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Monday, October 31, 2011

It's A Wonderful Life

            As many of you know, I had my ordination interview before the conference Board of Ordained Ministry last week.  I can report to you that I was approved for ordination.  It is never wise to count unhatched chickens, but unless something unforeseen happens, I will be ordained at annual conference in Sioux Falls in June of 2012.
            I started thinking about the rather unusual path I’ve taken to becoming an ordained minister.  I went to a very small church when I was growing up, so small that it did not have a youth group or, after a while, even a Sunday school.  After high school, I went to business school and then to law school.  I was a lawyer for the state of South Dakota for six and a half years, then was in private practice for fifteen years before starting seminary.  For two years, I was a full-time student, part-time lawyer, and part-time pastor.  Then, for another year, I was a full-time student and a full-time pastor.
            Along the way, I’ve had a lot of fun and gotten to do a lot of things that many people don’t get to do.  In no particular order, I’ve been a local public address announcer, a community theater actor, a singer, and a comedian.  I’ve conducted jury trials and argued in front of the South Dakota Supreme Court.  I’ve lived in several different places in South Dakota, and have met an incredible number of wonderful people.  Also, along the way, I met the most wonderful woman in the world, and am lucky enough to have had her as my wife for over twenty-two years.  I have been blessed in many ways and have led what could be considered a unique life.
            I’m not saying any of this to brag about myself.  Here’s my point:  you’ve led a unique life, too.  I don’t know who’s reading this or what you’ve done, but I’ll bet, if you think about it, that you’ve done a lot of things that many people don’t get to do, too.  I’ll bet you’ve met an incredible number of wonderful people, too.  I’ll bet that, if you really think about it, you’ve been blessed in many ways, too, along the way to your unique life.
            I read recently that soon there will be seven billion people living on planet earth.  Of course, there are billions of others who’ve lived on planet earth in the past.  Yet, no two of their lives have been exactly the same.
            That’s pretty incredible, when you stop and think about it.  It seems like it to me, anyway.  All those billions of people, and no two exactly alike.  God created each of those billions of people to be unique, and to live his or her unique life.  God is still doing that today.
            I’d encourage you to just take a minute today and look at your own life.  Think about the unique life you’ve led, and the wonderful people you’ve gotten to know.  Then say thanks to God for creating you to be unique, and for guiding you through your own unique life.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jesus' Layaway Plan

What follows is the message given in the Wheatland Parish today.  I had the week off, so this message was written and presented by Janet Madsen and Kelly Luken.  Thanks to them for handling the service this morning.

Janet--How many apples do you have?
Kelly--I have a whole 5 gallon bucket full.  Do you want some? Apple pies, apple crisp, apple butter, apple sauce a whole lot of things you can make with apples.
            (Janet takes the bucket from Kelly)
What you want all of them. Ok, that is the last of my buckets of apples. Guess the guys down stairs won’t get any for the Harvest meal but I am sure they will understand—no apple pie for them.
In Adam Hamilton’s book ENOUGH is the story of pastor David Slage from Georgia. God has given us ten apples to represent our wealth or income.  God tells us that nine of these apples are ours to enjoy. We are to use some to care for ourselves and for our families, some to save for retirement, and some to give away to others.  But the tenth apple is holy to God. Giving this apple to God first, before we consume the other nice apples, is a way for us to express praise, love, obedience, faithfulness, worship, and devotion to God. This also serves to supply the resources for God’s purposes to be accomplished n the world through God’s Church. 
Then he notes that our lifestyles are such that for many of us nine apples are not enough anymore.  –How can I pay the bills and have all the stuff I want with just nine apples” So we decide the Lord will not mind if we take just a little bit of his apple. The Lord will understand, --Then Christmas comes and we don’t have enough money for all the presents we want to buy, so we take another bite out of God’s apple.
…Soon all that is left is the core. So we give the core to God and say, “ Here’s your portion, Lord.” God receives not our first fruits or our best gifts, but our leftovers.
I wonder if God must think, You would really bless me if you recognized that this apple is mine and give it to me freely --- not because someone made you feel guilty, but just because you love Me.
“Love came down at Christmas” # 242 is a song we sing at Christmas time. The second stanza is” Love was born at Christmas: star and angels gave the sign.”  # 500 “Spirit of God, descend upon my Heart” verse 1: Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; wean it from earth,; through all its pulses move; stoop to my weakness, mighty as thou art, and make me love thee as I ought to love.
In the Faith We Sing # 2095 is “Star Child”.  Verse 1: Star child, earth child, go between of God, love Child, Christ Child, heaven’s lightning rod.  This year, this year, let the day arrive when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive!
Lovett H. Weems Jr. from the Lewis leadership has a Headline article  Christmas Is not your Birthday” in which he states Mike Slaughter the author of the book reminded his congregations of that fact and then named the irony of Christians whose self indulgent holiday celebrations make a mockery of the One whose birthday we honor.  He challenged members to give as much for others as they spend on themselves.  John Wesley once said Christians are called to return money in excess of basic necessities to God “Through the poor.” Whom God “had appointed to receive it.”
As I kept reading  the Newsletter I found the article by Melvin Amerson titled Christmas giving for Christ.  In it he states: Soon the seasons of Advent and Christmas will be with us, and we will be inundated with commercials and product advertisements on television, radio, and the internet. Consumerism at times overshadows the focus of the season.  Many believers exchange gifts with co-workers, friends, and family, yet fail to present the season’s honoree – Jesus Christ—with a special gift fit for a king.
In Melvin’s article he mentions the fact that because of the economic downturn, some financial practices from a by-gone era are returning.  Examples are the :layaway plans” that require purchases to make regular payments without taking possession of the merchandise until the price is paid in full.  Layaway plans help us distinguish between needs and wants. Plus they teach lifelong lessons on patience, diligence, and self-control. There is also the “Christmas Club Account”. These were non-interest-bearing accounts that allowed savers to set aside money each pay period for the sole purpose of purchasing Christmas gifts. Both of practices were popular prior to the credit card era.
Could or would we like to establish a church-wide layaway plan for a special ministry gift that will honor Christ. The Gettysburg Sunday School has chosen animals from the Heifer International project for there offerings, Colored envelopes have  been places at the back of the church if you would like to add to that layaway plan. Onida and Agar what would you like to do? Are there other ideas we as a church could designate layaway funds. Melvin Amersons  articles states that “ The resource raised should be used to expand or enhance ministry and bless others.  Since Christmas is about the celebration of the birth of Christ, these opportunities to “give to the King’ will help members take their focus off the commercialism of Christmas and refocus on the birth of Christ.
Excerpts from an article from Bible Money matters:----the author tells us:-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Growing up poor, I remember times when my parents just didn’t have enough money to buy Christmas presents for us.  They almost always seemed to work things out in the end, but there were times things just didn’t come together.  One advantage they had was Wal-Mart’s layaway program – come in and find what you want, pay a little for it now and  come back and pay the rest later, at which time you can pick up your item.
………………………………….one Christmas I remember picking out the presents and our parents putting down the 1st payment ---- but then my mom and step dad never went back to pay the rest.  They never gathered enough money to pay the full sum.
The Spirit of God never has this conclusion.  The Spirit is the first fruits of our final inheritance…. The down payment of our final redemption.  The promise by the Father (Acts 1:4-5) is the Spirit if God’s layaway plan for creation. The Spirit is the church’s evidence that God will cash in on His promise. The Spirit is the promise of the Father, that all our temptations and sufferings do not have the final say.
In Ephesians 1:13, Paul speaks of redemption being sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.  The Spirit, is the evidence that we are authentically owned by God.  This seal marks us “ until the day of redemption.”  The Spirit is the evidence that God protects us and will finally redeem us.
Our wonderful message of hope.  God is not like my parents. He does not lack the resources to go back and finally redeem his purchase.  The promise of full and final redemption is made known by the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Unknown

Note--this was supposed to be published Thursday.  The reason it wasn't is that I forgot to schedule it before I left for Storm Mountain camp on Tuesday.  I decided to publish it anyway because, well, I went to the trouble of writing it, and it's my blog.

            By the time you read this, I should have a pretty good idea about whether I’ll be ordained in June or not.  Yesterday, I met with the Board of Ordained Ministry, which then voted as to whether to recommend me for ordination.  If they said yes there will still be more things I have to do, but barring unforeseen circumstances, their approval will mean that I will be ordained in June.
            The meeting yesterday was at Storm Mountain camp, and was/will be followed by three days of training meetings with others who, like me, are probationary elders.  This means they have been commissioned as pastors, but have not yet been ordained.  The Dakotas Conference requires at least three years between commissioning and ordination.  For me, those three years will be done in June.
            The thing is that, since I did not know whether I’d have time to write anything at Storm Mountain, I’m writing this before I leave.  As I write this, I don’t know whether I was approved at yesterday’s meeting or not, because that yesterday hasn’t happened yet.
            I have no reason to think I won’t be approved.  It would seem like, if the board had doubts about my fitness for ordination, I would have heard about them by now.  Still, I was a lawyer long enough to know that nothing is final until the papers are all signed and filed.
            Because of that, as I write this, I’m a little nervous about the meeting.  I have nothing in my experience to compare it to.  I went through a somewhat similar process when I was commissioned, but it was not this extensive.  I went through a lot of things as a lawyer, too, but nothing really like this.  As a lawyer, I could study and do research and be prepared.  Here, there’s nothing to really prepare.  I’m going into an unknown situation.
            That’s the main thing that always scares us, isn’t it?  The unknown.  That’s why what we’re really scared of, sometimes, is the future.  We’re not scared about the past, because the past is over and done with.  We’re scared about the future.  We’re scared about what’s going to happen, because it’s unknown.  We don’t know what’s going to happen in the years to come.  Sometimes, we don’t know what’s going to come in the next few months.  Sometimes, we don’t even know what’s going to happen in the next five minutes.
            When you think about it, that’s why death scares us:  it’s an unknown.  Even as Christians, death can be scary.  We say we believe in eternal life, and we say we believe we’re going to heaven, but what does that mean, really?  Can a human ever actually grasp the concept of eternity?  Can we even picture heaven with any feeling of accuracy?  We can’t.  That’s why death can be really scary to us, even when we believe in Christ.
            Death is not a complete unknown, though.  We know a few things.  We know that, whatever death holds, Jesus already went through it.  Not only did he go through it, he conquered it.  He did not just conquer it for himself, he conquered it for us, too.  Jesus told us he was going to prepare a place for us, and that when the time was right, he would come and take us to him.  So we know, whatever death holds, it will take us to the Son, and the Son, in turn, will take us to the Father.  That means that, whatever death holds, it must ultimately be good.
            There’s one other thing about unknowns, too.  For God, they don’t exist.  There is no such thing as an unknown to God, because God exists outside of time.  Lots of things are unknown to us.  Nothing is unknown to God.
            Because of that, we don’t need to fear the unknown.  Whatever the future holds, God is already in it, and God has already worked everything out for the good.  That does not mean we won’t ever have hard times; we almost certainly will.  Still, we know that, even in those hard times, God is in control, and God always wins in the end.
            By the time you read this, I’ll know whether I’ve been approved for ordination.  As I’m writing it, though, God already knows.  That’s pretty comforting.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Truth and Trust

            My favorite TV show is a British made science fiction program called “Doctor Who”.  The show has run in Britain for many, many years.  The main character is called “the Doctor”, and he’s a time lord.  This means he can travel anywhere in space and time.  It also means that he doesn’t die, he simply “regenerates”, which has allowed several different actors to play the Doctor over the years.  The show is available on many public broadcasting stations (although, regrettably, not the ones in South Dakota) and is also available on BBC America.
            The Doctor always has one or two people with him who are not time lords, but are simply ordinary people.  This means that, as they travel to different worlds and battle different monsters, the people traveling with the Doctor often have no idea what’s going on unless the Doctor explains it to them.  Sometimes he does, but often he doesn’t.  He rarely outright lies to them, but he often tells them far less than the whole truth.
            In an episode I saw recently, the Doctor and his friend Amy were in trouble, as they usually are.  The Doctor turned to his friend and said quietly, “Amy, I need you to trust me.”  Amy responded by saying, “But you don’t always tell me the truth.”  To which the Doctor replied, “If I always told you the truth, I wouldn’t need you to trust me.”
            While it’s not a perfect analogy, it struck me that our relationship with God is a little like that.  As we go through life, we often have no idea what’s going on.  We’d like God to tell us.  Sometimes God does, but often, God doesn’t.  God does not outright lie to us, of course, but God generally does not reveal the whole truth to us, either.
            There are any number of things I’d like to know.  Some of them are silly:  “Who’s going to win the Super Bowl?”  “Will Susan Lucci be in the online version of All My Children?”  Some of them are personal:  “How long will we be in the Wheatland Parish?”  “How long will my parents stay in relatively good health?”  Some of them have to do with the world:  “Will the economy recover soon?”  “Will more people live in freedom?”  Some of them, of course, have to do with the eternal:  “What’s heaven really like?”  “What is life really all about?”
            So many questions, and of course so many more that we could ask.  We’d like God to give us the answers, but God usually does not do that.  Instead, God turns to us and quietly says, “You need to trust me.”  We respond, “But you don’t tell us all of the truth.”  To which God says, “If I told you all of the truth, you wouldn’t need to trust me.”
            God does not tell us all of the truth, probably because we couldn’t understand the whole truth if it was told to us.  God is, however, always worthy of our trust.  If we simply trust God, even when we’re in trouble, God will be there for us.  God is watching over us, and ultimately, God is always in control.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Learning to Live in Love

The following message was given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, October 23, 2011.  Scriptures were Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 25:1-10, Matthew 28:16-20, and 1 Timothy 4:4-16.

             Last week, we had our Sunday school kids sing for us in church.  We hope to do that once a month or so.  It’s always wonderful to hear the kids sing.  A lot of times, it’s even more fun to watch them while they’re singing.
Like most churches, we put an emphasis on youth programs.  We have Sunday school every week, of course.  We have youth groups.  We have Vacation Bible School.  We have a children’s message every week.  We do a lot of things to try to encourage our young people in their faith.
            I think we all kind of know, instinctively, why we do that, but it’s not something we actually talk about much.  It’s not just because it’ll help these kids during their lives, although that’s part of it.  It’s also because the future of our faith depends on it.  It’s been said that, at any point in time since Jesus came, we are always just one generation away from having the Christian faith die out.  If we do not bring up our children in the Christian faith, it does not just affect their lives.  It will affect the lives of their children, and their children’s children, and all the way down the line.
We’re nearing the end of our sermon series called “What is the church?”  One very important thing we need to talk about, as we look at what the church is, is that the church teaches.
That’s clear all over the place in the Bible.  Choosing scriptures was hard this week because there are so many good ones about teaching that we could have chosen.  You do a word search for “teach” in the Bible and you get three hundred sixty-one responses.  Teaching is something that’s clearly an important role of the church.
That’s something that was true even in the early part of the Old Testament.  Our lesson from Deuteronomy makes clear how important it is that faith be handed down from one generation to another.  God, speaking through Moses, tells the people of Israel that there is never supposed to be time when they are not teaching their children to love God.  Listen again to these words:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Think about how it would be to live in a society that did that.  There’d never be a time when we would not be reminded to love God.  We’d be talking about the love of God to our kids no matter whether we were at home or on the road.  We’d be talking about the love of God to them from the time we got up until the time we went to bed.  We’d have those words about the love of God on our hands, so that every time we went to do something, we’d be reminded about it.  We’d have those words on our foreheads, so that every time somebody looked at us they’d be reminded about the love of God.  Those words about the love of God would be on our doorposts and on our gates, so that every time we walked into our home, we’d be reminded about the love of God.
In our society, as we go about our lives, how often do we think about the love of God?  How often do we talk about the love of God with our children, or with our grandchildren?  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that no one here ever does.  I’ll bet, though, that none of us does it as often as Moses told the people of Israel to do it.  I’ll bet none of us has the love of God as much a part of lives, and does not make it as much a part of our children and grandchildren’s lives, as we’re told we should in Deuteronomy.
Why not?  Do we not really think it’s that important?  Do we just get distracted?  Are we afraid people will think we’re weird?  Why do we not always have the love of God as part of our lives, and always make it a part of our children and grandchildren’s lives, the way God, through Moses, told us we should?
Here’s another question:  How different would our lives be if we did?  How much better, how much happier, would our lives be if we really did make the love of God as much a part of our lives as God, through Moses, told us we should?  How much better, and how much happier, would our children and grandchildren’s lives be if we constantly told them about the love of God, so that love was always a part of their life, too?
Jesus told us how important this all is, too.  We’ve talked before about a couple of the things Jesus said.  Jesus said that the most important thing is to love God and to love the other people God created.  Jesus said that we are to go out and make disciples.  When we’ve talked about that, though, there’s something we’ve left out.  You heard it during our scripture reading, but let’s hear it one more time.  Jesus said:
Go therefore and 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 that I have commanded you.
Teaching them to obey what he commanded us.  Teaching them to love God.  Teaching them to love each other.  That’s our job as Christians.  That’s what those of us who claim to follow Jesus are supposed to be doing.  So, if we look around us, and we see a world in which people don’t love God, and we see a world in which people don’t love each other, what does that mean?  It means were not doing our job very well.  It means we’re not doing what Jesus told us to do.
Again, I ask the question, why not?  Do we not really think it’s that important?  Do we just get distracted?  Are we afraid people will think we’re weird?  Why are we not out there, teaching people to love God and to love each other, the way Jesus told us we should?
Again, here’s another question:  How different would our world be if we did?  If the world seems to big a goal for you, how about just our local community?  How much better, how much happier, would Onida (Agar, Gettysburg) be if this church went out and taught people to love God and to love each other the way Jesus told us we should?  How much better, and how much happier, would our community be if we went out and taught people to love God and love each other the way Jesus told us to?
In our reading from First Timothy, when Paul was advising his younger friend, Timothy, about what to do, what did he tell him?  He told him to teach.  Listen to what Paul said:
Train yourself in godliness…Training in godliness is valuable in every way…These are the things you must insist on and teach…Set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…Give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching…Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Maybe, in what Paul said there, we find the answer to our questions about why we’re not doing these things.  The first thing Paul said is that we should train ourselves in godliness.  Is that the problem?  Is the reason we’re not teaching others about loving God and loving others because we’ve not been properly taught ourselves?
If so, we need to do something about it.  But what can we do?  I mean, God is so big and seems so complicated.  How can we understand enough about God to teach others?  If only God's word was written down somewhere.  If only God had given us, say, a big book where we could find all of God's advice on what to do and how to live. 

Luckily, that's just what God did.  One of the many incredible gifts God gave us is the Bible.  That’s God’s word to us.  We can read it.  We can study it.  We can do that in all kinds of ways.  We can do it by ourselves; if you don’t have a Bible, they’re available lots of places, including free online.  Lots of free Bible studies are available online, too.  We can do it together.  We already have some Bible studies going on here; we can have more.  I’ll be happy to help organize them and even help lead them if you like.  If we don’t feel like we know enough about God to teach the love of God to others, we can take care of that problem now.
In our responsive psalm today, we said:
Good and upright is the Lord; therefore the Lord instructs sinners in the way, and leads the humble in what is right, and teaches them their way.
            God wants to teach us how to live with God’s love in our lives.  Let’s learn how to do that.  Then, let’s go out and teach others how to live with God’s love in their lives, the way Jesus told us to.  Let’s especially teach our children how to live with God’s love in their lives.  The people of God teach about the love of God.  When enough people are taught about God’s love, we will be closer to seeing the kingdom of God come on earth.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Decision Time

            As many of you know, the Gettysburg church is facing an important decision.  We have received an offer to purchase the education building.  The board of trustees has voted to accept that offer.  The church’s administrative council will be taking up the issue on Sunday, but it votes, there will be a chance for people to ask questions and express opinions.  The meeting will be Sunday at 3:00, and everyone who is part of the church is invited to come.

            We hope everyone will take advantage of this opportunity.  This is an important issue, and will have ramifications for many years to come.  If you have questions, Sunday is the time to ask them.  If you have an opinion, Sunday is the time to let people know about it.  If you can’t be there Sunday, let someone on the administrative council know what your question or opinion is, so it can be dealt with.

            I’m sure there will be some strong opinions on all sides.  That’s okay.  In fact, it’s good.  It means people care about the church and want to see it succeed.  It would be a very bad thing for the church if no one showed up for the meeting because no one really cared.

            There are a few things I hope everyone remembers as we hear opinions and have a discussion.  First, each of us is trying to do what is best for the church.  None of us has all the answers, but our intentions are good.  Everyone involved in this, no matter what their opinion, loves God, loves the church, and is trying to do what’s best.

            Second, there are no perfect solutions.  We live in an imperfect world full of imperfect people, most especially including me.  There is an upside and a downside to whatever we do.  We’re all trying to figure out a way to maximize the upside and minimize the downside, but no matter what we do, that downside will still be there.  We’re looking for the best answer, not the perfect answer.

            Third, no matter what we do, the church is looking at spending a substantial amount of money.  If we sell the building, we’re looking at spending a lot of money on a new addition.  If we don’t sell the building, we’re looking at spending a lot of money to fix it up.  Doing nothing is always the easiest solution, but it’s rarely the best one.  If we do nothing, the current building will continue to deteriorate, and either we’ll have to spend even more money to fix it or we’ll have a building that is no longer usable.  We are going to have to spend a lot of money one way or the other.

            Finally, the goal of each of us needs to be to come out of this decision with a united church.  For some of us, that will mean that we need to accept the fact that things did not go the way we think they should have.  For all of us, though, it means that we need to unite behind the decision that is made and do everything we can to make that decision the right one.  When problems come up, as they inevitably will, hearing “I told you so” or “they should have listened to me” will not be helpful.  The only way this church can do the work of God in this community is if we stay united and work together to do that work.

That, after all, is what the church is about:  doing the work of God.  If we keep that in mind, then no matter how things go Sunday, and no matter what problems come up afterward, we will come out of this as a united church which is determined to serve God in every way we can.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Just Another Manic Monday

            There’s an old saying that time is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.  Lately, though, that system doesn’t seem to be working for me.  It seems like everything really has been happening at once.  That’s why I didn’t write a blog entry Thursday, like I usually do.  I simply didn’t have time for it.

            I don’t mean that to come off as a complaint.  Everyone has times when their job gets really busy—this just happens to be one of mine.  Also, I really do love what I do.  It’s just that, sometimes, you can get too much of a good thing.

            I’m sure you’ve had times when this happens to you, too.  Sometimes, we have so much to do that we feel overwhelmed.  What can we do about it?  Here are some suggestions:

            First of all, don’t try to be superman (or superwoman).  We only get twenty-four hours in each day, and we can’t spend all of them working.  We need to make sure we get enough rest, we need to eat properly, we need to get some exercise, and we need to have a little time to relax.  We may not be able to do all of those things every day, but we can’t neglect them for too long.  Our bodies will tell us when we need to back off.  If we don’t listen, our bodies will force us to listen, usually in ways we don’t like very much.  We’re a lot better off if we listen the first time.

            Second, we need to remember that this is not the first time we’ve been busy.  We’ve had other busy times, too, and somehow everything that needed to be done got done.  Sometimes things don’t take as long as we think they will.  Sometimes, we realize that some of the “important” things we have to do really don’t need to be done, or at least don’t need to be done right now.

            Third, prioritize things and work steadily.  Trying to run in six directions at once never helps.  Rushing through things and doing them in a half-baked way never helps, either.  Take a breath, figure out what’s most important, and work at it until it’s done.  Then, take another breath, figure out what’s next in importance, and work at that until it’s done.  If we keep plugging away, we’ll keep making progress.

            Fourth, we should not be afraid to ask for help when we need it.  There may be some things that no one can do for us, but it’s usually not that many.  If we’re legitimately overwhelmed, and people can see that, they’ll usually be willing to help out.  God put other people in our lives so they can be there for us when we need them.  God also put us in other people’s lives so we can be there for them when they need us.

            Finally, ask God for help.  God knows when life is getting to be too much for us.  We should not be afraid to ask God to help us.  Sometimes God will help by taking a few things off our plate.  Sometimes, God will help by relaxing us and helping us work more efficiently.  There are a lot of ways God will help us, if we only take the time to ask.

            I wish I could tell you I always do all those things.  Actually, I could tell you that; it’s just that I’d be lying.  When I do remember to do them, though, I always feel better.  And, somehow, everything that really needs to be done always gets done.

            So, the next time you’re going through a really busy time and you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remember that you’ll get through it.  God will be with you, and things will work out.  Everything that really needs to be done will get done.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

United We Stand

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 16, 2011.  The part in italics pertains only to the Gettysburg church, and was given only in that church.  The scriptures are Matthew 22:15-22 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18.

            I want to read the first verse of our scripture from First Corinthians again, just to make sure we all keep it in mind.  Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.”  This is an important aspect of what the church is:  the church is united.
            At least, it’s supposed to be.  Sadly, there are too many times when the church is not united.  I say “sadly” because there’s a lot of truth in the old cliché:  united, we stand; divided, we fall.  When the Christian church is not united, it’s harder for us to make disciples for Jesus.  It’s harder for us to do our part to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.
            There’s nothing new about this, of course.  It was happening in Paul’s time, too.  That’s why Paul wrote about it.  In fact, it actually was happening before Jesus came.  The Jewish people had already split off into various groups.  The biggest ones, the ones that are mentioned a lot in the Bible, are the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but there were other, smaller groups, too.
            As long as Jesus was alive, the Christian church was more or less united, because they had Jesus as the ultimate authority figure to look to.  As soon as Jesus died, though, things changed.  A lot of people wanted someone else to look to, someone else to follow.  So, as Paul writes, people started saying, “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Peter” or whatever.  The church in Corinth, along with a lot of other churches, was getting split in a lot of different directions.
            Paul knew a church like that was never going to work.  A church that’s fighting with itself is not one people will want to be part of.  A church that’s fighting with itself is not one that can do God’s will.  A church that’s fighting with itself cannot truly be the church because, as we said a couple of weeks ago, the Christian church is built on love.  So, as we look at the question “what is the church”, one of the things we can say is that the church is united.
            We live in a society that’s not united.  All you need to do to see that is turn on the news.  It seems like the whole world is divided.  There are terror threats all over.  There are wars and threats of wars in almost every area.  There are economic crises all over.  There are protest marches.  There are changes in how society operates and in what’s considered normal in society.  All these things are dividing people all over the world.
            It’s true in this country, too, of course.  There are all kinds of hot political issues right now, ranging from unemployment to tax policy to government spending to military policy to capital punishment to almost everything else you can think of.  There are the beginnings of riots in major cities, with the threat that those riots will spread and grow.
            Almost everyone, including most Christians, has an opinion about all this stuff.  That’s fine.  We should have opinions.  We should keep ourselves informed, so we have a solid basis for our opinions.  We should take the time to study these issues and think carefully about them.  Once we’ve done that, though, it’s only natural that we should have an opinion.  We could hardly help it.
            The thing is, though, that as Christians, we need to remember to keep our priorities in order.  We need to keep our eye on the ball.  I’m not saying we need to stay silent on all these issues, but we need to think about what it is we’re trying to accomplish.   As Christians, we have a bigger concern than political issues.  As Christians, we’re about making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Getting drawn into political arguments can get in our way and keep us from doing that if we allow it to.
            It’s an easy trap to fall into.  I have to fight it all the time.  After all, I have opinions, too.  I have lots of opinions—just ask Wanda.  I read and hear political things I disagree with all the time.  Some of them are even said by United Methodist pastors.  When I hear those things, I’m very tempted to respond.  Once in a while, I give in to that temptation, but I’m always glad when I resist it. 
            I think Jesus showed us the way to do that in our reading from Matthew.  When the Pharisees asked Jesus about whether Jewish people should pay taxes to Rome, they were asking him about a major political issue of the day.  They were trying to set up a situation where Jesus had to make a choice, and either choice Jesus made would align him with one political faction against the other.  They were trying to make Jesus into a political figure, rather than a religious figure.
            What did Jesus do?  He refused to take the bait.  Not only did Jesus not take sides, he completely changed the equation.  He told people to give God the things that belong to God.  He refocused the question, and in doing so refocused people’s minds.  He turned people’s minds away from politics and toward God.  That’s where our minds need to be, too.
            It’s not just political matters that can divide us, though.  There are issues within the church that can divide us.  You may have heard that the Presbyterian church in the United States recently ordained its first openly homosexual pastor.  The Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, and some segments of the Lutheran church have done this, too.  In each of those denominations, this issue has caused deep divisions within the church.  The United Methodist Church does not currently allow for ordination of homosexual clergy, but the issue has come up at general conference several times, and it will again at the next general conference next year.
            Now, I’m not going to tell you what you should think about that.  I’m not even going to tell you what I think about it, at least not now.  That’s not the point of this message.  The point of this message is that we need to remember that the Christian church is built on love. 
That does not mean we always have to agree on everything.  Even the apostles did not always agree on everything.  What it does mean is that, when we disagree, we need to be able to disagree in a loving way.  We need to be able to find ways to work together to make disciples of Jesus Christ, even when we disagree on things, and even when we consider the things we disagree on to be very important.
The thing is that sincere, honest, intelligent people, including sincere, honest, intelligent Christians, can look at the same set of facts, read the same scriptures, and understand them differently.  Our ideas, our opinions, the way we look at the world is shaped by a lot of things.  It’s shaped by our upbringing, it’s shaped by our experiences, it’s shaped by our friends, it’s shaped by our surroundings, it’s shaped by lots of other factors. 
The way I see the world has been greatly influenced by the way my parents brought me up, by the fact that I grew up in a rural area, by the fact that I was very shy as a kid.  It’s been greatly influenced by my years as a lawyer, by the community theater group I joined, by the woman I married.  It’s been greatly influenced by the town in which I spent seventeen of my adult years.  If I’d been born to different parents, if I’d been born in a big city, if I’d had a different career or married a different woman, I’d probably look at life a lot differently.  Each of you can probably think of a set of factors like that that’s influenced your life, too.
See, people can disagree on issues, even important issues, and still be good people.  They can even be good Christians.  Disagreement is not only acceptable, sometimes it’s necessary.  There’s an old saying that if everybody’s thinking alike, somebody’s not thinking. 
We can learn things from people with whom we disagree.  They can learn things from us.  Every time I’m asked to pray before a church meeting, a part of my prayer is that we all feel free to express our opinions, and that we feel free to disagree with each other.  We’ll only make the best decisions for the church when we do that.
There’s an important issue that this church is addressing right now.  As you know, we’ve received an offer to buy the education building.  Monday night, the board of trustees voted to pursue the sale of that building.
Now, the sale is not a done deal yet.  This was just the first step.  We’re going to have a church council meeting, and everyone is going to get a chance to voice their opinions, either at the meeting or to council members before the meeting.  Whether you’re for this sale or against it, we want everyone to voice their opinions.  Whatever decision is made, we want everyone to feel they got a chance to have their say.
The fact that everyone gets a chance to have their say, though, does not mean that everyone gets to have their way.  That’s not possible.  After we hear all the opinions, a decision has to be made.  We cannot compromise, because we cannot kind of sell the building.  We either have to sell it or not sell it.  That means that some people are going to get what they wanted, and some are not.  That’s just the way it is.
As we discuss this, though, and as we disagree sometimes, what we need to remember that the Christian church is based in love.  Certainly, there are times when the loving thing to do is to disagree.  There are times when the loving thing to do is to try to help someone who’s going down the wrong path, even if they don’t see that’s what they’re doing.
Even so, we need to remember who we serve and what we’re trying to accomplish.  Disagreements where we get mad at each other are not loving disagreements.  Disagreements where we call each other names do not bring us together in love.  Disagreements where we judge someone else’s faith do not make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Disagreements where we threaten to leave the church do not bring us closer to the kingdom of God.
This sermon series is about what it means to be the church.  As the church starts to reach out beyond its doors, as it tries to be in ministry to this community, as it finds ways to truly be the people of God for this town, it’s inevitable that we’ll disagree about what the best way is for us to do that.  That’s okay.  In fact, it can be a good thing.  If nobody disagreed, it might mean that nobody cared.  Disagreement at least shows that people care.
When we disagree, though, we need to disagree in love.  We need to say what we think, but we need to listen respectfully to what others think, too.  Then, once a decision is made, we need to do whatever we can to make that decision the right one, even if it’s not what we wanted at the time.
If we can do that, then the church will stay united.  Our strength will be in that unity.  In that unity, we will be the people of God, and will do what God wants us to do.

Focusing On God

This is the message given at the Oahe Manor communion service Thursday, October 13.  Sorry it took so long to post it, but I've been busy.  The scripture was Matthew 22:15-22.

It seems like politics plays a big part in our lives any more.  It used to be that “campaign season” came around every four years.  Now it seems to be non-stop.  We’re still over a year away from the 2012 election, and people are already starting to speculate about who might run in 2016.  If you watch the news on TV, or listen to the radio, or read the newspaper, it’s hard to get away from political talk these days.
As you hear all this talk, though, you may notice something.  Every once in a while, someone will try to promote their political ideas by citing scripture.  They’ll take some Bible passage and say that proves that God would want you to support their bill or vote for their candidate.
It seems to me that’s a misuse of scripture.  In the first place, there’s nothing in the Bible that suggests that God supports one political party over another.  More importantly, though, there are lots of times in the gospels when Jesus was invited to step in and give an opinion about a current political issue of the day.  Each time, he refused to do so.  One of those times is in our scripture for today.
The Pharisees asked Jesus about paying taxes.  We recognize this as a political question, but we don’t always realize what a big deal this was.  The nation of Israel had been taken over by the Roman Empire.  Israel did not like that, of course, and had dreamed for a long time of becoming independent again.  Every once in a while, they would actually drive out the Romans and get their independence, but that never lasted for very long.  The Roman Empire was just too strong.  Eventually, it would take over again, and Israel would be defeated.
Still, that dream of independence for Israel was still there, and one of the ways that showed up was in the payment of taxes to Rome.  The people who supported Jewish independence said Jewish people should not pay taxes to Rome.  If Jesus agreed with them, and said not to pay taxes, he’d be seen as opposing the Roman government and could be arrested.  On the other hand, if Jesus said that people should pay taxes to Rome, he’d be seen as opposing the supporters of Jewish independence, which could make him look bad to a lot of Jewish people.  What that means is that the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to take a position on one of the really hot political issues of the day.
What’s really important, as we look at this scripture, is to note how the Bible describes what the Pharisees were trying to do.  It says they were trying to “entrap” Jesus by getting him to comment on this political issue.
That’s what politics can be for Christians.  It can be a trap.  Now, understand that I think it’s good for us to keep ourselves informed about what’s going on in the government.  Our society will only work if people pay attention.  We should watch the news, we should listen to the radio, we should read the newspapers, we should do whatever we can to keep up to date on current events.  I don’t want anything I’m saying here to be understood otherwise.
The thing is, though, that political issues are, by their nature, divisive.  When we take sides, we get set against each other.  When Christians fight against each other in political matters, we have a harder time working together to bring people to Christ.  We cannot make disciples for Jesus if we’re arguing with each other about politics.
Jesus understood that.  That’s why, when he was invited to take a position on this political issue, he would not do it.  In fact, not only did he not take a position, he changed the focus of the question.  He said, in effect, don’t be so concerned about what the government wants you to do.  Instead, be concerned with what God wants you to do.
That’s where our focus needs to be.  Again, it’s okay to follow politics, but don’t fall into the trap.  We need to make sure we don’t get sucked into arguing about political issues.  When we do, we miss chances to unite to work for Christ.
God is not telling us how to vote.  God is telling us to have faith:  faith in God, and faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ.  If each one of us trusts God, if each one of us lives our life they way Jesus wants us to live, if each one of us does what God wants us to do, then we can leave the rest of it in God’s hands.  When we do that, we will know that, ultimately, things will work out the way God wants them to work out.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Part of Reality

            When I got home the other night, Wanda was watching a movie on the Hallmark Channel, something she likes to do.  Since the movie was almost over and the baseball game had been rained out, I watched the rest of it with her.
            The thing about Hallmark Channel movies is that you know what you’re getting.  You know that, by the end of the movie, the right woman is going to fall in love with the right man, whatever the kids’ problems are will be resolved, the bad guy (it’s almost always a guy) will see the error of his ways, and everyone will live happily ever after.  That’s just the way these movies work.
            This is not meant as a criticism.  People like Wanda, who watch movies on the Hallmark Channel, are not watching to see all the bad things in society. They’re watching precisely to get away from the bad things in society for a little while.  They want to watch a story in which things work out the way we want them to work out.  They want to see a world that is the way we wish the world was.  The predictability of these movies is a feature, not a bug.
            What’s interesting to me is that movies of this type are often derided as “unrealistic”.  There’s an extent to which they are, of course.  Nobody is pretending that, in real life, good always triumphs, people always do what they’re supposed to do, and we all live happily ever after.
            On the other hand, this is a criticism that never seems to be made of movies that depict drug dealers, spouse abusers, or serial killers.  Those movies are somehow considered to show “reality”.  Why?  Yes, they show a certain segment of reality, but so do Hallmark Channel movies.  Are there really more drug addicts in this country than there are kids who don’t use drugs?  Are there really more spouse abusers than there are couples who love each other?  Are there really more serial killers than there are people who may have started down the wrong path, but then were able to change their lives?
            Hallmark Channel movies may not depict all of reality, but they do represent a certain part of it.  There really are families in which both spouses love each other, in which the kids are basically well-behaved, and who live in communities where people care about each other.  Some of us live in those families, and most of us who don’t wish we did.
            A part of getting what we want is being able to envision what we want.  If we’re going to achieve a loving, caring society, we need to be able to envision a loving, caring society.  Hallmark Channel movies, and similar movies, help us do that. I’m not saying you need to watch them, but there are a lot worse things a person could spend their time on.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

It's Different Because It's Perfect

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, October 9, 2011.  The scriptures are Matthew 5:38-48 and 2 Corinthians 11:30-12:10.

            Here are three truths of life:
            Number one:  God is perfect.
            Number two:  I’m not.
            Number three:  Neither are you.
            Now, that may all seem pretty obvious, and we’d probably all agree with each one of those statements.  Here’s the thing, though.  How do we square that with what Jesus said in our reading from Matthew?
            Here’s what Jesus says.  First, he says we should not strike back when someone attacks us.  Instead, if someone hits us on the right cheek, we should turn the other as well.  Then, Jesus says that we should not refuse someone who demands something from us.  Instead, he says if someone wants to sue and take our shirt, we should give our coat as well.  Then, Jesus says that if someone tries to force us to go one mile, we should not resist them.  Instead, we should go a second mile as well.  Finally, Jesus says we should not hate our enemies.  Instead, we should love them and pray for the people who persecute us.  Then, after telling us to do all these things that are not only really hard but are the exact opposite of what we’ve been told to do all our lives, Jesus says this:  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
            Most of us have heard about all these things before.  Even people who are not Christians have heard the phrase “turn the other cheek”, although they may not know where it comes from.  How many of us, though, actually try to live that way?
            I think we can safely put these verses on the list of things we wish Jesus had never said.  We know them, but a lot of times, we tend to gloss over them.  We might think they sound nice in theory, but most of the time, we don’t even try to live our lives according to them.
            We‘ve been talking in this sermon series about what the church is.  We’ve said that the church is the people of God, and that the people of God should be enthusiastic about our faith in Christ.  Last week, we talked about how the church is founded on love of everyone, with no exceptions.
            This week, we flesh that out.  In these verses, Jesus gets specific.  He tells us just exactly what it really means to love everyone, with no exceptions.
            Now, Jesus knew how weird this was going to sound to people.  He knew this was going totally against the grain of what everyone was taught.  That phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is usually just treated as a cliché now, but it was part of the law given by Moses.  It shows up in Exodus, it shows up in Leviticus, and it shows up in Deuteronomy.  The people Jesus was talking to would’ve known that.  Jesus knew he was telling people something completely different from what they’d heard all their lives.
            There’s a reason Jesus said these things, though.  Jesus told us what it was.  This is the part we tend to forget.  Jesus asks us, if we’re only friendly with people who are friendly with us, if we only love the people who love us, how does that make us, as Christians, any different from anybody else?
            See, that’s the thing about being the church.  The people of God are different from anybody else.  The people of God do not do what the rest of society does.  The people of God are supposed to be different, and that difference is what makes the people of God perfect.
            The thing is that very few of us like to be different.  Being different is not something that feels comfortable to us.  There’s something inside almost all of us that wants to fit in.  We talk about peer pressure all the time in regard to kids, but it’s not just kids who feel peer pressure.  We all do.  None of us wants to be looked at as odd or strange.  People might not like us.  People might look at us funny when we go downtown.  That does not feel good to us.  Most of us want to be liked.  We want to be thought of as normal.  We don’t want to be thought of us as different.
            When we look through the Bible, though, we see a whole lot of the greatest people there who were not liked when they were actually alive.  We see a whole lot of people who were thought of as different.
            That’s especially true when we read the New Testament.  John the Baptist was out in the wilderness wearing clothes made of camels’ hair and eating locusts.  You think people thought of him as normal?  You think people did not look at him funny when he came to town?  He was probably one of the strangest dudes around.  Yet, he was the one who was called by God to prepare the way for our Savior, Jesus Christ.
            How about Paul?  Paul had one of the strangest journeys to faith anyone ever had.  He started out as one of the greatest persecutors of Christians who ever lived.  Then he showed up one day and started telling everyone about this vision he’d had, and how he now believes in Jesus as the Messiah.  You think that made him popular?  For a while there, everyone was opposed to him.  The Jewish leaders hated him for being a traitor, and the Christians did not trust him any farther than they could throw him, because just a few days ago he’d been their worst enemy.
            Even after they got past that, Paul was still different.  Paul was saying Jesus was not just the Savior for the Jews, he was the Savior for everybody.  Paul was saying people did not need to follow the Jewish laws to be saved.  Those are things we take for granted now, because Paul’s views have been accepted as right, but they were really controversial at the time.  Paul was taking a stand that was not popular, a stand that was not the majority view.  Paul was never somebody who was considered normal.  Paul was different.
            And, of course, Jesus himself was different.  Here was this guy, who’d grown up in an ordinary home in an ordinary family, who looked and sounded just like everybody else.  Here was this guy who, as far as we know, went the first thirty years or so of his life just kind of fitting in, being normal, not doing much of anything to call attention to himself.  Then, all at once, he starts going around preaching and teaching and healing people and attracting followers and being called the Son of God.  Once he started doing that, he could never fit in again.  He could never go somewhere and just relax and be himself.  Everywhere he went, he attracted attention.  He was different.
            You and I are supposed to be different, too.  If we’re going to be the people of God, we have to be different.  We cannot claim to follow someone who’s different while we just blend in with the crowd.  We cannot claim to be disciples of someone who’s different while we just go along with everyone else.  If the one we’re following was different, then we need to be different, too.
            But in what way?  After all, there are lots of ways to be different.  Lady Gaga is different.  Casey Anthony is different.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is different.  Being different is not always a good thing.  That’s why Jesus did not just tell us to be different.  Jesus told us to be perfect, just like God is perfect.
            But there’s that problem again.  We hear that, and we think, “That does not make sense.  I cannot be perfect.  I’m not God.  I’m only human.  I’m weak.  Why would Jesus tell me to do something I cannot possibly do?”
            That’s probably what Jesus’ disciples thought, too.  The thing is, though, that Jesus understood completely how weak humans are.  After all, he was surrounded by them.  In fact, when we read the gospels, we can see how he was constantly frustrated at our human flaws and weakness and limitations, including those of his closest disciples.  Still, he told them and us to be perfect, just like God is perfect.  Why would he do that?  What did Jesus really mean when he told us to be perfect like God is perfect?
            Let’s look at our reading from Second Corinthians.  Paul writes about how weak he is, too.  Instead of using it as an excuse, though, Paul says he will brag about his weakness.
            That’s kind of strange, don’t you think?  He’s going to brag about his weakness.  Most of us try to improve the things we’re weak on.  If we cannot improve them, we try to cover them up and hide the.  Yet, Paul says he’s going to brag about them.  What’s that all about.
            Listen to this part.  This is great.  Paul says he asked three times for God to take away his weakness, but God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.  Paul says that’s why his bragging about his weakness.  He says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
            Is that not great?  We’re right.  We cannot be perfect.  Not by ourselves.  The more we try, the more we fail.  The harder we try to be perfect by ourselves, the farther away from perfect we get.
            Jesus does not say, “make yourself perfect”.  That would be impossible.  Jesus says, “be perfect”.  How can we be perfect?  By trusting God.  By having faith in Jesus as our Savior.  Jesus, through his death and resurrection, took the punishment for our sins.  Even though we cannot make ourselves perfect, Jesus’ sacrifice makes us perfect.  When we confess our sins and believe in Jesus as our Savior, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts.  When we admit our weaknesses and acknowledge how much we need God, the power of Christ can take hold of us.  When we admit how weak we are, that’s when we become strong.  We’re not relying on our strength.  We’re relying on God’s strength.
            When we rely on God’s strength, we can live the way Jesus told us to live.  We don’t need to take revenge on people who’ve wronged us, because we’re not relying on our strength, we’re relying on God’s strength.  We can give generously, because we’re not relying on ourselves, we’re relying on God.  We can love everyone, even our enemies, knowing that God will take care of us and reward us.
            The church is different, because the church is perfect.  The church is perfect, not because it’s full of perfect people, but because it is full of weak and imperfect people who rely on God’s strength and God’s power.  When the church relies on God’s strength and God’s power, it will constantly look for ways to show God’s love to all people, and it will enthusiastically find ways to do it.  Then, the church will truly be the people of God.