Search This Blog

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Rules

            I went to Hoven for the volleyball match Tuesday night.  A couple of things happened that night that just kind of struck me.

            One thing was that, on the way there, law enforcement had set up a safety checkpoint.  Now, this was no big deal.  Make sure the headlights work, make sure the turn signals work, etc.  I doubt that it took five minutes.  Still, it kind of bugged me.  I was not doing anything wrong.  Why should law enforcement be able to stop me for no reason at all, just because they felt like it?

            The other thing was when I was at the game and went to use the rest room.  I saw a sign on the window that said, “Please do not open window.”  Now, if that sign had not been there, it would never have occurred to me to open the window.  Because I saw the sign, though, I had a desire to go and open the window.  I did not, but it was a hard temptation for me to resist.

            It seems like there’s just something inside of us that wants to resist authority.  We don’t like people to be able to tell us what to do and what not to do.  We want to make those decisions for ourselves.

            The thing is, though, that when we make decisions for ourselves, those decisions have consequences.  We don’t necessarily want to accept those consequences.  We want to make our own decisions, but we also kind of like the idea that there’ll be someone there to bail us out if our decisions don’t work out.

            That has implications for our faith.  God, of course, is the ultimate authority.  One of the reasons we resist God is that we look at God as someone who tells us what to do and what not to do.  We don’t like that.  We want to make those decisions for ourselves.  We want to decide how we’ll live and what we’ll do, and we don’t like it when God interferes with that.  In fact, sometimes we’re tempted to do things it would otherwise never have occurred to us to do, just because we don’t like the idea of God telling us we can’t.

            When our decisions have consequences, though, we don’t necessarily like that.  Sometimes, that’s when we turn back to God and pray for help.  We want to make our own decisions, but we still kind of like the idea that God will be there to bail us out if necessary.

            The thing is, though, that when God sets out rules, telling us that we should do certain things and should not do other things, that’s not God just exercising authority of us.  God is not a celestial highway patrolman, interfering for no reason in the hope of catching us doing something wrong.  God sets out rules because God knows more than we do.  When God sets out rules, it’s God telling us “You know, you’d really be happier and live a better life if you’d just live the way I’m telling you to live.”

            We’re free to ignore God’s rules if we want to, but that will have consequences.  We’ll be less happy.  We won’t live as good a life.  Sometimes, we realize that, and we turn to back to God.  If we decide that now we’re going to try it God’s way and ask for forgiveness, God will give it to us.  God may not “bail us out” on this earth—we still may have to deal with the consequences of our earthly actions—but we’ll be new people, better people, because we’re now living with God in our lives.

            Remember, Jesus only gave us two rules:  love God and love each other.  If we do that, we’ll find out that the rest of the rules will take care of themselves.

It's Unpossible!

            There are lots of times in the gospels where people came up to Jesus and asked him questions.  Our story for tonight, the story of the Good Samaritan, is an example of that.  Someone who’s described as an expert in the law comes up to Jesus and asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life.
Did you ever notice that Jesus almost never gives a straight answer?  He could have.  He could’ve said to this guy, “Well, here’s what you should do.  You should love everybody.  Then you’ll get eternal life.”
That’s not what Jesus did, though.  Instead, Jesus did what he usually did.  First, he turned the question around.  He said to the guy, hey, you’re the expert in the law here.  What’s the law say about your question?  When the guy answers, Jesus says, as he often did, well, there you go then.  Do what the law says.
As usually happened, though, the questioner was not done.  He says to Jesus, yeah, I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but here’s the thing.  Who’s my neighbor?
And right there, we can see that this guy really is an expert in the law.  You give him a legal standard, and the first thing he does is look for a loophole.  We’re told he was trying to justify himself, so he obviously did not want to have to love everybody, and he thought maybe this “love your neighbor” thing was his way out.  You can just imagine him thinking, “Hmmm.  Love your neighbor.  Maybe that just means the people who live next door.  Maybe it just means the people in my neighborhood.  That sounds reasonable, right?  Maybe ‘love your neighbor’ is not such a hard thing after all.”  So, he asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?”
Again, Jesus does not give him a straight answer.  Instead, Jesus does the other thing he usually did.  He tells him a story, a story designed to make a point.
He tells him a story about a guy who’s going from Jerusalem to Jericho and is robbed, beaten, and left for dead.  This would have seemed familiar to the guy Jesus was talking to.  The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a dangerous one.  It was a common trade route, but there were lots of places for bandits to hide and ambush people.  Then, Jesus tells about three people passing by the man who was beaten, a priest, a Levite, and one other person.
I read once that this was a common form of storytelling back in Jesus’ time.  You know how we have jokes today that start out with something like, “A doctor, a lawyer, and a businessman go into a bar”?  Well, they had kind of the same thing back then, except it was not necessarily a set-up for a joke, it was just a form of storytelling.  The way it worked was that you’d have a priest, a Levite, and a “good Jew”.  The “good Jew” was a sort of everyman, someone the average person could relate to.  The “good Jew” would be the hero of the story.
So, when Jesus starts telling this story, the expert in the law, and everyone else listening, think they know what’s going on.  First the priest passes and by and does not do anything.  Then the Levite passes by and does not do anything.  So, next will come the “good Jew”, who saves the day and is the hero.
Except, that’s not what Jesus says.  Jesus says the third guy is a Samaritan.  And the Samaritan turns out to be the hero of the story.
Remember, the Jews hated the Samaritans.  The Samaritans hated the Jews, too.  This was not how the story was supposed to go.  There are two people here who are supposed to hate each other.  Yet, when one of them is in trouble, the other comes to his rescue.  He not only helps, he goes way above and beyond what mere duty would’ve required.  He not only helps him, he in effect takes him to the hospital and pays for all his medical care.
Jesus’ message could not have been more obvious if he’d put up a billboard.  We are supposed to love everybody.  It does not matter what race, what color, what gender, what sexual preference, what anything.  We are supposed to love everybody.  No exceptions.  And that love is supposed to be shown in our actions.  We’re not just supposed to do the bare minimum, either.  We’re not just supposed to act out of duty or obligation.  We’re supposed to do whatever it takes to help people in need.
That’s a tough standard.  Can any of us say that we measure up to it?
I cannot.  Remember last week, when we said that we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy?  Here’s why that’s true.  We are supposed to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our strength, with all our minds.  We’re supposed to love our neighbors just as we love ourselves.  Any time we fail to do that, we commit a sin.  That’s what sin is, really:  failing to act or speak or think in love.
Loving God completely and totally, and loving others—all others—completely and totally, is the way to inherit eternal life.  That’s what Jesus says in this story.  Yet, I don’t know that any of us can claim to do that.  So, logically, none of us can inherit eternal life.  It’s not possible.
That’s why God’s so incredible.  This is not the only time Jesus set up the way to heaven in a way that it’s not possible for us to get there.  Remember the story of the rich man?  It’s not really a parable, so we did not do it in this sermon series, but this rich man goes up to Jesus and asks, just like the expert in the law does, what he needs to do to inherit eternal life.  In this case, Jesus ultimately tells him to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and follow him.  Again, the message is the same—the way to inherit eternal life is to love God completely and totally, and to love others completely and totally.  No exceptions.
We’re told that when they heard what the standard was, the disciples were astonished.  They recognized how impossible this was.  They asked Jesus straight out, well, then, who can be saved?
And Jesus admitted that it is impossible.  For humans.  What makes it possible is not humans.  It’s God.  With God, all things are possible.
We’re coming to the end of our summer worship series.  I hope you’ve gotten something out of the music, and the poetry, and the messages, and all that.  But if there are just a couple of things you’ve gotten out of these Wednesday evenings, I hope it’s the things we’ve talked about tonight.
God wants one hundred percent of our lives and one hundred percent of our love.  God wants us to give other people—all other people—one hundred percent of our love, too.  But God knows we flawed, imperfect humans are not capable of giving one hundred percent of our love to anyone.  We’re not even capable of giving one hundred percent of our love to ourselves, much less to others.  It’s not possible for us.
But it is possible for God.  So, God helps us. God enters our lives.  God puts God’s Holy Spirit into our hearts.  God says to us that if we’ll just keep trying, and give as much percent of our love as we can to him and to others, God will use God’s love to make up the difference.  Our love plus God’s love will make that one hundred percent.
God is so incredible.  God is incredible beyond our imagination.  God is so much bigger and stronger and more powerful and smarter and wiser and better than anything we can ever imagine.  And yet, God loves us.  No, it’s better than that.  God does not just love “us”.  God loves you, as an individual.  God knows each one of our names, God knows everything about us, and God loves each one of us.  God loves each and every one of you.  And God loves me, too.
We’ve done nothing to earn that love.  We don’t deserve it.  We never could.  It would be impossible for us to be good enough, and loving enough, to deserve God’s love.  But God loves us anyway, because that’s just who God is.
God cannot love imperfectly.  God cannot love conditionally.  God cannot love less that totally.  God asks us to love God totally and completely, and God asks us to love each and every other person totally and completely, because to God, that’s what love is.
So, God asks us to do the impossible.  Then, God enters our hearts through God’s Holy Spirit, and makes it possible.  Because nothing is impossible for God.
If you remember nothing else from our Wednesday worship services, remember this.  Love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  And remember that nothing is impossible for God.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why Are We Here?

The following is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 26, 2012.  The scripture is Hebrews 13:1-8.

            Well, the kids went back to school this past week.  So, we thought it was time for the rest of us to go back to school, too.  Welcome to United Methodism 101.  I hope you’ve all brought your number two pencils, because there will be a test at the end of class.
What we’re going to do in this sermon series is take a look at what United Methodism is and what makes it different from other Christian denominations.  Now, in doing that, it’s not our intention to say that Lutherans or Catholics or Mennonites or Presbyterians or any other Christian denominations are somehow unholy or unworthy or anything like that.  The point here is not to put down any other faith.  The point is to say that, as United Methodists, this is how we tend to look at things.
To know where we are, though, we need to know where we started from.  So we’re going to start by looking at the early days of what has come to be called the United Methodist Church.  That means starting with the founder of what is now the United Methodist Church, John Wesley.
John Wesley was a priest in the Church of England, what’s sometimes referred to as the Anglican Church, in the 1700s.  Wesley really did not have a problem with the doctrines or theology of the Church of England.  The problem he had with the Church of England was that he thought it had gotten too far removed from the people, and was not really living out what it said it believed.  It had gotten too dependent on ritual and formality.  It was just opening the church doors and waiting for people to come in.  The trouble with that plan was that people were not coming in. 

Wesley believed that the church should go to where people were and be part of people’s lives.  He believed the church not only should address people’s spiritual needs, but also should address people’s physical needs, the way Jesus had done.  Wesley believed all of that was part of our call to live a holy life.  In fact, his movement was sometimes called a “holiness” movement.

Wesley thought we all need a method for doing this, and so his views became known as “Methodist.”  That method involved frequent prayer and Bible study to help one live a holy life.  It involved doing charitable work, going to prisons, hospitals, factories, anywhere there were people who needed the gospel and who needed help with their lives.  It also involved being part of small groups that would regularly meet to study the Bible and how it applied to their lives.  Every Methodist was expected to be part of one of these small groups, and every Methodist was expected to attend regularly.  If you did not, you could be kicked out of the group.

As time went on, people joined Wesley’s groups.  He started organizing them.  He still did not consider them to be a separate church.  They were just groups of people within the Church of England.  They believed what the church believed, they just wanted to live that belief.  Eventually, though, Wesley and his “Methodists” upset the status quo.  A law was passed that essentially made Wesley either register his group as a church or stop meeting.  So, he registered his group as a church.  Wesley, though, remained a member of the Church of England until he died.

            This period of time, the 1700s, is of course the time when England was colonizing America.  As English people came here, Methodists came, too.  They had some success, but then the Revolutionary War broke out.  Methodists, as we said, were affiliated with the official Church of England, and so were not too popular among the revolutionary colonists.  A lot of them went back to England.

As the Methodist church became a separate church, though, this link became less of a hindrance, and the church started growing.  Wesley appointed Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as the first two American bishops.  The United Methodist publishing house, Cokesbury, takes its name from those first two bishops.  As the country grew, the Methodist church grew, too.  It’s said that at one time there were more Methodist churches in this country than there were post offices.

We’ve talked about how we came to be called “Methodists”, but what about the “United” part?  Why are we called “United” Methodists?  After all, if you’ve ever been to a conference meeting and heard some of the arguments, you might think we’re not very “united” at all.  That “United” part, though, is an important part of our history as a church.

It comes from a merger in 1968 between the Methodist church and the Evangelical United Brethren, or the E. U. B. church.  Some of you may remember when that merger took place.  Some of you may even have attended E. U. B. churches.  That church started around 1800 and also had a strong emphasis on holiness.  When the churches merged, we became not just the Methodist church, but the United Methodist Church, taking that work “united” from the Evangelical United Brethren.

Over the years, there have been various splits and off-shoots from the Methodist church.  Some of those came from disputes over how the church is organized, which we’ll take up later in this sermon series.  Some of them, sadly, came over the issue of slavery.  Just as slavery divided the country, it also divided the church.  Various predominantly African-American churches were formed over that issue, especially in the south. 

Current denominations that consider themselves part of the Wesleyan tradition include the Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan church, the Free Methodist church, and the Evangelical Methodist church.  There’s a branch of the E. U. B. church that did not merge with the United Methodist church in 1968, and it still exists, too.

I could go on, but at this point, some of you are probably saying “So what?”  I mean, we should probably know a little about our history and everything, but what does knowing any of this stuff mean for us today?  How does it help us to know these things about the history of the United Methodist Church?

Well, I think it helps us in a couple of ways.  For one thing, some of the things John Wesley was concerned about are still problems for us today.  We’re still tempted to just open the doors and wait for people to come in, rather than going to where they are.             

We still need to find ways to meet people’s needs, both their spiritual needs and their physical needs, the way Jesus did.  We still need to find ways to live a holy life, and having a method in place, a method that involves prayer and Bible study and meeting in small groups and going out to help people, is still a really good way to live that holy life.

There are plenty of people right here in town who are not attending church anywhere.  They may or may not be affiliated with some church, but they’re not going there.  If you don’t think that’s true, just think about the number of people who live here, and then think about the number of people who are in church on an average Sunday.  Is it half?  Is it a third?  Is it even a fourth?  There are lots of people here in town who need what our church offers.  But we cannot just open the doors and expect them to come in.  We’ve done some things to reach out beyond our doors, and that’s good, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what we could do, if we only make up our minds that we’re going to.

Here’s the other way I think this helps.  You’re probably aware that, if you look at the numbers, the United Methodist Church in the United States is declining.  We’re not the only denomination that is, of course, but that does not make the decline any better or give us an excuse.  Many of you can probably also remember a time when this church had a lot more people in it than it does now, too.

I believe what our history shows is that the United Methodist Church was and is part of God’s plan.  Before the United Methodist church existed, there were needs of people that were not being met by the church.  The United Methodist Church was formed as the answer to meet those needs.

There are still needs of people that are not being met by the church.  And the United Methodist Church is still the answer to meet those needs.  That’s true whether were talking about the worldwide United Methodist Church or the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish.

As long as the United Methodist Church is needed, it will continue to be part of God’s plan.  As long as the United Methodist Church is part of God’s plan, it will continue to exist.  Again, that’s true whether we’re talking about the worldwide United Methodist Church or the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish.

If the United Methodist Church ever stops being part of God’s plan, then it will no longer exist and there won’t be anything we can do about it, because God is stronger than we are.  As long as the United Methodist Church is part of God’s plan, though, it will continue exist, because God is stronger than we are.  If we do our part to work for the church and for God, though, the United Methodist Church will not only continue to exist.  It will start growing, and it will keep growing.

What our history shows is that this church is here to meet people’s needs, both their spiritual needs and their physical needs.  Let’s do everything we can to help meet those needs for the glory of God.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Savior That We Used To Know

            I wrote earlier about our sermon series based on country music.  Recently, I was visiting with a member of my congregation in a store, and the song “Somebody That I Used to Know” came on over the store’s speaker system.  She suggested that the next time we do a musical sermon series, we include that song.

            It got me thinking about the song, especially the chorus.  Some of you will know the words, but in case you don’t, here are the words of the chorus:

You didn’t have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough
You didn’t have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
I guess that I don’t need that though
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know

            Here’s what I though about:  can you imagine Jesus saying those words to someone?  All of them might not fit, but some of them would.  Can you imagine Jesus saying them to someone you know?  Can you imagine Jesus saying them…to you?

            I can imagine Jesus saying them to me sometimes.  Yes, I’m a pastor, and I spend a lot of time working on church stuff.  But there can be a big difference between “working on church stuff” and actually feeling close to Jesus.  Pastors are not immune from drifting away, any more than anyone else is.

            Many of us have times when we cut Jesus off.  Sometimes it happens deliberately, but a lot of times it happens gradually, almost by accident.  We get busy.  We get distracted.  We decide we don’t have time to pray right now.  We don’t have time to go to church right now.  We don’t intend to stop these things forever, but one day becomes two, then a week, then two weeks, then a month, and pretty soon Jesus has dropped out of our life.

Jesus may not need our love—as part of the trinity, Jesus is God, and so complete in himself—but I’m sure it hurts when we treat him like a stranger.  We stop talking to Jesus, and we no longer have any interest in having Jesus contact us.  Jesus—whether deliberately or accidentally—has become someone that we used to know.

The thing about Jesus, though, is that he never goes away.  We can turn our backs on him, but Jesus won’t turn his back on us.  He’s still there, waiting for us to turn to him again.  Sometimes he’ll contact us, just letting us know that he’s still there, ready to resume the relationship if we are.  We can hang up on him, we can ignore the messages, but Jesus never goes away.  Jesus never gives up on us.

So, if you feel like Jesus is not a part of your life right now, why not turn back to him?  He’ll be happy from you.  Don’t let Jesus become “a Savior that you used to know.”

Excusing Ourselves

            As Christians, we take the Bible seriously.  And we should.  After all, we’re talking about the word of God here.  We’re talking about words that can influence how we live and whether we’re saved.  That’s pretty serious stuff.
At the same time, when Jesus was on the earth, he was fully human as well as fully divine.  Being fully human, that means Jesus had a sense of humor, just like we all do.  Jesus used that sense of humor to get his points across sometimes, and that’s what Jesus was doing in the story we heard tonight.
Listen to what Jesus has the Pharisee doing in this story.  He has him standing in the temple before God and praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
I mean, that’s funny.  Imagine me doing that.  It’s time for prayer on Sunday morning, and I stand up at the front of the church, and I take the microphone, and I say, “God, thanks so much that I’m not like all these other people here.  I mean, let’s face it God, those other people are a bunch of sinners.  They’re terrible.  Look at all the things they do.  I sure thank you that I’m so much better than them.  I’m especially glad I’m not like Joe over there.  I mean, think about what I do.  I tithe, I pray regularly, I preach sermons, I do all kinds of good things for you.  And I’m so humble about it, too.  I especially want to thank you for my humility about how great I am, God.  Amen.”
The Pharisees would not have thought what Jesus said was so funny, of course.  The Pharisees were not known for their sense of humor, especially when it came to making fun of themselves.  The rest of Jesus’ audience would’ve eaten it up, though.  They’d have though it was hilarious.
We’d better not laugh too hard, though.  We’re all tempted to do this sort of thing sometimes.  Not this blatantly, of course.  Not this obviously.  None of us would get up in front of everyone and brag about how great we are, especially not in a prayer. 

Still, we’re tempted to think it sometimes.  We know we’re not perfect, of course, but sometimes we’re tempted to think we’re pretty good.  Good enough, anyway.  Better than a lot of people.  We know we still have things to work on, but a lot of times, we don’t really have any sense of urgency about it.  We don’t really feel like we need to focus on those things.  After all, we’re not that bad.  We do a lot of good things, too.  We do more good things than a lot of people do.  We may not be perfect, but we’re doing okay.

From a human perspective, some of that may even be true.  I’m not saying any of us here is the biggest sinner in the world.  There are people who do a lot worse things than we do.  From a human perspective.

The thing is that God does not look at us from a human perspective.  God looks at us from God’s perspective.  And God actually is perfect.  So when we start thinking we’re pretty good, good enough anyway, doing okay, God looks at us and says, no.  You’re really not.  You’re really not good enough.  You’re really not “okay”. 

            Now, God does not necessarily say that in an angry way.  God knows that we’re not perfect and that we’re not going to be.  I think God just says it in a factual way.  God says, look, I know what it means to really be good.  In fact, I’m the only one who really does know.  And I’m here to tell you that you’re not it.  I am.  Compared to me, no one is actually “good”, and certainly no one is “good enough”.  God says, compared to me, there is no such thing as “good enough.”

That’s why Jesus contrasts his Pharisee with a tax collector.  Now, remember who the tax collectors were considered to be.  We’ve talked about this before, but the tax collectors were the lowest of the low in that society.  They were rich, but nobody liked them.  They did not earn their money, they got it by force.  They took it from people, often people who could not really afford to pay it.  The reason the gospels so often refer to “tax collectors and sinners” is that tax collectors were considered a special category of sinners, lower than any other sinners in society.

But the tax collector knew who he was.  He knew he was not even worthy to come before God.  He did not come up to the front of the church.  He stayed at the back.  He stared at the ground.  He did not try to justify anything he’d done.  He just said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Now, you can say that, being the lowest of the low, it was easier for him to recognize who he was, but that’s not how it works.  We’re all really good at justifying ourselves to ourselves.  That’s what the tax collector must have been doing in the past.  After all, he was a tax collector.  He knew what he was doing.  He was doing it deliberately.  Somehow, he must have convinced himself that it was okay.  He must have convinced himself that he deserved it.  Again, that’s something we all have the ability to do.  We’re all really good at convincing ourselves that it’s okay for us to do the things we want to do.

Somehow, though, at some point, this tax collector realized that what he was doing was not okay.  He came to God and acknowledged exactly who he was.  He begged God, “have mercy on me, a sinner.”  And as a result, Jesus tells us that he went home justified before God.

As with most of Jesus’ stories, we’re not told the ultimate outcome.  We’re not told what these people did after they left the temple.  Most likely, the Pharisee did not do anything different.  He’d have seen no reason to.  He thought he was good enough the way he was.

Did the tax collector do anything different?  We’d like to think so.  We’d like to think he’d have had to.  After all, he’d just acknowledged to God that he was not “good enough”.  He acknowledged to God who he was.  He’d begged God for mercy. 

When we do that, if we’re really sincere when we do that, we cannot just go on as if nothing has happened.  Because when we do that, when we’re really sincere when we do that, something does happen.  That’s why the tax collector was able to go home justified.  He had seen who he was, he knew how wrong he was, and he knew he could not continue to be that person if he wanted God’s mercy.

The question is, did it stick?  Because there’s a temptation involved here, too.  The temptation is to acknowledge who we are, but to not do anything about it.  The temptation is go back to justifying ourselves to ourselves.  The temptation is to convince ourselves, again, that what we’re doing is really not that bad.  The temptation is to convince ourselves that what we’re doing is okay.

Now, I’m not saying that we should beat ourselves up and convince ourselves that we’re the worst person in the world.  We’re not the worst person in the world.  That’s not the point.  The point is that whether we’re the best person in the world or the worst person in the world is irrelevant.  Whether we’re the best person in the world or the worst person in the world or somewhere in between, we’re still sinners.  Again, God does not look at this from a human perspective.  God looks at this from God’s perspective.  God looks at each one of us, from the best person to the worst person, and sees the same thing:  a sinner who needs to ask for forgiveness.

We’re not supposed to beat up on ourselves.  God does not want to beat up on us, either.  God does not want us to acknowledge who we are so we can feel bad.  God wants us to acknowledge who we are so we can receive God’s forgiveness and God’s mercy.

Jesus said, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  Paul wrote, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
God does not condemn us for being sinners.  God knows we’re all sinners.  God wants to give us forgiveness and mercy for our sins.  But God cannot do that give us forgiveness and mercy if we don’t recognize that we need it.

Let’s stop justifying ourselves.  Instead, let’s see ourselves for who we are, and let God justify us.  That way, we will receive God’s forgiveness and mercy, and we can be the people God wants us to be.

Monday, August 20, 2012

We're Not Just Fishin'

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, August 20.  The scripture is Deuteronomy 6:1-9.

            We’re coming to the end of our sermon series on country music.  I hope you’ve found it interesting and have gotten something out of it.  Some of you have made positive comments about it, which I appreciate, so maybe we’ll do it again sometime.
We’re also coming to the end of summer.  Summer is a time when people are gone a lot, of course.  There are weddings, there are family vacations, there are school reunions, there are ball games, there are all kinds of things going on. 

Around here, of course, there’s also fishing.  So, we’re going to conclude our country music series with the Trace Adkins song, “Just Fishin’”  The lyrics are in a bulletin insert, and they’ll also be on the screen.  As we’ve been doing, we’ll listen to the song and then we’ll talk about it.

I’m lost in her there holdin’ that pink rod and reel
She’s doin’ almost everything but sittin’ still
Talkin’ ‘bout her ballet shoes and training wheels
And her kittens
And she thinks we’re just fishin’

I say, “Daddy loves you, baby” one more time
She says, “I know. I think I got a bite.”
And all this laughin’, cryin, smilin’ dyin’ here inside’s
What I call, livin’

And she thinks we’re just fishin’ on the riverside
Throwin’ back what we could fry
Drownin’ worms and killin’ time
Nothin’ too ambitious
She ain’t even thinkin’ ‘bout
What’s really goin’ on right now
But I guarantee this memory’s a big ‘un
And she thinks we’re just fishin’

She’s already pretty, like her mama is
Gonna drive the boys all crazy
Give her daddy fits
And I better do this every chance I get
‘Cause time is tickin’
(Yeah it is)

And she thinks we’re just fishin’ on the riverside
Throwin’ back what we could fry
Drownin’ worms and killin’ time
Nothin’ too ambitious
She ain’t even thinkin’ ‘bout
What’s really goin’ on right now
But I guarantee this memory’s a big ‘un
And she thinks we’re just fishin’

She ain’t even thinkin’ ‘bout
What’s really goin’ on right now
But I guarantee this memory’s a big ‘un
And she thinks we’re just fishin’
Yeah, oh, she thinks we’re just fishin’
We ain’t only fishin’
(This ain’t about fishin’)
Sometimes pastors get kind of frustrated in the summer.  As we said, a lot of people are gone a lot of the time, especially on weekends.  That means that we don’t get to see some of you in church very much.  We don’t like that.  We like seeing you here.

It’s not just the summertime when people are gone, of course.  In the fall, there’s hunting.  In the winter, there’s wrestling.  In the spring, there’s track.  There are all kinds of other things going on in people’s lives, too.  There are birthdays and anniversaries to celebrate, there are holiday gatherings, there are all kinds of reasons why people travel.  And of course, in today’s society, travel is a whole lot easier than it used to be, so it’s a lot easier for people to be gone on weekends than it used to be.

The song that we just heard illustrates why I cannot get too upset about people being gone.  I understand what you’re doing.  As the song says, when you go fishing, you’re not just fishing.  When a family goes somewhere, it’s not just the family going somewhere.  You’re having family time together.  You’re getting closer to your kids.  You’re making memories.  You’re doing stuff that everyone in the family is going to remember for a long time, maybe all their lives.

This does not just apply to people who have little kids, either.  Those of you who are single still have nieces or nephews or some young person you make an impact on.  Those of you who are older have grandkids or great-grandkids.  Even if you don’t take trips with those people, you are having an impact on their lives.  What I’m saying in this message applies to you, too.

Because here’s the thing.  Kids notice a lot of stuff, much more than we adults realize.  Kids remember that stuff, too.  The things we adults do influence them, often when we don’t intend to and don’t even realize we’re doing it.

So, when a family’s not in church on Sunday, the kids notice that.  When the family takes a vacation, or goes fishing, or whatever, and God is not a part of it, the kids notice that.  This works in other ways, too.  When kids come to church and someone who’s normally there is not there, kids notice that.  When kids hear about God on Sunday but don’t hear anything about God the rest of the week, kids notice that. 

And they remember.  The reason kids notice all this stuff is that, whether they realize it or not, they’re trying to learn how to act like adults.  The way they learn to act like adults is by watching how adults act.  If they see that God is involved with the adults in their life, they notice that.  If they see that God is not involved with the adults in their life, they notice that, too.  And what they notice is going to play a large part in what they become, because what they see us doing is what they think an adult is supposed to do.

So, when you’re on a trip with your kids, it’s really important that they see that God is a part of that trip.  When the grandkids come over and visit, it’s really important that they see that God is a part of grandma and grandpa’s lives.  When you see your nieces and nephews, it’s really important that they see their uncle or their aunt has God involved in their life.

This is a everyone’s responsibility, not just the church’s responsibility.  The church has a role to play, of course.  We’ll be starting Sunday school in a few weeks, and that’s really important.  Youth group and confirmation class will be starting in a few weeks, and they’re really important, too.  Our Sunday service is important.  But the thing is, if kids don’t see the things that happen at church reflected at home, what happens here at church is not likely to matter very much.

Listen to what Moses told the people about teaching children about God.  He said, “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

Moses was not talking to the church when he said that.  Moses was talking to everyone.  He was saying it’s everyone’s responsibility to teach kids abut God.  God needs to be so much a part of our lives that everything we do involves God.  Whether we’re at home or on the road, from the time we get up to the time we go to bed, God needs to be a part of our lives, so that our children can see that in us and learn that from us.

How can we do that?  In lots of ways.  Some of them are very simple.  Say grace before every meal.  When something good happens, be sure to thank God for it.  Let kids see you reading the Bible once in a while.  When the family’s together, take a little time to talk about God.  I know the idea of “family devotions” can be intimidating, but it does not have to be. If you want some prepared material to help with that, I can sure help you find some, but you don’t necessarily need any.  It can be as simple as taking some to talk about what went right in the day, what went wrong, what’s coming up, and then praying to God about that stuff.

I want you notice one thing, though.  Before that passage of Deuteronomy I just quoted, there’s another sentence.  Here it is:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

            There’s a reason Moses put that ahead of teaching the children.  We cannot teach children about God if we don’t first love God ourselves.  And if we do love God ourselves, it should not be that hard for us to teach children about God.  Because if we do love God, there will be things about our lives that show that love, and the kids will notice.  And that’s really the best way to teach our kids about God:  by example.  They’ll learn that an adult loves God and does things that show that love.  And that will be the kind of adult they want to become.

You know the neat thing about the song we heard this morning?  The singer is aware of what’s really going on.  The child is not—the child thinks all they’re doing is fishing.  But the dad knows better.  The dad is aware of the memories that are being made, and how important they are.

Too often, we’re not aware of that.  We don’t think about the impact of what we do on those around us.  We especially don’t think of the impact on the kids.  Too often, we adults think we are “just fishin’”.  But we’re not, and that impact is going to be there whether we’re aware of it or not.

We need to be aware.  We need to realize that our kids are watching everything we do.  And when I say, “our kids”, I don’t just mean your sons and daughters.  I mean all the kids you come in contact with. 

So, if you’re gone on the weekend, that’s okay.  It’s okay to go on vacation, or to go fishing, or to do whatever you do.  Just remember that you’re not taking a vacation from God.  If we want God to be in our children’s lives when they’re adults, it’s up to us to make sure God is part of our lives while they’re still kids.  Where kids are concerned, you and I are never “just fishin’”.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Timely Suggestion

            We’ve been doing a sermon series based on contemporary country music in the Wheatland Parish.  We play a relatively recent country song and then talk about the message of the song and how it does or does not apply to our faith.

            It’s a sermon series that’s gotten a lot of positive reaction, probably the most of any sermon series I’ve done.  So, naturally, I started thinking about why.

            Part of it is probably that it starts with something that’s familiar to us.  We’re all most comfortable with things with which we’re familiar.  Jesus recognized that, too, of course.  When he told his stories, his parables, he used settings and situations that were familiar to people at the time.  Some of those settings and situations are not so familiar to us today, because times change, but many of them still are.  Even when they’re not, we can think of situations that are analogous to stories like the prodigal son and the good Samaritan.

            Another advantage to starting with the familiar is that it makes it easier to relate the things we talk about on Sunday to the things we do the other six days of the week.  That’s how faith is supposed to be.  Our religious beliefs are not supposed to be something we only think about on Sunday.  They’re supposed to be something we carry with us every day.  They’re supposed to be part of our lives.

            That’s not exactly a new thought from me, of course.  You’ve probably heard lots of preachers tell you that you need to make faith a part of your everyday life.  You may even agree with that sentiment.  The question is, how do we do it?

            It’s a problem.  It’s not that we don’t want to, necessarily.  It’s just really easy to get sidetracked.  Everyday life has a way of attracting our attention.  That’s true for me, too.  It may be my job to work on “church stuff”, but there’s a difference between working on church stuff and really thinking about faith.  So what do we do?

            Well, I have an idea.  It’s pretty simple, really.  There’s a button on the side of my watch that makes it chime on the hour.  Lots of watches have that; I’ll bet yours does, too.  A lot of cell phones will do it now, too.  If yours doesn’t, I’ll be there’s an app for it.

            Anyway, the idea is just to push that button.  Then, when we hear the chime at the top of the hour, we take a minute or so to think about our faith.  Maybe we think about how faith might apply to what we’re doing at the moment.  Maybe we say a quick prayer for a loved one.  Maybe we ask God to be with us.  Nothing long or complicated—this isn’t supposed to be an hourly devotional.  It’s just supposed to be a quick reminder, every hour, to make sure that God is a part of our everyday life.

            I’m going to try it.  I hope you will, too.  It’s just a simple way of making sure we don’t forget about God as we go through our week.  It might not change your life or anything.  But then again, it might.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Take a Chance on God

This is the message from the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg August 15, 2012.  The Scripture is Matthew 25:14-30. 

           Have you ever thought this story of Jesus’ is kind of unfair?  It seems that way to me sometimes.  Especially that line toward the end.  “For those who have will be given even more, and they will have an abundance.  As for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”  That does not seem right, does it?
When we look at this, we need to remember the point of what Jesus was doing.  Jesus was not trying to teach us about economics.  Jesus was trying to teach us about faith.  This is not a lesson about money.  It’s a lesson about trust in God.
The translation we used tonight is Today’s New International Version.  That’s the version of the Bible that’s in our pews, and it’s a perfectly good translation.  What some of you may have noticed, though, is that you’ve heard this story differently in other translations.  What this version refers to as “bags of gold” in other translations is referred to as “talents”.
Now a “talent” was a Greek term for money.  It was a lot of money:  one talent was roughly equal to twenty years of an average laborer’s wage.  Even so, I think that thinking of what these people were given as “talents” gives us a better handle on what Jesus was really trying to say.
God gives each of us some kind of talent.  In fact, God usually gives each of us several talents.  God does not give us the same talents, and God does not give each of us the same amount of talents, but we all have some.  God expects us to use the talents we’ve been given to benefit God.
Now, I don’t doubt that each of us here does that to a certain extent.  My point is not to criticize or point fingers at anybody.  There’s something I think we need to notice about this story, though.
The person who got five talents went and put all five of them to work.  He did not just put two of them to work and hide the other three.  The person who got two talents went and put both of them to work.  He did not just put one of them to work and hide the other one.  They both took every talent they had been given and put it to work for the master.
That’s what God wants us to do.  God wants us to take all the talents God has given us and use them to serve God.  God does not want us to just use a couple of them and hide the rest.  God wants us to use them all.
That includes talents that we might not think we can use for God.  It even includes talents that we might not even think of as talents.  Let me give you an example of what I mean.
You probably all know that I’m a big sports fan.  When I first felt called into ministry, I wondered if that was something I should give up, or at least cut back on.  After all, I spend a lot of time following sports.  I thought maybe that was time I could use for God better if I used it in other ways.
After I thought about it, though, I decided that was not right.  I’ve been a sports fan ever since I can remember.  A love of sports is something that God put into me.  It’s a part of me.  To stop paying attention to sports would be for me to try to be someone I’m not.  That’s not what God wants us to do.
God wants us to be who we are.  But God wants us to be the best we can be, and God wants us to use who we are in God’s service.  God wants me to use being a sports fan to serve God.
Now, maybe you think, “How can being a sports fan serve God?”  But it can.  Because what it does is give me a connection to other sports fans.  Going to the local ball games gives people a chance to get to know me, and it gives me a chance to get to know them.  It especially helps me connect with younger people, because it gives us something in common to talk about.  And sometimes, once that connection is established, it can lead into other, deeper conversations that help bring people closer to God.
Whenever God gives us a passion for something, it’s for a reason.  God wants us to use that passion in God’s service.  In fact, sometimes I think that what we call passion is really just shorthand for saying “something the Holy Spirit has put in our heart.”
Anything we are passionate about can be used for God.  Anything.  Fishing.  Quilting.  Business sense.  Music.  Anything.  If we’re passionate about it, it’s because the Holy Spirit put that passion into our heart.  It’s up to us to use that passion in God’s service.
What keeps us from doing that?  Well, think about the person in Jesus’ story who only got the one talent, the one bag of gold.  What kept him from using what he’d been given the way the others did?
Fear.  That’s the only reason.  He was not trying to do anything wrong.  He wanted to do right by his master.   But he was scared.  He thought, “What if something goes wrong?  What if I try to use this money for my master, and it does not work out?  What if I lose it all?  The master will be mad at me.  Who knows what might happen then?  I’d like to use this money for the master, but it’s just too risky.  It’s just a chance I cannot afford to take.  I’d better just keep this talent hidden, where it’ll be safe.”
That’s one of the main things that keeps us from using our talents to serve God.  Fear.  We’re not trying to do anything wrong.  We want to do right by God.  But we get scared.  We think, “What if something goes wrong?  What I try to use my talent for God, and it does not work out?  What if people make fun of me?  What if people laugh at me?  What if, instead of using this talent to bring people to God, I end up accidentally pushing them farther away?  I’ll be humiliated.  Even God might be mad at me.  Who knows what might happen then?  I’d like to use this talent for God, but it’s just too risky.  It’s just a chance I cannot afford to take.  I’d better just lay low and keep my talent hidden, so it’s safe.”
What this story is telling us is that God wants us to take risks in God’s service.  We cannot make money without taking risks.  We cannot use our talents without taking risks.  And we cannot serve God without taking risks.
Now, when we take a risk, there’s always a chance we might fail.  If we were guaranteed success, there would be no risk, right?  But you know what?  That’s okay.  You know, I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that I cannot think of a time in the Bible where someone took a risk for God and God got mad at them for doing it.  I did not go through the whole Bible to check, but if there’s an example of something like that I cannot think of it.  In all the examples I can think of, when someone took a chance for God, God honored them for it.  They may not have succeeded, at least not in the way they would have defined success, but God still honored them for it.
That brings us back to the line we started with.  “For those who have will be given more, and they will have an abundance.  As for those who do not have, even what they will have will be taken from them.”
This is not some arbitrary policy by an unfair God.  It’s a statement to encourage us, to encourage us to take risks for God.  When we take chances and use the talents God has given us to honor God, God will reward us for that.  When we don’t, when instead we keep our talents hidden out of fear, we lose them.  Not because God is mean and takes them away from us, but because one of the rules of life is “use it or lose it.”  You’ve experienced that in your own lives.  Whenever we don’t use the talents we have, we eventually lose them.
God has given you talents.  God has given you passions.  God’s Holy Spirit has put certain things into your heart.  God did those things for a reason.  God wants and expects you to use those things to serve God, just like God expects me to use the talents and passions and things God has put into my heart to serve God.
If we don’t do that, there’s a price to be paid.  But if we do it, there’s an incredible payoff.  Is it risky?  Yes, it is.  But God will honor our efforts.  When we use the talents and passions and desires God has given us to serve God, we get rewarded in abundance.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Lord Always Came First

            I’ve been writing about my grandfather, the Rev. Joseph Nadenicek, using as the basis for my writing a eulogy given at his funeral.

            Of all the things in that eulogy, I think the one that stands out the most is his dedication to the Lord and to the church.  He had a strong dedication to the truth, and did not hesitate to state the truth as he saw it.  Yet, he also was always willing to listen to the opinions of others and try to understand where they were coming from. 

Whenever possible, he tried to bring about compromises that would unite the church, rather than divide it.  While the eulogy does not say so, I suspect he tended to keep in mind Paul’s statements in First Corinthians about the need for unity and the danger of division within the church.  His eulogy does say that his willingness to put God and the church first won him the respect of nearly everyone in the Slovak Presbyterian Union.

I mentioned that he was the editor of the “Slovensky Kalvin”, a Czech-language Presbyterian newspaper that was published twice a month.  This was in addition to his full-time work as a pastor.  It was also in addition to his role as a father to five children.

My grandfather was obviously a hard worker and very dedicated to his church.  There’s an old saying that hard work never killed anyone, but I don’t know that it’s true in this case.  My grandfather’s hard work and dedication actually contributed to his death. 

In late 1928, my grandfather came down with pneumonia.  Obviously, the practice of medicine was much less advanced at that time.  He needed a substantial period of rest, but his dedication would not let him take that rest.  Instead, as soon as he started to feel a little better, he went back to work, studying and visiting the people of his congregation.  Before long, he had a relapse.  This time, he did not get better.  Instead, he passed away on January 1, 1929.

My grandfather was forty-four years old.  He left a wife, my grandmother, and five children.  My mother was only about three and a half years old when he died.  She has no memory of him.  That left a hole with her that she feels to this day.

It’s funny how things work out, though.  If my grandfather had not died young, the family would most likely never have moved to South Dakota, where my grandmother had relatives.  My mother would almost certainly never have gotten a teaching job in Delmont.  She would never have met my father.  Many lives would have been different.  Some lives, like mine, would never have been at all.

This will bring my series of blog posts on my grandfather to a close.  I hope you’ve enjoyed them.  I wish I knew more about him, but I’m grateful for what I do know.  The more I’ve learned about him, the more proud I am to call him my grandfather.  

Don't Go Away!

Below is the message from the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg August 8, 2012.  The scripture was Luke 18:1-8.

            Have you ever wanted something?  Well, that’s a dumb question, of course you have.  We all want things.  But have you ever wanted something really badly, and it seemed like no one else cared about it?  It’s not that they were actively opposing you or trying to keep you from getting it.  They just really could not have cared less about it.
It’s really frustrating to be in that situation.  In some ways, we’d rather have them be opposed to us.  At least then we might have a chance of convincing them to change their minds.  In this situation, though, it does not matter whether they think we’re right or wrong.  They might very well think we’re right.  They just don’t care.
That attitude of just not caring is one of the biggest things we need to fight as Christians.  We need to fight it in ourselves, and we need to fight it in others.  It’s one of the biggest impediments Christianity faces.  Yes, there are people who are actively opposed to Christianity, and we need to recognize that, but I think an even bigger danger comes from people who are not actively for or against Christianity.  They may even think that, in theory, Christianity is a good thing.  They just really don’t care about it one way or another, at least not enough to let it have any effect on their lives.
Here’s what I mean.  We all know people whom we would consider good people.  They’re people who, if you asked them, would probably say they believed in God.  They might even say they believe in Jesus.  But they rarely read the Bible, they rarely pray, and they rarely come to church.  They really don’t think about God very much as they go about their lives.
Again, it’s not that these people are bad people.  They’re people like you and me.  In fact, some of us have been those people.  They’re not actively opposed to Christ or the church or anything.
The thing is that they’re people who are comfortable with the way their lives are.  They don’t think they’re lives are perfect, but they think they’re okay.  They really don’t want to make any major changes in their lives.  And they know, deep down, that if they really committed their lives to Jesus Christ, their lives would change.
Again, most of us have been those people.  In fact, I’d guess most of us are those people now, to one degree or another.  I am.  I mean, yes, I’m a pastor, and yes, I’m trying to be a good one.  I believe in God and I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior.  But can I say my life is totally and completely committed to Jesus Christ?  Can I say everything I do is dedicated to serving God?  No.  Not honestly.  I don’t know that very many people can.
So, in Jesus’ story that we read tonight from Luke, that casts each one of us in the role of the unjust judge, right?  Jesus comes to us and asks us to do him justice.  Jesus comes to us and asks us to follow him.
And what do we do?  We go on about our business.  We don’t really pay much attention.  We don’t do anything about what Jesus wants.
The thing is, though, that Jesus never goes away.  Jesus does not accept our apathy.  Jesus keeps coming back to us.  He comes back to us at different times.  He comes back to us in different ways.  He comes back to us through different situations.  But he keeps coming back.  He never stops.  And at all those different times, in all those different ways, through all those different situations, Jesus keeps saying the same thing.  “Do me justice.  Follow me.”
What do we do?  We keep acting like the unjust judge.  We start getting annoyed.  We start getting frustrated.  We may even start getting angry.  We wish Jesus would just go away and leave us alone, but Jesus won’t do that.  No matter how many times we try to put him off, no matter how many times we tell him we’re not interested, no matter how many times we just flat out refuse, Jesus keeps coming back with that same message.  “Do me justice.  Follow me.”
Until.  Until, finally, our resistance is worn down.  Until, finally, we decide that Jesus is never going to go away.  We realize that we are not going to have any peace in our lives until we finally do what Jesus asks.
That’s kind of how I became a pastor.  When Wanda and I finally made the decision in 2006 that I’d go to seminary, that was not the first time Jesus had put that idea in our hearts.  It was not the first time we’d ever thought about it.  We’d discussed it before, but we kept saying no, we don’t want to do that.  We’re not interested.
But Jesus just would not go away.  He kept coming back with that same message.  Finally, we decided Jesus was not going to go away, and we’d better do what he was asking us to do.
And the thing is, we’ve never been happier.  Think about that.  Jesus asked us to do something we did not want to do.  We resisted it as long and as hard as we could.  Finally, we gave in.  When we did, Jesus gave us a life better than we’d ever had before.
Now, as I said before, that does not mean that I can honestly say everything I do is completely and totally dedicated to serving God.  It’s not.  I’m still working on it.  I will be until the day I die.  I still want to take that control back.  I still want to tell Jesus no.  And sometimes I do.  And Jesus still never goes away.  Jesus keeps coming back, wearing down my resistance until I finally say yes.
Jesus does not tell us what happens to the unjust judge after he finally gives in to the widow.  He may have just gone on with his life as if nothing happened.  And in fact, in his view, maybe nothing did happen, other than that he got rid of a nuisance.  I doubt it, though.  I’ll bet it changed his life somehow.  I’ll bet it made him look at things a little differently.  If nothing else, the next time someone came up to him and demanded justice, I’ll be he acted a little quicker than he had before.
Once we give in to Jesus, we cannot go on with our lives as if nothing has happened.  Our lives will change.  We will change, in ways that we don’t expect and cannot anticipate.
Again, that’s why we resist.  We don’t want to change.  We’re happy the way we are.  But Jesus is not asking us to change because he wants to make us unhappy.  Jesus asks us to change because Jesus knows how much happier than we can be.  Jesus asks us to change because Jesus can give us a peace and a joy we’ve never known before.  Jesus asks us to change because Jesus knows that we don’t really know what happiness is until we follow him.
There is a change that Jesus wants each of us to make in our lives right now.  I cannot tell you what it is for you.  I don’t even know what it is for me.  But I know there’s something.  Unless one of us here is perfect, there’s something Jesus wants us to change.  There’s some way in which we need to more fully dedicate our lives to Jesus.
Jesus is working in each of our lives right now.  We can resist.  We can fight.  But Jesus is not going away.  Jesus never gives up on any of us.  He keeps coming back with that same message, “Do me justice.  Follow me.”
Jesus asks us to follow.  But Jesus is not just asking us.  He’s asking others, too.  Jesus is asking people you and I know to come and follow.  And Jesus wants us to encourage those people.  He wants us to bring them with us, so that we’ll all follow Jesus together.
And Jesus does not want us to just go to those people once and then go away.  Jesus is not going away.  Jesus does not want us to go away, either.  Jesus wants us to keep asking, too.  Not in a mean way, not in an annoying way that will turn people off.  But in a persistent way.  In an encouraging way.  In a loving way.  We’re never supposed to give up, and we’re never supposed to go away, just like Jesus never gives up and never goes away.  We’re supposed to keep after people with that message, “Come along with me.  Follow Jesus.”
It’s not easy.  It’s not easy for us to follow.  It’s not easy for us to ask others to follow.  It’s not easy for others to follow, either.  But when we finally stop fighting, stop resisting, and go where Jesus wants us to go, we’ll find more happiness and joy than we’ve ever felt in our lives.  Then, the question at the end of our scripture will be answered.  The Son of Man will find faith on earth.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Key to Paradise

Below is the message given in Onida and Agar Sunday, August 5, 2012.  This message will be given in Gettysburg Sunday, August 12, 2012.  The scriptures used are Genesis 2:8-15; Matthew 6:25-34; and Psalm 85.

            What’s your idea of paradise?
It means different things to different people, of course.  Some of us might think of a tropical island, where the weather’s always nice and there’s a beautiful tropical breeze blowing.  Some of us might think of being surrounded by the people we love—our family and our friends.  Some of us might think of having so much money that we could do whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it and not have to answer to anyone or think about what anyone else thinks about it.  Me, I’d probably think of paradise as being at Target Field to watch the Twins play in the World Series.
We all have our own ideas of paradise.  As we continue our sermon series, “This is Country Music”, we’re going to hear one idea of paradise.  The song is called “Knee Deep”, and it’s by the Zac Brown Band.  The words are on a bulletin insert.  We’ll hear the song, and then we’ll talk about it.
The lyrics to the song are below:

Gonna put the world away for a minute
Pretend I don't live in it
Sunshine gonna wash my blues away
Had sweet love but I lost it
She got too close so I fought it
Now I'm lost in the world tryin to find me a better way

Wishin' I was
Knee deep in the water somewhere
got the blue sky, breeze, and it don't seem fair
only worry in the world is the tide gonna reach my chair
Sunrise, there's a fire in the sky
never been so happy, never felt so high
and I think I might have found me my own kind of paradise

Wrote a note, said "Be back in a minute"
Bought a boat and I sailed off in it
Don't think anybody's gonna miss me anyway
Mind on a permanent vacation
The ocean is my only medication
I’m wishin' my condition ain't ever gonna go away

’Cause now I'm knee deep in the water somewhere
Got the blue sky breeze blowin' wind thru my hair
Only worry in the world, is the tide gonna reach my chair
Sunrise, there's a fire in the sky
never been so happy, never felt so high
and I think I might have found me my own kind of paradise

This champagne shore washin' over me
It's a sweet sweet life livin' by the salty sea
One day you can be as lost as me
Change your geography and maybe you might be

Knee deep in the water somewhere
got the blue sky breeze blowin' wind thru my hair
only worry in the world, is the tide gonna reach my chair
Sunrise, there's a fire in the sky
never been so happy, never felt so high
and I think I might have found me my own kind of paradise

Come on in, the waters nice
find yourself a little slice
grab a bag, pack it light
you'll never know until you try
when you lose yourself
you find a key to paradise
I think this song hits home with people because, whatever our idea of paradise is, it has to do with getting away from our problems.  It has to do with not having anything to worry about.
That’s what this song is really about.  Think about some of the words.  My mind’s on a permanent vacation.  My only worry in the world is whether the tide’s going to reach my chair.  And the result of that is that I’ve never been so happy.   I’ve never felt so high. The song says that these things are the idea of paradise.
That’s why we sometimes refer to heaven as paradise.  In heaven there are no worries.  How could there be?  If there were worries, it really could not be heaven.  After all, we worry about things going wrong.  How can anything go wrong in heaven?  By definition, there cannot be worries in heaven.
The thing is, that’s how it’s supposed to be on earth, too.  At least, that’s how it started out.  Think about the passage we read from Genesis describing Eden when Adam was first put in it.  What did Adam have to worry about?  Nothing.  He had food.  He had water.  He did not need clothes.  He had God to protect him, but he really did not have anything to be protected from.  Adam was living in paradise on earth.
What that tells me is that worry does not come from God.  Worry comes from two places:  it comes from Satan, and it comes from us.  It does not come from God.
That’s why Jesus says we should not worry about tomorrow.  Worrying about tomorrow is counter-productive.  It does not help us.  As Jesus says, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”  Of course, the answer is no.  We cannot.
Now, we should make a distinction here between worrying about tomorrow and preparing for tomorrow.  Jesus does not say don’t prepare for tomorrow.  That would not be practical.  I’m not even sure it would be possible.  I mean, I don’t wait until Sunday morning and then start thinking, “I wonder what I should preach about today?”  Maybe it seems like that, sometimes, but I don’t.  You don’t do that in your job, either.  That’d pretty much be a guarantee of failure.
In fact, in many ways preparing for tomorrow is the exact opposite of worrying about tomorrow.  After all, why do we worry?  We worry because we don’t know what’s going to happen.  We’re afraid things won’t go the way we want them to go.  We think of all kinds of things that might happen, and we don’t know what we’ll do if they do, so we worry about them.
If we’re prepared, though, we don’t need to worry.  We still think of things that might happen, but we know what we’re going to do if they do.  We know how we’ll handle the various situations that might arise, so we don’t need to worry about them any more.  Even if things don’t go the way we want them to go, we don’t have to worry about them if we’re prepared.
Preparing does not just mean taking active steps, though.  That’s part of preparing, but it’s not all of it.  When we talk about being prepared, we’re not just talking about being prepared physically.  We’re also talking about being prepared spiritually.  That means being willing to give God control.  It means being willing to turn things over to God.
Ultimately, that’s why we worry:  because we don’t trust God enough to turn things over to God.  We want to keep control of everything ourselves, rather than trusting God with that control.
The thing is, it’s easy to say, “Turn things over to God”.  It’s a lot harder to do.  Believe me, I know.  I tell myself all the time to trust God and turn things over to God, and for a while I do.  Next thing I know, though, I’m trying to take that control back.  A lot of times I don’t even realize I’m doing it.
So what do we do?  How do we stop worry and give control of our lives to God?
I think looking at our responsive psalm today, Psalm 85, is helpful.  Look at what the psalmist does.  First he reviews the past.  He remembers all the times God has come through.  He says to God, “you showed favor to your land…you forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sins.”  The writer acknowledges that even though Israel did not deserve it, God was favorable to them.  God forgave them and helped them in spite of everything Israel had done.
Then, the writer says, “Restore us again, O God of our Salvation…Will you be angry with us forever?...Will you not revive us again?...Show us your steadfast love, O Lord.”  Again, the writer recognizes that Israel does not deserve anything from God.  He knows Israel has done wrong.  He asks God to forgive them one more time.  He is not relying on any inherent goodness on the part of himself or Israel; rather, he is asking for God’s great love to continue, and for God to give mercy one more time.
Listen to what the writer says then.  This strikes me as really important.  He says, “Let me hear what God will speak.” 

Think about the progression here.  The writer acknowledges all that God has done in the past.  The writer humbly prays for God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Then, the writer stands back to hear what God has to say.  He does not make any demands of God.  He does not tell God how or when to speak or what to say.  He simply waits and listens for how God is going to respond.
That’s the secret.  Is it easy?  No.  It can be really hard sometimes.  Even when we pray, a lot of times we still want that control.  We want God to respond in a certain way, and we want God to do it right now.  It’s hard to have the patience to just sit back and wait to see what it is that God’s going to do.
It’s hard, but it’s the key to it.  Go back to our song.  Remember the last line?  I think this is really profound, probably a lot more profound that the writer of the song realized.  He says, “When you lose yourself, you find the key to paradise.”
When we lose ourselves.  When we stop thinking about what we want and when we want it.  When we stop worrying about whether things will go the way we think they should go.  When we stop worrying about what we’ll do if thing don’t go the way we want them to go.  When we think about all the things God has done for us in the past.  When we humbly ask God for mercy and forgiveness.  When we simply wait and listen and watch for how God is going to respond.   And when we trust that, however God responds, it will be right.  That’s when we can stop worrying.
Heaven is paradise, but it’s not the only paradise.  It’s not supposed to be.  We’re supposed to be able to have heaven right here on earth.  That’s what God intended.
And we can do it.  Not in the sense that everything goes the way we want it to go, but in the sense that we don’t worry about what’s going to happen.  In the sense, as Jesus said, that we don’t worry about tomorrow.
If we’ve done all we can to be physically prepared for what may happen, and if we’ve turned control of our lives to God so that we’re spiritually prepared for what may happen, we no longer have to worry about anything.  In fact, we cannot worry about anything.  It’s not always easy to do, but if we trust God, we can do it.  We can lose ourselves.  And we’ll have found the key to paradise.