Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It's Not Me

            A couple of weeks ago, I read an article by a man named Ed Morrissey.  He had recently become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.  The article did not explain what that is, but I take it that it qualifies him to be what in the United Methodist Church we would call a communion steward.  In the article, Mr. Morrissey described the emotions he felt when he served communion for the first time.  The article can be found here.

            Reading the article, I was reminded of the first time I gave communion to a congregation.  I had started seminary, but had not received an appointment in the United Methodist Church yet.  Instead, I was serving as an interim pastor in the United Churches of Christ of Wessington Springs and Templeton.  I was never a member of the United Church of Christ, but as an interim pastor there, I was able to get a license which allowed me to give communion there.

            I still remember how I felt the first Sunday I gave communion in those churches.  I was every bit as nervous as Ed Morrissey says he was, if not more so.  Part of that was just the technical aspects of it.  There is a substantial liturgy involved, after all, and I didn’t want to stumble around looking like a fool.  There was more to my nervousness than that, though.

            The reason I felt so nervous about giving communion was that I felt so unworthy to do so.  What did I think I was doing up there?  What right did I have to be giving Holy Communion?  I was going to say some words, give people some bread and some grape juice, and that was somehow going to make this into something meaningful and important?  This was going to somehow be one of God’s means of grace?  Who did I think I was, anyway?

            Eventually, though I came to realize something.  The reason I felt so unworthy is that I was.  I still am.  So is every other pastor, minister, priest, or anyone else who offers Holy Communion to someone.  My saying some words does nothing.  My giving people bread and grape juice does nothing.  I have no right to pretend otherwise.

            Despite that, though, something still happens.  It has nothing to do with me.  It has everything to do with God.

            God somehow uses me, just like God somehow uses everyone else of any other Christian faith who gives Holy Communion.  Despite our unworthiness, God still uses us to give instruments of God’s grace to people.  God also, despite our unworthiness, gives grace to each of us who takes Holy Communion.  On both ends of the sacrament, nothing happens because of who we are.  Everything happens because of who God is.

            It is a privilege for me to be allowed to give Holy Communion.  It is a privilege for each of us to be allowed to take it.  When we have Communion next Sunday, let’s thank God for that privilege and open our hearts to receive God’s grace.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Stone Tablets in a Wireless World

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 27, 2012.  The scriptures used are John 18:28-38; Exodus 20:1-17; and Acts 17:16-34.

            Today we start a new sermon series called “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.”  We’re going to look at how we communicate the message of the Bible in a world that is so different from the world that existed when the Bible was written.
At the end of last week’s message, we talked about how our minds are not always capable of understanding all of God’s truth.  When we say that, though, we’re making an assumption, whether we realize it or not.  The assumption is that there is such a thing as truth.
For some of us, maybe that seems obvious.  The thing is, though, that for a growing number of people, it’s not.  In 1997, fifty percent of Americans said there is such a thing as absolute truth.  By 2005, that percentage was down to thirty-five percent.  I suspect it’s even less today.  If we assume that there is such a thing as truth, we’re making an assumption that a majority of Americans is no longer willing to make.
Now, I’m not saying that Christians should abandon the idea of absolute truth.    We heard the ten commandments a little while ago.  Those still are the basis of much of our faith, and most of us would probably consider them to be an example of absolute truth.  In our last sermon series, we talked about some of the qualities of God.  Most of us would probably consider those to be an example of absolute truth, too.
The thing is that Jesus told us to spread the gospel to everyone.  Among others, that includes the people of this country, the people of the society in which we live.  The question is, how do we do that?  How do we communicate what we consider eternal truths to people who live in a world that’s so different from the world in which the Bible was written?  How do we communicate things that we’re written on stone tablets thousands of years ago to a world that communicates by email and texts and instant messages?
The answer is not as easy as we might think.  See, it’s not just a matter of convincing people that what we believe is true.  We first have to convince them that there is such a thing as truth.  Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” but telling people that Jesus is the truth won’t make any impression on them if they don’t believe that there is such a thing as truth.
That’s what happened when Jesus went in front of Pilate.  Jesus says that anyone who’s on the side of truth will listen to him, and Pilate responds, “What is truth?”  If someone does not believe in truth, if someone is not interested in truth, telling them that Jesus is the truth won’t matter to them.
The temptation, of course, is to just say, well, we have the truth, and if people won’t listen to it, it’s their problem.  To an extent, it is.  People are allowed to make their own choices.  They can reject the truth if they want to.  We cannot stop them.  Still, again, we keep running up against Jesus’ command to spread the gospel to everyone.  I don’t think Jesus allows us to just write people off.  I think Jesus wants us to keep trying to find ways to reach them.
Fortunately, we have an example for how to do that.  See, we’re not the first people who ever tried to bring the good news of Jesus to a different culture.  Christian missionaries have been doing that for centuries.  It goes back to the first great Christian missionary, the apostle Paul.
Paul went all over the world trying to spread the news of Jesus Christ.  In our reading from Acts, he was in Athens.  Athens was not a Christian area.  In fact, the way it sounds, they’d never even heard of Jesus yet.  I mean, maybe they’d heard some rumors about him, but they had no understanding of what he was really about.
The people of Athens did have religion.  Boy, did they have religion.  They had lots of religions, more than you could shake a stick at.  They were worshipping all kinds of gods.  Paul saw idols all over the place.  The idea that there was only one God seemed really strange to them. 

This was the place Paul had come to try to spread the good news of Jesus.  This was the place Paul had come to tell people that there is only one God and that salvation could only be found through belief in Jesus Christ.  So, how did Paul go about doing that?
Well, first, Paul spent some time going around the city.  The reason he did that was so that he could get some understanding of what the area was like.  He did not come in and start trying to change people right away.  Instead, he spent some time getting to know who the people in this area were.
He saw, of course, that they were quite a bit different from the people he was used to.  Their religious practices were especially different, with all those idols around.  So, what did he do?  Did he tell them they had it all wrong and that they needed him to straighten them out?  No.  Look at what he did.
First, he went to the synagogue and talked to the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks.  In other words, he started with the people who were most like him.  Then, we’re told he “reasoned” with these people.  Think about that phrase.  He “reasoned” with them.  Reasoning is not the same thing as arguing.  When you reason with someone, you’re not waving a finger in their face.  You’re laying out your case.  You’re presenting evidence as to why you’re right.  You’re trying to persuade them.  You’re also showing respect to them and their opinions.  You’re listening to what they have to say and responding to it.  You’re answering their questions and responding to their objections.  When you “reason” with someone, you have to be reasonable.  That’s what Paul was doing.
Because he was being reasonable, people listened to what he had to say.  They did not necessarily agree with it, but they listened.  Because he was showing respect to them, they showed respect to him.  Word spread around Athens.  More people got interested.  They wanted to hear more about this Jesus that Paul kept talking about.
Paul kept being reasonable, and he kept showing them respect.  He reached out to them by speaking to them in terms of their own culture, terms they could understand.  He said to them, look I can see you’re very religious.  I can see that you’re trying really hard to get this right.  I respect that.  I think that’s great.
Then, he said, I saw this altar with an inscription that said, “To an unknown God”.  What that tells me is that you’re still searching for answers.  It tells me that you know there’s more to religion than what you know right now.  Paul said, I used to feel that way, too.  Then, I found out what it was and who it was I was missing.  So now, let me tell you about him.
Did it work?  Not totally.  We’re told that some people sneered at Paul.  Some people said, well, we’re not convinced yet, but we want to hear more.  But some became followers of Christ and believed.
That’s how it goes when we try to spread the word about Jesus.  Some people sneer at us.  Some people are not ready to commit yet, but want to hear more.  Some, though, will believe, and will follow.
The point, though, is that it’s not enough for us to believe we have the truth on our side.  That’s good, that’s important, but it’s not enough.  We need to be able to communicate that truth to people who not only don’t believe that it’s the truth, but who don’t even believe that there is such a thing as truth.
In the weeks to come, we’re going to look at more specific examples of how the world has changed and how we can communicate with that world.  As we do, though, we need to keep in mind the way Paul went about it.  He found out about the people he was trying to reach.  He showed them respect.  He reached out to them.  He spoke to them in ways they could understand.  He did not change or water down the good news of Jesus Christ, but he expressed it in terms that at least some of the people of Athens could accept.
As we try to bring God’s truth to a world that increasingly does not even believe in the concept of truth, that’s what we need to do.  We need to learn about the people we’re trying to reach.  We need to show them respect.  We need to reach out to them.  We need to speak to them in ways they can understand.  Again, that does not mean that we change or water down our message.  It means that we express it in terms that at least some of the people who have not heard the message can accept.
See, the people of our time don’t want to be wrong, any more than people in Paul’s time wanted to be wrong.  We’re all trying to get it right.  A lot of people are searching right now, just like they were searching in Paul’s time.  Some people may be hostile to God, but most are not.  They just don’t understand.  We need to find a way to help them understand, just like Paul did.  It won’t work with everyone—Paul did not reach everyone—but it will work with some, just like it did for Paul.
It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a necessary thing to do.  It’s what Jesus did.  It’s what Paul did.  And it’s what we need to do if we want to convince a wireless world of the truth that can be found on three thousand year old stone tablets.

Monday, May 21, 2012

An Unsatisfying Answer

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 20, 2012.  The scripture is Job 23:1-9.

            This is the end of our sermon series “Who is this God person, anyway?”  We’ve looked at a lot of aspects of who God is.  We’ve talked about how God is eternal.  We’ve talked about how God is all-knowing and everywhere.  We’ve talked about how God is all-powerful.  We’ve talked about how God is holy and righteous.  We’ve talked about how God is love.
We said when we started this sermon series that we would not be able to talk about every aspect of who God is, and that’s true.  As we bring the sermon series to an end, though, we’re going to talk about one more aspect of God.  God is good.
Do we believe that?  Do we always believe it?  I’m not sure.  We don’t have to look very hard to find a lot of things happening in the world that are not good.  All spring we’ve heard about terrible storms that hit various parts of the country, some of them not all that far from us.  We can hardly turn on the local news without hearing about a violent crime that took place somewhere.  If we look on the national level, we hear about unemployment and a slow economy.  If we look on the world level, we hear about terrorism.  There are an awful lot of things going on that are not good at all.
It’s one thing to talk in general about things in the world that are not good.  It’s another thing entirely when they happen to us personally.  When we or a loved one of ours has a serious health problem, when we have unexpected expenses and we don’t know where the money’s going to come from to pay for them, when a family relationship breaks down, when any of a number of things happens that are bad or even devastating to us personally, our feelings go to a whole different level.
When things like that happen, we wonder what in the world’s going on.  We think, this does not make sense.  I’ve tried to play by the rules.  I’ve tried to follow God.  I’m not perfect, and I know that, but I’m doing as well as I know how to do.  Where’s it getting me?  Everything seems to be going wrong.  If God’s so good, why is God doing this to me?  Or even if God’s not doing it to me, why is God not doing something about it?  Why is God just leaving me in this situation to suffer?
Those are completely understandable questions.  I’d guess a lot of us have asked them at some point in our lives.  If we’ve not asked them yet, there’s a good chance we will sometime.  When it seems like things are going wrong through no fault of our own, or maybe through some fault of our own but not totally, and when it seems like we’ve been praying and praying and nothing seems to be helping, it’s completely understandable that we’d start to wonder where God is and why God does not seem to be doing anything to help us.
Job certainly would’ve understood it.  Remember the story of Job?  Job was the most righteous person on earth.  God had blessed him with all sorts of wonderful things.  Then God makes a deal with Satan and allows Satan to do anything to Job except kill him.  So Satan takes everything away from Job:  he loses all his property, he loses his house, all his children are killed, and Job himself is struck with a terrible disease.
Job cannot understand it.  He feels just like we feel sometimes:  like he played by the rules, like he did everything he was supposed to do, and instead of having God bless him for it, it seems like God has cursed him instead.  He feels like if he could just go to God and argue his case, God would see that things are not going the way they should go and God would do something about it.  But, as he says, it seems like he cannot find God.  No matter where he goes, no matter what direction he looks, God is not there.  It feels like God has abandoned him.
Have you ever felt like that?  Like you’ve been abandoned by God?  We know God has to be somewhere, and we keep trying to find God, but we cannot do it.  Some people say that what hell really is, is the place where we are totally cut off from God.  I’m not saying that’s all hell is, but I think there might be something to that.  If you’ve ever had that feeling of being abandoned by God, of not being able to find God or feel God’s presence no matter what you do, you know it’s the loneliest feeling in the world.
Well, if you’ve read the book of Job, you know that God eventually gives Job an answer.  It’s certainly not the answer Job wanted, though.  God shows up, and basically says, “Who are you to question me?  I created all this.  I’m in control of it.  Who are you to try to argue with me?”
Job accepts that answer.  It’s not that easy for us to accept, though.  At least, it’s not that easy for me.  The first time I read the book of Job, I was really disappointed in it.  I mean, Job goes on for verse after verse, chapter after chapter, page after page, wanting to know why all these bad things have happened to him when he’s done nothing to deserve them.  It’s a question I’ve always wanted to know the answer to.  I’d guess most of us have.  Then, when God finally comes into the story, God not only does not answer the question, God says we have no right to ask.
Well, what’s up with that?  What do you mean, we have no right to ask?  Why not?  It seems like a reasonable question to me.  After all, God is supposed to be fair.  God’s supposed to be good.  So, when bad things happen to good people, it seems like we should have every right to ask God what’s going on here.  It seems like the most natural thing in the word to ask, “God, how is this fair?  How is this good?  Just what in the world are you up to, anyway?”
Well, in thinking about this, I once again went back to my favorite TV show, Doctor Who.  There’s an episode in which the Doctor and his friend Amy are in trouble, and the Doctor says to Amy, “You need to trust me.”  Amy responds, “But you don’t tell me all of the truth.”  And the Doctor responds, “If I told you all of the truth, you wouldn’t need to trust me.”
I think that’s how it works with God.  When things happen, and we cannot understand how a good God could allow them to happen, God says to us, “You need to trust me.”  We respond, “But God, you don’t tell us all of the truth.”  And God responds, “If I told you all of the truth, you wouldn’t need to trust me.”
So, why does God not tell us all of the truth?  Well, think of it this way.  Would it be possible to explain calculus to a three-year-old?  No.  Why not?  Is it because calculus does not make sense?  No, calculus makes perfect sense—if your mind has developed enough and has had enough training and experience to understand it.  The reason it’s not possible to explain calculus to a three-year-old is not because calculus does not make sense.  The reason it’s not possible is because a three-year-old’s mind is not developed enough and has not had enough training and experience to grasp it, no matter how much someone might try to explain it to them.

Think about all the qualities of God we’ve talked about in this sermon series.  God is eternal.  God is all-knowing.  God is all-powerful.  God is holy and righteous.  God is all-loving.

Do you and I share any of those qualities?  No.  We are on earth for a limited and relatively short time.  There are all kinds of things we don’t know and never will know.  We like to think we’re pretty powerful, but compared to God, we’re pretty weak.  It’s pretty obvious where we fall on the holiness and righteousness scale.  And while we may strive to be all-loving, we fail time after time after time.
I think the reason God does not tell us all of the truth is because we’d never understand it.  We’re too limited.  The problem is not that God’s truth does not make sense.  The problem is that our minds are not capable of grasping God’s truth, no matter how much God might try to explain it to us.
We don’t always like that.  We wish we could know all the truth, but we cannot.  Not because God does not want to tell it to us, but because we cannot understand it.  So, we’re left with a choice.  We can believe that, because things don’t always make sense to us, it must mean that either God does not exist or God is not good.  Or, we can believe that God is good, and that somehow, in some way, things do make sense, even if we cannot understand how.  In other words, we can choose to trust God, or we can choose not to trust God.  It’s our choice.
The choice each of us makes will determine our answer to the question we’ve been asking for six weeks.  Who is this God person, anyway?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Busy Signal

            The next few weeks are going to be fairly busy for me.  I go to Lake Poinsett for meetings Thursday and Friday.  I have a wedding next weekend and another wedding the week after that.  Then comes annual conference, at which (hopefully) I’ll be getting ordained.  Then, I need to get ready for a new Wednesday night worship service we’re starting in Gettysburg over the summer.  Also, we’re having VBS in mid-June, and while I’m not directly involved in that, I still need to be there as much as I can be.  There’s a lot going on.
            I don’t mean that to sound like a complaint, because it’s not.  For one thing, everybody, no matter what they do, has times when they get busy.  For another thing, I enjoy being busy.  I like having a lot of stuff going on and a lot of stuff to do.  A pastor who cannot find something to do is probably the pastor of a church that is not doing much.  I love the things I do, and I’m not at all upset that there’s a lot of it right now.
            The thing is, as I’ve explained before, that when I get busy, I have to set priorities.  I have to distinguish among the things I have to get done, the things I really should get done, and the things I’d like to get done.  This blog, unfortunately, falls into the last category.  I pretty much have to get the Sunday service planned every week; there will be serious consequences if I don’t.  I pretty much have to get things organized for those two weddings; if I don’t there will be a lot of upset people.
            If I miss a week or two of this blog, though, nothing much happens.  Perhaps a few people are disappointed, perhaps not, but if so that’s the extent of it.  This blog is something I like to do, not something I have to do.  So, when I get busy, it tends to get a lower priority.
            All of which is to let you know that there may not be as much activity here for the next few weeks as there usually is.  I’ll still write when I can, but that may not be as often as it normal.  I’ll still provide the texts of sermons, but there may not be a lot more than that.  I hope there will be, but there might not.
            So, if you check back here and don’t see anything new, don’t worry.  Nothing’s happened to me, and I haven’t abandoned my blog.  Eventually, things will get slower, and I’ll get back to writing more again.
            In the mean time, I’ll be having fun doing other things.  I hope you will be, too.  God does want us to enjoy life, after all.  That’s not to say everything in life will be fun, but it would be a pretty mean God who’d give us the gift of life and then not want us to enjoy it.  That would not be a God very many people would want to worship.
            Before too long, things will slow down, and I’ll be back here writing about whatever it occurs to me to write about.  Until then, you take care of yourselves, I’ll take care of myself, and God will be taking care of all of us.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Not a Zero-Sum Game

            You all know I’m a big sports fan.  Some recent stories from the world of professional sports, however, have been of some concern to me.
            In football, as many of you know, coaches and players from the New Orleans Saints have been suspended for varying lengths of time for having a “bounty” program.  What this means is that players would get extra money for injuring players on the opposition team.
            In baseball, pitcher Cole Hamels of Philadelphia admitted to deliberately hitting Washington’s Bryce Harper with a fastball.  Harper had done nothing to Hamels which would justify this assault.  Hamels’ only stated reason for throwing at Harper is that Harper is young (nineteen years old) and “this was my way of saying ‘Welcome to the big leagues, kid.’”
            In basketball, Chicago’s Joakim Noah was injured during a playoff game in Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia fans enthusiastically cheered the injury, because it would give their team a better chance to win.
            What bothers me even more than the fact that these things happened, though, is the number of sports fans and announcers I’ve heard who are trying to justify them.  Now, some say that all of these things have been going on for a long time, and they’re probably right.  Still, such behavior is not justifiable, and it bothers me.  I love sports, but I also believe in the ideas of fair play and sportsmanship.  The idea was to defeat your opponent on the playing field, not to try to injure them or to cheer when they were injured.
            So, I started wondering, what’s going on here?  Why do people feel this way?  Why are a lot of people okay with the players on one team trying to injure the players on the other team?
            This isn’t the whole answer, of course, but I think one aspect of this is that professional team sports are pretty much a zero-sum game.  When you look at the standings, there have to be an equal number of wins and losses in the league.  When you watch a game, you know that it’s impossible for both teams to win.  That means that what’s bad fortune for one team is good fortune for the other, and vice versa.  If you root for your team to win, you are, whether you intend to or not, rooting for the other team to lose.  That’s just the way it is.
            That’s true of sports, but does not have to be true of life.  One person’s success does not have to cause another person to fail.  Someone else’s success does not doom me to failure, nor does someone else’s failure help me succeed.
            That’s true in churches, too.  I want the United Methodist Churches of which I am pastor to grow.  However, that does not mean that I want the other churches in town to shrink.  I want us all to grow.  The more people there are going to Christian churches—any Christian churches—in our communities, the more influence Christianity will have on our communities.  That will create an environment in which all Christian churches will grow.
            We all want to succeed.  For Christians, though, Jesus defined success as spreading his gospel to all the nations.  That’s a bigger job than one Christian denomination can handle.  If we’re going to succeed, all Christians going to need to work together to get it done.                      
The goal in sports is to try to defeat the other team.  The goal of Christians, however, is to bring people to Christ.  We don’t need to defeat anyone to do that.  We just need to work together.  If we do that, we’ll all win.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

It's Not Logic, It's Love

Below is the text of the message in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, May 13.  The Scriptures are Romans 8:31-39 and 1 John 4:7-21.

            We talked last week about how God offers us salvation as a gift, and all we need to do is accept it.  The question we did not talk about last week, though is why?  Why does God offer us salvation?  Why does God want so much to save us and take us to heaven?
Well, the answer is pretty simple.  God loves us.  As we continue our sermon series on “Who is this God person, anyway”, that’s the aspect of God we’re going to talk about:  God is love.  God loves each and every one of us.  That’s why God wants to save us and take us to heaven:  because God loves us.
The answer is simple, but it can be hard to accept.  Most of us know we’re not the people we should be.  We certainly know we’re not the people God wants us to be.  Not that we’re such terrible, evil, horrible people, but we all make our share of mistakes.  I often think I’m making someone else’s share, too.  We all know there are plenty of times when we don’t act in loving ways with others the way God wants us to.
Because of that, sometimes it can be hard for us to accept that God loves us.  We don’t see any reason God should love us.  We think we don’t deserve God’s love.  We wonder, if God really knows everything about me, why would God love me?
It’s an understandable question.  It’s understandable, but it’s wrong.  Not wrong in the sense of being sinful or anything like that.  Wrong in the sense that it’s not a proper thing to ask.  See, love is not something that needs logical reasons to exist.  In fact, logic often has nothing whatsoever to do with love.
Those of you who are married, think about this:  why do you love your spouse?  Can you give me a list of logical reasons?  I doubt it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you could list lots of things you like and admire about your spouse.  You could list lots of things you appreciate about your spouse. 
Here’s what I mean, though.  Your spouse may be very attractive—but they’re not the most attractive person in the world.  Your spouse may be very caring and sensitive—but they’re not the most caring and sensitive person in the world.  Your spouse may work hard and be a really good person—but they’re not the hardest worker or the best person in the world.  No matter what good qualities you list about your spouse, there are other people who are better.  Yet, somehow, your spouse is the one person in the whole world that you love enough to have chosen to spend your life with.  Is that logical?  Who knows?  What difference does it make?  You love that person, whether your love is logical or not.
For those of you who have kids, it’s the same thing.  Are there logical reasons why you love your kids?  Do you ever even think about it that way?  Do you ever try to come up with logical reasons to love your kids?  What would be the point?  I mean, you may be happier with them sometimes than other times, but the bottom line is that you love your kids because they’re your kids.  You don’t need any reasons other than that.
It’s the same for everyone we love.  We don’t decide whether to love someone in the same way we decide whether to buy a new car.  We don’t sit down and make out a list of pros and cons and try to come to a logical conclusion.  That’s not how love works.  Love finds its own reasons to exist.  In fact, love is its own reason.
So, if that’s the way it works for us--if we can love people just because we love them, regardless of whether they “deserve” our love or not--how much more can God do that?  God has more ability to love than you or I will ever have.  As we read today, all love comes from God.  God is love.  God loves everyone.  God loves us no matter who we are.  God loves us no matter where we live.  God loves us no matter what we look like.  God loves us no matter what we’ve done.  In fact, God loves us whether we like it or not.  God is love.
That’s such an awesome, incredible, really unbelievable thought--that there is nothing we can ever do that will keep God from loving us.  But it’s true.  We heard that in our reading from Romans today.  Here’s how Paul put it:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth. nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That is one of the most amazing statements in the Bible.  It was totally different from the way people thought of God at the time.  Remember, back then people thought that if bad things happened to you, it meant God was mad at you.  It meant that you must’ve sinned and that God was punishing you. 

That’s why the Pharisees could not understand why Jesus was spending so much time with the “tax collectors and sinners”, the people society looked down on.  They thought God clearly did not love those people; that’s why they were in the condition they were in.  If God did not love them, then no one else needed to love them, either.  The idea that these people were not being punished by God, that God actually loved those people and wanted to save them and take them to heaven, made no sense whatsoever to most of the people in Jesus’ time.

It still can be hard to believe.  It can be hard to believe about ourselves, and it can be hard to believe about others.  The idea that God loves absolutely everybody, with no exceptions, is so amazing.  The idea that God wants to save absolutely everybody, with no exceptions, is so incredible.  It’s just hard for us to believe it.

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  When I say that God loves absolutely everybody and wants to save absolutely everybody, I am not saying that our beliefs and actions on earth don’t matter.  They do matter.  God loves everybody and wants to save everybody, but that does not mean that everybody will be saved. 

We talked last week about how God offers us salvation as a gift, but we still need to accept it.  We accept it by accepting and believing in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  That acceptance and belief is something that happens inside us, but it is also revealed by our actions.  Again, we’re still sinful people, and we’re still going to mess up a lot, but our acceptance and belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior will change us in some way.  That’s what John was talking about in his letter that we read today:

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us...If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they live in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God lives in them...We love because he first loved us.
When we accept Jesus Christ as our savior, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts.  Having the Holy Spirit in our hearts makes us better people, more loving people.  We’ll be closer to the people God created us to be.  We won’t get there, but we’ll be closer.  We won’t be more loving because we’re trying to earn our way to heaven.  We’ll become more loving because our belief in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit will make us want to be that way.  The love of God will become a part of us, and that love will show in our thoughts and words and actions.
John goes on to say that if we say we love God and yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars.  When we believe in Jesus as our Savior, when the power of the Holy Spirit enters our hearts, it forces hate out of our hearts.  God does not hate anybody.  God loves everybody.  God may not like some of the things we believe or say or do, but God still loves each one of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we live, no matter what we look like, no matter what we’ve done.  God loves us whether we like it or not.  God is love.

Who is this God person?  This God person is the one who loves everyone, whether you deserve it or not.  God loves everyone else, too, whether we think they deserve it or not.  And this God person is the one who wants us to love everyone else, just like God does.

“Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Let’s trust that and live lives that show we believe it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Kids and Heaven

            There’s a pre-school that uses the building in which I have my office.  They’re at the other end of the building, but I always wave to them, and every once in a while I’ll talk to the kids a little bit.

            What I love the most is when they go outside to play.  Some people say music is the universal language, but I think the universal language is children playing.  I suspect the whoops and shrieks and laughter of little kids on the playground sound the same whether you’re in Russia, China, Peru, or the United States.  It’s a wonderful sound.

            My wife, Wanda, likes to say that she thinks that in heaven, it’ll be a lot like when we were little kids.  I think there’s something to that.  Think about it.  Little kids, for the most part, do not spend a lot of time worrying about the future.  When you’re four years old, “the future” is this afternoon.  You’re not worried about paying bills or keeping your schedule or getting things done on time.  You live in the present, and if you’re happy in the present, then you’re happy.  It’ll be time to worry about the future when the future gets here.

            Another thing about little kids is that, a lot of times, they live in a world of wonder.  When you’re a little kid, everything is exciting and new.  Watching ants is fascinating for little kids.  Seeing the leaves blow is fascinating for little kids.  Discovering that you can take a crayon and make a mark on something (including things that are not supposed to have marks on them) is fascinating for little kids.  All these things that we “sophisticated” adults take for granted are wonderful when you’re a little kid.

            Also, when you’re a little kid, you assume that everything in the world is there for you to have fun with.  It doesn’t occur to you that there are some things that are not to be played with, that there are things that are dangerous, that there are things you need to be scared of or stay away from.  You assume everything is there for your enjoyment, and you treat it that way.

            I think all these things are going to be true of heaven.  We won’t have to worry about the future when we’re in heaven.  We won’t have to worry about anything.  Heaven will be a source of constant wonder for us.  We’ll be forever amazed at how incredible and beautiful everything is.  In heaven, everything that exists will exist for our pleasure and God’s pleasure.  We’ll be in an unbelievable state of joy when we go to heaven.

            It’s been said that the reason God does not tell us what heaven is really like is that, if we knew how incredible it really is, we’d be wishing we were there so much that we’d hardly be able to stand our lives on earth.  If so, I’m glad God is wise enough not to tell us, because I very much enjoy my life on earth.  I hope you do, too.  We need to remember the joy that’s coming, though.  Heaven will be a world of wonder, amazement, and incredible joy.

            So, the next time you see some little kids having some fun, watch them for a little while.  Then, imagine being like them, because I think in heaven, we will be.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What Do You Mean By That?

The following is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, May 6.  The scriptures are Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:9-14; and Romans 3:19-26

            In every occupation, there are certain words you use that are what we call jargon.  Jargon means words or phrases that people who are within the group use all the time and are familiar with.  People outside the group, though, have no idea what those words or phrases mean.
It’s really easy to start using jargon.  We do it without even realizing it.  Because we use those words or phrases are so common to us, we forget most people don’t know them.  It’s something I had to be really careful of when I was a lawyer.  Sometimes I’d be talking to someone, and I’d see from the look in their eyes that they had no idea what I was talking about.  I’d realize that I’d slipped into using jargon, and I’d have to step back and explain things better to them.
Well, we tend to use jargon in the church sometimes, too.  As we continue our sermon series called “Who is this God person, anyway” today, we’re going to answer that question in two ways.  God is holy, and God is righteous. 

That’s all well and good.  We’d probably all agree that God is holy and righteous.   The thing is that when we say that, we’re kind of using jargon.  What do those words really mean?  What do we mean when we say that God is holy and righteous?

Let’s start with that word “holy”.  We use it all the time in church.  We sang the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” this morning.  But when I say the word “holy” to you, what comes to mind?

It could be a lot of things.  It could be some sort of object, like the cross.  It could be some type of act, like the act of praying, that we consider a holy act.  It could be a religious leader, someone we consider a “holy man”.  It could even be some person whom we consider a really good person that comes to mind when we think of the word “holy”.

None of that’s wrong, exactly, but there’s really only one thing that should come to mind when we use the word “holy”, and that’s God.  In fact, “holy” is in the name of the trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  In our passage from Isaiah, God is referred to as “the Holy One”.  It does not say the Holy Two or Three.  It says the Holy One.  God is the only one who is truly holy.

So, you say, okay, only God is holy, but why?  What does that word mean?  Well, here’s what it means.  It means “entitled to worship.”  Worship, in turn, means “honor and reverence paid to someone sacred.”  See now why God is the only one who is holy?  It’s because God is the only one entitled to worship. 

The cross is a wonderful symbol, but we don’t worship the cross.  We worship the one who died on the cross—Jesus, God the Son.  Prayer is a wonderful thing to do, but we don’t worship prayers, we worship the one to whom we say the prayers—God.  It’s fine to admire and respect other people, but we should never worship people.  We should only worship God.  That’s why only God can truly be considered holy.

So God’s holy, but God is also righteous.  What’s that mean?  What comes to your mind when I say the word “righteous”?  It could be a lot of things.  It could be something really positive, like someone who really tries hard to do what’s right.  It could be something negative, like someone who’s self-righteous and full of themselves and thinks they should be able to tell everyone what to do.  If you grew up on the music of the sixties and seventies like I did, you might think of the musical group the Righteous Brothers.  So what does it mean to say that God is righteous?

Here’s what the dictionary says it means.  It means morally right and virtuous.  That certainly fits God.  God is always morally right, and God is always virtuous.

You and I, on the other hand, are not.  That was the point Jesus was trying to make in our reading from Mark.  A man came up to Jesus and called him “good”.  He wanted Jesus to tell him what he could do so he’d be “good”, too.  Jesus tells him he cannot do it.  We cannot become good by what we do.  The only one who is “good”, by that definition, is God.  When we try to become “good” by doing things, we tend to become like the self-righteous Pharisee Jesus described in our reading from Luke.  God is the only one who is always morally right.  God is the only one who is always virtuous.  God is the only one who is righteous.

Notice, though, that Jesus does not leave us without hope.  Jesus would never do that.  Jesus goes on to say that, with human beings, these things may be impossible, but they are not impossible with God.  All things are possible for God.

That leads us to our reading from Romans.  Paul says no one will be found to be righteous in God’s sight by observing the law.  Paul is saying, in different words, the same thing that Jesus said—we cannot become “good” or “righteous” by what we do.                

Paul goes on, though, to make the other point Jesus made:  that all things are possible for God.  He goes on to explain just how it is that, even though we cannot be righteous, God can make us righteous.  Listen to what he says:

The righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

           Do you see what Paul’s saying there?  Paul says that even though we’re not righteous on our own, righteousness is given to us through our faith in Jesus Christ.  That righteousness is available to everyone, with no exceptions, because we’re all equal in God’s eyes.  Because God is righteous, there had to be some sort of punishment for our sins—God’s sense of morality demands it.  Because God is holy, though, God held off punishing us.  Instead, at the right time, Jesus—God the Son—took the punishment that should’ve gone to us.  When we accept that Jesus is our Savior, God, in God’s great holiness, takes away our sins and gives us the kind of righteousness that can only come from God.

           I’d say that makes God worthy of worship.  In fact, I think it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.  Here we are, the unholy, unrighteous, sinful people that we are.  There’s God, the Holy One, the Righteous One, the One who is without sin.  We deserve to be punished for our sins.  God knows that.  Yet, God does not punish us.  Instead, God takes our punishment for us and declares that we are righteous even when we’re not.  What an awesome, amazing, incredible gift.  And all we need to do is just accept it.

           A lot of us are probably familiar with the words of John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  That’s a great verse, but the next verse, John 3:17, is great, too.  Listen to what it says.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

           The Son could’ve been sent into the world to condemn us.  As Paul says, we’re all sinners.  The condemnation would’ve been no more than what we deserve.  God, though, does not give us what we deserve.  Instead, the Son was sent into the world to save us.  God the Son accepted the punishment for our sins so that instead of staying the unholy, unrighteous people we are, we can receive God’s righteousness. 

           We cannot make ourselves righteous.  God can.  God will.  All God asks of us in return but that we accept that righteousness by accepting Jesus Christ as our savior.

           Who is this God person?  This God person is the one who is so holy, so worthy of worship, as to take sinful people like you and me and make us righteous.  We don’t deserve that.  There’s nothing we can do to earn it.  God knows that.  That’s why God does not ask us to earn it.  God just gives it to us, as an amazing, undeserved, incredible gift.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why Praise the Lord?

The following message was given at Oahe Manor on Sunday, May 6, 2012.  The scripture is Psalm 148.

            The psalm we just heard gives a pretty clear message.  We’re supposed to praise the Lord.  The word “praise” shows up thirteen separate times in that psalm.
            It’s not just us who are supposed to praise the Lord, either.  All of creation is supposed to do it.  The angels are supposed to praise the Lord.  The sun, the moon, and the stars are supposed to praise the Lord.  The mountains and the trees are supposed to praise the Lord.  All animals, birds, sea creatures, and all other things that are involved in creation are supposed to praise the Lord.
            The idea that we’re supposed to praise the Lord is nothing new to most of us, of course.  We’ve heard that for a long time.  I think sometimes, though, we hear some of these things so often that we take them for granted and never stop to think about why we’re told to do them.  So, why is it that we’re told so many times in the Bible to praise the Lord?
            This is important, because it’s one of the things people who don’t believe in God will use to make fun of Christians.  They’ll ask, “What’s the deal with having to tell God how great he is all the time?  Is God vain?  Is God so insecure that God needs to constantly hear your praise?  Or are you trying to butter up God so you can get God to give you whatever you want?  If God is so great and so perfect, why does God need to hear you say so all the time?  God should know who God is.”
            Well, of course, God does know perfectly well who God is.  God is not vain or insecure. God is complete and perfect, and as such, God has no need to be reassured by anything we say.
            Still, if we’re going to bring people to Christ, it’s important that we know how to answer that criticism.  It’s important for ourselves that we know how to answer it, too.  If we don’t, then when we hear these criticisms, doubts are going to creep in, because we’re thinking creatures.  So, if God does not need to hear our praise, why are we told so often to give it?
            We’re told to give God praise because we need to give it.  We need to think our praises to God, we need to speak them, and we need to feel them.  We need to do that so we’ll remember who God is and remember how dependent we are on God.
            One of our human tendencies is to think more highly of ourselves than we should.  It’s really easy for us to start thinking that anything good that happens is because of what we’ve done.  It’s sort of like the old joke about the rooster who thought his crowing was what caused the sun to rise in the morning.  We find it really easy to take credit for anything good that happens, whether we actually had anything to do with it or not.
            The thing about that is that it leads to arrogance, and arrogance leads to all kinds of bad behavior.  Arrogance demands that we get our own way.  Arrogance keeps us from thinking about other people.  Arrogance tells us to do whatever we want to do, rather than trying to do what God wants us to do.  Arrogance tells us that it’s our will that should be done, rather than God’s will.
            The fact is that we can do nothing unless God allows it.  In fact, nothing even exists without God.  As the psalm says, God commanded, and all was created.  God’s decrees will never pass away.
            That last statement alone should take care of any arrogance we have:  God’s decrees will never pass away.  Can we humans do anything that will never pass away?  A lot of people have thought so.  People have amassed fortunes.  People have achieved world-wide fame.  People have created huge empires and achieved all kinds of power.  Yet, eventually it all goes away.  Every empire that has ever been created on this earth has eventually fallen.  How many names of people who were famous only a hundred years ago would we still recognize today?  As for wealth, well, we’ve all heard the old saying “you can’t take it with you”, and we all know that it’s true.
            God commanded, and all was created.  Anything good that ever happens is from God.  Whether God acted directly or indirectly, it is still from God.  God is the source of all goodness on this earth.
            That’s why we praise God.  Not because God needs to hear the praise, but because we need to give it.  We need to remember every day that God is the source of all greatness, and God is the source of all goodness.  When we say that, and when we acknowledge it, we can avoid the behavior that comes from arrogance.  Instead, we can remember that we are God’s people, and are called to do God’s will.  By remembering that, we can be the people God wants us to be.