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Friday, June 29, 2012

A Theology of Root Beer Floats

            A few weeks ago, I made a comment on facebook about loving root beer floats.  I noticed that this brief comment garnered many more likes and comments than my typical blog post, and observed that I should probably start blogging about root beer floats.

            Well, why not?  It’s summer.  If there was ever a time for root beer floats, this is it.  So, why not write about it?

            Why root beer floats, I wonder?  How did root beer became the beverage of choice for floats?  No one seems to know the reason, other than I gather it was the beverage used first.  I even went to the modern-day repository of all knowledge, the internet, and could not find the answer. 

It seems curious.  I like root beer okay, but it’s not my favorite soft drink.  I prefer Coke or Pepsi.  Most people do.  You can make a Coke float or a Pepsi float, of course, but most people don’t.  The root beer float is the gold standard, the thing all other floats are compared to.  It’s the Babe Ruth of floats.

Maybe it’s one of those eternal mysteries that we’ll never know the answer to.  And you know what?  That’s okay.  We know root beer floats are good.  We know they’re one of the best things it’s possible to have on a warm summer day.  Maybe that’s all we need to know.

As I think about it, there are a lot of things in God’s world that have no real reason for being, other than that they’re beautiful and/or enjoyable.  The colors of a sunset.  The perfect roundness of soap bubbles.  Roses.  The brilliance of a field of sunflowers.  Baseball.  Music.  Why not root beer floats, too?

Maybe that’s the better question to ask.  Instead of wondering why root beer floats, maybe the better question is, why not root beer floats?  Or, maybe the better thing is to not ask questions about root beer floats at all.  Maybe the better thing to do is just accept that root beer floats exist and enjoy them, rather than wondering about them.

In fact, that’s probably the best approach to take to all of the blessings God gives us.  Instead of wondering why God gives them to us, or instead of asking why God chooses to give them or not give them, maybe we should just accept God’s blessings and enjoy them.  After all, as I’ve said before, God is not a problem we have to work out or a puzzle we have to solve.  We’re not asked to understand God.  We’re asked to accept God’s blessings, serve God, and love God.

So, this summer, make sure you take the time to have a root beer float once in a while.  Not every day—there is the problem of too much of a good thing after all—but once in a while.  When you do, think about the incredible love of our awesome, wonderful God.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Attitude Adjustment

This is the message given at the WOW (Worship on Wednesdays) service in Gettysburg June 27, 2012.  The scripture is Matthew 18:21-35.

What we read in Matthew tonight is a pretty common theme in Jesus’ teaching.  We all hope to God will forgive us, we all want God to forgive us, we all need God to forgive us, but Jesus says God will only do that under one condition.  If we want to have God forgive us, then we need to forgive people on earth.  Jesus even says that in the Lord’s Prayer:  forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us

So, we need to learn to forgive people.  But how can we do that.  Obviously, it’s more than just saying the words.  That’s what we do when we’re little kids, right?  At least it’s what I did when I was a little kid.  I’d get into a fight with brother, and Mom would break it up, and then she’d say, “now tell him your sorry.”  And, of course, I would, but the truth is that I was not sorry at all.  If I was sorry about anything, it was that I had not hit him harder when I had the chance.

What Jesus says in this parable is that we will have to pay the full penalty for all the things we’ve done wrong unless we forgive people from our hearts.  That’s kind of a tough standard, you know?  Forgive people from our hearts.  We cannot just make an intellectual decision to forgive someone.  We cannot offer forgiveness to someone just because we know we should.  We need to really mean it.  We need to really feel it.  Nothing can be held back.  Forgiving someone from our hearts requires a total, emotional commitment to forgive.

That’s hard.  It’s hard because sometimes the wrongs that other people do to us are pretty serious.  Sometimes they’re done by people who we thought we could trust.  Sometimes they’re done by people who are really close to us.  Sometimes we put complete faith in someone, only to be betrayed by them.

I suspect most of here can think of a time when that’s happened to us.  If it has not happened to you yet, it probably will.  It happens to most of us at some point in our lives.

When that happens, it can be really hard to forgive someone.  In fact, it can be darn near impossible.  Even when we know we should forgive, it’s hard.  Even when we really want to forgive, it’s hard.  There are times when we wish we could forgive, when we know it’s the right thing to do.  There are times when we know the anger and resentment and bitterness we’re holding on to are bad for us, much less for the person we feel them toward.  We know forgiving would not only be the right thing to do, it would be the best thing we could do for ourselves.  Still, sometimes it just seems like we cannot do it.  We cannot forgive, no matter how hard we try.

So what do we do?  How do we make ourselves feel something we don’t feel?  And how do we make ourselves stop feeling something we do feel?

I think our parable gives us some clues.  Let’s look at it.

First, look at the way the question comes up.  Peter asks how many times he needs to forgive someone.  If Peter has a specific situation in mind when he asks this question, we’re not told about it.  He seems to just be asking about how we’re supposed to live our lives.

It seems to me that just asking the question that way, “How many times shall I forgive someone”, starts us off on the wrong foot.  Asking the question that way says we want forgiveness to be limited.  It says we don’t want to always offer forgiveness to people, we just want to forgive certain people at certain times for certain things.

That’s the first thing about ourselves that we that we need to change.  If, before anything even happens, we start out with the idea that we’re only going to forgive certain people for certain things, we’re lost before we start.  We need to begin with the goal of forgiving everyone, no matter what.  We may not be able to actually do it, but that should be our goal.  Otherwise, we’ll never be able to forgive the way Jesus wants us to.

            Then, Jesus tells Peter a story.  He tells him about a king who wants to settle his accounts.  The way Jesus tells it, it sounds like these are just business transactions.  The king does not seem to have any particular emotional investment in any of this.  He’s just collecting money.  A guy comes with a big debt, he can’t pay it, so the king says everything the guy has should be sold to pay the debt.  That’s what the law said was supposed to happen at that time.  It was nothing personal.  It was just business.

Then, though, the debtor makes it more than just business.  He begs and pleads with the king, promising that he’ll get the debt paid if only the king gives him more time.  That gets the king interested.  Now, he does get emotional.  He’s touched by what the plea of this debtor.  He not only agrees to give the guy more time, he cancels the debt entirely.  This guy will never have to pay the money back.  He’s off scot-free.

Now, you’d think the debtor would be happy about this.  What happens, though, is the debtor runs into another guy.  This guy owes the debtor some money.  What does he do?  He does not forgive the debt.  He does not even calmly ask for his money, the way the king did.  He immediately grabs this guy and starts choking him, demanding his money.  He refuses to listen to any please for mercy and has him thrown into prison.

Look at the difference in attitude.  The king may not have been looking to let people off, but at least he was open to it.  He did have any bad feelings toward the people who owed him money.  When the debtor found the guy who owed him money, however, he was spoiling for a fight.  He does not even give the guy a chance to pay him.  He immediately grabs him and chokes him, all the time demanding his money.  It never occurred to him to just forgive this guy.  Forgiveness was not on his radar.  He wanted vengeance, not forgiveness.  There was no way he could give forgiveness, because of his attitude.

            That’s where it needs to start.  That’s why Jesus says we need to offer forgiveness from our hearts.  We need to have an attitude of forgiveness long before anyone wrongs us.  At the very least, we need to be open to the idea of forgiveness.  If we don’t have our hearts right to begin with, we’ll never be able to offer forgiveness when the time comes.

            Now, remember, I said that where it starts.  That’s not where it ends.  Because, again, there are some wrongs that are really hard to forgive.  Even if we start with an attitude of forgiveness, how do we forgive someone who’s betrayed us?  How do we forgive someone who does not deserve our forgiveness and may not even be interested it?

            What we need to remember is that we don’t offer people forgiveness for their sake.  It may help them, or it may not, but that’s not the purpose of it.  We offer people forgiveness for our sake.  Not because we want God to forgive our sins, either.  I mean, we do want God to forgive our sins, but if we’re just offering forgiveness for that reason, the forgiveness will probably not come from our heart.

            When I say we offer people forgiveness for our sake, I’m talking about the effect offering forgiveness has on us.  Have you ever held a grudge for a while?  What’s that do to us?  It eats us up inside.  It poisons us.  It keeps us from moving forward.  We spend so much time living in the past, thinking about the hurts and betrayals of the past, that we cannot enjoy the present or the future.

            But, have you ever held a grudge for a while, and then finally let it go?  How’d that feel?  It feels great, right?  It feels like a weight has come off of us.  It feels like we’ve gotten rid of something that was weighing us down, like we’ve finally taken our foot of the brakes and now we can finally move forward with our lives.

            The only way we can move forward is to let go.  The only way we can let go is forgive.  And the only way we can forgive is to begin with an attitude of forgiveness and then to turn things over to God.

            It still won’t be easy, but it can be done.  It can done with God’s help, because all forgiveness, like all love, comes from God.  It can be done by feeling God’s Holy Spirit in our hearts.  When we have the Holy Spirit in our hearts, then we can forgive from our hearts.

Monday, June 25, 2012

We Are Family

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, June 24, 2012.  The scriptures are Mark 3:20-34 and Galatians 6:1-10.

           Wanda loves to watch the movies they have on the Hallmark Movie Channel.  Once in a while, if I’m home and I can’t find a ball game to watch, I’ll watch one with her.          

The thing about those movies is that, when you decide to watch one, you pretty much know what you’re getting.  You know, at the end of a Hallmark Channel movie, that the right woman will fall in love with the right man, whatever problems the kids are having will be worked out, and the people living in the town will all get along with each other.  In other words, these movies are pretty predictable.  When Wanda sits down to watch one of them, she knows there’s going to be a happy ending.
That’s not meant as a criticism.  As they say, this is a feature, not a bug.  When Wanda watches one of these shows, a happy ending is exactly what she wants.  Really, that’s what most of us want.  Not from a movie, necessarily, but from our lives.  The reason these shows appeal to us is that they show us a life that may or may not be realistic, but it’s a life we wish we had.  If we’re single, we want to fall in love with the right woman or the right man.  If we have kids, we want to believe that whatever problems they’re having will work out.  We want to live in families where we love each other and we all get along.  We want to live in communities where people care about each other and help each other and are there for each other.
As we continue our sermon series, Stone Tablets in a Wireless World, this is one of the biggest changes we see in society.  Loving families and loving communities used to be accepted as the normal thing in this country.  I mean, I know that the world was never really like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry or Leave It to Beaver’s Springfield, but there was a time when it was close enough that those towns and the people in them were recognizable to us.  We saw something of ourselves in those people.  We may not have all cared about each other the way the people in those families and in those towns did, but it was something we wanted.  It was an ideal we were trying to move toward, and it did not seem impossible that we could have it.
It’s not that way any more.  Mom and Dad getting married and raising children and staying together all their lives is not nearly as common as it used to be.  People knowing all their neighbors and visiting with each other and caring for each other is not nearly as common as it used to be.
Maybe you think this is not a problem in our little town, but think about it.  Think of all the families you know who’ve been touched by divorce.  I’m not saying this as a criticism or to pass judgment on anyone, but just think about them. 

Also, maybe you think you know everybody in town, but do you really?  Next time you go to a community event, look around.  How many people there do you really know?  Maybe you know their names, but how many do you know well enough that you’d invite them over for dinner?  How many do you know well enough that you’d know if they were going through a serious problem?  How many do you know well enough that, if you were the one going through a serious problem, you could call them up and you know they’d be there to help?
Even in a town like this, it can be easy for us to feel alone.  Even when we know people’s names, we have a lot more acquaintances than we have real friends.  Even when our families get along, a lot of us live a long way from a lot of our family.  There are a lot of us, even in this little town, who don’t really know who they’d call if they were in trouble and needed help.
That brings us to our reading from Mark.  Jesus is with a crowd of people, and his mother and his brothers come.  They cannot get through the crowd, so they send a message up to Jesus that they want to see him.  Jesus does not get up and go to them, at least not right away.  Instead, Jesus says my mother and my brothers are right here.  Anyone who does God’s will is my mother or my brother or my sister.
Sometimes, we read that and think Jesus was being really disrespectful to his family.  That might very well be how some of the people who heard his statement took it.  I don’t think that was Jesus’ intent, though.  I think what Jesus was doing was making a point.
Jesus was trying to get us to look at family in a different way.  Jesus was telling us that family is more than blood relatives.  Those people are important, certainly, but they’re not the only ones we should consider family.  We should consider all Christians to be family.  Everyone who loves God is part of our family.
That was quite a change in attitude in Jesus’ time.  It’s still quite a change for us, today.  Think about how our attitudes would change if we truly looked at all Christians as family.  Think about how differently we’d treat people if, instead of looking at them as acquaintances, we looked at them as brothers and sisters. 

We’d show a lot more love to people, don’t you think?  We’d take more time to get to know people.  We’d take more of an interest in their lives.  We’d try a lot harder to find out what was going on with them.  We’d want to know when they were going through a bad time, so we could help them out.  We’d want to know when they were going through a good time, so we could celebrate with them.  We’d do what Paul writes in our reading from Galatians.  We’d carry each other’s burdens and do good to all people.  We’d be a lot closer to the people around us if we looked at them as brothers and sisters, rather than as acquaintances.

Now, at this point, maybe you’re thinking, if Jesus wanted to expand the definition of family, why did he limit it to just people who do God’s will?  Is Jesus saying that people who are not Christian, who do not believe in God, are not are brothers and sisters?  Are we not supposed to care about those people?

It’s a legitimate question.  After all, Jesus could’ve said, “all people are my brother and sister and mother.”  He did not.  He said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”  Why would Jesus have said that, if not to limit the people we’re supposed to treat as family?

Well, I think there’s another explanation.  I think what Jesus was telling us is that we’re supposed to try to make our family grow.  After all, what do we do when our families grow, whether by birth or by adoption or by marriage?  We celebrate, right?  We throw a party.  We want our families to grow.  We’re happy when they grow.

That’s how we need to look at our Christian family.  We need to try to make it grow.  We need to reach out to people in love and make them want to be part of our family.  We need to invite them into our family.  We need to let them know we have a place for them.  We need to know they are not just welcome in our family, but that we want them to be a part of our family.

In fact, we need to treat them like family even before they actually are.  That’s what we do in families, right?  If someone in our family is serious about someone, even before they get married, even before they get engaged, we start treating them like family.  We start getting to know them personally.  We start getting involved in their lives.  We invite them to family gatherings.  We include them in family pictures.  We’re letting them know that we’ve started to think of them as family, whether they’re actually family or not.

When we’re reaching out to people, that’s what we need to do.  We need to start treating them like family even before they actually are.  We need to get to know them personally.  We need to start getting involved in their lives.  We need to start inviting them to the stuff we have going on.  We need to let them know we think of them as family, whether they’re actually family or not.

Life may not be a Hallmark Channel movie, and we may not live in Mayberry.  We can still work toward that, though.  We can care for each other.  We can love each other.  By doing that, we can make all the people around us our brother and sister and mother, just like Jesus did.  Then, we can all have the happy ending we all want.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Hoop of Love

            I wrote earlier that one of the things I felt about my ordination was a sense of relief.  I just want to explain a little more what I meant by that.

            It was not just a sense of relief that I’d actually been approved.  There was some of that, of course; you never know for sure that something is going to happen until it does.  Still, I was not all that worried that I was going to be rejected.

            The sense of relief comes from the fact that ordination is an awfully long process, and there are a lot of things you have to do.  I know there needs to be a process, and I know there are good reasons why the process is what it is.  My point is not to be critical.  Still, after a while, I started feeling like I was just being asked to jump through hoops, and fifty-three is pretty old to be jumping through hoops.  The relief comes from knowing that I’m finally through with the process, and I finally don’t have to jump through hoops any more.

            Except, of course, that’s not true.  I won’t have to jump through those same hoops again, but I’ll still have to jump through hoops.  We all do.  If you’ve ever tried to get a driver’s license, you’ve had to jump through hoops.  If you’ve ever been involved in a car accident, you’ve had to jump through hoops.  If you’ve ever tried to get (or use) health insurance, you’ve had to jump through hoops.  If you’ve ever had to deal with the government in any way, you’ve had to jump through hoops. 

I’m not whining about it.  Well, maybe I am, but my point is not to whine about it.  My point is that this is just the way life is.  Jumping through hoops is completely non-discriminatory.  It does not matter who you are.  It does not matter where you live.  It does not matter what you look like.  It does not matter how much money you have.  It does not even matter how powerful you are.  Even the president, who is sometimes referred to as the most powerful man on earth, has times when he has to jump through hoops.  It’s just the way it goes.

The great thing about God is that God hardly has any hoops at all.  The church can have a lot of them, sometimes, but God does not.  In fact, I can only think of one hoop God has:  love.  Jesus told us to love God and to love the people God created.  That’s the only hoop God asks us to jump through:  the hoop of love.  The other hoops were created by humans, not by God.

Society, being full of human beings, will ask us to jump through lots of hoops.  As we consider those hoops, let’s remember to stay focused on God’s hoop of love.  If we all made sure we jumped through that one, the other hoops would become pretty much irrelevant.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hide and Seek

Below is the message given at the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg June 20.  The scripture is Luke 15:1-10.

            I remember back when I was about eight years old, I went to a high school basketball game with my folks in my old home town of Delmont.  I did that a lot, of course—I loved sports even then, and my oldest brother was on the team—but I remember this one particular time for a reason. 

After we got to the game, I did what most eight-year-olds do at a basketball game.  I went off to play with my friends.  Eventually the game got over, everybody started leaving, and I went to find my parents so we could go home.  I got near the exit, where I thought they’d have to come, but I never saw them.  Either they went out a different way, or I just missed them somehow.

Once I realized that, I went out to where I knew the car was parked.  As I approached it, I saw the car start to move.  I thought Dad was just playing a trick on me, pretending to leave to make me scared, but the car kept going.  I started running after it, but apparently Dad did not check the rear-view mirror and did not see me.  The tail lights got smaller, and eventually disappeared.  I had been left behind.

Well, they did not do it on purpose, of course.  When they did not see me, they figured I’d gone home with my brother.  My brother, of course, figured I was going home with my folks.  It was just a mistake.  I probably should’ve been smart enough to figure that out, and if I’d stopped to think, maybe I would’ve been.  At the moment, though, all I could feel was fear.  There I was eight years old, left alone on the mean streets of Delmont.

It all worked out, of course.  I walked to a friend’s house, they called my parents, and they came and got me.  I probably got some sort of a lecture about not wandering off, but I really don’t remember that part.  I just remember how scared I was when I thought I was lost, and how relieved I was when my parents came and I was found.

That’s not the only time in my life I’ve felt lost and alone.  It’s happened to me several times at various points along the journey of life.  I’ll bet it’s happened to you, too.  That’s why these stories Jesus tells about a lost sheep and a lost coin resonate so well with us.  Most of us know what it’s like to be lost, and most of us know what it’s like to be found, too.

As I was thinking about these stories Jesus told, there were a couple of things that struck me about it.  One of them is how persistently the lost item is looked for.  The searcher never gives up.  In fact, it looks like it never even occurs to the searcher to give up.  Listen to how Jesus put this:  the man who lost a sheep will “go after the lost sheep until he finds it.”  The woman who lost a coin will “search carefully until she finds it.” 

Think about that.  They search until they find it.  They don’t just search for a little while and then quit.  They don’t just check a few likely places and when they cannot find what they’re looking for go on about their business.  They look until they find it.  It does not matter where they have to go.  It does not matter what they have to do.  It does not matter how long it takes.  It does not matter what else they might have going on.  They look until they find it.

That’s how it is with God when we get lost.  God will look for us, and God will keep looking until God finds us.  It does not matter where God has to go to find us.  It does not matter what God has to do to find us.  It does not matter how long it takes for God to find us.  It does not matter what else God might have to do.  God will look for us until God finds us.

God does that for the same reason the man looks for the lost sheep until he finds it, and the same reason the woman looks for the coin until she finds.  God does that because each one of us is that important to God.

Maybe you wonder sometimes, why are we that important to God?  I mean, God is so much bigger and more powerful than we are.  Why should God care about us so much?

Well, think of that story of my getting left behind in Delmont.  Suppose I had not thought to go to a friend’s house.  Suppose, instead, I had just started aimlessly wandering those mean streets of Delmont.  What do you think my folks would’ve done?  They’d have gotten back to Delmont as fast as they could.  They’d have looked everywhere they could think of.  They’d have gone to everyone in town to ask if they’d seen me.  They’d have gotten the police involved.  They’d have done everything they could possibly do to find me.

Well, that’s obvious, I suppose, but why?  Why should they have done that?  I mean, my parents were so much bigger and more powerful than I was.  Why should they care about me so much?

Of course, you know the answer.  It’s because I’m their son.  That’s all the reason they needed.  It did not matter that they were bigger and more powerful.  In fact, that made them care about me even more.  They knew I could never make it on my own.  They knew I needed them to take care of me.  Because I’m their son, they were going to do everything they could to take care of me.  In fact, all these years later, they still do everything they can to take care of me, because I’m their son.

You and I are God’s children.  That’s all the reason God needs to care about us.  It does not matter that God is so much bigger and more powerful than we are.  In fact, that makes God care about us even more.  God knows you and I can never make it on our own.  God knows we need God to take care of us.  God takes care of us through our whole lives, because we’re God’s children.

Remember, though, I said there were two things about this story that struck me.  Here’s the other one.  The man will look for the sheep until he finds it, but what if the sheep decided it did not want to be found?  What if the sheep purposely hid from the shepherd?  What if every time the shepherd got close to finding the sheep, the sheep ran farther away?  Or, what if the shepherd found the sheep, only to have the sheep run away again?

            Sadly, that’s what we do sometimes.  We deliberately keep ourselves from God.  And the thing is that God allows us to do that.  God gives us free will.  God will never give up on us, and God will keep trying to get us to come back, but God will not force us.  God allows us the power to separate ourselves from God if that’s what we choose to do.

It’s such a sad thing when we do that.  It’s tragic, it really is.  It’s tragic in the eternal sense, of course, but it’s also tragic right here on earth.  God wants so much to take care of us.  God wants so much to help us.  We don’t even have to do anything, really.  All we have to do is stop resisting, stop hiding, and stop running, and let God find us.

If that’s what anyone here has been doing, why not stop?  Why not just stop where you are, turn around, and wait for God to find you?  I’ll bet it won’t even take very long.  And if you know someone who’s been doing that, try to get them to stop.  I mean, don’t try to force them, don’t try to threaten them or anything like that.  Just ask them to stop, turn around, and wait for God to find them.  After all, God already knows where they are.  All we need to do is stop resisting, stop hiding, and stop running.  All we need to do is turn around, and there God will be.

Jesus said there is a huge celebration in heaven and among the angels when just one person who was lost finally allows themselves to be found.  Let’s find a way to help kick off a party in heaven tonight!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Give It to Me

The following message was given at the Oahe Manor service Sunday, June 17.  The scripture was 1 Kings 17.

The prophet Elijah goes to Zarephath, at God’s command, and meets a widow.  Let’s think about this widow a little bit.  She was living in an area where almost everyone worshipped the false god Baal, and it’s likely that she did, too.  Yet God said that he was going to command this widow to feed Elijah, and God must have done so, because when Elijah asked for food, the first words she said to him were, “As the Lord your God lives.”  God must have spoken to this widow, and she must have recognized God as a god.  Not the God, maybe, but at least a god.
And the amazing thing is that, even though she did not claim God as the God, look at what she did.  When Elijah asked for food, she first told him that she had almost nothing and had no prospect of ever having anything.  She had just enough that she could make one last meal for herself and her son, that they planned to eat that, and then they would die.  And Elijah still tells her to give some of that little bit that she had to him, and that if she did, she would never run out of food until the drought was over.
Now, what would you do if you were in her place?  Would you just say, “Sure, no problem” and give this guy, who you’ve never met before, some of the very little bit of food you have?  Or would you say, “You idiot, didn’t you hear what I said?  My son and I are going to starve, and you think I should give some food to you?  Get out of here!”
Seriously, which one of those seems like a more likely response?  Yet, look at the amazing thing this widow did.  This incredibly poor woman, who did not claim God as her god, still trusted God enough to do what Elijah told her to do.  She went and gave him some food.  Think about the incredible faith she had.  She had enough faith that she trusted a God who wasn’t even her god.  She may not have loved God, but she trusted God.  And God rewarded her and gave her enough food to survive the drought.
But look what happens next.  The next sentence tells us that “after this”, the son of this woman got sick.  Not only that, but he was so sick that there was no breath left in him.  In other words, he was dead.  Now, we aren’t told how long after this it was, but we know Elijah was still there and that what had happened was still pretty fresh in this woman’s mind.  So she went to Elijah and said, “Hey, what’s going on here?  What did I do to you?  You came, and I did what you said, and now my son is dead.”
How many times have we done something like that?  Something bad happens, maybe something very bad, and we go to God and say, “What’s going on here?  I followed you, I tried to obey you, and yet you did this to me.”  We do that all the time, don’t we?  It’s a natural reaction to sadness and pain—we blame God for it.
But where we make our mistake is that, too often, we don’t wait for God’s response.  Look at what that response was here.  Elijah did not get mad at this woman.  He didn’t criticize her for blaming him, or for blaming God, for what happened.  Instead, Elijah simply said to the woman, “Give me your son.”  And she did.
Now, notice something else here.  Elijah did not say what he was going to do if this woman gave him her son.  He did not promise to bring her son back to life.  He did not promise to do anything.  He just said, “Give me your son.”  And the widow obeyed him and gave her son to him.
Then Elijah prayed to God.  He did not just say a quick prayer and expect an immediate result, he cried out to God, and he cried out repeatedly.  Eventually, God heard his prayer, and brought the son back to life.  And when the son came back to life, and Elijah gave him back to his mother, the widow came to truly believe in God, and to believe that God is indeed truth.
What happened to that widow can happen with us.  God tells us to do what she did:  turn things over to God.  When bad things happen, when we don’t understand what’s going on or why, when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse, and when we feel like yelling and screaming at God and blaming God for what’s happened, God won’t get mad at us.  Instead, God just says, “Give it to Me.  Turn it over to Me.  Let Me have your sadness, your worry, your fears, your problems.  Let Me have your tragedies, your anxieties, your doubts.  Let Me have it all.  I’ll take care of it.  Just give it all to Me.”
That’s what the widow did.  It’s what we need to do.  When we’re miserable, when we don’t understand what’s happening or why, even when we blame God for what’s happening, we still need to trust God.  We still need to give everything to God.  We need to trust God enough that we can give everything to God without any promises, without any assurances, without any knowledge of what will happen when we do.
It’s tough to do that.  There’s nothing easy about it.  But we have an advantage over this widow.  We know God loves us.  We may not know exactly what’s going to happen, but we know God loves us.  We know God’s not looking to punish us or give us what we deserve.  We know, instead, that God will give us much better than we deserve.
Whatever’s in our hearts today, let’s turn it over to God.  It may be something in your own life.  It may be something in the life of a loved one.  It may be something that concerns a friend.  It may be something that concerns society as a whole.  Whatever it is, let’s turn it over to God.  Let’s trust God enough to give everything to God, not knowing exactly what will happen, but knowing that whatever God does, it will be for the best.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

You Can't Make Me!

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, June 17.  The scriptures are Leviticus 19 and Luke 11:37-52.

            When we had our Bible readings this morning, I asked you to trust me that there was a reason we were reading that stuff from Leviticus.  Well, here’s the reason.  If you were listening when we read that part, what you heard was a bunch of rules.  You heard rules about how to sacrifice to God properly.  You heard rules about how we’re supposed to gather the harvest.  You heard rules about when we can or cannot eat certain fruit.  You heard rules about how meat has to be prepared.  You heard rules about how to cut our hair.  Our reading from Leviticus was simply a bunch of rules.

            Most people don’t like rules.  We don’t like to be told what to do and what not to do.  Most of the time, if someone tries to do that, we push back from it.  We may not even realize what we’re doing or why, but we do.

            It starts from the time we’re kids.  What’s one of the first words a little kid learns?  “No!”  Do you want to do this?  “No!”  Why don’t you try a little of that?  “No!”  You need to do your chores.  “No!”

            We just don’t like being told what we can and cannot do.  It goes back to the story of Adam and Eve.  Here they were, in paradise.  They had everything they could ever want or need.  God only gave them one rule.  God said, see that tree over there?  You cannot eat the fruit from that one tree.  You can eat all the other fruit from all the other trees.  You can have as much fruit as you want.  You can eat so much fruit that you make yourself sick.  Just don’t eat the fruit from that one tree.  That’s the only rule.

            So what did Adam and Eve do?  They ate the fruit from that one tree.  Yeah, the serpent was involved and all that, but still, I wonder sometimes.  If God had never told Adam and Eve they could not have the fruit from that one tree, would they even have wanted it?  Would it even have occurred to them to go take the fruit from that one tree?  But as soon as God gave them a rule, then all of a sudden they had to push back against it.  There’s just something in us that does not like being told what we can or cannot do.

            Now, maybe some of you are wondering what this has to do with our sermon series, Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.  Well, it has everything to do with it, because as we look at how society has changed, this is one of the biggest ways.  We used to live in a society with lots of rules.  Now, we don’t any more.  Instead, we live in a society that has all kinds of choices and options. 

Think about TV.  When I was a kid, we got three channels.  On a good day, when the weather was just right, we might get four.  They were in black and white, and they only broadcast at certain times.  Now, we get a hundred fifty channels broadcasting twenty-four hours a day in high definition.  If we’re not going to be home when our show’s on, or if it’s just not convenient to watch it then, we use the DVR.  Or we find it on the internet.  Or we go to Netflix.  Or we watch it on our phone.  Nobody can tell us what we have to watch, or when, or where.  We make those decisions for ourselves.
We want to make all our decisions for ourselves.  Recently, my dad got a walker.  Dad’s eighty-nine, and we’ve been telling him he needed a walker for some time now, but he kept resisting.  Finally, when we all shut up about it, he decided to get one.  No one was going to tell him when he had to get a walker.  He wanted to make that decision for himself.  We all want to make our decisions for ourselves.

            We don’t live in a society of rules.  We live in a society of choices.  We live in a society where we get to decide what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it, and by golly, nobody’s going to tell us differently.

            A lot of times, though, when people look at the church, what do they see?  Or at least, what do they think they see?  They see a bunch of rules, and a bunch of rule-makers.  A lot of people look at the church as being like that reading we heard from Leviticus.  They look at it as a bunch of people who are trying to tell them how to live.  They look at it as bunch of people who are trying to tell them what they have to do and when they have to do it.  They don’t like it.  And so, they don’t come.

            Now, to be honest, there are times when we in the church come across that way.  We may not mean to, but sometimes we do.  We may do it with the best of intentions, we may do it in situations where we’re only trying to help, but we still do it sometimes.  That can be a turn-off to people, because again, most of us don’t want someone else telling us what we have to do or what we cannot do.  We want to make decisions ourselves.

            Even though our society is very different than the one when the Bible was written, though, we see a similar situation in our reading from Luke.  Remember, in Jesus’ time, the big rule-makers were the Pharisees.  They criticized Jesus because he did not follow their rules.

            Jesus criticized them right back.  What did he say?  Two things, and they’re really related to each other.  First, he said, look, you guys are so focused on the rules that you’ve forgotten about love.  Love is the most important rule of all.  Love is the rule we need to focus on first and foremost.  If we don’t follow the rule of love, it does not matter what other rules we follow.  We’re not doing it right if we don’t live out of love.

            The second thing Jesus said is, look at what you’re doing with all these rules.  You’re making people’s lives a burden.  You’re loading them down so much with all these rules that they can hardly stand up any more.  Not only that, you’re not doing anything to help them follow all these rules you’re loading them down with.  That’s not love.  In fact, that’s the opposite of love.  All these rules you’re giving people are making them miserable.

            Now, at this point some of you may be thinking, “Wait a minute.  Jesus said a lot of other stuff, too.  Jesus also said that he came not to change the law, but to fulfill it.  Besides, there are a lot of places in the Bible that have rules.  Are you telling us we should just ignore all of that?  I thought the Bible was supposed to be the inspired word of God.  How can you tell us we can just ignore all those rules?”

            Well, that’s not what I’m telling you.  What I am telling you, though, is that I don’t think God put those rules in the Bible to give us heavy burdens to carry.  I don’t think God put those rules there to make us all miserable.

In fact, I think it’s the opposite.  I think God put those rules there to help us.  God did not make all these rules just so God would have an excuse to send us to hell if we did not follow them.  What God did was say, look, if you live my way, your life is going to go a lot better.  You’ll be a lot happier if you’ll just live the way I’m telling you to live.

It’s not a matter of salvation.  Jesus told us that the only rules we have to follow for salvation are that we love God and that we love others.  Jesus told us that if we believe in God and accept Jesus as our savior, we will be saved.  Those are the only rules we have to follow for our salvation.  When we go beyond that, we’re giving ourselves and other people a load we cannot carry.  We’re making our own lives and other people’s lives miserable.
It’s not that God will send us to hell if we don’t follow God’s rules.  The thing is that, if we don’t live the way God wants us to live, we run the risk of creating our own hell while we’re on earth.  We run the risk of living meaningless, empty lives.  We run the risk of living lives separated from God and from others.  That’s not what God wants for us.  God gave us rules because if we live the way God wants us to live, we’ll have a lot better chance of living lives that are happy and meaningful.  We’ll have a lot better chance of living the full, complete, joyous lives that God wants us to live.  God gave us rules for living because God loves us.

            Rules don’t attract people.  Love does.  If we load people up with a bunch of rules, they’ll resist and push back against us.  If we load people up with love, they’ll be attracted to us.  They’ll want to know where that love comes from, how they can get it in their lives, and how they can give it to other people, too.  Because, you see, that’s the greatest thing about love.  It’s great to get love, but it’s even better to be able to give it to someone else.

            If we show love to all the people God gives us to love, we’ll be following the greatest rule of all.  Not only that, we’ll be doing the best thing we can do to share the message of those old stone tablets to a wireless world.

Friday, June 15, 2012

We're Not Good Enough

            There’s an old story about a guy who dies and is standing just outside the Pearly Gates, hoping to get into heaven.  St. Peter asks him, “Why should you be allowed into heaven?”  The guy answered, “Well, I attended church all my life and once I went twelve years without missing a Sunday.”  St. Peter said, “Well, that’s not too bad.  I think I can give you one point for that.” 

Well, the guy starts to get a little uncomfortable.  He didn’t know how many points he needed, but he was pretty sure it was more than one.  So he said, “Well, wait now, that’s not all.  I’ve always been kind to children, too.”  St. Peter says, “Well, that’s good, too.  I’ll give you half a point for that one.” I

Now the guy’s starting to get nervous.  He says, “Now, wait a minute.  I’ve also given lots of money to help the needy.”  St. Peter says, “Well, that’s pretty good, too. I guess I can give you another half a point for that.” 

Well, the guy thinks he must be in serious trouble.  He starts to panic.  Finally, he cries out, “Well, good grief, at this rate, I’ll only get into heaven by the grace of God.” 

St. Peter says, “Now you understand.  Welcome to heaven.”

We only get into heaven by the grace of God.  The reason I bring that up is because of what Paul was writing about in our reading from Galatians.  He says we are “justified” by our faith in Christ.  The word “justified” doesn’t mean that we are perfectly holy.  What it means is that we are considered to be perfectly holy.

What’s the difference?  Well, it’s a pretty big one.  See, God knows what sinners we are.  Believe me, God knows it a lot better than we do.  That’s why Jesus was sent here to us, to die for us, so that our sins would be forgiven.  God knows that we’re not actually perfectly holy, and we’re not likely to be.  God knows that if humans were required to be perfectly holy to get to heaven, heaven would be a pretty lonely place. 

But being considered perfectly holy is different from actually being perfectly holy.  That’s why Paul tells us that we’re justified through our faith in Jesus.  If we believe in Jesus, if we truly have faith in him as the Son of God, God will forgive our sins.  That means that God will consider us to be perfectly holy, even though we’re not.  That’s what Paul means about we’re justified by faith—our faith in Jesus leads God to forgive our sins, and that leads God to look at us as being perfectly holy, even though we’re still sinners.

When you think about it that way, it’s such an amazing gift.  God knows exactly what we are, and yet considers us perfectly holy if we only have faith in the Son.  In one sense God sees us just as we are, and yet in another sense God does not see us that way at all.  God knows our sin is there, yet God ignores it, and sees us as perfectly holy, if we only have that faith.

It sounds so simple when we think of it that way.  Still, we sometimes have a hard time accepting it.  It runs contrary to everything we’ve ever been taught by society.  We grow up with these ideas of justice, of right and wrong.  We grow up with the idea that we’re responsible for our actions, that we earn what we get and get what we deserve.  We grow up with the idea that good behavior should be rewarded and bad behavior should be punished.  Those ideas make it hard to understand that God does not work that way.

Even though we read verses like this, and we hear about God’s grace and mercy, we still never quite get over these ideas we grew up with.  We look at our lives, and we know we’re not worthy of God’s grace and mercy.  So, instead of just accepting God’s grace as the wonderful, amazing gift that it is, we do exactly what Paul tells us won’t work.  We start trying to earn our salvation through works of the law.

Now, that doesn’t mean we try to follow all the old Jewish laws that Paul was talking about.  Most of us don’t have a clue about what they even were.  But still, we
have this idea that we have to be “good enough” to get to heaven, that heaven is a place we have to earn our way into.  It’s like we have this idea that God has this big scale and is going to take all the good things we’ve done and put those on one side of the scale, and take all the bad things we’ve done and put them on the other side of the scale, and then weigh it all out, see which side comes out on top, and decide whether we get to heaven.

Now, when we put it that way, it sounds kind of silly.  But still, somehow, we have that idea in our heads.  So when we fall short, we tend to beat ourselves up, to tell ourselves we’re not good enough and God could never want us to be in heaven.

But that’s where grace comes into it.  God does want us in heaven.  If we just have faith, if we just believe in Jesus as the divine Son of God, we’ll go there.  We will be justified.  Our faith will justify us.  We will be considered perfectly holy by God, even though God knows perfectly well that we’re not.

Faith is not an easy thing to have in our society.  We’ve seen so many people let us down.  Celebrities, athletes, politicians; it seems like every day we hear something in the news about someone who’s failed us.  But God never fails us.  God is the One we can put our faith in.  If we trust God, if we trust the divine Son, Jesus, we will be justified.  God will consider us holy.  God will lead us home.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

From One to a Hundred

This is the message given at the WOW (Worship on Wednesdays) service in Gettysburg on June 13.  The scripture is Matthew 13:1-9.

Our gospel reading from Matthew today was Jesus’ parable of the sower.  Some of you have probably heard this story many times; others may be hearing it for the first time, I don’t know.  Today, though, I’d like to take a look at this story from what maybe is a little different perspective.
        The way we usually look at this story is to think of the seed as the word of God, and of ourselves as the different types of soil.  Some of us are the path, some are rocky soil, some are thorny soil.  Sometimes we’re different types of soil at different times.  What we’re trying to be, of course, is the good soil, in which the word of the kingdom of God can take root and grow.
That’s a perfectly legitimate interpretation, of course, and there are a lot of good lessons that can be drawn from that.  Tonight, though, I’d like us to look at it a little differently.  Jesus, at the end of the gospel of Matthew, calls us to cover the earth with his gospel to spread it to everyone, everywhere.  So, if the seed is the word of God, and we are called to spread the word of God, that means that, in one sense, each one of us is the sower.  Each one of us is responsible for spreading the seed.                       
Now, I grew up on a farm, and while I don’t claim to be a farmer I did learn a few things about it.  One thing I know is that if you want to raise a crop, you cannot just go out into the field and start tossing seed around.  You’ve got to prepare the ground, you’ve got to fertilize, you’ve got to do all kinds of things.  If you’ve got a bunch of rocks in the field, you’ve got to get rid of them.  If you’ve got a bunch of thorns and weeds in the ground, you have to get them out of there.  That was true in Jesus’ time, too.  Going out to the field and just throwing the seed out there the way Jesus describes it would’ve seemed totally ridiculous to his audience.
Jesus told this story to make a couple of points.  One was about who is supposed to hear the word of God:  everybody.  And another was about who is supposed spread that word to them:  we are.
Now, I think, on some level, most of us know that.  I’m sure some of us do it, too, sometimes.  Not all of us, though, and not all the time.  So the question is, why not?  If we know Jesus calls us to spread his message to everyone, why don’t more of us do it more often?
There are at least a couple of reasons.  One is that we worry too much about how people will react to God’s word.  We pre-judge people.  We think, “Well, this person is probably like the path. The word of God is just going to bounce off them and make no impact.  That person? They’re probably the rocky soil, or maybe the thorny ground.  They may come around for a while, but they’ll never stick with God.”  We decide beforehand how people will respond to God’s word, and so never give them the chance to prove us wrong.
Jesus says that’s the wrong way to go about it.  Jesus, in this story, did not make the sower responsible for the condition of the soil.  In that same way, you and I are not responsible for how people will react to God’s word.  We are not responsible for whether someone else comes to Christ.  You and I are simply called to share God’s word.  We’re called to do everything we can to bring people to Christ.  We’re called to never give up on anyone, but we are not responsible for the ultimate outcome.  If we have done all we can do, that’s all God asks of us.  We’ve done our part.  The rest is in God’s hands.
There’s another reason why we don’t spread God’s word the way we should, though.  It goes beyond worrying about how people will react to the word of God.  Too often, what we’re really worried about is, how will people react to us?
I understand that.  I’m standing up here now, but I spent forty-seven years of my life sitting out there where you are.  It’s real easy, when you’re the pastor and you’re standing up here, to tell people they need to go out and spread God’s word.  After all, a pastor is supposed to talk about God.  Once people find out you’re a pastor, they expect it from you.  It’s a little different when you’re a member of the congregation.
What it comes down to, really, is that no one wants to be thought of as goofy. We want to fit in.  We want to be a part of things.  Nobody, including the pastor, wants to be thought of as odd or strange.  Everyone has a natural desire to be a part of the mainstream of society, whatever the mainstream of society happens to be.
The problem for us, as Christians, is that when we look at the mainstream of society, we see a lot of thorns.  We see a lot of rocky soil.  We see the path.  We don’t see a whole lot of good soil.  Now, as I said, we’re not responsible for that, but we do need to recognize it.  The reason we need to recognize it is that it means, when we try to share the word of God with people, that we’re taking a risk.  If we start talking about God when we’re at coffee with people, they may look at us funny.  If we start talking about God when we’re at work, people may wonder what’s going on with us.  All of a sudden, we may not fit in any more.  All of a sudden, we’re that religious nut, that guy or that woman who’s talking about God all the time.  That can make us feel pretty uncomfortable.
The desire to fit in, to be a part of the crowd, to go along and get along, is pretty powerful.  It affects all of us.  You know, we talk a lot about kids giving in to peer pressure, but peer pressure does not just affect kids.  It affects all of us.  We’re all subject to giving in to it.
What we need to remember is that, as Christians, we’re not called to go along with the crowd.  We’re called to be different.  Jesus certainly was.  That’s what got him into so much trouble.  Jesus constantly went against the mainstream of society. He spent time with society’s outcasts—the tax collectors, the lepers, the lowest of the low.  He argued with society’s leaders—the Pharisees, the wealthy, the people at the top of the ladder. Jesus never was concerned about whether he fit into society.  His goal was to change society, not to fit into it.
That’s what our goal needs to be, too:  to change society by spreading God’s love and God’s word.  Jesus came to start the process of bringing about that change.  Then, Jesus gave us a message so we could continue bringing about that change.
So, if we spread Jesus’ message, what’s going to happen?  Are there going to be times when God’s word does not take root, when it seems like our efforts have been worthless?  Yes, probably; after all, even Jesus could not convince everybody.  Are there going to be times when we think we’ve been successful, only to see the people we’ve spread God’s word to fall away?  Yes, that’ll probably happen, too.  After all, people fell away from Jesus, too, when things got tough.  Will there be times when people look down us, or make fun of us, or when our beliefs get us in trouble in some other way? Yes, that could happen as well.
When we look at all these possible negatives, though, we forget something.  We forget about the good soil.  Look at what Jesus says about the good soil.  Jesus says that the one seed that lands in good soil, the one person to whom we share God’s word and it takes root, yields, thirty, sixty, a hundredfold!  In other words, that one person with whom the word of God does connect more than makes up for all the others.  What that one person who comes to Christ through us can do for God more than makes up for all those supposed failures.
What we need to do, really, is remember that it’s not about us.  It’s about God. We are asked to serve God.  We’re not asked to be popular.  We’re not even asked to be successful, at least not as the world sees success.  What we’re supposed to do is follow God’s will.  We’re supposed to spread God’s word over the entire earth, so that everyone is covered with God’s glory.
But, we think, how can we do that?  Look around here.  There are so few of us.  How can we few people possibly spread God’s word over the whole earth?  
Well, we cannot do that.  Not by ourselves.  The thing is, though, that we don’t do it by ourselves.  We work with Christians all over the world.  Most importantly, we work with God, and with God we can do anything. Nothing is impossible for God.
Jesus said that one seed, one person in whom God’s word takes root, can increase one hundred fold.  This little group, if the word of God takes root in us, can be part of spreading that word throughout the whole world.
Let’s go out and sow some seed!


            As most of you probably know, last week I was ordained as an elder in full connection to the Dakotas Conference of the United Methodist church.  The ordination was made complete at a worship service held in conjunction with Annual Conference at First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls.
            In the weeks before the service, I wondered whether I would actually feel anything about the ordination.  I don’t mean that in a critical way, but what I was thinking was that it really would not change anything about the job I do.  It would not change anything about the people I serve or how I serve them.  Being ordained would not make me better at delivering sermons, or at reaching out to people, or at any of the other things I do as a pastor.  So, I wondered, would I really feel anything at all about being ordained, other than just relief that it was finally over?
           Well, I did feel something.  I felt a lot of things.  Relief was one of them, I’ll admit, but it was not the main one.
            One of the things I felt was gratitude.  Lots of people came to the ordination service.  There were people I’d known in Wessington Springs.  There were people I’d known in North Sioux City.  There were people I’d known in seminary.  There were people I’ve come to know from the Wheatland Parish.  There were relatives who came from a long way.  And, of course, there was my incredible wife, who has been a major part of everything I’ve done, including being ordained, for over twenty-two years.
            It made me very thankful to God for all the people God has put in my life.  As I look back on it, it seems like God has always put the exact people I’ve needed into my life at the exact time I’ve needed them.  All those people who came, and of course many more who could not come, are people who’ve touched my life in some way.  I’m so lucky and blessed to have them all in my life.  I would not be who I am today without them.
             Another thing I felt was acceptance.  After the ceremony, lots of pastors came up to me and congratulated me on my ordination.  Some of them are people I’ve known for a long time, and that obviously meant a lot to me.  Some of them, though, are people I hardly know at all, and that meant a lot to me, too.  When those people congratulated me on my ordination, it was like they were welcoming me into the group.  They were saying that they could see the call God gave me to be a pastor.  They could see that I was worthy of it, and that I really do belong as a pastor.  That’s a pretty great feeling.
             What all of that meant, and what I think ordination did for me, was give me a renewed sense of purpose.  It made me grateful for the wonderful people with whom I am in ministry, both in the conference and in the Wheatland Parish.  It also made me more eager to do all I can to work with those wonderful people to do move God’s ministry forward.
             So, I would like to thank everyone who has helped me reach this point in my life.  It has been a wonderful journey, but it’s only beginning.  There are lots more adventures to be had on this journey.  I look forward to all of them, and I look forward to having them with you

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

God Is Calling

The following appeared in the June, 2012 issue of the Wheatland Parish newsletter.

            I want to expand a little on something I wrote last month.  In an article on what I would say to high school graduates, the first thing I wrote was “find a way to make a living doing something you love to do.”

            The reason I think this is so important is that God created each one of us as a special, unique individual.  Each of us has things we love to do, things we’re indifferent about, and things we really don’t like doing at all.  What those things are will be different for each of us, but we all have them.

            Those things we love to do are a gift from God.  God gave us a love for those things because God wants us to use them in God’s service.

            Let me give you an example.  As you know, I became a pastor at age forty-seven.  When I decided to go into ministry, I wondered if I should make some changes in my life.  I wondered if I should stop watching so many ball games, and instead use that time to read religious books.  I wondered if I should stop listening to sports talk radio and to the oldies station and start listening to religious music.  I wondered if I should stop kidding around the way I like to do, and not tell the silly jokes I like to tell.

            After I thought about it, and prayed about it, I decided the answer was no.  When God called me into the ministry, God called me.  God knew who I was when God called me.  If God had wanted somebody else, God would’ve called somebody else.  God called me as me, and God wants me to use those interests and those things I love to do in God’s service.

Now, understand that any gift can be misused, even gifts that come from God.  If I use my love of sports to connect with people and to learn and communicate some life lessons, then I’m using that gift in God’s service.  If I use my love of sports as an excuse to sit on the couch and watch ball games when I should be working, I’m not using that gift in God’s service.  If I do that, I’m misusing the gift that God gave me.

            The thing is that God calls each one of us to do something.  God has called you, just as surely as God has called me.  God may not have called you to be a pastor, but God has still called you to do something.  God can call us to be farmers, mechanics, bankers, salesmen, teachers, clerks, anything.  Anything that God has given you a love for, anything about which you become passionate, is a calling from God.  God wants you to use that calling in God’s service. 

            The thing that each of us needs to do is to look at the gifts God has given us, the interests and passions that God has placed in our hearts, and find ways to use them in God’s service.  For some of us, that may mean making our living serving God.  For others of us, that may mean finding ways to turn our way of making a living into a way to serve God.  For still others, that may mean finding ways to turn our hobbies into ways to serve God.

            God called you.  God called you to be you, just as God called me to be me.  God has put something, maybe several things, into our hearts, things that we love to do.  If we follow where God is leading, and use those gifts God has given us in God’s service, God will reward us in all kinds of wonderful and unexpected ways.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Oh Yeah? Prove It!

The following message was given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, June 3, 2012.  The scriptures used are Isaiah 45:18-24; John 20:19-28; Matthew 11:1-6.

            We’re in the second week of our sermon series, “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World”.  We’re talking about how, as Christians, we can communicate the message of the Bible, a message of eternal truth, to a society that is so different than society was two or three thousand years ago when the Bible was written. 

We talked last week about the need to convince people that there is such a thing as truth at all, because a growing number of people don’t believe that absolute truth exists.  Today we’re going to talk about a different problem.  Assuming we can get people to agree that there is such a thing as truth, how do we show them where it comes from?

Back when the Bible was written, there was not much disagreement about that.  The truth, all truth, came from God.  Even people who did not believe in the God of the Bible thought that truth came from whatever god or gods they happened to worship.  In our reading from Isaiah, God said “I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right.”  Pretty much everyone who read those words back when they were written would’ve said, “Yes, that’s right.  The Lord speaks the truth.  Truth comes from God.”
We really don’t have that kind of general agreement any more.  We live in an age of skepticism.  If we tell people who are not Christians that we have God’s truth, a lot of them will respond, “Oh, yeah?  Why should I believe you?  Why should I believe that what you say is the word of God just because some primitive culture said it was thousands of years ago?  I want you to prove to me that you have the word of God.  Then maybe I’ll believe it.”
Now, if we’ve lived most of our lives in a society that takes Christian faith seriously, we might be a little offended at that.  If we think about it, though, for people who are not Christians, that’s a perfectly reasonable position to take.  After all, this world is full of frauds.  It’s full of hustlers.  It’s full of fakes and charlatans.  Anyone who’s become an adult has run into them.  In fact, sometimes we run into them before we become adults.
And, unfortunately, some of these frauds and hustlers and fakes claim to be religious.  Some of them even claim to be Christian.  If you think a little, you can think of all kinds of people who claimed to speaking God’s truth when in fact they were mostly interested in lining their pockets.  If you’ve heard about those people, and especially if you’ve ever been taken in by one of those people, it’s understandable why you’d be pretty slow to believe the next person that came along claiming to have God’s truth.
This is not all new, of course.  There have always been people who are skeptical of whether Christians have God’s truth.  In the gospel reading for today, we heard about one of them, Thomas.
Think about this story a little bit.  Thomas was one of the twelve disciples.  He was one of Jesus’ inner circle, one of the people closest to Jesus while he was on earth.  He’d heard firsthand when Jesus said that he was going to rise from the dead.  Then, the other disciples tell him that it actually happened.  They tell him Jesus actually did rise from the dead.  They tell him they know it’s true because they saw it for themselves.

And Thomas does not believe them.  Thomas said, “I’m going to need proof, and until I get proof, I’m not going to believe you.”  Thomas, one of the original twelve disciples, was a skeptic, and he was a skeptic about something he’d heard Jesus say with his own ears.  If even Thomas, who was there with Jesus, could be a skeptic, we cannot be too hard on people of today who are skeptical, too.

Add to that the fact that we live in an era of science.  There are new scientific discoveries made all the time.  We’ve learned all kinds of things about the universe and how it works.  We’ve learned all kinds of things about life and how it works.  We’re learning more all the time.  A lot of ideas that were once accepted as true have been proven wrong by science, and a lot of ideas that were laughed at years ago are now accepted as true.  It’s perfectly understandable that people who are used to hearing scientific explanations for things would be slow to accept words written thousands of years ago as being true.  It’s understandable why, when we tell them that we, as Christians, have God’s truth, they would say, “Oh, yeah?  Prove it.”

The thing is, we cannot do that.  We cannot prove that we have God’s truth.  We can tell people what we believe and why we believe it.  We can give reasons and provide evidence to back up those reasons.  But we cannot prove that we have God’s truth.  God does not provide us with proof.  God provides us with evidence, and asks us to have faith.

So what do we do?  How do we communicate God’s truth to people who don’t believe truth comes from God?

That brings us to our story from Matthew.  John the Baptizer sent messengers to Jesus with a simple question.  He wanted to know whether Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah or not.  He wanted to know whether Jesus actually had God’s truth.

Jesus did not make any big proclamation about it.  He did not make any claims at all for himself.  He simply told them, report to John what you see here.  Do you see that the blind can see, the lame can walk, lepers are healed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor?  That’s what’s going on here.  Just tell that to John.  John knows what the Messiah is supposed to do.  He’ll know whether that fits the definition or not.  If it does, then there’s the proof right there.

I think maybe that’s the way to go about answering people who want proof that we, as Christians have God’s truth.  Ask them what they see us, as Christians, doing.  Do they see us helping the poor and the sick?  Do they see us helping those who are hurting, for whatever reason?  Do they see us treating people with respect and compassion, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they look like?  Do they see us caring for each other, with no exceptions?  Do they see us treating everyone with love?  Skeptics know what the people of God are supposed to do.  They’ll know if what we’re doing fits the definition or not.  If it does, then that’s the proof right there.

The thing is, that puts a lot of responsibility on us, right?  Each one of us is a representative of the people of God, every day of our lives.  If we’re going to ask people to judge whether we have God’s truth by watching our actions, then we’d better make sure our actions show that we have God’s truth.  We’d better act the way the people of God are supposed to act.

Our belief in God’s truth is revealed by our actions, much more than our words.  If people know we claim to be Christians, then each day, we give an example to them of how a Christian behaves.  The poet Edgar A. Guest wrote, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”  If people know we claim to be Christians, then they see each one of us giving a sermon each day.  Each of us, by our actions, is demonstrating to people what we believe God’s truth to be.

That’s a heavy responsibility.  Maybe you’re thinking, that’s more than I can handle.  I’m only human.  I’m not perfect.  I make mistakes.  No matter how hard I try, I cannot make my every word and action show God’s truth.

Well, you’re right, of course.  But people know that.  No one expects us to be perfect.  In fact, people tend to be suspicious of someone who looks like they’re too perfect.  What people want to know is, when we do make mistakes, when we do mess up, what do we do?  Do we try to bluff our way through and pretend the mistake did not happen?  Do we try to cover up our mistakes so no one will see them?  Do we try to shift the blame to someone else?  Or do we admit our mistakes, deal with the consequences of them, and ask for forgiveness from anyone we’ve wronged?

Your life is a sermon.  My life is a sermon.  Each of our lives is a sermon to people who do not know God’s truth.  If we let people know we’re Christians, what those people think a Christian is will be shaped by how they see us living our lives.

God’s love is as much the truth today as it was three thousand years ago.  The need of people to be loved is as much the truth today as it was three thousand years ago.  If people see us showing love to everyone, no matter what, they’ll know we have God’s truth.  That’s one of the best ways we can communicate the truth that’s found on stone tablets to a wireless world.