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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Love Done Stays

Below is the text of the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, July 29, 2012.  The scripture used is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

            I presided at a wedding yesterday.  I like to do weddings.  It’s wonderful to see two people committing themselves to stay together forever, for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until they are parted by death.
We all know, though, that there are a lot of times when it does not work out that way.  I don’t need to stand up here and tell you the statistics on divorce.  You all know them.  For most of us, it’s not just a statistic anyway.  I’d bet that every person here knows someone who’s been through a divorce.  Some of you have been through them yourselves.
If you have, please understand that I do not intend anything I say today to be a criticism of you.  There are divorces in my family, too.  Divorce happens for a lot of reasons.  It’s not my place to judge you, and I don’t intend to.  If I say anything that comes out like I am, please come and talk to me about it, because that’s not what I mean to do.
Because the rate of divorce is so high, and because it has been high for quite a while now, the way our society looks at love and marriage has changed.  As we continue our sermon series “This is Country Music”, I think our song today illustrates that.  As we’ve said before, songs become popular because they have something to say that makes sense to people.  The song for today is called “Love Done Gone” by Billy Currington.  It’s a really catchy tune, and I like the melody and the instrumentation and stuff, but think about what this song says about love.  As we’ve been doing, we’ll listen to the song, and then we’ll talk about it.  The words are below:

Don't worry, baby, sometimes things change
Nothin' we can do about it now, no way
This doesn't come easy, but that's just life
We can't keep pretendin' everything's alright

We told each other it was love before
The simple truth is it just ain't no more
The bells stop ringin', the music won't play
The crazy little feelin' that's faded away

Like snowflakes when the weather warms up
Like leaves on the trees when the autumn comes
Like the dogwood blossoms in a late spring rain
All the disappearin' bubbles in a glass of champagne

Like a red kite lost in a blue sky wind
I don't know where the good times went
It ain't nothin' we ever said or ever did wrong
It's just love done gone

I don't regret a single thing that we did
Any time together we ever spent
I wouldn't change a thing, baby, you know
Sometimes we gotta just go with the flow

Like snowflakes when the weather warms up
Like leaves on the trees when the autumn comes
Like the dogwood blossoms in a late spring rain
All the disappearin' bubbles in a glass of champagne

Like money in a slot machine
Don’t know what happened to you and me
It ain’t nothin’ we ever said or ever did wrong
It’s just love done gone

It's just love done gone
It's just love done gone

There’s nothing in that song about love lasting forever.  There’s nothing there about staying with each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, until we’re parted by death.  This song does not define love that way at all.

This song defines love as something that, by its very nature, is here for a little while, and then it’s gone.  Think about what love is compared to in this song.  Snowflakes when it gets warm.  Leaves in the fall.  Bubbles in champagne.  Money lost in a slot machine.

That strikes me as really sad.  This song seems to have given up on the whole idea that love can last forever.  It’s like that’s not even a possibility.  The singer really does not seem particularly sad about the fact that love has disappeared.  The song takes the attitude that love ending is inevitable.  There are no regrets, it’s no one’s fault and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  Love just goes away.  That’s just the way it is.

I think that attitude is really prevalent in society today, especially among younger people.  They see marriages that have lasted fifty or sixty years or more, and they think that’s really neat and all, but they don’t see it as a possibility for them.  It’s not that they would not like to have a marriage like that, they just don’t see it as one of their options.  That kind of marriage is a leftover from an era that’s gone, like rotary dial telephones and 45 rpm records.  It may have had its place once, but it’s just not the way the world is any more.

I think one of the reasons we’ve come to look at love that way is that we’ve come to look at love as an emotion.  Look at what the song defines as the ways to tell love has gone:  The bells stop ringing.  The music won't play.  The crazy little feeling has faded away.
That’s not what love is.  It’s part of love, of course.  Love cannot be completely unemotional, and I’m not saying it can.  But think about our reading from First Corinthians.  That’s one of the most famous passages in the Bible.  In fact, it’s called the Love Chapter.  It’s the Apostle Paul giving us a definition of love.
What’s interesting about that definition is that nowhere in it does Paul talk about emotions.  Nowhere in it does Paul talk about feelings.  For Paul, and for us as Christians, love is not about stuff that selfishly makes us feel good for a little while.  Love is not about temporary feelings and emotions.  Love is about actions and commitments.
The first two things Paul says we need to do when we love someone is to treat them with patience and kindness.  Patience and kindness are the exact opposition of selfish feelings and emotions.  Most of us are not instinctively patient and kind.  Those are things that involve our heads as much if not more than our hearts.  We can only treat someone with patience and kindness if we’ve made a commitment to that person and have decided that we are going to act in a way that shows that commitment.
The next three things Paul says about love is that it does not envy, it does not boast, and it is not proud.  Again, these are things that are the exact opposite of selfish feelings and emotions.  When we think someone else has a better deal than we have, it’s hard not to envy them.  When feel like we’ve done something pretty good, it’s hard for us not to brag about it.  It’s hard for us not to be full of ourselves when we think we’ve accomplished something.  We can only get rid of our envious, boastful, prideful feelings and emotions when we’ve made a commitment to put someone else ahead of ourselves and have decided that we are going to act in a way that shows that commitment.
Paul goes on.  Love is not self-seeking and it is not easily angered.  Again, the opposite of selfish feelings and emotions.  Most of the time, when we get angry, it’s because we’ve put ourselves ahead of someone else.  Not all the time, but an awful lot of the time.  We want things to go our way.  We may have the best of intentions in wanting things to go our way, we may truly believe that everything would work out better if we got our way, but we’re still putting getting our way ahead of loving someone else.  Again, we can only get past that when we’ve made a commitment to put someone else ahead of ourselves and have decided that we are going to act in a way that shows that commitment.
Now, we need to point out that this commitment needs to run both ways.  If one person is committed and the other is not, that’s not going to work.  At the same time, we cannot always be testing someone else to see if their commitment is as strong as ours.  That’s what Paul means when he says love keeps no record of wrongs.  We cannot use what we see as someone else’s lack of commitment as an excuse to not act in love.
I could go on with the other things Paul talks about, but you get the point.  Here are the most important things Paul says about love, though.  Love always perseveres, and love never fails.
In other words, Paul says love is the exact opposite of what our song says it is.  Love is not something that is here today and gone tomorrow.  Love is something that is permanent.  Love never ends. If it ends, it was never really love in the first place.  That’s true even if the relationship comes to an end.  If you truly love someone, there’s a part of you that always loves them.  You may not want them back, you may decide you’re better off without them, you may have found someone or something else better, but still, if it was really love, there’s a part of you that loves them, because real love never completely goes away.
Our love for each other is supposed to be like God’s love for us.  God’s love for us is not like snowflakes in the sun or bubbles in champagne.  God’s love for us lasts forever.  Our love for each other is supposed to be forever, too.
It can be, if we make the commitment to make it that way.  If we are committed to putting someone else ahead of ourselves, and if we act in a way that shows that commitment, love will never be done gone.  Love will persevere, and love will never fail.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Man of Integrity

            I’ve been writing about my grandfather, Rev. Joseph Nadenicek.  I mentioned last time that he was an avid reader as well as a writer.  What I don’t think I mentioned in that regard is his love of poetry.

            My grandfather loved poetry.  His eulogy says that he read the most accomplished poets of his time.  He also wrote poetry.  His eulogy also says that was very particular about his poetry.  If anyone wanted to use his poetry, he insisted they use it exactly as he wrote it, with all words and phrases unchanged.  He often used poetry in his sermons as well.

            I’ve been trying to see what similarities there are between my grandfather and me.  I don’t write poetry, although I married a woman who does.  I write songs sometimes, which I suppose is a form of poetry.  I can certainly understand my grandfather’s desire to keep his creations exactly as he had created them.
            I’ve been trying to say “his eulogy says” in regard to what I’m learning about my grandfather because one of the things his eulogy says is that my grandfather hated plagiarism.  In addition to reading a lot, he apparently had an incredible memory, because he could frequently spot when someone had stolen something.  His eulogy says he would write letters to editors of newspapers to point out examples of plagiarism he saw there.  In fact, it says “he enjoyed being able to expose critics and high officials on their literary errors.”

            I suspect the reason he was so strong on the subject of plagiarism has to do with his personal life.  He is described as a man of complete openness, honesty, and integrity.  It’s a eulogy, of course, and the author is hardly going to say bad things about him, but I don’t doubt that it is true.

            He was considered a “liberal” pastor in his day.  He was very much opposed to narrow-mindedness and intolerance.  He supported changes in the Slovak hymnal, especially those changes that would make it easier to understand.  He wanted the people in his congregation to be able to read and understand and think for themselves.  His eulogy says that he “wanted them to be able to discuss the doctrines of the reformation in a knowledgeable way.  He wanted them to see the truth, and to know God personally as he, himself, did.”

            While he had opinions, though, he was also willing to compromise.  He had a strong concern for church unity.  He would defend his positions if he was convinced he was right, but he “always looked for and tried to understand opposing views”, and was not afraid to change his mind if he was convinced of a better plan.

            That willingness to compromise had its limits.  He was fully convinced that evil exists, and that Christians need to be able to recognize it so we can deal with it when confronted with it.  His eulogy also says that his integrity “would not allow him to compromise with sin and godlessness.”

            In regard to those personal qualities, I’ll leave it to others to say how much I resemble them.  They are an inspiration to me, though.  Openness, honesty, and integrity are qualities we should all strive for.  We all need to find a way to fight narrow-minded intolerance without compromising with sin.  We all need to read and understand and think for ourselves, so we can know God personally.

            We all have times when we tend to back-slide from being the people we should be.  I hope my grandfather can inspire me not to do that, but instead be the person I should be.

Not Just 'Good Enough'

This is the message from the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg July 25, 2012.  The scripture is Luke 16:19-31.

            This is really a tough story for me to preach on.  It makes me kind of uncomfortable.  I’m not sure I understand it, and I’m not sure what to do with the parts I think I do understand.

We have basically two characters in the story, three if you count Abraham.  The main two characters are the rich man and Lazarus, the poor man.

And that’s really all we know about them.  We’re not even told the rich man’s name—he’s just identified as “the rich man.”  We know Lazarus’ name, we know he’s a beggar, and we know he had sores.  That’s all we know about them.  Then, we know they both die.  We know Lazarus goes to heaven, and the rich man goes to hell.

And when we read the story, it sounds like the only reason Lazarus went to heaven was that he was a beggar who had sores, and the only reason the rich man went to hell is because he was a rich man.  You know, a lot of times, when we hear this story explained, the person doing the explaining makes assumptions that are not in the text.  They assume that the rich man must have been evil, or greedy, or have cheated or stolen or done something unsavory to get his wealth.  They assume Lazarus must have been a wonderful fellow who just never got any breaks while he was alive.

Jesus did not say any of that, or if he did it’s not recorded.  We are not told that the rich man was evil or that he did anything wrong to get his money.  For all we know, he may have worked very hard and earned his success.  He may have treated people well.  He may have even tithed, given ten percent of his money to God.  I’m not saying he did that, but there’s nothing in Jesus’ story that says he did not.  We’re not told that the rich man did anything wrong in getting his money.

We also don’t know whether Lazarus was a wonderful fellow.  We don’t know if he was a nice guy at all.  He may have been a jerk.  He may have never had a good word to say to anybody.  Again, I’m not saying that’s true, but there’s nothing in Jesus’ story that says it’s false.  We’re not told that Lazarus ever did anything nice for anyone.

The only things that seem to matter in Jesus’ story are that the rich man was rich and that Lazarus was a beggar.  Listen to what Jesus has Abraham saying to the rich man.  “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”  The only reason we’re given for why the rich man is in hell is because he’d had a good life while he was on earth, and the only reason we’re given for why Lazarus is in heaven is because he had a bad life on earth.

Now, Jesus talked to a lot of poor people, and he had a lot of sympathy for them.  And remember, poor people back then did not get any government support or anything.  Begging was about the only thing a poor person could do, and it was not very profitable.  This kind of message would’ve given the poor people Jesus was talking to a lot of hope.  It would’ve made them feel like God did care about them, that God knew about their situation, and that they would get a reward in heaven.  It can give us hope, too, if we’re suffering in our lives on earth.

The thing that bothers me so much about this is that I feel like I have a lot more in common with the rich man than I have with Lazarus.  I mean, I’m not rich by our standards, but I’m certainly not in the Lazarus category, either.  I’ve never had to beg for anything.  I’ve always known I was going to have enough to eat every day.  I’ve always known I was going to have decent clothes to wear.  I’ve always known I was going to have a decent place to sleep. 

I’ve also always known that, if something happened to where I might not have one of those things, that there were people who’d help me.  I have a loving family, both on my side and on Wanda’s side, and I have friends who I know would not let me sleep on the street and would not let me starve, no matter how bad my personal situation might get.

Not only that, I’ve had a pretty wonderful life in a lot of ways.  I grew up in a loving family.  I have an incredible wife.  I had a career that I love.  I have wonderful people to work with.  I’ve been blessed in an awful lot of ways.  In many ways, I’ve received the good things in my lifetime, just like the rich man did.  Does that mean I’m going to receive bad things in the next life, like the rich man did?
Also, I wonder how to square this with all the times in the Bible where we’re told that our salvation depends on our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior and on nothing else.  Because in this story, we’re not told anything about the faith of either the rich man or Lazarus.  We’re not told that Lazarus had faith and the rich man did not.  We’re told that the rich man went to hell because he’d gotten good things during his life, and Lazarus went to heaven because he’d gotten bad things during his life.  How does that make sense?
I don’t know that I have the answer, but I’ll tell you what I think.  Feel free to disagree.  As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that, in a way, it’s easier for us to rely on God when we have nothing than it is when we have everything.  What I mean is that someone in Lazarus’ position has nothing, not even decent health, and most likely never will have anything.  In that situation, we sometimes throw ourselves on God’s mercy because there’s nothing else we can do.  We ask God to help us because we know that we have no ability to help ourselves and never will, and we know there’s no one else who’s going to help us either.  We turn to God for help because we have nowhere else to turn.
When we have some money of our own, though, we do have somewhere else to turn.  If we have a thousand dollars in the bank, we don’t have to rely on God for our next meal.  We can rely on ourselves.  If we have ten thousand dollars in the bank, there are a lot of things we don’t have to rely on God for, because we can do them ourselves.  If we have a hundred thousand dollars, there are even fewer things we have to rely on God for.  And if we have a million dollars, well, we probably don’t have to rely on God for much of anything.
I think this is what Jesus meant when he talked about how it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.  I don’t think he meant it literally, that it’s impossible for a rich man to go to heaven, but he meant that it’s awfully hard.  It’s hard because the more we have, the more likely we are to rely on ourselves, and the less likely we are to rely on God.
I don’t think this story means that everyone who gets good things while on earth will go to hell.  What I think it means is that the more blessings we have while we’re on earth, the more we can be tempted to believe that we’ve gotten those blessings because of our own goodness, rather than by God’s goodness.  The more blessings we have while we’re on earth, the more we’re tempted to take those blessings for granted, rather than thanking God for them.  The more blessings we have while we’re on earth, the more we’re tempted to have faith in ourselves, rather than having faith in God.
If we truly have faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, our lives need to show that.  That’s true whether we have a lot or we have nothing.  The more we have, though, the more chances we have to do things that show our faith.  And, of course, the more Jesus asks us to do things that show our faith.
I’m not saying that you don’t do things that show your faith.  The point here is not to make anyone feel guilty.  But we can all do more.  I know I can.  Jesus does not want us to just do so much and say, “well, that’s good enough”.  That’s not what Jesus did when he was on earth.  Jesus did not settle for “good enough”.  Jesus does not want us to settle for “good enough”, either.
As I said, this is a tough scripture.  But it’s an important one.  As Jesus makes pretty clear, our life in eternity depends on it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hearts Like Ours

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, July 22, 2012.  The scriptures are Matthew 7:1-5 and Matthew 18:15-17.

           Today, we’re picking back up with our sermon series “This Is Country Music”, as we listen to some contemporary country songs and look at what they have to say about faith and society.
The song we’re going to listen to today is called “Heart Like Mine” by Miranda Lambert.  I’m not saying that I agree with everything the song says, but I do think that it shows how a lot of people in society tend to look at the church.  I also think it shows what a lot of people see as a disconnect between the love they see in Jesus and the judgmentalism they see in the church.  So, let’s listen to the song, and then we’ll talk about it.  The words are below.
I ain't the kind you take home to Momma
I ain't the kind to wear no ring
Somehow I always get stronger
When I'm on my second drink

Even though I hate to admit it
Sometimes I smoke cigarettes
Christian folks say I should quit it
I just smile and say, "God bless"

'Cause I heard Jesus, He drank wine
And I bet we'd get along just fine
He could calm the storm and heal the blind
And I bet He'd understand a heart like mine

Daddy cried when he saw my tattoo
Said, he loved me anyway
My brother got the brains in the family
So I thought I'd learn to sing

'Cause I heard Jesus, He drank wine
And I bet we'd get along just fine
He could calm the storm and heal the blind
And I bet He'd understand a heart like mine

I'll fly away from it all one day
I'll fly away

These are the days that I will remember
When my name's called on the roll
They'll meet me with two long-stemmed glasses
Make a toast to me coming home

'Cause I heard Jesus, He drank wine
And I bet we'd get along just fine
He could calm the storm and heal the blind
And I bet He'd understand
He’d understand a heart like mine
Oh yes, He would

            About six weeks ago, in a different sermon series, we talked about how most of us don’t like rules.  If someone tells us “you can’t do this” or “you have to do that”, we resist that.  We want to make our own choices.  We don’t want to have someone else tell us what to do.
I think that really comes through in this song.  The person singing it has made some choices that the “Christians” in her life disapprove of.  She admits that some of those choices may not have been the best ones.  What she says, though, is that she thinks Jesus would show her understanding for those choices, while the “Christians” in her life don’t.
Now, is that a caricature of Christianity?  Well, maybe, to an extent.  It’s certainly not true of all Christians all the time.  But we cannot say that it’s not true of any Christians any of the time.  There is a strain of judgmentalism that runs through Christianity, and if we’re going to get anywhere we need to acknowledge that this is true.
We also need to look at why that’s true.  I say that because as Christians, we walk kind of a fine line sometimes.  There are passages in the Bible where Jesus tells us not to judge others.  There’s no question about that.  We read one of them today.  On the other hand, we know that there are also passages where we’re told that certain things are right and certain things are wrong.  We’re told that we need to stay away from sin.  So what do we do?  How do we handle this?  How do we deal with behavior that we know is sinful without falling into the trap of judgmentalism?
Well, I think there are at least a few things we can do.  One of them is to make sure that things we consider sin actually are.  We need to make sure those rules we’re talking about actually are rules that appear in the Bible, rather than rules that we’ve made for ourselves.
For instance, let’s look at a couple of the things that are mentioned in this song:  drinking and smoking.  Now, I don’t drink, and I don’t smoke, and I’m not saying that I think either of those things is a good thing to do.  At the same time, though, I am not aware of anything in the Bible that says the consumption of alcohol is a sin, nor am I aware of anything in the Bible that says smoking is a sin. 

As the song points out, Jesus did drink wine.  In fact, we have the famous story of the wedding in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine.  There are passages that say drunkenness is wrong, but that does not mean all consumption of alcohol is a sin.

It’s the same with smoking.  Now, I don’t know that they had tobacco in Jesus’ time, but the closest I can come to something that says smoking is a sin is the times when the Bible says that we should take proper care of our bodies.

I agree that we should, of course.  The thing is, though, that taking proper care of our bodies involves a lot more than just not smoking and not drinking.  It means not eating too much.  It means eating the right things, rather than candy and ice cream and chocolate cake and sweet rolls.  It means getting enough exercise.  It means not going to the convenience store and getting the thirty-two ounce fountain Coke.  If we’re going to rely on taking care of our bodies as the basis for our judgments, we’d better make sure all of our own behavior is in order first.

            That brings me to the second point.  Even if the things we consider sins are recognized as such in the Bible, we need to make sure we’re not just recognizing certain sins, and conveniently forgetting about the things we don’t like so much.  After all, there are places where the Bible speaks out against gluttony, against eating too much.  There are places where the Bible speaks out against envy and jealousy.  There are places where the Bible speaks about how we’re obligated to give one-tenth of our income to God.  There are lots of things the Bible talks about.  This is what Jesus was meant when he said we need to first take care of the plank in our own eye.  If we feel like we’re qualified to judge the behavior of other people, then we’d better make sure our own behavior is all where it should be.

So what does that mean?  Does it mean we can never point out behavior that the Bible says is wrong?  Are we, as Christians, required to accept a philosophy of “anything goes”, because anything else would be judgmental and wrong?

Well, I don’t think so.  In fact, in our reading from Matthew 18, Jesus specifically tells us what to do if a brother or sister sins.  Jesus does not say anything goes.  Instead, Jesus specifically tells us that when a brother or sister sins, we need to do something.

Here’s what’s interesting, though.  When Jesus refers to a brother or sister here, what he’s talking about is a brother or sister in the faith.  He’s talking about our fellow believers.  When a fellow believer sins, we’re supposed to go talk to them.  If that does not work, we’re supposed to take one or two other believers along.  If that still does not work, we’re supposed to take the matter up with the church.

In other words, what Jesus is saying is that we’re supposed to point out the sins of fellow believers.  And we’re also supposed to listen when fellow believers point out our sins.  But Jesus does not say that we’re supposed to go around pointing out the sins of non-believers.  In fact, Jesus says that if people, “refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Now, we read that, and maybe we think Jesus is telling us to be dismissive of believers who won’t listen when their sins are pointed out.  That’s not it.  Think about it:  how did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?  He loved them.  He spent all kinds of time with them.  He healed them.  He offered forgiveness of sins to them.  As our song says, Jesus got along fine with them, because he understood hearts like theirs.  He offered those hearts complete, total, and unconditional love.

Here’s what I think Jesus is saying.  He’s saying, yes, we do need to help lead people away from sin.  The way we do that, though, is not to start by walking up to people and pointing out their sins to them.  The way we do that is to start by treating them the way Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors.  In other words, the way to start is by offering complete, total, and unconditional love to people.

Through that love, over a period of time, with God’s help, we can sometimes bring people to Christ.  Then, we can start teaching them about how the Lord wants us to live.  While we do that, of course, we need to still speak and act in loving ways.  We also need to be mindful of the ways in which we, ourselves fall short of the way the Lord wants us to live.

            Bringing people to Christ does not mean changing their behavior.  It means changing their hearts.  If we give people unconditional love, no matter who they are no matter what they do, with God’s help we can change their hearts.  When our hearts are changed, our behavior will follow.  Then, we can all serve Christ together, knowing that Jesus understands hearts like ours.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Reader and a Writer

            In my last blog entry, I referred to the January 15, 1929 issue of the Slovensky Kalvin, an issue dedicated to my grandfather.  Below is some information I learned about my grandfather from that issue.

            My grandfather, Joseph Nadenicek, was born in Nosislav, Moravia in 1884.  One thing I have in common with him is that he was also a second-career pastor.  He did not wait anywhere near as long as I did to become a pastor, of course.  In fact, while writing this, it suddenly hit me that he never even reached the age, forty-seven, at which I became a pastor.  He was initially a blacksmith, which was apparently his father’s profession in Moravia.

            He had already felt called by God to become a pastor by the time he came to the United States, which was in about 1909.  He attended Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, graduating in 1915.  I note with some amusement that, according to his eulogy, his seminary professors were not terribly impressed with his sermons, but his congregations loved them. 

I really enjoyed reading that, because I was always frustrated my preaching classes while I was at seminary.  It was nothing personal against the professors, whom I liked.  It’s just that my preaching classes had something in common with every other speech or writing class I ever took, whether in law school or in college.  They did not teach speaking or writing; they taught outlining. 

I can write an excellent outline, but I cannot write a sermon based on that outline.  As I’m writing, I get different ideas, and I sometimes take a somewhat circular route to get to my main point.  Sometimes I don’t even really figure out what the sermon is about until I get to the end, and I have to rewrite the beginning and the middle to fit it.  I’d end up writing the sermon first, and then writing an outline based off the sermon.  It was quite frustrating, and I have to think my grandfather would have understood that frustration.

My grandfather read an incredible amount.  He was said to have “the best and most up-to-date library of all the Slovak pastors.”  He did not just read religious books, either.  He read almost everything he could get his hands on.  He was very interested in science and philosophy.  He was an avid reader of newspapers.  He read the works of Victor Hugo and Rudyard Kipling.  He wanted to read about controversial subjects, and he especially wanted to read viewpoints that were different from his own.  He would stay up late at night, after the rest of the family (he was married with five children) had gone to bed, so that he could read in peace.  His eulogy says that he would spend several hundred dollars a year on books and newspapers, which was a huge amount to spend at the time, especially for a pastor with five children to feed. 

I get up early to read, rather than staying up late, but I love to read, too.  I have to believe that if my grandfather lived now, in the age of the internet, he’d love it.  Imagine all the books and articles and essays that would be available to him!  I can imagine him carrying a Nook or a Kindle everywhere he went, and any time he had ten minutes to spare, finding something interesting to read.

There is much more about my grandfather in this newspaper.  In the weeks to come, I will continue to share it with you.  It is incredibly meaningful to me; I hope it will be interesting to you as well.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

God Is Not Fair

Below is the message given at the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in the Gettysburg United Methodist Church July 18, 2012.  The scripture is Matthew 20:1-16.

            This story raises one of the questions that we always struggle with when we think about God.  Is God fair?
We obviously want to think God is fair.  After all, it would be pretty hard to love a god who was not fair, right?  We might respect the power of such a god, and we might serve such a god out of fear, but we would not love a god who was not fair.
On the other hand, we see a lot of things that happen in this world that don’t seem fair to us.  Someone who seems to have lived their whole life serving God and loving God is stricken with cancer, or is killed in a car accident.  How’s that fair?  A tornado comes along and wipes out a town.  Is that fair?  Some people are born into wealth and freedom, and others are born into poverty and servitude.  Is that fair?
In our Bible reading for tonight, Jesus tells a story about how God treats people that may not seem fair to us.  We have four groups of people who all work for a farmer.  One group works all day, one group works all afternoon, one group works part of the afternoon, and one group works for about an hour.  At the end of the day, they line up to get paid, and they all get paid the same amount. 

The ones who worked all day were upset.  We can understand why.  Here they were working all day, manual labor, in the hot sun.  Then, here come are these other people, who only worked for an hour, and they get the exact same amount.  That does not seem fair, does it?
What we need to remember is that Jesus did not tell this story as an example of good economic policy.  The first words of the story are “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  Jesus told this story to help us understand God and heaven, not economics.
What Jesus is trying to tell us is that there are no differences between people in heaven.  It does not matter whether we grow up in the faith, whether we accept Jesus as our Savior as children, as young adults, when we’re middle aged, or at the end of our life.  I mean, it matters as far as how we live our lives and what we do.  It matters as far as the impact our lives make on others and on society.  Jesus’ point, though, is that it does not matter as far as whether we get into heaven.  All that matters is that we accept Jesus as our Savior at some point in our lives.
But you know, sometimes that does not seem fair, either.  Why should someone who has believed in Jesus all their life, and who has tried to be a good person and do what’s right, be on no better footing in heaven than someone who lied and cheated and stole all their lives and then came to believe at the last minute?  It’s not necessarily that we think those late-comers should be kept out of heaven, but it just does not seem right to us that someone who hurt all kinds of people in their life on earth, and then, finally, after years and years of bad behavior, finally saw the error of his or her ways, should get just as much privilege in heaven as someone who followed the rules his or her whole life.
In that way, this story really has something in common with the story we discussed last week, the story of the prodigal son.  Because that’s exactly how the older brother felt, right?  He felt cheated.  He felt like he’d been dealt with unfairly.  He did not necessarily want his brother kicked out of the house, but he did not want Dad to throw a big party for him, either.  He did not see why his brother and he should be on an equal footing.  The younger brother had been irresponsible and wasted everything, while the older brother had been responsible and done his duty.  How was that fair?
What that question shows, I think, is that how humans look at fairness and how God looks at fairness are two entirely different things.  We look at fairness as a comparative thing.  We compare what we have with what other people have.  We compare the way we’re treated with the way other people are treated.  We compare our circumstances to the circumstances of other people.  And if that comparison leaves us feeling like we’re not doing as well as we think we should be, we get upset.  We say, “That’s not fair.”
Jesus points out the trouble we run into when we look at it that way.  Listen to what he tells us God’s viewpoint on that is.  He says, “I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”
That’s what happens we will look at fairness as a comparison with other people.  We try to put limits on God’s goodness.  We tell God it’s not right for God to give to some people.  We get envious of people we think have gotten gifts from God, especially if their gifts seem better than our gifts or if we’ve decided they don’t deserve those gifts.
See, when we look at fairness as a comparison with others, we’re always going to run into a problem.  There’s always going to be somebody who we think is better off than we are.  There will always be someone who has more money than we do, or who has a better family situation than we have, or who has more friends than we do, or who just generally seems to have gotten a better deal from life than we have.  Always.  It does not matter who we are.  I’ll bet that even Bill Gates has somebody he looks at and thinks sometimes, “I wish I could have that life.”  Any time we compare our lives with others, we’re going to find someone we can envy.
Jesus tells us that’s not how God looks at fairness.  God looks at fairness as a one-to-one relationship.  Fairness is a relationship between us and God.  Other people have nothing to do with it.  

So, looking at that one-to-one relationship between us and God, is God fair?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why I say that.  Think about how this relationship between God and us works.  On one side, you have God.  God, who is all-powerful.  God who is all-wise.  God, who is perfect.  Then, on the other side you have us, who are…not. 

We are not all-powerful, although sometimes we like to think we are.  We are not wise, although we like to think that, too.  We’re certainly not perfect.  As Paul wrote, we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.
Given who God is, and given who we are, how would a “fair” god treat us?  Not very well, I suspect.  A “fair” god would give us what we deserve.  A “fair” god would punish us for our sins.
Yet, that’s not what God does.  This all-loving, all-merciful, completely unfair God does not give us what we deserve.  God gives us much better than we deserve.  God says that if we have faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, then God will have mercy on us, forgive our sins, and allow us into heaven.  It does not matter what we’ve done.  It does not matter who we’ve hurt.  It does not how long we’ve hurt them.  If we accept Jesus as our Savior, if we ask God to forgive our sins, God will do just that.  It’s not “fair” at all.  It’s just wonderful and amazing.
Sometimes when things go wrong, we think God is not fair.  That’s not it.  It’s not the times when things go wrong that God is not fair.  It’s the times when things go right.  It’s the times when we’re scared of something, and then everything turns out to be okay.  It’s the times when we’re sick and get well.  It’s the times when we jam on our brakes and avoid the car accident.  It’s the times when there’s all kinds of lightning and thunder and wind, but nothing gets destroyed and nobody gets hurt.  Those are the times when God is not fair.  Those are the times when God does not give us what we deserve, but instead gives us something better than what we deserve.  And, of course, there’s what we just talked about, the greatest unfairness of all, that God would take lowly sinners like us and, as long as we believe in Jesus as our Savior, allow us into heaven.
It’s natural to question God when things don’t go the way we think they should.  God understands why we do that, and God won’t get mad at us for it.  We’ll be happier, though, if instead of blaming God when things go wrong, we instead think of all the things that went right.  Then, we can praise God for all the wonderful, incredible, unfair blessings God gives us.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Greatest Man I Never Knew

            Wanda and I went to Armour to visit my parents over the Fourth of July.  It’s always good to see them, of course, but that’s not what I want to write about today.

            While we were there, my Mom gave me something.  It was a Czech language newspaper called The Slovak Presbyterian or, in Czech, the Slovensky Kalvin.  This was a Presbyterian newspaper in Czech that was published in the United States twice a month from 1907 through 1962.  My grandfather, Joseph Nadenicek, a Presbyterian pastor, was also the editor of this newspaper for about ten years, until his death on January 1, 1929.

            This was not the original of the newspaper.  Rather, it was an English translation done by my mother with help from my Uncle Paul.  The date on the newspaper is January 15, 1929.  In other words, it was the first edition of the newspaper published after my grandfather passed away.

            This edition of the newspaper was dedicated to him, but it was more than that.  It contains eulogies of my grandfather.  It contains a description of his funeral.  There was all kinds of stuff about him that I never knew.

            I’ve written a little bit about my grandfather in the past.  He’s the only one in my family, at least in my direct line, who was in the ministry.  I never knew him, of course.  My mother really has no memory of him, as she was only three and a half when he died.  Still, because we now share the same profession, he’s been something of an inspiration to me since I became a pastor.

            I keep a picture of him in my office and look at it from time to time.  I’ve wondered, what would he think of me?  I suspect he’d be pleased that I’d gone into the ministry—he’d had a plan that one of his children would become a pastor, and while that never happened, at least now he’s got a grandson who did.

            What would he think, though, of my approach to ministry?  What would he think of my views on theology?  Am I anything like him?  I would think about these questions, but I had no way to answer them.

            Now, I do, at least in part.  It pleases me to note that we are somewhat similar, at least in some ways.  Some of the things he believed, some of the ways he approached life and ministry, seem to have come down through my mother to me. 

It’s amazing to think about how we can influence people in ways that we never know or even dream of.  So, what I’m going to do over the next few weeks is share some of the things I’ve learned about my grandfather with you.  I know it will be meaningful to me.  I hope it will be meaningful to you, too.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Turning Points

The following is the sermon given at the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg July 11, 2012.  The scripture was Luke 15:11-32.

            Part of the genius of Jesus’ stories is the way there are always turning points.  There are decisions that get made that make all the difference in the story.  That’s especially true of the story of the prodigal son, too.  Each character makes choices that change the entire course of events, not just in his life, but in the life of the others.
It’s starts with the younger son.  The younger son makes the choice to ask for his share of the inheritance and leave.  What if he had not done that?  What if the younger son had thought, “I’d like to do this, but if I do my dad’ll kill me.  I’d better keep my mouth shut and do what I’m told.”
At first, it might seem like that would’ve made things better.  We’d like to think that if he’d stayed, the family would’ve stayed united and been happy.  Maybe not, though.  The younger son would still have had the desire to leave.  He’d still have wanted to see what was out there, to see if he could make it on his own.  Maybe he’d have come to resent his life at home.  Maybe he’d have started causing trouble, not just for himself, but for his brother and his father, too.  Maybe he’d have felt so stifled that he’d have hated his whole family.  Maybe his time at home would’ve made everyone miserable.  Or, maybe he’d have taken off anyway.  Maybe he’d have struck out on his own, with or without money, to see what the rest of the world was like.
He was at a turning point, and he made his choice.  He asked for the money, got it, and went out to see the world.  It was a choice that did not just affect him.  It broke up the whole family.
The father was at a turning point, too.  He had to make a choice.  It had to be a hard choice.  When his son came up and asked for his share of the inheritance, the father could’ve said, “What?  Are you crazy?  I’m not giving you anything.  You’ll get your share of the inheritance, assuming I actually give you some, when I’m dead and not before.  Now get out of here and get back to work!”
As I think about it, that’s probably what I would’ve said, if I was the father.  It’s not what the father says here, though.  He must have been tempted to.  After all, he obviously knew his son pretty well.  He probably knew what would happen to his son if he had money.  It’d be a lot safer for his son if he kept him at home.  It would not be denying him something.  It’d be protecting him.  It’d be protecting the whole family.  They’d stay together, and stay united in love.  It’d be for the younger son’s own good to not give him anything and keep him home.
Still, the father says yes.  We don’t know why.  Maybe the younger son had been in trouble his whole life, and the father had been bailing him out.  Maybe he knew that sometimes you have to let people make their own decisions and make their own mistakes.  After all, if the younger son went out on his own, his father would not be around to save him any more.  He’d have to sink or swim on his own.  Maybe he knew that the only way the younger son would grow up is if he had to deal with the consequences of his actions.
Whatever the reason, he did it.  He gave his son the money, and the son left.  Again, that was a turning point.  It was a choice that affected the whole family. 

Well, sure enough, the younger son got into trouble.  He ran out of money, the economy went bad, there were no government programs for him to get on, and he was in a tough spot.  He got a job, but it was a lousy job, feeding pigs.  Now, I grew up on a farm, and I’ve fed some pigs in my time.  It’s not a great job for anybody.  Now remember that Jesus was talking to Jewish people.  For religious reasons, they were not supposed to have anything to do with pigs.  This would’ve been about the worst possible job the younger son could’ve gotten.
So, the younger son reached another turning point, and had to make another choice.  Here he was.  He’d made this big show about how he was ready to strike out on his own.  Nobody was going to tell him what to do.  He was ready to make his own decisions.  He could take care of himself.  Now, here he was, a complete and total failure.  He’d made a mess of his life.  Everything his father had given him was gone.  He had nothing left.  He was barely able to survive.
He thought, well, maybe I could go back home.  But could he?  Think of how embarrassing that would be for him, to have to admit what a failure he was.  He had to be kind of scared, too.  What kind of reception would he get when he got home?  How would his father react when he told him what had happened?  Would his father even take him back?  Would his father disown him, tell him he was no longer fit to be called his son?  Would his father tell him, “Hey, you made your choice.  I gave you everything you were entitled to and you threw it away.  The gravy train is over.  You made your bed, now you can lie in it.  I don’t have anything for you.  Get out of here.”
Well, he made his choice.  He was going to go home.  He rehearsed what he’d say to his father.  He’d admit it all.  He’d admit how wrong he’d been, he’d admit what a failure he was, and he’d beg for mercy.  He would not even ask to be called a son again, just ask that his father give him a job.
He heads for home.  His father sees him coming from a long way off.  I wonder, did the father know what had happened?  We’re not told of any communication between them, but it seems like parents always know, right?  Besides, as we said before, he knew his son well enough to know what would probably happen.
So, we’re at another turning point.  The father had to make a choice.  What do I do?  Do I take him back?  Has he learned his lesson?  What if he’s the same the same know-it-all he was before?  Am I just going to be bailing him out one more time, enabling him again?
Well, the way Jesus tells it, it was no choice at all.  The father did not even think about it.  He not only took his son back, he welcomed him back.  He did not even listen to the son’s prepared speech.  He ordered fancy clothes for his son and threw a party for him.  He’d worry about giving him a lecture later.  This was a time to celebrate!  The family was back together!
And now, just when we think we’ve reached the happy ending, we’ve reached yet another turning point.  The older son comes into the picture.  He’d have known what had happened before, of course.  He’d have known all about what his brother did.  He’d have known all about what his father did, too.  Did the older son worry about his brother?  Did he think “good riddance”?  Maybe he’d been covering for his brother for years, doing his brother’s work as well as his own.  He may have been upset with his father for dividing the property, too.  You can say, well, the older son was still going to get his share, but his share might’ve been bigger if they’d kept it all together.  The estate might have grown.  There might’ve been interest accumulated.
Think about it.  Here the older son was, playing by the rules, doing what he was supposed to do, helping his father, waiting patiently for it to be his turn to inherit the property.  His idiot brother takes half the property, wastes it, comes sniveling back, and his father throws a party for him!
The older son is at a turning point.  He has to make a choice, too.  He has to choose whether to forgive his brother and welcome him back, or whether to feel angry and resentful.  As with all the other choices, his choice was going to affect the whole family.  If he chose to forgive, they could be one happy, united family again.  If he chose to be angry and resentful, the family would stay divided and broken.
He chose to be angry and resentful.  His father came out to talk to him.  His father explained to him why the father made the choice he did.  His father tried to get him to change his mind.
And there the story ends.  We don’t know whether the older son changed his mind or not.  We don’t know if the family was reunited or stayed divided and broken.  Jesus leaves the story unresolved.

Which is the way our own lives go.  Each of us has unresolved stories in our lives.  Each one of us comes to those same turning points.  We’ve had them in the past and we’ll have them in the future.  Some of us may have them now.  It’s not just in our family lives, either.  It can be any kind of relationship.  It can be something that’s happened recently, or it can be something that’s been going on for a long time. 

We come to turning points in our lives every day, and we make choices every day.  Every day, each of us chooses to unite with others or to stay separate from them.  We choose to act in ways that will form strong, loving relationships, or we choose to act in ways that will keep us divided and apart.

Just like with this story, our endings are unresolved.  We all come to turning points.  When we do, let’s remember this story and pray for the wisdom and courage to make the right choices.

Monday, July 9, 2012

It's the Little Things

This is the message given at Oahe Manor on Sunday, July 8, 2012.  The Scripture used is 2 Kings 5:1-14.

            This is such a wonderful story.  I think it says a lot about human nature.
You’ve got Naaman.  He’s described as “a mighty warrior”.  Now, physical strength and courage are still admired today, but they were admired a lot more back when this was written.  To have been called a “mighty warrior”, Naaman must have really been an impressive guy.
But he has a problem.  He has leprosy.  Now, “leprosy” was kind of a catch-all term that covered a lot of different skin diseases, so we don’t know exactly what Naaman’s illness actually was, but it was obviously something that bothered him quite a bit, because as soon as he found out that there was someone who could cure him, he asked for permission to go to that person.
But look at what happens here.  First, like so many of us, Naaman did not really listen to what he was told.  Naaman was told this person who could cure him was a prophet, but he did not go to Israel looking for a prophet.  He went to the king.  He just assumed that if he wanted something done, something that took great power, he had to go to the head of the government to get it done.  He did not listen to what was actually said to him.

I’m imagining being the King of Israel.  You’re sitting in your palace one day, minding your own business, doing whatever it was a king did back then, and you’re told there’s this mighty warrior outside who’s got a letter from a neighboring king.  You read the letter, and you sees this king expects him to cure the warrior of leprosy.
You’d kind of be freaked out, right?  The actual king sure was.  He’s going, “What?  So this guy has leprosy.  What am I supposed to do about it?  Am I supposed to wave my wand and somehow magically cure this guy?  What’s this all about?”  And then he thinks about it, and he starts to get scared.  He thinks, maybe this is just an excuse for this other king to go to war with me.  He demands this guy be healed, and when I don’t do it, because I can’t, he says “Okay, then, since you did not do what I wanted, I’m going to take over your country.”
Then Elisha hears about this, and he to the king, “Hey, don’t worry about it.  Send him to me.  I’ll take care of it.”  And the king does.  We’re not told what the king expected Elisha to do, but he’s probably thinking this is his out.  He’s done what so many of us try to find a way to do—he’s passed the buck.  He’ll send Naaman to Elisha, and if Elisha fails to cure him, he can say “I did all I could.  I sent Naaman to my best guy.  It’s not my fault it didn’t work, it’s Elisha’s fault.”  Again, it’s human nature at work—if you don’t think you can do what you’re supposed to do, find someone to blame.
So Naaman goes to Elisha, and Naaman makes a production out of this.  He takes all his horses and all his chariots to Elisha’s house.  Plus, remember, he’s got a lot of money with him, too:  ten talents of silver and ten thousand shekels of gold.  I don’t know exactly what that would translate into in dollars, but it’s a lot.  Naaman wants to make sure Elisha knows that a Very Important Person has come to see him.  Again, we have human nature at work:  when all want to feel important, and we all want other people to know just how important we are.
Elisha is not impressed.  He does not even come out to see Naaman.  Instead, he just sends a note that says “go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River and you’ll be okay.”
And again, we see human nature.  Naaman is outraged.  Here he is, this incredibly strong, courageous man, and Elisha does not even bother to come out of his house to see him.  Not only does Elisha not seem to know how important Naaman is, he does not recognize how serious Naaman’s illness is.  Wash himself in the river?  If this skin disease could be washed off, he’d have done that a long time ago.  This is something that calls for something dramatic.  This is something that calls for something miraculous.  Naaman is prepared to pay a huge sum for his cure.  He’s also prepared to do something big and bold to earn his cure; after all, he’s a brave, mighty warrior.  He’s prepared for all this and what does he get?  A note that says “wash yourself in the river.  Ridiculous.  This guy claims to be a prophet, and he does not even seem to know what’s going on.
Finally, though, Naaman is convinced to do what Elisha told him to.  And, lo and behold, it worked.  Naaman was healed.
Here’s the point.  Too often, we look for God in big things.  We pray for God to do huge, dramatic things to help us through whatever we think we need help with.  God does do that, sometimes, but more often, God acts in small ways.
I can see that so many times when I look back over my life.  I’ll bet you can, too.  I see the number of things that had to happen so perfectly for me to have done the things I’ve done in my life.  I see the number of things that had to happen in exactly the right way for me to meet Wanda.  I see the number of things that had to fall into place for me to become a pastor.  There were a few big things that happened, but most of them were small things, little things, things that I did not even notice when they were happening.  God was working in all kinds of ways in my life, and I did not even realize it.
God is at work in us all our lives.  God is at work in us when we’re children.  God is at work in us when we’re young adults.  God is at work in us when we’re middle aged.  God is at work in us when we’re older, too.  God never stops working in our lives.
No matter what you may be going through right now, I hope you can realize that.  We worship a God who never slumbers nor sleeps.  Even when we’re not aware of it, God is at work in our lives.  No matter how you may feel or what your situation is right now, God is at work for you.  God is always there.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

If Heaven Wasn't So Far Away

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, July 8, 2012.  The Scriptures are John 11:17-44 and Revelation 21:10-22:5.

            We’re starting a new sermon series today.  It’s called “This Is Country Music”.  We’re going to look at some popular and relatively current country songs and see what they say about the way people in our society look at faith and at life.
Now, I want everyone to understand right up front that these are not particularly religious songs.  A couple of them at least have something to do with faith, like the one today, but some of them don’t.  Some of them are not the kind of songs you’d normally expect to hear played in church.
The reason we’re doing this is that, regardless of what you may think of these songs, they’re popular.  Songs are popular for a reason.  There’s something about popular songs that people like.  There’s something about popular songs that speaks to people.  Whether it’s something we’re dealing with, something we wish we had, something about the general condition of living, or whatever, songs get popular because they say something that speaks to us.  We’re looking specifically at country songs because that’s the type of music that tends to be most popular around here.
The song we’re going to hear today to start this sermon series is by Justin Moore.  I’m sure at least some of you have heard it before.  It’s called “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away.”  The lyrics are below:

Every day I drive to work across Flint River bridge
A hundred yards from the spot where me and Grandpa fished
There’s a piece of his old fruit stand on the side of Sawmill Road
He’d be there peelin’ peaches if it was twenty years ago
And what I wouldn’t give
To ride around in that old truck with him

If heaven wasn’t so far away
I’d pack up the kids and go for the day
Introduce ‘em to their Grandpa
Watch ‘em laugh at the way he talks
I’d find my long-lost cousin John
The one we left back in Vietnam
Show him a picture of his daughter now
She’s a doctor and he’d be proud
Tell ‘em we’d be back in a couple of days
In the rear-view mirror we’d all watch ‘em wave
Yeah, and losin’ them wouldn’t be so hard to take
If heaven wasn’t so far away.

I’d hug all three of those girls we lost from the class of ‘99
I’d find my bird dog Bo and take him huntin’ one more time
I’d ask Hank why he took those pills back in ‘53
And Janis to sing the second verse of “Me and Bobby McGee”
Sit on a cloud and visit for a while
It’d do me good just to see them smile

If heaven wasn’t so far away
I’d pack up the kids and go for the day
Introduce ‘em to their Grandpa
Watch ‘em laugh at the way he talks
I’d find my long-lost cousin John
The one we left back in Vietnam
Show him a picture of his daughter now
She’s a doctor and he’d be proud
Tell ‘em we’d be back in a couple of days
In the rear-view mirror we’d all watch ‘em wave
Yeah, and losin’ them wouldn’t be so hard to take
If heaven wasn’t so far
If heaven wasn’t so far
If heaven wasn’t so far away
So far away
So far away

Death is one of the few constants in life.  It’s been around for thousands and thousands of years.  It affects each and every one of us.  You’d think, by now, we’d have learned how to deal with it, and in some ways I guess we have.  Still, death is hard on all of us.
That’s true in pretty much all circumstances.  Even if a death is expected, it’s still hard when it comes.  Even if we’re fully confident about faith, both in our own faith and in the faith of the person who’s passed away, death is still a very sad thing.  Even if we are completely convinced that someone has gone to heaven, we’re still sad when death comes.
If we want proof of that, we don’t need to look any farther than the story we read from the gospel of John, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  You know, in some ways, the raising of Lazarus is not the most remarkable part of this story.  I mean, it’s incredible of course.  Still, if we accept that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, we’re able to accept that Jesus could raise someone from the dead.  After all, if Jesus himself could be raised from the dead, it’s not surprising that Jesus could raise someone else, too.
In some ways, the most incredible part of this story is these three verses, verses thirty-three to thirty-five.  “When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.  ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked.  ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied.  Jesus wept.”
Jesus wept.  Why?  Jesus knew what was going on.  He knew what he was going to do.  He knew Lazarus was not permanently dead.  He knew that, in just a very short time, he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead.  Still, Jesus wept.  Jesus cried at the death of a close friend, even though he knew that death was not permanent.  If even Jesus, who conquered death itself, reacted that way to death, we don’t have to feel bad when we don’t always handle it well.
It hurts to be separated from people we love.  The more we love them, the more it hurts to be apart from them.  I start missing Wanda when she’s just gone for a couple of days to visit friends or relatives.  That’s a situation where I know she’ll be back soon, and where I also know that I could go and get her if I really wanted to.  Now imagine having someone you love gone, and knowing that they’re not coming back.  They’ll be gone the rest of your life.
Many of you, of course, don’t have to imagine that.  You live with it every day.  It could be a spouse, it could be a child, it could be a parent, it could be anyone you feel close to who’s passed away.  It hurts to be apart from people we love.
I think this song hits on one of the reasons why it hurts so much.  Even if we’re convinced the ones we love are in heaven, heaven seems so far away.  If only there was some way to bridge that gap between us and heaven.  If only we could just go and visit our loved ones for a while.  If only we could just picture what heaven is, and see our loved ones there.  Even if we could not talk to them, just to see it, just to have some idea of what it’s like there.  If we could do that, it would not hurt so much to lose people.  If only heaven was not so far away.
It’s not that way, of course.  We’re not allowed to see heaven while we’re on the earth.  It’s been said that if we could, if we really knew how incredibly beautiful heaven is and how incredibly happy we’re going to be when we get there, it’d make our lives on earth miserable.  If you believe that theory, God is not hiding heaven from us to be mean to us, but to be kind to us.
I think there may be something to that.  I knew a guy once who had a death experience, who was dead and then brought back to life.  He said he really could not describe the experience very well, but for about a year after he was brought back to life, he went into depression.  He did not want to be on this earth any more.  He wanted to be in the next world, where he’d been so briefly.
In our reading from Revelation, we heard a description of the New Jerusalem.  Now, New Jerusalem may not be heaven, exactly.  Some would say it’s not.  We’re told, though, that it’s the place of the throne of God and of Jesus Christ, and that’s about as good a description of heaven as there is.
Listen to the beauty of it.  It’s brilliance is like that of the most precious jewels.  It’s as clear as crystal.  There’s every kind of precious stone.  The streets are made of pure gold.  There’s a river with crystal-clear water.  The trees bear some kind of fruit year-round.  Can you even imagine it?
None of that’s the best part though.  The leaves of the tree of life provide healing of the nations.  Total and complete healing.  No longer will there be any curse.  It’ll be Eden, the way the world is really supposed to be.
None of that’s the best part of it, either.  Here’s the best part.  It shines with the Glory of God.  There’s no need for a temple, because God is there, and God is the temple.  There’s no need for a sun or a moon, because the glory of God gives all the light anyone needs.  The throne of God and of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, are there.  We’ll be in the presence of God forever and ever.
Dealing with death will always be hard.  Heaven still seems far away.  It’s really not, though.  It’s as close to us as God is.  If we can feel God’s presence in our lives, we can feel a little bit of the joy of heaven.  If we can feel God’s Holy Spirit in our hearts, we can feel a little bit of the love of heaven.  By feeling God’s presence and God’s Holy Spirit, we can feel connected to our loved ones who’ve gone before us.  And then, maybe heaven won’t seem quite so far away.