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Tuesday, March 27, 2012


            I don’t know about you, but I always get impatient at this time of year.  It’s kind of spring, but it’s not really spring yet.  The weather is warmer, but it’s not really warm yet.  It’s spring training, but it’s not really baseball season yet.  We’re so close to all these things, but we don’t quite have them yet.  There’s still more cool weather to endure.  There’s still more training the players have to do.  The things I want are almost here, but they’re still not here.  I’d like to skip this part and get to what I really want, but I can’t.

            It struck me that we feel that same way about Lent a lot of times.  Nobody looks forward to Lent.  What we really want is to skip right over Lent and get to Easter.  We want the joy that comes with knowing that Jesus was raised from the dead.  We don’t want to focus on the suffering and pain that Jesus endured.  We don’t want to focus on the training we still have to do.

            We’d like to skip over this part, but we can’t.  Not if we want Easter to really have meaning, anyway.  If Jesus had not endured the pain and suffering that came with the cross, his sacrifice would’ve been meaningless.  It would not even have been a sacrifice, really.  If Jesus had just been miraculously taken up to heaven right after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, what would’ve been the sacrifice in that?  There would be no meaningful way in which Jesus had taken the punishment for our sins, because there would’ve been no punishment.

            In a similar way, if we skip over the training we have to do, Easter really does not have any meaning, either.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that we have to earn our way into heaven.  We could never do that, because we could never be good enough to “belong” in heaven.  Still, if we take seriously the gift of salvation Jesus gave us, we need to follow Jesus.  That means doing what Jesus said to do—loving God and loving others.  We may do that to a certain extent, but we all can and should get better at it.  There’s no meaningful way in which we’ve accepted the gift of salvation from Jesus if we do not then follow Jesus.

            As the song says, the waiting is the hardest part.  When God asks us to wait, though, there are reasons why.  The cycles of nature are part of God’s plan, and each part of each cycle is important.  The cycles of the church year are part of God’s plan, too, and each part of each cycle there is important, too.  It might be more fun to skip over Lent and go to Easter.  If we did, though, Easter would not have the meaning for us that it does.

            Short-cuts are tempting, but they rarely are the best plan.  Instead of wishing we could skip Lent, let’s take what’s left of this season to appreciate the sacrifice Jesus made for us and to find ways we can better love God and love others.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Doing What We Don't Want to Do

Below is the text of the message given in the evening Lent service in Gettysburg on March 21 and in Onida on March 25.  The scripture is Matthew 26:36-45.

                In these Lent services, we’ve been talking about our reluctance to follow Jesus all the way.  We’ve talked about how we like our lives the way they are.  We’ve talked about the risks involved in following Jesus all the way.  We’ve talked about how we really are not sure we can trust God enough to give up everything and follow Jesus.  We say we want to follow Jesus, and on some level we do.  It’s just really hard for us to follow him all the way, because we know that “all the way” leads to the cross.  None of us really wants the cross.
Maybe it can make us feel a little better to realize that Jesus really did not want go all the way, either.  Jesus knew that “all the way” lead to the cross, too.  Jesus did not really want the cross any more than you or I do.
In our reading from Matthew, we read Jesus’ prayer.  This was the night that Jesus was arrested.  In fact, praying like this was the last thing Jesus did before they came and arrested him.
Jesus knew what was going to happen to him.  He knew the torture he was going to get.  He knew about the beatings and the whippings that were coming.  He knew all the people he’d called his friends were going to disown him.  Even the ones who’d been with him for years and were closest to him we’re going to going to deny even knowing him.  He knew he was going be crucified.  Nails were going to be driven through him, he was going to be hung on a cross, and he was going to be abandoned, left to die.
Jesus did not want to go through that.  No one in their right mind would want to go through that.
How tempted do you think Jesus was to not go through with it?  He could have, you know.  When it came right down to it, the Roman authorities, Pilate and Herod and the rest, really did not want to kill Jesus.  He could’ve avoided death.  He could’ve backed down, apologized, asked for forgiveness.  He could’ve admitted that the Jewish authorities were right and pledged loyalty to them and their interpretation of God.  It would’ve been easy for him to do.
Maybe you’re thinking, “But wait a minute.  How could he have done that?  He was Jesus.  He was the divine Son of God.  He had to do what he did.”  Well, I don’t think so.  After all, Jesus was the divine Son of God, but he was also fully human.  That means he was subject to all the same temptations we are.  That means he had the ability to choose what he was going to do.  He had the ability to say no to God the Father if he had chosen to do so.
That’s why what Jesus went through in the garden of Gethsemane was so hard.  That’s why he spent so much time praying about it.  The version of this in the gospel of Luke says Jesus was praying so hard he started sweating, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.  That’s where the phrase “sweating blood” comes from, when Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane right before he was arrested.
Jesus knew what he was supposed to do.  Jesus also knew what was going to happen to him if he did it.  Jesus did not want to disobey God the Father, but Jesus also did not want to be tortured and killed.  He desperately wanted to avoid having to make that choice.
Which means that, in this respect, Jesus was just like you and me.  Most of the time, we know what we’re supposed to do.  We know we’re supposed to follow Jesus Christ.  We know we’re supposed to follow him all the way, even if that means following him to the cross.
We really don’t want to, though.  We don’t want to follow all the way to the cross.  We don’t want to have to face the cost of following Jesus that far.
So, a lot of times, we pray what Jesus prayed.  We pray for some other way.  We pray for some way we can obey God without paying the price.  We pray for God’s will to be done in some way that does not involve a cost to us.
It’s okay to pray that.  Jesus prayed it.  Jesus prayed, “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  Jesus was praying for God the Father to not make him go through with this.  Jesus was praying for God the Father to find some other way, any other way, anything that would let Jesus avoid the suffering and death that he knew was coming.
Ultimately, though, Jesus prayed the words that are the key to his decision.  Many of you know them.  Jesus prayed, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
That’s what we pray every time we pray the Lord’s prayer.  We pray, “Thy will be done.”  Do we really mean it?  Are we really willing to surrender our will to God’s will?  Or is it just something we say automatically, because we think we’re supposed to, without really thinking about what it means?
Jesus meant it.  We know Jesus meant it because of what he did.  Jesus allowed himself to be arrested.  He allowed himself to be tortured.  He allowed himself to be beaten and whipped.  He allowed them to pound nails through him and hang him on a cross.  He allowed himself to die, abandoned and alone.
He did not have to.  He could’ve backed down.  He could’ve taken the easy way out.  He had all kinds of chances to do it.  He could’ve backed down when he was went in front of the high priest Caiaphas.  He could’ve backed down when he was brought in front of the Roman governor Pilate.  He could’ve backed down when he was brought before King Herod.  He did not do it.  He saw it through.  Jesus followed God’s will all the way to the cross.  He did it because he really meant it when he said he wanted the will of God the Father to be done, rather than his own will to be done.
“Thy will be done” is an easy thing to say.  It’s not an easy thing to mean.  It’s an even harder thing to do.  Jesus knows that, because he experienced it himself on this earth.  Jesus understands why we struggle with it, because he struggled with it, too.
Ultimately, though, Jesus won his struggle.  Jesus was able to put God’s will ahead of his own.  That’s what Jesus asks us to do, too.  That’s what following Jesus all the way to the cross means.  It means that we’re willing to do what God wants us to do, no matter what it is, no matter where it leads, even if it leads us to the last place we want to go.
Jesus won his struggle.  Jesus wants to help us with our struggle, too.  If we trust him, if we rely on him, and if we have enough faith to believe that God’s will is better than ours, we can win our struggle, too.  We can follow God wherever God leads us.  We can say, and truly mean, “Thy will be done.”

Our Heads and Our Hearts

Below is the message given at the ecumenical service at Oahe Manor Sunday, March 25, 2012.  The scripture is John 12:1-8.               

                Did you ever wonder why this story is in the Bible?  It’s not really necessary to the plot of the gospel of John.  In fact, in some ways, this passage seems kind of thrown in.  Right before it, we’re told about how the Jewish authorities are plotting to kill Jesus and speculating as to whether he’ll dare to go to Jerusalem for Passover.  Right after it, we’re told about some more plotting by the Jewish authorities.  After that comes the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  If this story had been left out of the Bible, we never would’ve known the difference.  Yet, when John wrote his gospel, he went out of his way to include this little story about Jesus having dinner with his friends, and about a woman washing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and drying them with her hair.  Why do you suppose he did that?
Well, I don’t know the whole answer, but I have an idea for part of it.  Think about this:  after this act is described, we’re told about Judas’ reaction to it.  He said basically, that Mary had wasted that perfume, that it could have been sold for a lot of money and that the money could’ve been given to the poor.  Now, we’re also told that Judas did not really care about the poor, and that he was a thief, but I’m guessing that a lot of people who heard him say that probably agreed with him.  They probably thought, “You know, he’s right.  That perfume was worth a lot of money.  She could’ve done a lot of good with that.  Why waste it in a way that won’t make any difference to anybody?”
In fact, that might be what you or I would’ve said.  After all, most of us like to think of ourselves as practical, sensible people.  We don’t like to see things wasted.  I could see myself agreeing with Judas, at least to some extent.  I could see myself agreeing that what Mary did was not a very practical thing to do.

Maybe one of the reasons this story is in the Bible is as an example to us that sometimes we can carry this whole idea of always being sensible and practical too far.  Not that there’s anything wrong with being sensible and practical, but it’s not our main purpose in life. 

When you think about it, there’s an awful lot about what God does that’s not sensible or practical, at least by our standards.  I’m really not sure what sense it made for God to create us in the first place, when you come right down to it.  Then, too, look at God’s plan for salvation for us.  This one carpenter from Nazareth is going to walk around, spend a few years teaching, preaching, and healing, eventually get arrested and killed, and that’s going to change the world forever and give the chance for salvation to all humanity.  Does that sound like a sensible, practical plan to you?  Those are just a couple of examples.  We could think of a lot more.
Again, I’m not saying we should not use our heads, but I’m saying we should use our hearts, too.  That’s what Mary did:  she used her heart.  When Mary went to get that perfume, she did not think “Is this practical?”  She did not think “Will this really make a difference?”  She saw the Savior, she wanted to do something for him, and she did what may have been the only thing she could do.
And you know, maybe she did make a difference.  After all, think about what must’ve been going on in Jesus’ mind at this time.  This was “six days before the Passover”.  In other words, this was less than a week before Jesus was going to be killed.  Jesus knew what was going to happen to him.  He knew he would have the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  He also knew that would be followed by his arrest, his trials, his beating and whipping, and eventually his death.
I have to think this act of love from Mary helped him.  I have to think that this wonderful gift Mary gave him, this demonstration of her love for her Savior, helped strengthen him a little, and helped make it easier for Jesus to face what was coming.
Remember, too, how it seemed like, even though Jesus tried to tell people what was going to happen, nobody understood it?  Maybe Mary did.  Not totally, and not in her head.  She could not have explained it to anyone.  But in her heart, maybe she did understand, at least a little.  If nothing else, she understood that the Savior was hurting, that something was really bothering him, and that she needed to do something to help.  So she did.
I think there’s a lesson there for us.  God does not just speak to our heads.  God speaks to our hearts, too.  God helps us see when people are hurting.  When we see that, we’re expected us to do something.  When we think “There’s nothing we can do”, we’re still expected to do something.  If we cannot change the person’s situation, maybe we can help them through it.  At the very least, we can let them know that we care, and that they don’t have to go through it alone.
There are hurting people all around us.  There are hurting people all over the world.  There are hurting people in our country and in our state.  There are hurting people in our community.  There are hurting people right here in Oahe Manor.  In fact, there may be hurting people in this room today.
We need to follow Mary’s example.  We need to open up our hearts.  We need to hear God speaking to our hearts.  Then, we need to act on what God is saying.  We need to not let our heads make excuses for us to not act on what God is saying to our hearts.
God is speaking to our hearts.  We need to listen.

We Are Not Alone

Below is the text of the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 25, 2012.  The scripture is John 1:29-37.

            Today we close out our sermon series on selection Sundays with the story of the selection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
            It may seem odd to talk about Jesus having been selected by God.  After all, Jesus is God.  That’s what we mean when we talk about the trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Not only that, but Jesus—God the Son—was with God the Father from the beginning of time.  That’s what John means when he says “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. “  Jesus, God the Son, was with God the Father at the creation.  So, how can we talk about Jesus having been selected by God?
            Well, what we’re talking about is Jesus when he was on earth.  Now, while Jesus was on earth, he was still God the Son.  He was still fully divine.  But he was also fully human.  Jesus was as human as you and I are.  He ate, he slept, he laughed, he cried, he did all the things we do and felt all the things we feel.  Because of that, it’s appropriate to say that Jesus, being fully human, needed to be selected by God just like we all do.  It’s also appropriate to say that Jesus needed to respond to that selection, just like we all do.
            In our story today, we heard about the role John the Baptizer played in Jesus’ selection.  John the Baptizer, also called John the Baptist, was the one sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus.  He’d been selected by God, too.  What he was selected to do was let people know the Savior, Jesus was coming.  He was trying to prepare the way, to get people ready for what was going to happen.  One of the ways he did that was through baptizing people.
            In our Bible reading, we hear what happened when John saw Jesus coming to be baptized.  He saw the Holy Spirit come onto Jesus and instantly knew this was the Son of God, the Savior he’d been told to prepare the way for.  He instantly said so, and said so to anyone who’d listen.
            As we’ve looked at various selection stories in the Bible, we’ve mostly focused on God’s role in selecting us and how we learn of that selection.  We’ve talked about how, in the case of Moses and Joshua, God came to where they were and told them what they were supposed to do.  In Isaiah’s case, God brought Isaiah to where God was but still talked to him directly, telling him what he was supposed to do.  With Paul, God the Son talked to him, but did not give him a specific task.  Instead, Paul was filled with God the Holy Spirit, and followed where the Holy Spirit led him.
            When we look at Jesus’ selection story, though, we learn that there’s another aspect to our selection.  Obviously, God still plays an important role.  God is the one doing the selecting and letting us know what to do.  When we look at Jesus’ selection, and when we look at John the Baptizer’s role in it, though, we see something else.  We see that other people also play a role in our selection.  John the Baptizer was the one who proclaimed, for everyone to hear, that Jesus was the Savior, the Son of God.
            What that did was two things.  One of them is that it gave Jesus credibility.  It let people know, without Jesus having to tell them, exactly who Jesus was.  It may sound strange to say that Jesus needed someone to give him credibility, but remember, at this time, Jesus had not started his ministry yet.  People thought of him as just an ordinary guy.  There had been no miracles, no healing, none of that sort of thing yet.  Jesus had not acquired any disciples yet.  Nobody was following Jesus at this point and he’d not given them any reason to.  If Jesus had gone around telling people he was the divine Son of God, nobody would’ve believed him.  In fact, they’d have probably thought he was nuts.
            John the Baptizer, though, was someone who was well-known.  Now, some people thought he was nuts, too.  After all, he was the guy who was out in the wilderness eating locusts.  Still, there were quite a few people who believed him.  He’d attracted quite a following by then.  In fact, we’re told that, for two of John’s followers, John’s statement about Jesus was all they needed to hear.  They immediately turned and followed Jesus.
            I think there’s something else John’s statement did, though.  John statement did not just let other people know who Jesus was.  I think John’s statement also confirmed to Jesus who Jesus was and what he was supposed to do.
            Now, again, that may sound like a strange thing to say. After all, we’re talking about Jesus, the Savior, the divine Son of God.  How could Jesus not have known who he was and what he was supposed to do?
            Well, I think he did know.  Here’s the thing, though.  If you think about all the selection stories we’ve looked at in this series, there’s one thing the people who were selected had in common.  Each of them was scared.  Tbey were scared of what they were called to do.  They were scared of how people would react to them.  They were scared of whether they actually had the ability to do it.  They were scared of what would happen to them if they tried.
            It seems to me that Jesus was probably scared, too.  Again, while Jesus walked the earth, he felt all the things we feel.  One of the things we feel is fear.  In fact, that’s one of the biggest things we feel.  Jesus would not have been fully human if he had not felt fear, too.  What do we need when we’re scared?  We need encouragement.  So, when Jesus was scared of doing what he’d been selected to do, he needed some encouragement, just like we do.  He needed to hear someone, someone who he trusted and wbo believed in him, tell him that he really had been selected for this job, and that he really could do it.
            As we think of what we’ve been selected for, and as we follow where the Holy Spirit leads us, that’s what we need, too.  We need to have our selection confirmed by others.  We need to hear someone, someone we trust, someone who believes in us, tell us we really have been selected, and that we really can do what we’ve been selected by God to do it.
            We all have times when we struggle with our selection by God.  We all struggle with having the courage to actually fully commit ourselves to God.  We struggle with having the confidence to do what we’ve been selected to do.  Whether it’s a lack of trust in God, a lack of belief in ourselves, or something else, we struggle with actually going all the way with God and doing what God has selected us to do.
            That’s why God puts other people in our lives.  Remember back in Genesis, where God says it’s not good for humans to be alone?  This is one of the reasons why.  It was not just a coincidence that John the Baptizer was part of Jesus’ life.  God the Father put John the Baptizer in Jesus’ life for reasons.  God puts other people in our lives for reasons.  God puts us in other people’s lives for reasons, too.
            We cannot do what we were selected by God to do by ourselves.  Even Jesus did not try to do what he came to earth to do by himself.  Before he did any ministry on earth, Jesus received confirmation of his selection by John the Baptizer.  Then, still before he did any ministry on earth, Jesus went and found some friends, the disciples, to travel with him and to help him.  It was not until Jesus had done that that Jesus actually started his earthly ministry.
You and I have been selected by God to do something.  No matter who we are, no matter what stage of life we’re in, we’ve been selected by God to do something.  But we have not been selected to do it by ourselves.  We need other people.  We need other people to confirm our selection to us, to encourage us, and to help us as we do what we’ve been selected to do.
God has put other people in our lives for reasons.  Since God has done that, let’s listen to them.  Let’s get encouragement and help from them.  Then, let’s go out and do whatever it is that God has selected us to do.
            God puts people in our lives to do that.  In the years before I decided to become a pastor, I had several people tell me they thought I should do it.  The first time or two I heard it, I sloughed it off.  But I kept hearing it.   I heard it from people who had no reason to say it other than that they were serious about it.  The actual selection still came from God, but these people who God had put in my life were the ones who helped me come to really hear the selection, really understand the selection, and really believe that I could do what I needed to do to accept that selection.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Yesterday and Today

            I was visiting my parents recently.  As I sometimes do when I visit them, I sat down at the piano and started playing and singing some hymns.  As I was doing that, my mom said something to the effect of, “I love hearing these hymns.  It reminds me of going to church when I was young.”
            The reason that struck me so much is that my mom is 86 years old.  She was young in the 1930s.  Yet, many of those hymns are hymns that remain in the United Methodist hymnal.  Not all of them, of course.  There have been some changes to the hymnal over the years, and there have been some supplemental hymnals published.  Still, in many United Methodist churches, you’ll hear the same hymns that were sung in church seventy and eighty years ago.
            Now, the fact that these hymns are seventy or more years old does not automatically make them bad.  I love a lot of them myself.  Still, name another thing in our society that has stayed the same over seventy or eighty years.  There may be some, but it’s a pretty short list. 
Eighty years ago, not only was there no internet, a lot of places didn’t even have telephones.  If you wanted to communicate with someone over a distance, you wrote a letter, which might take several days to get where it was supposed to go.  Eighty years ago, not only was airplane travel still a novelty, many people still rode horses to get where they wanted to go.  And, of course, the music of eighty years ago was quite different from the music of today.
            It may be nice to feel one is lending stability to an unstable world.  Still, for many people, singing the hymns of eighty years ago in church is as foreign as riding a horse to get to church.  It’s not that it would be wrong, exactly.  It’s just that it would seem like a really unusual thing to do.
            While I was visiting my parents, my mom told me something else, something I don’t remember hearing before.  She said that when my grandfather was a pastor in Youngstown, Ohio, back in the 1920s, he would sometimes arrange to have Charlie Chaplin movies shown in the church to help draw a crowd for services.  For those of you too young to know, Charlie Chaplin was the most famous movie comedian of his day.  So, in other words, what my grandfather was doing was using what was popular at the time in order to get people to church so he could share God’s word and God’s love with them.
            That, in turn, reminded me of what people like Martin Luther and Charles Wesley used to do to write hymns.  They would take tunes that were popular in their time and put Christian words to them.  Again, they were using what was popular the time so they could share God’s word and God’s love with them.
            Sometimes we like to think of “contemporary” worship services as something new and different.  As we read in Ecclesiastes, though, there really is nothing new under the sun.  My grandfather was doing a contemporary worship service in the 1920s.  It looked different from what we do today because the times are different today, but the principle was the same.  Start with where people are and with things that are familiar to them and use those things to share God’s word and God’s love with them.
            There is absolutely nothing wrong with the hymns that were popular in the 1920s and the 1930s.  I’m not saying we should get rid of them entirely.  The message they have is still a message that we need.  However, using what was popular in the 1920s to communicate with people in 2012 will seem as unusual to them as would riding a horse to church in 2012.  As the churches of our parish move forward, let’s use what’s popular today to reach the people of today.  Let’s start where people are and use what’s familiar to them to share God’s word and God’s love with them.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Indispensible Man

            There’s an old joke about a guy who’s trying to get out of jury duty.  He tells the judge that he can’t be on the jury because he can’t take that much time away from his work.  The judge says, “Can’t they get along without you at work for a few days?”  And the guy says, “Well, sure they can, but I don’t want them to know that.”
            This joke came to mind because this spring, I’m going to be gone a lot.  I was already gone last week for three days of provisional elders’ training.  I’ll be gone twice this week, once for a regional ministry team meeting and once for a Conference Finance Committee Meeting.  I’ll be gone in April for School of Ministry.  I’ll be gone for a couple of days in May for an ordinands’ retreat.  Then in June comes Annual Conference.
            It’s not that any of those things I’m gone for are bad things.  In fact, they’re all good things.  Still, the fact is that they take me out of the parish.  That means there are some things that I would do if I was here that I won’t be able to do.  Those things will either have to be done by someone else or they won’t be done at all.  I don’t mean this to sound like a complaint.  It really doesn’t matter whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s just the way it is.
            The main thing that I won’t be able to do, at least to the extent I’d like to, is visitation to the sick and to shut-ins.  This is not because such visitation is not important.  On the contrary, Wanda and I both think it’s very important.  Not only that, it’s something we both really like to do.  The reason visitation is the thing that probably won’t get done, at least not as much as we’d like it to, is that, while it is very important, it is not as urgent, at least outside of an emergency.
            Let me explain what I mean by that.  There are certain things in a pastor’s schedule that have to be done in certain timeframes.  The bulletin has to be ready every Sunday.  So does the sermon.  During Lent, when we have a mid-week service in Gettysburg, a bulletin and a sermon also have to be ready on Wednesday.  The newsletter has to be done at the first of every month.  There are certain meetings that need to occur at certain times.  Again, this is not meant to sound like a complaint, nor does it matter whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s just the way it is.
            There are other things in a pastor’s schedule that, while they are still important, do not have a deadline to them.  Those things get fit in wherever and whenever time permits.  When time does not permit, they get dropped.  Unfortunately, outside of an emergency visitation tends to fall into that category.  Again, this is not because it is unimportant.  Wanda and I think it’s very important.  It’s just that it has no specific deadline.  If we don’t visit someone today we can, outside of an emergency, visit them tomorrow.
            The point of all this, or rather the points of it, are these:
1.       We won’t always be out of the parish this much.  Once this temporary situation clears up, we will get back to visiting as much as we usually do.
2.       Despite the times we’re out of the parish, we will still visit as much as we can.  We are not using this time as an excuse to avoid visiting people.  We want to visit people, and will do so whenever we can.
3.       If you are someone you know is in a situation where a visit is needed, please let us know.  If necessary, we will make time to visit you.
4.       If we don’t get around to see you as often as either we or you would like, please do not think we’ve forgotten you.  You remain in our prayers always.
5.       There are times when I am out of the parish but Wanda is not.  Wanda is going to do as much visiting as she can, too, with or without me.  This does not provide an excuse for me to avoid visiting, but it is still something we want you to know.
6.       I would appreciate it if others would help pick up the slack of doing this visiting.  I know there are some of you who already do, and I appreciate that.  For those of you who already do it, please consider doing more of it, at least for a while.  For those of you who don’t do it, please consider starting.  As I said before, either other people are going to do it, or it won’t get done.  It doesn’t matter whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s just the way it is.
The last point is probably the most important, and not just in regard to visiting.  Again, I’m not trying to get out of anything.  I’ve told you before how much I love what I do, and I have no intention to stop doing it.  Still, many of the things I do are things that others can do, too.  Some of you already are, and I appreciate that.  For those of you who don’t, please consider starting.
The thing is, this parish can get along without me.  I don’t want it to, necessarily, but it can.  And I do want you to know that.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Out of our Rut

This is the message given at the Onida Lent service Sunday, March 18, 2012.  The scripture is Matthew 19:16-26.

            We’ve been talking about the cost of following Jesus.  The thing about that is that sometimes, the cost is not what we think it is.  In fact, sometimes the cost may be something totally different from what we think it is.
In our reading for tonight from Matthew, a man comes up to Jesus and asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life.  Now, to the people around Jesus, that may have seemed like an odd question.  The Jewish teachers told everyone what they had to do to get eternal life.  Everyone, at least everyone who claimed to be a faithful Jew, knew what the requirements were.  You were supposed to follow the rules.  Follow all the Jewish law to the letter and you’d get to heaven.  Jesus knew that.  The people around Jesus knew that.  They would not have understood why this man did not know that, too.
Jesus knows there has to be something behind his question, but he’s not going to say what it is.  Instead, he’s going to let the man tell him.  So, he gives the answer that any good and faithful Jew would give:  follow the commandments.
The man gives another odd response.  He asks “Which ones?”
That’s an odd response because the Jewish teachers would’ve said, “All of them.”  Again, everyone who claimed to be a faithful Jew would’ve known that.  You were not allowed to pick and choose which parts of the law you were going to follow.  You were supposed to follow all of the law.
Jesus responds with a list of them.  Now, Jesus was not saying these were the only ones people were supposed to follow, or that the ones he did not list were not important.  He was using these as examples.  He was saying, in effect, “You know which ones.  Everyone knows them.”  He was still trying to get the man to tell him what his real question was.
Finally, the man tells him.  He says, in effect, “I’ve kept all the commandments.  I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do, but I still don’t feel like I’m going to go to heaven.  What am I missing here?”
Now we get to the heart of it.  The man knows that what he’s been told all his life is not enough.  He knows there has to be more to it than just keeping the rules.  He knows he’s missing something.  But what?
Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt like you’re living your life the way your supposed to, following all the rules, doing all the things your supposed to do, and it just does not feel like it’s enough?  I’ll bet you have.  I’ll bet most of us have, at one time or another.
It’s not that we feel bad, exactly.  It’s just that we don’t feel good, either.  In fact, a lot of times, it’s like we don’t really feel anything.  It’s like we’re just kind of going through life on cruise control.  We’re not really doing anything that bad, we’re just not doing anything all that good.  We’re living good, quiet, safe lives, but we feel like nothing about our lives is really making an impact on anything or anyone.  We feel like we’re kind of in a rut, like we’re just going through the motions of life.
That’s what this man was telling Jesus he felt like.  He wanted Jesus to tell him something he could do to get out of that rut.  We have no idea what he expected Jesus to say.  Maybe he thought Jesus would tell him to go on some sort of a long fast.  Maybe he thought Jesus would tell him to make a major pilgrimage or something.  Maybe he did not have any particular expectation.  One thing I think we can be confident of is that he did not expect Jesus to say what he said.  Jesus told the man to go and sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come back and follow him.
That’s a big thing Jesus was asking this man to do.  I don’t know that I could do it.  I know I certainly have not done it.  Neither has anyone else I know.  I know people who give very generously, but I don’t know anyone who has sold absolutely all of their possessions to follow Jesus.
I don’t know that Jesus requires us to.  This is the only time the gospels record Jesus ever saying anything like this.  There were lots of other people Jesus met, including his own disciples, who did not sell off all their possessions, and Jesus does not seem to have told them they should.  This seems to have been something specifically required of this one man, rather than something that we’re all supposed to do.
Why would Jesus have required this one man to sell all his possessions, when he did not require that of anyone else?  We’re told that this man had great wealth.  Because of that, some people have inferred that the reason Jesus said this is that, despite following the rules, this man loved money more than he loved God.  That could be part of it, but I don’t know that this is the main reason.  I think there’s more to it than that.
I think what Jesus was telling this man, and what Jesus tells each of us, is that it’s not good enough to go through life on cruise control.  The goal of a Christian is not and should not be to live a good, safe, quiet life.  A life dedicated to Christ should never be one that’s in a rut.  The goal of a Christian should be to live a life that’s dedicated to God.  A life that’s dedicated to God cannot help but have an impact on others..  A life that’s dedicated to God will have an impact on others even when we don’t specifically intend it to.  A life that’s dedicated to God will have an impact on others even when we don’t realize it.  There’s no way we can avoid having that impact when our lives are dedicated to God.
Jesus could’ve told this man to tithe, but if he was following the rules as he says, then he was already tithing.  Jesus could’ve told him to just increase his giving, and he probably would’ve done so gladly.  The thing is that something like that would not have gotten this man out of his rut.  It’s a good thing to do, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not something that would’ve gotten him out of his good, safe, quiet life.  There’s nothing about increasing his giving that would’ve changed this man’s life.
If we really want to follow Christ, if we really want to make an impact on others for Christ, it’s not enough to just take safe, quiet, small steps.  If we really want to follow Christ, we need to make major changes in our lives.  We cannot just do a little more of the things we’re doing now.  We need to do something that will shake us up, something that will take us out of our comfort zones, something that will show ourselves and everyone else that we’re really dedicating our lives to Jesus.
What that means is different for each of us.  It does not necessarily mean that each of us has to sell all our possessions.  What it does mean that each of us needs to do something, and it needs to be something significant.  If we truly want to follow Jesus all the way to the cross, that’s what it takes.
That’s quite a challenge.  And so, we get back to what Jesus said about counting the cost.  There’s quite a cost involved in totally dedicating our lives to Jesus.  For the man Jesus was talking to, it was more of a cost than he was willing to pay.
How about for you?  How about for me?  Is it more of a cost than we’re willing to pay?  We know what the payoff is.  It’s eternal life.  But we know what the cost is, too.  The cost is giving up our safe, quiet, comfortable lives to be willing to follow Jesus.  Will we go away sad, like the man Jesus was talking to?  Or will we follow Jesus with joy, knowing that he’s leading us to eternal life?
That’s the question.  What’s the answer?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Second Place

            The Sully Buttes Chargers girls basketball team finished second in the State B basketball tournament.  That’s a fine showing by any objective measure.  Still, if you’d asked the players or coaches after the championship game if they were happy they’d finished second, they’d have said no.  In fact, they were disappointed.  Their goal was not to finish second.  Their goal was to win. 
They tried hard.  They did the best they could.  At the time, though, that was not much consolation to them.  Maybe at some point it will be, but at the time, it was not.  When you take a sport seriously, you want to win.  Nobody wants to finish in second place.
As I thought about that, I thought about all the times in my life I finished in second place.  There seem to be an awful lot of them.  When I was in seventh grade, I entered a regional essay contest about the dangers of smoking.  I made it into the final three.  I finished second.  When I was in the eighth grade, I was in a regional spelling bee.  I made it into the final six.  I finished second.
In sports, it was the same.  The teener baseball team I played on was pretty good.  Twice, we made it to the regional tournament and thought we might get to the state.  Twice, we finished second.  Even my favorite NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings, has never won the championship.  They’ve finished second four times.
As a lawyer, I won some cases, but there were some I lost, too.  In other words, I finished second.  In a case I took to the state Supreme Court, two justices agreed with me.  Three did not.  I finished second.
It’s never any fun to finish second.  The NFL used to have a runner-up bowl, a game for the teams that finished second in each conference.  Vince Lombardi described it as “a hinky-dinky game played in a hinky-dinky town by hinky-dinky teams, because that’s what second place is:  hinky-dinky.”  Nobody wants a hinky-dinky second place finish.  We all want to win.
On the other hand:
As I’ve written before, when I look at my life today, I have to say it’s turned out pretty good.  I’m very happy.  Would I be happier today if I’d finished first some of those times I finished second?  I doubt it.  In fact, it’s possible that I’d be less happy.  Maybe, if I’d finished first, something would’ve happened that would’ve made my life turn out differently, and worse, than the way it has.
We all dream of having great victories.  We all want to win all the time.  God, though, does not ask us to win all the time.  Even Jesus did not win all the time.  There were people Jesus talked to who rejected him.  There were people Jesus healed who did not even bother to say thank you.  If even Jesus did not win all the time, why in the world would you and I expect to win all the time?  It’s not going to happen.
What God asks is that we be faithful, and that we do our best.  God asks that we do what we can, and leave the rest to God.  If we do what we’re supposed to do, God will do what God’s supposed to do, and things will work out the way they’re supposed to work out.  When we’re faithful, we don’t have to worry about the results, because we’re not responsible for the results.  God is.  We’re just responsible for being faithful and doing the best we can.
It’s okay to be disappointed when we don’t win.  Jesus was disappointed sometimes, too.  We always hope things will work out the way we want them to, and we’re never happy when they don’t.
We may not be happy when things don't work out the way we want them to, but we can accept it.  We can accept it because we know that ultimately, God is in control, and we know that ultimately, God will win.  You and I may have some losses along the way, but that’s okay.  Ultimately, God will win.  God’s the champion.  You and I just need to make sure we’re on the team.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Selected To Do What?

            What would you do if you discovered that everything you thought you knew how life works was wrong?  Say you wake up one morning, and the sun’s rising in the west.  You go out to the garage to go to work, and instead of your car sitting there you have a unicycle.  You get to work, and instead of shirts and pants everyone’s wearing wrestling singlets.  You go to get your paycheck, and instead of giving you money, they pay you in spam.  You’re in some sort of bizarro world, and you don’t know how you got there or what’s going on.  Everything you count on as fixed in your life is suddenly different.
            If you can imagine that, then you know how Saul felt in our reading from Acts for today.  He had decided he knew exactly who God was and how he could best serve God.  Then, suddenly, he found out that everything he had decided was totally wrong.
            Saul is the person who later in the Bible is referred to as Paul, sometimes the Apostle Paul.  He became the first and greatest Christian evangelist.  Paul wrote about half the books of the New Testament.  Without Paul, the course of Christianity would’ve been very different, if it had even survived at all.
            At the time of this story, though, Paul is still Saul.  Saul was a well-known figure to Christians, too, but for a very different reason.  Saul was the leading persecutor of Christians.  He was a Pharisee, part of the group that opposed Jesus the most while Jesus was alive.  Now that Jesus was gone, they were trying to stamp out those followers of Jesus who were still around, the apostles and any they’d converted.  Saul was the main one who was doing the stamping out.  He went to the high priest himself to get permission to go to Damascus, arrest any Christians he could find, and take them back to Jerusalem to be thrown in prison.
            The thing to remember about this is that Saul was not an evil man, at least not in his own mind.  Now, maybe you hear that and say, “But he was persecuting Christians.  Surely that’s a bad thing to do, right?”  Well, yes, it is.  What I mean, though, is that Saul never had the intent to do evil.  He was not sitting there thinking, “What’s some really bad thing I could do today?  I know!  I’ll persecute some Christians!” 
That was not it at all.  Saul was trying to serve God.  He was Jewish, and he was very serious about following his Jewish faith.  The thing is that he was so serious about following his Jewish faith that he had put following his faith ahead of following God.  He could not see that what Jesus and his followers were doing was following God.  Instead, like a lot of the other Pharisees, he decided that what Jesus had done, and what Jesus’ followers were now doing, was wrong.  He decided it was a violation of Jewish law, which is another way of saying he decided it was a violation of God’s law.  So, he also decided that it was his duty, as a follower of God, to put a stop to it.
What Saul was doing was wrong, no question about it.  But it was not done out of an evil intent.  Saul just did not understand.  He did not understand who God was, he did not understand what God wanted, and he did not understand how to follow God.  The reason Saul was doing these bad things was the Saul did not understand that he did not understand.
Until.  Until he’s on the road to Damascus, and a light comes down from heaven, and he hears a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Can you imagine what was going through Saul’s mind when he heard that?  Can we even begin to imagine it?  Persecute God?  What did that mean?  He loved God.  He worshipped God.  He was doing everything he possibly could to serve God.  How could he be persecuting God?  God must’ve made a mistake.  But how could God make a mistake?  God cannot make mistakes.  So he must be persecuting God.  But what had he done to persecute God?  He was doing everything he could to serve God.  God must have made a mistake.  But God cannot make mistakes.  Round and round his thoughts went, in much less time than it takes to say them, until he falls to the ground and says the only thing he can think of to say.  “Who are you, Lord?”
“Who are you, Lord?”  Saul had decided exactly who God was.  Saul had decided exactly what God wanted him to do.  Now, in an instant, he discovered that everything he had decided was wrong.  He had no idea who God was.  He must’ve been scared to death.
Saul is told, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”  Saul opens his eyes and discovers he’s blind.  He has to be helped up and led into the city, and he sits and waits for three days, not having any clue what’s going to happen to him.  He does not know if he’s ever going to regain his sight.  He does not even know if he’s going to be allowed to live.  There’s nothing he can do but sit and wait and see what’s going to happen next.
Of all the selection stories we’ve looked at in this series, Saul’s has to be the strangest one.  Saul, the leading persecutor of Christians, was selected by God.  He was about the least likely person in the world to have been selected by God, but he was.
That’s strange enough, but that’s not the strangest thing about Saul’s selection story.  The strangest thing is this:  nowhere in the Bible do we read where Saul is told what God has selected him to do.  We did not read this part of the story this morning, but here’s what happens.  A disciple named Ananias is told by God to go to Saul.  Ananias says to him, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
That’s all Saul is told.  He’s not told to go and do something heroic, the way Moses and Joshua were.  He’s not told to give a specific message to the people, the way Isaiah was.  He’s just told that he’ll be able to see again, and that he’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit.
As we’ve been looking at these selection stories, we’ve been talking about what God may be selecting you or me to do.  As we do that, sometimes we might envy people like Moses and Joshua and Isaiah.  They got a specific message from God.  They were told by God, “Here’s what I have selected you to do.”  They were scared of it, but at least they knew exactly what God wanted them to do.
There are a lot of times when you and I don’t know that.  I mean, yeah, we know the generalities of it.  We’re supposed to love God and love our neighbor.  We’re supposed to give and we’re supposed to do things for people and all that.  We know all that stuff.
That’s all fine and everything, but it’s not very specific.  I believe there’s something specific that God selects each of us to do.  If that’s true, then it’d be really helpful if God would let us know exactly what it is.  Sometimes, God does.  There’s an awful lot of the time, though, when we’re in the position Saul was in.  We know there must be something God wants us to do, but we don’t know what it is.
When that’s where we are, then I think what we need to do is pray for what happened to Saul to happen to us.  I don’t mean the going blind part, obviously.  What I mean is what Ananias said to Saul.  Ananias did not just say that Saul would be able to see again.  Ananias said that Saul would be filled with the Holy Spirit.
That’s how Saul knew what to do.  That’s why we read about Saul going into the places of worship and preaching that Jesus is the Son of God.  That’s why Saul went to Jerusalem to join with the apostles.  That’s why Saul, when he was known as Paul, went on his great missionary journeys.  He did not receive a specific message to do that, at least as far as we know.  Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit told Saul that this was what he needed to do.
That’s what we need to pray for.  We need to pray that we’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit.  If we’re filled with the Holy Spirit, if we’re open to being led by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will tell us what we need to do and where we need to go.  The Holy Spirit will lead us in the direction we need to go, if we’re only willing to follow.
Saul had decided for himself what God wanted him to do.  Then, he found out that what he had decided was completely wrong.  Then, though, he allowed himself to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He opened himself to being led by the Holy Spirit.  Once he did that, he no longer had to make decisions about what God wanted him to do.  All he had to do was follow where he was being led and leave the decisions up to God.
That’s true for us, too.  We don’t need to make the decisions about what God wants us to do.  All we need to do is allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  When we are, God will show us where to go and what to do.  All we need to do is follow where we’re being led, and leave the decisions up to God.