not to hold anything back.
So, what are you going to do?  What am I going to do?  After all, none of us is exempt from this requirement.  Nobody gets a pass.  The question each of us needs to ask himself or herself is:  how am I going to use the gifts God has given me to spread God’s love throughout the community in which I live?
Well, I don’t expect anyone to come up with the answer on the spot.  We’ll talk about it some more in the days and weeks to come.  Here’s what I’d like you to start thinking about, though.
Think about something that you get really enthusiastic about, something that you really enjoy and that gets you fired up.  It could be anything.  It could be what you do to make a living.  It could be a hobby.  It could be something that involves a lot of people, or it could be something you do alone.  It could be farming, it could be working with animals, it could be fishing or hunting or camping, it could be sewing, it could be crafts, it could be sports, it could be music.  It could be a hundred different things.  It’ll be a lot of different things, but each of us has something in our lives that we love to do more than anything else.
Once you think of it, find a couple of other people who enjoy that same thing.  Then, get together with them and think about how you could take something you love to do, something you want to do anyway, and turn that into a ministry.
Maybe you start a fishing club, and have a time of devotion and prayer as a part of every outing.  Maybe you start a sewing club and make clothes or quilts or something to give to people who need them.  Maybe you put together a talent show and raise money for a worthy cause.  I’m just throwing these things out as examples:  the things we can do are limited only by our imagination.  The point is that God gives us passions for a reason.  There is a way each one of us can take the things we love to do and use them to serve God, if we just pray and ask God for help in seeing that way.
See, that’s what it really means to give everything of ourselves to God.  It sounds hard, but it does not have to be.  God wants our service, but God does not want our service to be drudgery.  God wants us to love serving.  That’s what we’ll do, if we find ways to take the things we love and use them to serve God.
Let’s start thinking about how we can take the things we love to do and use them to serve God.  If we do, we will begin the job of making disciples of all nations.  Then, we will show that we don’t just say with our lips, but truly believe with our hearts, that Jesus is the Messiah.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Change, Part 2

            I wrote last time about change.  While change is often necessary, it is important to realize that change is not, in and of itself, either a good thing or a bad thing.  Just as we should not always do the things the way we have always done them, we also should not make changes just for the sake of making changes.  When we make changes, we should make them with a specific plan and purpose in mind.
            That’s not to say that we should wait until we’re one hundred percent certain of success before we make a change.  That’s never possible.  The only way to find out for sure if a change will be successful is to make the change and see what happens.
            Still, the changes we make need to have some thought put into them.  We need to think about what we’re going to change and why we’re thinking of changing it.  We need to think about what we’re hoping to accomplish by making the change and why we think the change we’re considering will accomplish that.  Then, we need to talk to some other people, and get some other opinions about whether they think what we’re thinking of doing will accomplish what we hope to accomplish.
            The changes we make need to have some work put into them, too.  Anything worth doing involves effort, and when we’re talking about making substantial changes, we’re often also talking about substantial effort.  After all, if a change is going to be successful, it has to be something that people will not just accept, but will embrace.  A change that is made in a haphazard, slapdash manner is unlikely to be embraced; in fact, it may simply be rejected.  That means that, before we make a change, we need to make sure we have a group of people who are willing to do the work necessary to make it successful.
            The changes we make also need commitment.  We cannot start something new and just assume everyone will take to it immediately.  Anything new takes time to be accepted.  Changes must be allowed time to build momentum and to grow. 
            There’s one more thing we need to do if we’re going to make changes.  We need to be willing to risk failure.  As I said earlier, we can never be one hundred percent certain of success when we make a change.  We can put all kinds of thought into something, put lots of work into it, be totally committed to it, and still have it go nowhere.  I suspect a lot of us have had that happen at some point in our lives.
            The thing is that that’s okay.  If nothing we try ever fails, it’s an indication that we’re not trying enough things.  We never want to fail, of course, but if we never risk failing, we’ll never really succeed.
            We also need to remember that failure is seldom fatal.  Even our failures can help lead people to God.  Sometimes we learn things from failures that turn them into the seeds of success.  Other times, we may have thought we failed, but we still managed to affect the lives of one or two people, who in turn affected the lives of many others.  God can turn our failures into successes.
            We need to be careful about change without being afraid to change.  If we keep our focus on serving God, and we give our hearts to God, we’ll be able to make changes that will bring glory to God.

Monday, August 15, 2011


            One of my favorite posters shows a tornado out in the country.  The caption on the poster reads, “WINDS OF CHANGE:  Change can bring exciting new opportunities; however, it can also destroy all you hold dear.”
            That, in a nutshell, is why we sometimes fear change.  We don’t know what will happen if we change.  Change might make things better, but it might also make things worse.  Besides, change means going away from the things we like, the things we’re familiar with.  Even if change might ultimately improve things, we sometimes resist it simply because we don’t want to give up the things we’re used to.
            Many churches are doing things the same way they’ve been doing them for many years.  There was a time when things were going well this way.  There were lots of people going to church and the churches had plenty of money to pay their bills and operate mission projects.  At that time, churches saw no need to change anything.
            Now, though, there are a lot of churches that are in decline.  Still, though, we sometimes have a hard time seeing a need to change anything.  After all, we think, we did this before, and it worked.  There’s no reason it can’t work again now.
            The thing is, though, that it’s not working now.  Often, the reason is that the world has changed.  The things we did because they fit the people and the society that existed at that time.  They were things that fit a world in which there were no computers and no ipods.  They were things that fit a world in which there was no cable TV and no satellite dishes.  They were things that fit a world in which popular music was much different than it is now.  They were things that fit a world in which families were often home in the evening, rather than going to school or community events five or six nights a week.
            When things are in decline, we cannot continue to do things the way we have been and expect the decline to just magically go away.  We need to do some things differently.  We know that, and yet we still don’t really want to change.  Maybe the society has changed, but sometimes we, ourselves, haven’t changed.  Because we haven’t changed, we still like the old ways of doing things.  We don’t want to give them up.  We don’t want to see the things we hold dear destroyed.
            The words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 seem appropriate here:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.  To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.  To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
The point is not that we do things my way.  The point is not that we do things anyone’s way.  The point is that we do whatever we can to bring the gospel to everyone we can.  The point is that we spread God’s word and share God’s love to as many people as we can.  If that means we need to change some things, that’s okay.  If it means we need to do some things in ways that I don’t personally like, that’s okay, too, because it’s not about doing things in ways I like.  It’s about doing things for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations.  That means we need to use every method at our disposal to spread God’s word and share God’s love.
Change can destroy what we hold dear.  As Christians, though, we’re not called to hold a certain method of worship dear.  We’re not even called to hold our church dear.  What we’re called to hold dear is Jesus Christ.  If we keep our eyes focused on him, any decisions we make regarding change will be the right ones.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Heart of the Matter

Below is my message at the ecumencial service at the Sully County Fair Sunday, August 14.  The scripture was Matthew 15:10-28.

            We hear a lot these days about the need to eat right.  We’ve heard about that since I was a kid, of course, and probably longer, but it seems like we hear even more about it now.  From increased regulations on school lunches, to taxes and bans on certain types of transfats, to pressure on restaurants like McDonald’s to offer salads and apples rather than French fries, there’s a constantly increasing emphasis on healthy eating in our society.
            Now, I am certainly in favor of people eating nutritious meals.  I’m in favor of anything that helps us stay healthier for longer.  However, it’s important that we note one thing about that.  No matter how hard we try to eat right, our eating habits are not going to get us into heaven.
            In Jesus’ time, people were concerned about eating right, too.  Their concern, though, was for a different reason.  They were concerned about eating right not for their physical health, but for their spiritual health. 
See, the religious people of that time had a lot of rules and regulations they were supposed keep in regard to their diet.  These rules and regulations originated during the time of Moses, if not earlier.  The rules and regulations not only covered what you could and could not eat, but how you were supposed to eat what you ate and when you were supposed to eat what you ate.  People were required to keep all these dietary rules and regulations, or they’d be considered unclean and unfit to be the people of God.  In other words, the religious people of that time literally did think that their eating habits, along with other things, would get them into heaven.
As he so often did, though, Jesus turned that thinking around.  He said, look, it’s not what you eat that makes you unclean.  It’s not what you’re putting in your mouth that’s making you unfit to be the people of God.  What’s making you unclean and unfit is all that stuff that’s coming out of your mouth.  Jesus says it’s that stuff that’s making people unfit to be the people of God, not the things they’re eating.
We hear that, and we think, well, that seems kind of obvious.  However, it was not obvious to the people Jesus was talking to.  It was not even obvious to Jesus’ disciples.  They said to Jesus, “Hey, you’re offending the Pharisees by saying stuff like that.  What do you mean?  What are you really saying here?”
So, Jesus had to explain it to them.  He says, look, anything you put into your mouth is going to come out at some point, so eventually it’ll be okay.  The things that come out of our mouths, though, are different, because those things come from our hearts.  It’s our hearts that make us impure and unclean.
If we really think about that, it may be that what Jesus was saying is not so obvious, after all.  We want Jesus to be saying is just that we need to watch the things we say, that we need to watch out for gossip and for talking behind people’s backs and stuff like that.  We want Jesus to be saying that we need to make sure our statements don’t come off as rude or arrogant or hurtful.  Now, that’s certainly part of what Jesus was saying, but it’s not all of it.
Jesus is not just warning us to watch what we say.  He’s not even warning us to watch what we do.  What Jesus tells us is that it would not even occur to say those hurtful things in the first place if our hearts were right.  We would not do hurtful things if our hearts were right.  The key to this, then, is not just to be careful about the words we say.  It’s not just to be careful about the things we do.  Those things are important, but the key is to make sure our hearts are right with God, so we won’t be tempted to say those things or do those things in the first place.
The thing about that, of course, is that it’s a lot easier said than done.  We can control the things we do, to a large extent.  Watching the things we say is a little trickier—sometimes we talk before we think—but we can control that, too, at least sometimes.  Controlling our hearts, though, is a lot trickier deal.  What we’re talking about there is not even just controlling our thoughts.  That’d be hard enough, but when we talk about controlling our hearts, we’re talking about controlling our feelings.
How do we do that?  Have you ever tried to control your feelings?  There’s an extent to which we can do it, but only an extent.  If we’re sad or depressed, we cannot just will ourselves to be happy.  We can try to stop dwelling on things, we can try to get into a little better mood, but we cannot just force ourselves to get rid of those sad or depressed feelings.  It’s the same thing with anger—if we’re mad about something, we may be able to make ourselves calm down, but we cannot just will ourselves to get rid of that anger.
Another example of this is love.  We cannot make ourselves love someone whom we don’t love.  We can treat them kindly, we can express understanding to them, but we cannot force ourselves to feel love for them.  It works the other way, too:  we cannot make ourselves stop loving someone whom we do love.  We may ignore them, we may stay away from them, but we cannot, just by an act of will, force ourselves to stop loving them.
So, what do we do?  We’ve just said that we cannot control our feelings or emotions.  Yet, Jesus says those are the things that can and do defile us, that makes us unfit to be the people of God.  Where does that leave us?
Well, we can start with the fact that Jesus would never ask us to do something that was truly impossible.  Jesus would never have said what he did if there was nothing we could do about our hearts.  We can then move on to another fact:  Jesus knows how flawed and weak and imperfect we humans are.  Jesus does not expect perfection from us; he knows perfection is beyond us.  What Jesus does ask is that we do the best we can and that, despite our flaws, we keep trying and keep striving toward perfection, as impossible as it for us to actually achieve it.
What that tells us is that, while we cannot perfectly control our hearts, Jesus is telling us to control them as much as we possibly can.  Jesus recognizes our weakness and imperfection, but Jesus does not want us to use that as an excuse.  Jesus wants us to keep trying, to keep doing our best, and when we fall short, Jesus wants us to ask for forgiveness and to try again.
There’s one more fact we need to include here, too.  That fact is that Jesus never leaves us on our own.  Jesus does not expect us to do any of this by ourselves.  Jesus knows we cannot do it by ourselves.  What Jesus wants us to do is rely on him.  We’re still supposed to do our best, but then we’re supposed to turn to Jesus and ask him to do what we cannot do.  When we cannot get rid of our sadness or depression or anger, we can ask Jesus to take them away.  When we cannot feel love toward someone, even though we know we should, we can ask Jesus to help us feel that love.  Jesus can do the things we cannot do.  Nothing is impossible when we do it with and through Jesus.
That’s part of the lesson of the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to cure her daughter.  It’s not just a coincidence that this passage follows Jesus’ statements about what makes us impure or unfit.  Here was this woman who was not even of Jesus’ race or of his religion.  She had no reason to believe that Jesus would be willing to heal her daughter.  Yet, she knew there was nothing she could do on her own.  She knew that her only hope was to rely on Jesus and ask him to heal her daughter.  It was impossible for her, but she knew it was not impossible with and through Jesus.  She had faith, enough faith to ask Jesus for help even when she had no right to do so, and Jesus responded to that faith.
When you think about it, we really have no right to ask Jesus for help either.  After all, it’s not like Jesus owes us anything.  Yet, not only does Jesus allow us to ask for help, he wants us to ask for help.  He’s eager for us to ask for help.  When, finally, we do ask, Jesus will always give us the help we need.  Not the help we want, necessarily, but the help we need.
We cannot control our hearts by ourselves.  We cannot become clean and fit to be God’s people by ourselves.  The good news is that we don’t have to do it by ourselves.  In fact, we’re not supposed to.  All we need to do is turn to Jesus.  All we need to do is rely on Jesus’ great love and great power.  Nothing is impossible for our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Calling Is Irrevocable

Below is the text of my message at the Oahe Manor Communion service on August 11, 2011.  The scripture was Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32.

            I want to focus on one line of that reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Here it is:  “for the calling of God is irrevocable.”

            Think about what that means.  We know that each one of us is called by God to do something to serve God.  What this says is that this calling never go away.  It’s always with us, no matter where we are and no matter what stage of life we’re in.

            Now, the way we’re called by God may change as we get older.  There was a time when God was calling me to be a lawyer, rather than to be a pastor.  There was a time when God was calling me to live in Wessington Springs, rather than in Gettysburg.  Obviously, those calls changed.  They may change again:  I don’t know whether, ten years from now, God will still be calling me to live in Gettysburg, or whether God will even still be calling me to be a pastor.  I certainly hope so—I have no current plans to make changes—but then, ten years ago, I had no idea I’d be here doing this, either.  We never know when God may ask us to do something different from what we’re doing now.

            I’m sure that some of you, in your lives, had things happen to you that you did not expect.  You’ve had times when you thought you knew what you were going to be doing the rest of your life, only to see God change those plans.  It can happen to any of us, at any time.

            At this point, though, some of you are probably thinking it cannot happen any more.  In fact, some of you may be thinking that God no longer has any particular plan for your life.  After all, none of you are young people any more.  You’re living here in a nursing home.  Don’t get me wrong—it’s a nice nursing home, and the staff here do a terrific job.  Still, though, it is what it is.  Some of you may be thinking that there’s no way your life can have any real purpose or meaning any longer.  You may feel like God is not calling you to do anything any more.

            Paul says that’s wrong.  He says the calling of God is irrevocable.  God is always calling us to do something, at every stage of our life.  God never allows us to retire from being Christians.  God never allows us to retire from serving God. 

Again, the way we do that can change as we get older.  I’m not suggesting that you can do all the things you did thirty years ago.  However, each of you can do something.  There is not and never has been a person whom God created who does not have a purpose for being here.  There is not and never has been a person who cannot serve God in some way.

It’s up to each of us to find that way.  We find it in a few ways.  First, we find it by praying.  We find it by asking God what our purpose is, what our calling is.  If we truly believe we have a purpose, and we truly want to find it, God will answer our prayer.  God will let us know what that purpose is.

Here’s the thing, though:  we need to keep our eyes open.  God will answer our prayers, but most of the time we probably won’t hear a voice or see a big sign that says, “This is God, and here’s what I want you to do.”  We might—God obviously could address us that way if God so chose—but most of the time it does not work that way.

Most of the time, God answers that prayer through other people.  It may be through someone telling us that we have a talent or a gift for something and suggesting we apply it in a certain way.  It may be through the feeling we get inside when we do certain things.  It may be through looking around, seeing a need, and figuring out a way we can help.  There are lots of ways God lets us know what our calling is.  We just need to look around and find them. 

It does not necessarily require any physical strength.  In fact, it does not necessarily require much of anything.  It may be as simple as a kind word.  It may be as simple as a listening ear.  It may be as simple as a smile and a cheerful attitude.  None of those things take any great talent or physical ability.  Each of them, though, can help someone get through the day.  They may even turn someone's whole life around. 

There is no person on this earth who is here for no reason.  The calling of God is irrevocable.  Each of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we are, no matter how old we are, no matter what our health is like, has some reason for being here and is called by God to do something.  It’s up to us to stay close enough to God to find out what that reason and that calling are.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Speaking for God

            A lot of people seem to want to invoke God or Jesus in political debates these days.
            It’s not a partisan thing.  You can find it on the left, on the right, and in the center.  Lots of people are convinced that they know exactly where God stands on the political issues of the day.  Coincidentally, those people always seem to discover that God agrees with them.
            I have nothing against people having their religious views inform their political opinions.  We should do that.  If our religious faith really means something to us, it should have an impact on every aspect of our lives.  That certainly includes politics, especially in an era when the political realm impacts so much of society.
            It’s one thing, though, to have your religious views inform your political opinions.  It’s another thing entirely to claim that God agrees with you on a particular political issue, and to use that claim as a way to try to discredit and silence those who disagree.
            For one thing, the Bible rarely speaks directly about current political issues.  That’s not to say that the Bible has nothing to say about those issues; however, what the Bible does say is rarely as clear-cut as many people would have us believe.  There’s a simple reason for that.  The Bible is not a political document.  It was never intended to be.  Again, there are things in it we can use to inform our political opinions, but the Bible was not written as a political platform, and using it as one is using it that way is using it for a purpose for which it was not really intended.
            There’s another reason this is dangerous, though.  If I say that God agrees with me on a political issue, then I’m not really going to be willing to listen to what someone who disagrees with me has to say.  After all, if my position is God’s position, then any other position is, by definition, ungodly.  It’s disagreeing with God.  I would have no reason to give a fair hearing to someone who disagrees with God.  I’d have no reason to even pay attention to what such a person has to say, much less consider his or her reasoning with an open mind.  I certainly would have no reason to want to compromise with such a person; if I did, I would, again by definition, be compromising God’s position.  Why would I ever do that?
            Claiming to speak for God is a very tricky thing.  It needs to be done very carefully.  Again, our religious views should inform our political opinions.  On the other hand, people with very deep and sincere Christian beliefs can have profound disagreements about political issues.  Rather than invoking the name of God as a way of clinching an argument, let’s rely on God’s principles of love and caring and listen to each other’s opinions with open minds and with respect.
            Who knows?  We just might all learn from each other.