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Monday, November 28, 2011

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

            So, did you have a happy Thanksgiving?  I did.  I went to visit my parents in Armour, South Dakota, for a few days.  We left early Thursday morning and came back Saturday afternoon.

            What was different about this trip was that I made the conscious decision that I was going to do absolutely nothing that was work-related while I was gone.  In fact, my “no work” zone started Wednesday evening, as soon as I left the community Thanksgiving service in Onida.

            This is the first time in a long time I’ve gone that many consecutive days without doing anything that was related to my work.  Don’t get me wrong—I’ve taken time off in that time.  Most of the time, though, even during my time off, I do a little reading, or a little writing, or a little planning, or something.  If nothing else, I’m at least thinking about what I’m going to do when I get back.

            This time, I did none of that.  It helped that my parents have no computer, and so no internet access.  Still, I decided that I was not going to take my laptop, I was not going to take any books, I was not even going to take a notepad.  I did take my cell phone, but oddly enough, nobody called.  I went nearly three full days without doing anything that was even remotely connected to my work.

            As I was driving back Saturday, I suddenly realized something.  I was looking forward to getting back to work.  I enjoyed my time away, but I had missed my job.  I was eager to get back to it again.

            I’ve written before about how much I love my work as a pastor, and I do.  The thing is that you can’t miss something when you’re surrounded by it all the time.  When you’re surrounded by something all the time, even though you enjoy it, you can start to take it for granted.  You can only miss something when you get away from it for a little while.  In a way, the fact that I missed my job was confirmation of how lucky I am, and how much I really do love the work that I do.

            Whenever we take something we love for granted, we forget how special it is.  That’s true of people, too.  When we take the people we love for granted—our spouse, our children, our friends, our colleagues—we forget how special they are.

            I’m not advocating that we all shirk our responsibilities.  A little time away from what we love, however, can be a good thing.  A little time away from who we love can be a good thing, too.  That time can remind us of how important and special those things and people are, and how lucky we are to have them in our lives.  Once we’re reminded of that, we can then show our appreciation in a much more real way.  It’s a reminder we all need once in a while.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ordinary People, Ordinary Days

Below is the text of the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, November 27, 2011.  The scripture is Luke 1:5-25, 57-80.

            Some of you probably remember the show “Touched By An Angel”.  Every week, these angels would intervene in the life of some ordinary person who was having trouble of some sort.  The angels would appear to be ordinary people for most of the show, but then, at the climax, there’d be this beautiful golden glow surrounding them, and everyone would know they were angels.  The angels would say exactly the right thing to help the person through the tough time, and everything would work out right in the end.
            That, of course, is the Hollywood version of an angel:  an attractive, kindly, nice being who helps us through the rough spots in our lives.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that version, but I don’t think it’s how angels really are.  My reason for saying that is that, whenever we read about someone in the Bible seeing an angel, they’re scared to death.  That’s how Zechariah reacted to the angel Gabriel in our reading today.
            Zechariah and Elizabeth were the parents of John the Baptizer.  John the Baptizer, of course, is the person who let people know that Jesus was coming.  He prepared the way for the Savior.
            We know that now, but Zechariah and Elizabeth did not know it then.  Zechariah was a Jewish priest.  We don’t know a lot about him besides that.  We’re not told that there was anything special about him.  He was apparently a veteran priest, because we’re told that he was “well advanced in years”.  As our story opens, Zechariah is chosen to be the one to offer incense to God in the holy place.  That was quite an honor for a priest, but he was not chosen for any particular reason.  Someone had to do it, and he was just chosen at random.
            He was probably a little nervous before he even went into the holy place.  The holy place was a special place in the Jewish temple.  Only one person was allowed in at a time, and it was only the one who was selected.  The incense offering was a precise ritual that was intended to please God.  A priest only got one shot at it, and he did not want to mess it up for fear of angering God.
            So, Zechariah goes into the temple, and nervously starts offering incense.  All of a sudden, here’s the angel Gabriel standing next to the altar.  Do you blame him for being terrified?  He probably thought he’d made a mistake somehow and was going to be killed for it.
            Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid.  Gabriel tells him that he’s going to have a son.  Not just any son, either.  His son is to be named John, and John is going to be “great in the sight of the Lord…he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.  Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.  And he will…turn the hearts of the…disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
            Zechariah must have been overwhelmed.  Still, he apparently overcame his fear to do the other thing almost everyone in the Bible does when they see an angel.  He raises doubts and questions.  He says to Gabriel, look, my wife and I are both old.  Why should I believe you? 
I don’t know if angels have emotions, but if they do, they must get awfully frustrated sometimes.  They come to give people these messages, and every time they do, people question them.  Gabriel basically says, “Why should you believe me?  Because I’m the angel Gabriel, that’s why you should believe me.  What part of “angel” don’t you understand?  I spend my time in the presence of God.  God gave me this message for you.  That’s why you should believe me.”  Gabriel then says that, because Zechariah did not believe, he won’t be able to talk until this actually happens.
So, Zechariah comes out of the temple, and sure enough, he can’t talk.  People realize something must’ve happened, but they don’t know what, and of course Zechariah cannot tell them.  Time passes, and just as Gabriel said, Zechariah and Elizabeth have a son.  The family wants to name the son Zechariah, after his father, but Elizabeth says no, we’re going to call him John.  Now, since Elizabeth was not present when Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, we assume that Zechariah must have communicated that name to her somehow.  The family cannot understand it, but Zechariah writes down that, in fact, the child’s name is to be John.
Instantly, Zechariah can talk again.  He tells everyone what happened, and everyone’s scared again, wondering what in the world this baby, this “John” is going to be.  They know it’ll be something special, because God is going to be with him.
So, at this point, some of you may be asking “So what?”  I mean, it’s a good story and all, of course.  Given that the Bible is the inspired word of God, we assume nothing is in there for no reason.  Knowing more about what’s in the Bible is always helpful.  Still, just what are we supposed to do with this story?  How is knowing it going to make our lives any better or help us get closer to God?
Well, I think there are a few things we can get out of this story.  The first one is that God sometimes works through ordinary people.  In fact, God almost always works through ordinary people.  Think about all the people in the Christmas story:  Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper, the shepherds, all of them.  They’re all ordinary people.  No one had ever given them a second look.  Yet, they’re the ones God chose to bring about the birth of the Savior of the world.
God uses ordinary people.  That’s important for us to know, because most of us here would consider ourselves ordinary people.  If any of us thinks that, because we’re just ordinary people, God won’t have any particular use for us, we’ve got it exactly wrong.  Not only can God have a use for us, we’re exactly the people God does use.
Second, we never know when God is going to decide to use us.  Zechariah had no clue that an angel was going to talk to him when he went into the temple that day.  He was just doing his job as a priest, doing what he was supposed to do.  Again, that’s pretty much how it happened for all the people in the Christmas story.  They were all just minding their own business, doing what they did, when they suddenly got the chance to serve God.
God comes to us on ordinary days.  That’s important for us to know, too, because most of our days are just ordinary days.  So, the next time you feel like you’re just having an ordinary day, stay alert.  God comes to us, as ordinary people on ordinary days, and gives us the chance to serve God.
Third, God often asks us to do things we don’t think we can do.  Zechariah did not think he could become a father at his age, nor did he think Elizabeth could become a mother.  Mary and Joseph did not think they could be the earthly parents of the Son of God.  Six years ago, I did not think I could become a pastor.  God comes to us, as ordinary people, on ordinary days, and asks us to do things that we think are extraordinary.
Our reaction is usually to doubt and to question.  We don’t think we can do extraordinary things.  We scared of even trying.  We say, how can this happen?  Why should I believe it?  God says, “You can believe it because I’m God.  Trust me.  I’m in control here.  Everything I’m telling you to do will happen the way I’ve told you it will, if you’ll only trust me.”
We don’t understand.  So what do we do?  Do we trust, the way Zechariah and Elizabeth did?  Do we do what God tells us to do, even if we don’t understand what’s going on or why?  Or, do we turn our backs and go our own way?
Each of us has something that God is telling us to do.  God never created anyone without a reason and without a purpose.  That’s true even if we’re just ordinary people.  In fact, it’s especially true if we’re just ordinary people.  There is something God is telling you to do.  There’s something God is telling me to do, too.
We don’t always get to hear what it is directly from an angel.  That’s probably lucky for us, considering how scary angels apparently are.  It may take us some time to figure it out.  Still, there is something God is telling you to do.  There’s something God is telling me to do, too.
If you want to know what it is, here’s what I’d advise you to do:  pray.  I’m not talking about just any prayer, though.  I’m talking about praying specifically for God to give you a chance to serve God.  I can tell you that there’s never been a time when I prayed that way when God did not, within a very short time, provide me with a chance to serve God.
The way was not always the way I’d have chosen.  In fact, sometimes the way was the last thing I wanted to do.  Sometimes the way God gave me a chance to serve scared me.  Sometimes I reacted like Zechariah did, with doubts and questions.  That’s not God’s fault.  God did what I asked.  God gave me a chance to serve God.
God will give each of us chances to serve.  God will come to each of us ordinary people, when we’re having an ordinary day, and give us the chance to serve God. 
When God does that, we may have doubts and questions, like Zechariah did.  That’s okay.  The question is whether we’ll do what Zechariah then did.  The question is whether, even if we don’t feel qualified, and even if we don’t understand, we’ll go ahead and do what God tells us to do.
Do you trust God that much?  Do I?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Don't Worry, Be Thankful

For the third consecutive year, I present this blog post on Thanksgiving Day.

            Today is Thanksgiving Day.  It’s the one day we set aside to think about and be thankful for all we have in our lives.

            Giving thanks is certainly a Biblical concept.  We’re told many times that we should give praise and thanks to God, and there are lots of examples in the bible of people doing just that.  But did you ever wonder why?  Why is it that the Bible tells us we should be thankful to God?

            Well, it’s certainly not for God’s benefit.  God is not so vain as to need to hear our thanks and praise all the time.  God is also not so insecure as to need to know we appreciate all the things God has done for us.  We’re not told to give thanks for God’s benefit.  We’re told to give thanks for our benefit.  We need to be truly thankful to God for all that God has given us.

            There are a lot of reasons why it’s good for us to be thankful, but I think one of the main ones is that it helps us with what Jesus told us in Matthew, Chapter 6:  do not worry about tomorrow.  An attitude of worry is the opposite of an attitude of thankfulness.  Thankfulness looks at what is, and is grateful for it.  Worry looks at what is not, and is fearful of it.

            Worry robs us of any appreciation of the present.  Even if things are going well—in fact, even if things are going better than we could have imagined—we still cannot really enjoy them if we worry.  Rather than being grateful for how things are, we’re constantly thinking about all the things that could happen that would change everything and take everything away from us.  We cannot truly be happy when we worry.

            Thankfulness, the way the Bible intends us to feel it, takes away our worries.  Remember, the Bible does not tell us to just be thankful when we get what we want.  The Bible tells us to be thankful in all circumstances, the good and the bad.  I recognize that it’s not always easy to do that.  But when we can, we can get rid of our worries, because being thankful in all circumstances helps us recognize that God is present no matter what is happening in our lives.  It also helps us recognize that God will be present in the future, regardless of what that future may be.  In fact, God is already present in that future.

            None of us knows what the future may hold.  No matter what it holds, though, we can know that God has already provided for it and taken care of it.  For that, we can be truly thankful.

            Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Moving Beyond the Comfort Zone

            Wanda’s parents gave us a leather recliner last week.  It’s used, but it still looks pretty nice, and it’s very comfortable.  We both very much enjoy it.
What I didn’t realize is that apparently, when you get a new recliner, you also need a new end table to go with it.  So, we bought an end table.  Or, more accurately, we bought a box that had all the parts of an end table in it.  The parts needed to be put together.  As I am the Man of the House, that job fell to me.
Now, Wanda and I have been married twenty-two years, so she knows me pretty well.  One of the things she knows is that the sum of my mechanical ability is pretty much zero.  So naturally enough, before we bought it, Wanda asked “Are you sure you can put this together?”  A very reasonable question.  Again, though, I’m the Man of the House, so naturally enough, I answered, “Of course I can.  Don’t worry about it.”
Saturday afternoon, when Wanda was out of the house, I opened the box to put the new end table together.  Wanda being out of the house was important, because the one thing I learned from my dad about doing anything mechanical is that, if things go wrong, there are certain magic words you have to say to make them go right, and I thought it would be better if Wanda didn’t hear me say those words.  I took the pieces out of the box, along with the instructions, got a couple of tools, and went to work.  I won’t say it all went perfectly, but the mistakes I made were correctable ones, and within a relatively short time, where there had previously been a bunch of miscellaneous pieces of wood and screws, there now stood a fully functioning end table.
Don’t get me wrong.  I fully understand that this was not a major project.  For a lot of people, this would have been the simplest thing in the world.  For me, though, it was a big deal.  I succeeded at doing something that I did not know if I could do.  It was something I thought might be beyond my skill, and was certainly beyond my comfort zone.  I knew there were a lot of other people who’d be better at doing this than I was.  Still, I tried it, and I did it.  In fact I feel pretty good about the fact that I did it.  It gives me confidence that there might be more things like that I can do.
As Christians, there are things God asks us to do.  Sometimes they’re very hard things, but sometimes they’re rather simple things.  At least, they seem like simple things to others.  For us, though, they’re a big deal.  We don’t know if we can do them.  We think they might be beyond our skill.  They’re certainly beyond our comfort zone.  We think there are a lot of people who are better at doing them than we are.  Still, God asks us to try them.  We may not always succeed, but sometimes we will.  When we do, we’ll feel pretty good about the fact that we did.  It’ll give us confidence that there are even more things we can do to serve God.
            As we approach Thanksgiving, think about what God may be asking you to do.  Then, try to do it.  You may not always succeed.  Sometimes, though, you will.  When you do, you’ll feel good about it.  Then, you’ll have the confidence to do still more.  If enough of us do that, we’ll have a parish full of people who are taking chances, getting beyond their comfort zones, and serving God.  Which, when you think about it, is what the people of God are supposed to do

Monday, November 21, 2011

Being Well

The following message was given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, November 20, 2011.  The scripture was Luke 17:11-19.

            This Thursday is Thanksgiving. So, if you’ve been coming to church for a while, you know what the traditional thanksgiving message is.  Thanksgiving Sunday is the Sunday when the pastor complains about how we’ve lost the real meaning of Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving Sunday is when the pastor tells you how on Thanksgiving Day we should be spending the day in prayer, thanking God for all the gifts God has given us, rather than spending the day watching football and eating lots of turkey.
Well, my problem with saying that is that I fully intend to spend a great deal of Thanksgiving Day watching football and eating lots of turkey.  Since you all know what a sports fan I am, there’s really no point in my pretending otherwise.  So, I really cannot give that traditional thanksgiving message.  I had to come up with something else.

Have you ever thought about why we’re supposed to give thanks to God?  I mean, we know we’re supposed to.  Every month, when we have communion, part of our responsive communion liturgy is where the pastor says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”  You respond, “It is right to give our thanks and praise.”  Then the pastor says, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”
So, we know we’re supposed to do it, but why?  Why do we need to say thank you to God?  Is God so sensitive that God needs to hear us say thank you?  I doubt it.  I mean, I’m sure God appreciates it when we say thank you.  I don’t imagine God likes being taken for granted any more than anyone else does.  I think the things we do or don’t do can hurt God, so I think God can be hurt when we don’t acknowledge all the things God does for us.  Still, God’ll get over it.  After all, this is God we’re talking about.  It’s not like God’s going to crawl into the corner and cry because we’ve hurt God’s feelings.
To understand why we’re supposed to give thanks to God, let’s look at our reading from Luke for today.  Jesus is walking down the road.  He enters a village, and there are ten people there suffering from leprosy.  Now, understand that leprosy is a very serious illness.  It’s an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms and legs.  It was not necessarily fatal, but it put you in a position where you could not do any physical work.  Since there were no welfare or disability payments at that time, if you could not work you either begged or died.  So, even though the disease itself was not fatal, it pretty much amounted to the same thing.  It was not a highly contagious disease, but people were scared to death of getting it, and so they would have nothing to do with people who had leprosy.
We’re told that these ten people with leprosy approached Jesus, but they kept their distance.  They did not know how Jesus would react to them.  Since Jesus was usually not traveling alone, they probably did not know how those with Jesus would react to them, either.  Still, they call out to Jesus, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Jesus responds, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
We’re not told what the ten people expected Jesus to do, but I’d guess that this was not it.  Maybe they expected Jesus to lay hands on them.  Maybe they expected Jesus to pray to God.  Maybe they expected Jesus to say some sort of magic incantation, some words in a language that no one could understand.  Jesus did not do any of that.  In fact, as far as they could tell, Jesus did not do anything.  He just said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
They must have really been disappointed.  After all, Jesus was probably their last hope.  No doctor had been able to cure them.  No priest had been able to help them.  They may even have been thinking, “Show ourselves to the priests?  The priests are the ones who declared us unclean in the first place.  They won’t even let us into the temple, because they’re afraid we’ll ruin it for everyone.  Show ourselves to the priests?  The priests probably won’t even talk to us.”
Still, they went off to go to the priests.  On the way, they were healed.  One of them went back to Jesus.  We’re told nothing about the one who came back, other than that he was a foreigner.  He praised God with a loud voice and threw himself at Jesus’ feet, thanking Jesus for healing him.  Jesus tells him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
We don’t know what happened to the other nine.  We’re told all ten were healed.  We assume the other nine probably went to the priests, and were pronounced clean.  We assume then that they went on to live their lives the way they wanted to.
So now, if you’re still awake, you’re thinking, “Wait a minute.  You said this story was going to help us understand why we need to give thanks to God.  How’s it do that?  After all, the nine who did not thank God were healed just the same as the one who did.  Seems like they all got the same thing, the thing they wanted.  It seems like this story says God will do things for us whether we thank God or not.”
Well, yes and no.  It’s true that all ten of them were healed from their leprosy.  In that sense, the same thing happened to each of them.
Here’s where the difference comes, though.  In reference to what happened to the ten, the scripture first says, they were “cleansed”.  Then, it says they were “healed”.  Then, Jesus says that ten were “cleansed”.  At the end of the verses, though, Jesus says to the one who came back, “Your faith has ‘made you well.’”
Your faith has ‘made you well.’  See, it’s one thing to have a physical healing.  That’s important, of course.  Anyone who’s suffering from a serious illness, or who ever has, or who has a loved one who is or has, knows how important physical healing is.  Every Sunday there are people for whom we ask God to bring about physical healing, and it’s important that we ask God to do that.
Still, it’s one thing to be healed physically.  It’s another thing to truly be made well.  To be well means to be healed in body and in mind.  It means that things are pleasing, that they’re good.  It means that everything is in a proper and satisfactory situation.  In short, to be made well means that things are as they should be in every way.
That’s what Jesus was saying to the one who came back to say thank you.  When that one person came back to say thank you to Jesus, he showed that he had faith in Jesus as his Savior.  Jesus told him that because of his faith, he was not only physically healed, he was well.  He was well in every way:  physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  Everything about him was right.  He was who he was supposed to be, he was where he was supposed to be, and he was doing what he was supposed to do.
Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever felt, even if just for a minute or two, that everything was right, that you were who God wanted you to be, that you were exactly where God wanted you to be, and that you were doing exactly what God wanted you to do?  It’s a pretty incredible feeling.  In fact, it’s pretty much the greatest feeling in the world.  To know, in that moment, that you are who God wants you to be, that you are exactly where God wants you to be, and to know you are doing exactly what God wants you to do.  There’s really nothing like it.
That’s what it means to be well.  That’s what the one person who’d had leprosy felt when he came back and thanked Jesus.  That’s how we can feel, too, when we truly give thanks to God.
See, we don’t thank God because God needs to hear our thanks.  We thank God because we need to give God our thanks.  We need to acknowledge that all the good things we have come from God.  We need to recognize that everything we have, everything we are, comes from God.  Without God, we would not have anything.  We would not even have life.  Everything comes from God.
Thanking God is the first step in acknowledging that everything we have comes from God.  Acknowledging that everything we have comes from God is the first step in trusting God.  Trusting God is the first step toward having faith in God.  Having faith in God is what gives us that incredible feeling of knowing that we are who we’re supposed to be, we are where we’re supposed to be, and we are doing what we’re supposed to do.  In other words, having faith in God is what makes us well in every way. 

So, on Thanksgiving Day, go ahead and eat a lot of turkey.  Go ahead and watch some football.  It’s okay.  When you do, though, remember that we don’t put our faith in a turkey.  We cannot be saved by watching football.  Give thanks to God, not just on Thanksgiving Day, but every day.  Acknowledge that everything we have comes from God.  Trust God.  Have faith.  Then, we will all truly be made well.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Deciding to Find a Way

            In my sermon Sunday, I talked about how we are called to be adventurers for Jesus.  There are times when we’d like to take the easy way out, but Jesus did not come here to tell us to do things the easy way.  Jesus tells us we need to be willing to take risks to spread God’s love and God’s word to people.
            Sunday, at our church conference, the people of the Gettysburg church voted to take a risk.  We voted to sell the Christian education building and instead build an addition onto the existing church building.
            Now, the sale is not final yet, and it probably won’t be for a few months.  Still, even if it would somehow fall through, that would not detract from the fact that the people of the Gettysburg church are willing to take a risk to further the mission of the church.  Assuming the sale goes through, there will be much work to do.  We will need to decide what it is, exactly, that we want to build.  We will need to find space for the Sunday school classes and for my office in the interval between when the building is sold and when the addition is built.  We will need to figure out how we are going to pay for what we’re going to build because, while the sale of the Christian education building will give us a good start toward an addition, it will not be enough to pay for it entirely.  There are many decisions that need to be made, and there will be fundraising that will need to be done.
            The thing is, though, that we made this decision knowing all that.  Things may come up that we didn’t expect—it seems like they always do—but, for the most part, the issues have been thought through.  We may not know the exact amount of money we’ll spend, but we have, in Jesus’ words, counted the cost.  We know this addition is not going to happen by itself.  We know we have work to do to make it happen.
            The good news is that, by voting the way they did, the people of the Gettysburg church said they are determined to make it happen.  That means they have agreed to do the work and make the decisions necessary to make their decision a success.  That’s have the battle right there.  I’m reminded of an old saying:  if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way; if you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.  The people of the Gettysburg church have decided that there are going to find a way.
            It won’t be easy, but most things worth doing aren’t easy.  If we all work together, and remember that we are working for the glory of God, we can get it done.  Not only can we get it done, we will get it done.  We are taking a risk to spread the gospel, and I believe God will reward us for it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

            By now, you have probably heard about the child sex abuse scandal involving Penn State University.  I won’t go through all the details here; if you somehow haven’t heard about it, you can go here to get more information.
            It’s a terrible, sad, awful situation, of course.  In addition to criticizing the perpetrator of the deeds, much criticism has been leveled at the Penn State administration and football coaches.  They have been accused of covering up the scandal, or at least of doing nothing to do anything about it.  The accusation is that they were concerned that the university’s football program if these accusations came out, so they tried to make sure the accusations would not come out.
            Much of the criticism is justified, but there’s still something that bothers me about it.  It seems to me that a lot of the criticism has an awfully self-righteous tone to it.  It is implied, and sometimes even stated, that “if I had been in that position, I’d have done something about it.  I certainly wouldn’t have covered it up or not done anything about it like these people did.
            Really?  Are you sure?  Don’t get me wrong—I hope you would have.  I hope I would have, too.  I am in no way trying to rationalize or explain away the failure to act by the Penn State administrators or coaches.  Still, I’m a little bothered by this easy assumption that if you or I had been in that position, we’d have done so much better than the people who were actually in those positions did.
            The reason I say that is that I keep looking at who these people were.  All of them were people who were very highly respected ten days ago.  No one thought any of these people would do anything like this.  There’s the president of a prestigious university.  There’s the athletic director of that university’s highly regarded athletic department.  There’s the head football coach, Joe Paterno, who had been considered the most honorable college football coach in the country until all this came out.
            None of these people are evil, horrible monsters.  They’re people, just like you and me.  In fact, until ten days or so ago, most of them would have been thought of as more honorable than you and me.
            There’s a reason why, when Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer, he included the line “lead us not into temptation.”  Jesus knew that sometimes, when we’re tempted, we fail to resist the temptation.  An alternative translation is “lead us not into a time of testing”, which works just as well.  Sometimes, when we’re tested, we fail the test.  We are human, and we are all subject to human failings.
            Again, this is not intended in any way to justify or defend the actions and inactions of the Penn State administration and coaches.  Still, self-righteousness is a sin, too.  I would suggest that all of us not be quite so quick to assume we’d have handled the situation so much better than these people did.  I hope we would, but I also hope none of us is ever put to the test.

Adventurers for Jesus

The following message was given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 13.  The scriptures were Luke 10:1-12, 17-20 and Joshua 1:1-9.

            Most of you know how much I love to watch sports.  So, you probably think my favorite television program is some sort of sports-related show.  You’re wrong.
My favorite TV show is a British science-fiction program called Doctor Who.  It’s been running for a long time.  Locally, we can get it on BBC America.  I won’t go into a lot of detail about the show, but essentially, the main character, called The Doctor, is an adventurer.  He has a machine that can take him to any place in the universe at any time in the past or future.  He goes to all kinds of strange places, fights various weird monsters, and generally ends up saving the world.  As a viewer, of course, you get to join the Doctor on his adventures.
Watching some else’s adventure on TV can be a lot of fun.  It’s a little different, though, when you’re actually living an adventure yourself.  Adventures can be exciting, but they can also be scary.  When you’re in an adventure, you never know what’s around the next corner.  It could be something terrible, or it could be something wonderful.  There’s no way to know in advance.  The only way to find out is to actually go around the corner and see.  It takes courage to go on an adventure.
As we come to the last message in our sermon series “what is the church”, I want to remind you about something we talked about back in the first message of the series.  We talked about a choice this church needs to make about its future.
We talked about how, in recent years, this church has seen its attendance decline.  That’s just a fact.  The choice involves how we’re going to look at that fact.  We can choose to look at this decline as inevitable.  We can choose to say that the church is slowly dying and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Or, we can say that our past does not rule our future.  We can say that just because the church has been declining in recent years does not mean it has to continue to do so.  We can say that there are all kinds of people in this area who are not going to church anywhere.  Those people need what this church has to offer, they just don’t know it yet.  Therefore, we need to find ways to reach out to those people with God’s love and with God’s word.  We need to find ways to make those people disciples of Jesus Christ, just as Jesus told us to.
I have yet to have anyone in this church tell me they want to make that first choice.  No one has come up to me and said we want to just accept that this church is going to decline and eventually die.  Instead, everyone who’s talked to me about this has said they believe in the future of this church.  Everyone who’s talked to me about this has said they believe this church can grow.
That’s good.  In fact, it’s better than good, it’s vital.  As important as it is, though, that’s only the first step.  See, it’s one thing to say we believe in the future of this church.  It’s one thing to say we believe this church can grow.  The thing is that it’s not going to happen by itself.  It’s only going to happen if we do the things necessary to make it happen.  That means we have to change some of the things we’re doing.  That brings me to the last thing we’re going to talk about in regard to what the church does.  The church goes out and takes risks to bring people to Christ.  In other words, we need to have a spirit of adventure.  The people of God are adventurers for Jesus.
When you look at the history of the Christian church, you can see that this is what we’re called to do.  Jesus was on an adventure every day of his ministry.  He constantly took risks.  He broke the Sabbath laws, he argued with the religious leaders of his time, he became the focal point of a movement that threatened the government.  The apostles were adventurers and risk-takers, too.  Some of them risked their lives, and some of them literally gave their lives, to spread the gospel.
Now, as I said last week, I know there are a lot of people here who do a lot of work for this church.  I’m not trying to imply otherwise.  I know a lot of you are very dedicated to this church, and I appreciate that. 

Even so, though, when’s the last time any of us, myself included, really took a risk to spread the gospel?  It seems to me that’s a question we need to answer when we look at the future of this church.  What adventures are we willing to go on to spread the gospel?  Do we have the courage to take risks to make disciples of Jesus Christ?
Those are not easy questions.  They’re not easy for me, and I’m sure they’re not easy for some of you.  A lot of us are not, by nature, either adventurers or risk-takers.  I’m not.  Not only is an adventure scary, not only does it take courage, it’s also hard work.  When I watch Doctor Who, or when we watch any sort of adventure show, you never see the hero just kind of lounging around, relaxing and taking it easy.  If he ever does, it lasts about a minute and a half, just long enough for him to catch his breath before something happens to start up the adventure again.
In our reading from Luke, Jesus sent the seventy people out on an adventure.  He sent them out with no weapons, with no money, without even any luggage.  He sent no one out in advance to tell people they were coming.  He told them they would not always receive a warm welcome.  In fact, he told them they were like lambs being sent out into the midst of wolves.  They had nothing to work with, nothing but a message of truth and love.
We’re not told how those seventy people felt when they left, but I don’t think it takes too much imagination to figure it out.  These people were taking a pretty big risk.  I think they were probably pretty scared.  I sure would be.  I’d be scared to death.  I’d be looking for any excuse to get out of doing that, to stay home, or to stay with Jesus, or to stay anywhere where it would be safe.
We’re all tempted, at times, to play it safe.  Playing it safe is almost always the easiest thing to do.  The easiest thing, though, is not necessarily the best thing.  There’s an old saying that a boat is safe when it’s tied to the dock, but that’s not what a boat is for.  A boat only fulfills it’s purpose when it’s out there, putting itself at risk.

As Christians, we only fulfill our purpose when we’re out there, putting ourselves at risk.  Jesus did not come to this world to play it safe.  Jesus did not come to this world to tell his followers to play it safe, either.  Jesus sent his followers out on an adventure.  The adventure started two thousand years ago, and it’s not over yet.

Adventures are hard work.  Adventures are risky.  The easier thing is always to do nothing.  The easier thing is to just stay where we are, to just do what we’ve done, to just be who we’ve been.  That’s the easy thing, but it’s usually not the best thing.  It’s especially not the best thing if you don’t like the direction in which you’re headed.  Decline is not inevitable, but it is if we do nothing about it.  If we continue to do the things we’ve done, we’ll continue to go in the same direction we’re going.  The direction will only change if we change.  The direction will only change if we do the hard work, take the risks and go on an adventure for Jesus.

Adventures are not easy.  Adventures have tremendous rewards, though.  Doctor Who saves the world in pretty much every episode.  Jesus, in his adventure, and in his way, saved the world, too.  The people Jesus sent out played a part in that.  When the seventy went out on their adventure and took their risks, they returned with joy.  Even the demons submitted to them.  Jesus said he watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.

Jesus is sending us out now.  Jesus is sending us out without weapons, without money, without anything.  When we go, we don’t know what kind of a reception we’re going to get.  We may not always get a warm welcome.  Jesus is sending us on an adventure.  Jesus is sending us out to the people of this community and this area with nothing but a message of truth and love.

Note one thing, though.  We are not sent out alone.  Jesus did not send the seventy out alone.  He sent them in pairs, so they’d have each other to rely on.  We, too, can rely on each other as we go out on adventures for Jesus.

That’s not all.  Look at our reading from Joshua.  God was sending Joshua out on an adventure.  He was going to do what Moses could not do, lead the people into the promised land.  He had big shoes to fill.  He was scared.  Three times in those verses, God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous.  This was not just idle talk.  God gave Joshua a reason to be strong and courageous.  God said, “I will be with you.  I will never fail you or forsake you...the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

If this church is serious about its future, if we really mean it when we say we believe this church can grow, we need to get out there on our adventure for Jesus.  Our ship needs to leave the dock.  We need to go out there and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We need to go out there and bring God’s word and God’s love to the people of this area to all the people who need it, whether they know it or not.

I’ve said before that I can see a day when there are a hundred, a hundred twenty-five, a hundred fifty people worshipping regularly in this church.  I firmly believe that can happen.  In fact, I believe it will happen.  It will only happen, though, if we’re willing to go out and do what’s necessary to make it happen.  It will only happen if we’re willing to take risks.  It will only happen if we’re willing to go on an adventure for Jesus Christ.
Adventures are exciting, but they’re not easy.  They take courage.  We can have that courage, knowing that we are not alone.  We have each other, and we have the Lord our God.  God will never fail us nor forsake us.  We can be bold and courageous, we can go on our adventure for Jesus, knowing that when we do, God will always be there.

Are You Serious?

Below is the sermon from the Oahe Manor communion service given on Thursday, November 10, 2011.  The scripture was Joshua 23:1-3, 14-25.

            I find this a really fascinating story.  Joshua basically tells the people of Israel, “My family and I are going to serve God.  How about you?”  The people say, “Yeah, that’s for us.  We’re going to serve God, too.”  Joshua responds, “No, you’re not.  You may think you will, but you won’t.  You’ll fall away from God.”  The people say, “No, really, we’re going to serve God.  Yeah, we’ve fallen away in the past, but we really mean it this time.”  So Joshua says, “Okay, but you better be ready to live that way, because if you don’t, there are going to be serious consequences.”
            Those of you who know the Old Testament, of course, know that the people did not live that way.  They fell away from God.  Sure enough, there were serious consequences.
            You know that thing in the Ten Commandments about not taking the name of the Lord in vain?  We think that talks about using cuss words, but it really does not.  This is what it really means.  It means that when we swear to God that we’re going to do something, we’d better follow through on it.  God takes that kind of vow seriously, and when we don’t live up to it, there are going to be serious consequences.
            That’s kind of scary, when you think about it.  Most likely, we’ve all taken vows before God.  If you went through confirmation class, or if you went through a believers’ baptism, you took vows before God.  If you got married in a church, you took vows before God.  If you had kids who were baptized, you took vows before God.  As a pastor, of course, I’ve taken some more vows before God.  Some of you have also probably taken some more vows before God, too, either publicly or privately.  It’s not something we should ever take lightly.
            The thing is, or course, that when we take a vow before God, it’s not enough for us just to mean it at the time.  We don’t know, but I think, in our story from Joshua, that the people of Israel meant it at the time.  I don’t think they were intentionally lying when they said they were going to serve God.  It’s just that, as time went on, they forgot.  They started making excuses for themselves.  They told themselves it would be okay for them to slack off a little.  Of course, once we start making excuses for ourselves, it’s a slippery slope.  We excuse ourselves once, and then we do it again, and then we do it again, and then we stop even bothering to make excuses.  We just do what we want to do.
            We have to start by meaning it at the time, but that, in and of itself, is not going to carry us through.  When we take a vow before God, we need to re-take that vow every day.  We need to affirm our decision to serve God every day.  Sometimes, if we’re really in a tough spot, we might have to affirm it several times a day.  We have to keep deciding, over and over, that we’re going to serve God, no matter what the circumstances are.
            That’s where the people of Israel failed.  That’s where we often fail, too.  Making that initial decision is an important first step, but it’s only the first step.  What’s really important is what we do in the second step, and the third step, and all those steps in-between.
            Now, understand that when we talk about living up to our vows before God, that God is not expecting perfection from us.  God knows how flawed and imperfect we are.  God knows it better than we do, because God created us.  God is not expecting us to never make mistakes.  What God does expect is that each of us does the best we can.  What God also expects is that, when we do make mistakes, we acknowledge those mistakes, ask forgiveness for them, and do whatever we can to undo the damage caused by those mistakes.  Finally, God expects us to reaffirm our commitment to serve God, and go back out and start doing the best we can again.
            You know, when you read the Old Testament, you see a cycle that repeats itself over and over again.  The people of Israel vow to serve God.  They fall away.  Bad things happen to them.  They pray to God to rescue them.  God rescues them.  They ask God to forgive them.  They vow to serve God.  They fall away.  This happens in the Old Testament over and over again.
            When you think about it, that’s often the cycle of our lives.  We vow to serve God.  We fall away.  Bad things happen to us.  We pray to God to rescue us.  God rescues us.  We ask God to forgive us.  We vow to serve God.  We fall away.  It happens in our lives over and over again.
            Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that every time something bad happens, it’s because we’ve fallen away from God.  I don’t believe that.  Bad things happen to us for a lot of reasons, some of which we don’t understand at all.  It is true, though, that our actions have consequences, and that we have to deal with those consequences.
            I don’t know where you are on the cycle today.  If you’ve fallen away from God, though, take this time of Holy Communion today to come back to God.  Ask God to forgive you, and vow to serve God again.  God is waiting for each of us to do exactly that.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

We Don't Get to Stand Still

The following article appeared in the November issue of the Wheatland Parish newsletter:

            One of the joys of serving this parish is making the drive from Gettysburg to Agar to Onida and back again.  It’s such a beautiful drive.  One of the best things about it has been watching the crops grow and mature and, now, watching how the harvest is progressing.  The scenery is never quite the same from one trip to the next.
Because of that, it seems to be that those of us who live in rural areas should have a special understanding of how change is a part of life.  We see change every day around here.  The crops go through various stages of development.  So does the livestock.  So do the pheasants and the deer and all the other game animals and birds.  Everywhere we look, we see change.
The church is always changing, too.  It may not happen every day, but over time, it does.  If you could somehow walk into a church service from a hundred years ago, you’d see a lot of changes.  For one thing, the men would all be wearing coats and ties and the women would all be wearing dresses.  Not only would there be no overhead projection system, there’d be no sound system.  There probably would not even be electric lights, at least not if the church service took place in this area.  While some of the hymns might still be familiar, at least if you know traditional hymns, many would not be.  I’ve only scratched the surface here; there have been a lot of other changes in the church over the years, too.
Things will continue to change, too, because that’s simply the way of the world.  As I’ve said before, we’re always either moving forward or we’re moving backward, because we’re never allowed to stand still.  There have been times in my life I’ve wished it wasn’t that way, times when I really liked how things were and wished they could just stay that way forever, but that’s just the way it is.  If we’re going to make our way in the world, we have to be able to make changes.  If we don’t, we’ll discover that changes are being made for us, and they won’t be changes we’ll like very much.
I don’t know exactly what that means for this parish.  It’s not my decision to make, anyway.  A pastor’s role is not to force change on a congregation against its will.  That’s not even possible, not really.  The pastor’s role is to help the congregation make the changes that it agrees need to be made in order to be better able to serve God and bring God’s love to its community.  Those changes may not be the same in each church, nor do they have to be.  Onida may see certain needs, Agar may see others, and Gettysburg may see still others.  Each church needs to find the best way to serve God in its specific community.
The landscape of my drive within this parish is changing.  Our parish itself is changing, too.  That’s okay.  In fact, it’s inevitable.  Let’s not regret that or try to fight it.  Instead, let’s meet it enthusiastically, so that we can be in control of the changes we make and make them in ways that will help us serve God as well as we can.