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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Holy Life!

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, September 30, 2012.  The scriptures used were John 14:8-14 and Colossians 1:3-14.

            Today we come to the end of our sermon series, “United Methodism 101”.  We’ve looked at the history of the United Methodist church.  We’ve looked at how the church is organized.  We’ve talked about how the United Methodist church allows for disagreements on theology, as long as we believe in God and believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  We’ve talked about the method by which we decide what we believe.  We’ve talked about how salvation is a process that takes place throughout our lives, and how it’s something that we receive only by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus.  We’ve also talked about how one of the ways we receive God’s grace is through the sacraments, baptism and holy communion.
So today, we’re going to talk about what we’re supposed to do now that we’ve talked about all this stuff.  Today, we’re going to talk about holiness.  As United Methodists, we are supposed to live lives of holiness.
Now, when I say that word, holiness, I’ll bet an image comes into your mind, maybe more than one.  Maybe you think of someone like the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa.  Maybe you think of some famous evangelist.  Maybe you think of a monk, spending his days in a monastery reading scripture.  Maybe you think of someone like the Pharisees, who thought they were holy even though they may not have been.
But you know, when we think of that word, holiness, we should think of two images.  One of them is Jesus himself, the most perfect example of holiness there will ever be on this earth.  And the other one is of ourselves, you and me.
We’ll come back to ourselves.  Let’s talk about Jesus first.  When we think about Jesus being holy, what do we think of?  Well, probably a lot of things.  We think of Jesus’ birth.  We think of him talking with the rabbis at age twelve and stunning them with what he said.  We think of Jesus’ baptism.  We think of his death and resurrection.  But when we think of Jesus’ actual life on earth, what are the two things we think of?  We think of his teaching, and we think of his miracles.  Those are the things that make us consider Jesus holy during his life on earth.
So what does that tell us about holiness?  I think it tells us that there are two things that are important in living a holy life.  One of them is to stay close to God.  The other is that we go out and help people whenever and wherever we can.
The two are equally important.  If we want to be holy, we cannot do one without the other.  If we spend our days reading scripture and praying, but don’t do anything to go out and help anyone, how is that holy?  That’s what the Pharisees did, right?  They knew scripture backwards and forwards.  They followed all the rituals.  They said all the right prayers at the right times.  But they never did anything to help anybody.  In fact, they made life harder for people, giving them so many detailed rules and regulations that they could never even remember them all, much less try to follow them all.
And if we spend our days helping people, but don’t stay close to God, that really does not work, either.  It can be done—there are people who we would consider “good people” who do not have God in their lives.  But it does not lead to anything we would call a holy life.  Just by definition, if for no other reason, it’s not possible to live a holy life without God.
One of the reasons Jesus performed the miracles he did was to show us that holiness is not just something to be.  It’s something to do.  When Jesus was on the earth, he helped people as much as he could, not just spiritually but physically.  That’s what we’re supposed to do, too.  It takes both.  We’re supposed to both spread the gospel of Christ and also go out and help our neighbors, showing God’s love to them in actual, physical, concrete ways.
Now, let’s go back to you and me.  How many of us here think of ourselves as holy?  I’d guess not very many.  In fact, I suspect that when I said you and I were the images that should come to mind when we think of holiness, some of you wondered what that was all about.  Most of us here would just think of ourselves, as common, ordinary people.  Sometimes we do good things, sometimes we do bad things.  Sometimes we’re aware of God’s presence in our lives, sometimes we just go about our business.  We’re just regular, common, ordinary folks.  How could we be holy?
Well, think of it this way.  Who were the disciples?  They were just regular, common, ordinary people, too.  They were not the smartest people around—think of all the times Jesus tried to explain things to them and they did not understand.  They were not the richest people around.  They were not the most skilled craftsmen, or the smoothest talkers, or the most educated people.  They were just people. 

The disciples came from all walks of life.  There’s nothing in the gospels to indicate that any of them were thought of as remarkable or special.  Had Jesus not called them, we would not even know their names.  They’d have just been a few of the billions of people who’ve walked the earth in the past and whose lives have long since been lost to history.

Jesus took these common, ordinary, everyday people and used them as the foundation for the Christian church.  How did he do it?  Listen again to what Jesus tells them in the gospel of John:  “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”

No one would have looked at any of the disciples and thought of them as particularly holy.  In fact, no one would have looked at any of the disciples and thought of them as particularly anything.  They were made holy by their faith in Jesus Christ and by their willingness to do the work that Jesus wanted them to do.

That’s how you and I become holy, too.  It’s not because we’re so great.  No one can become holy because they’re so great.  Again, that’s the way the Pharisees tried to do it.  We don’t become holy because we’re so great.  We become holy because God is so great.  God’s Holy Spirit works through us and enables us to be holy and live holy lives.

That’s why, in Paul’s letters, he kept encouraging people to do good works.  Remember, Paul’s the one who said we’re saved through faith alone and not by works.  But still, he kept encouraging works.  Listen to what he said to the Colossians in our reading for today:  “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way:  bearing fruit in every good work, growing in knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of Light.”

It all comes from God.  Knowledge of God’s will comes from God through the Holy Spirit.  We get strengthened by God’s power so we can do good works.  God gives us endurance and patience to do what God wants us to do.  It all comes from God.

In our reading from Second Corinthians, Paul says, “God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things and at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”  Again, it’s not because we’re so good.  It’s because God is so good.  It all comes from God.

The only way to live a holy life is to get involved.  Get involved in your community.  Get involved in society.  Get involved in the world.  That’s something United Methodists have always emphasized, from the time John Wesley got involved in issues like slavery, poverty, prison reform, war, and education.  It’s something United Methodists still emphasize today.

Does that cause controversy sometimes?  It sure does.  Some of the things Jesus did and said were controversial, too.  When we get involved in our communities, when we get involved in society, when we get involved in the world, we will sometimes be led to do things that not everyone agrees with.  That’s true as individuals and it’s true as a church.  If you’ve paid attention to the positions the United Methodist Church takes on a national or international basis, I’m sure there are times it took stands you disagreed with.  There are times it took stands I disagree with, too.

But that’s okay, because as we’ve talked about before, there is room for disagreement within the United Methodist Church.  In fact, not only is it okay, it’s inevitable.  The only way to avoid controversy is to not do anything and not be involved with anything.  That’s not the way Jesus lived.  That’s not the way the disciples lived.  It’s not how Jesus wants us to live, either.

That’s why, again, holiness takes staying close to God.  If we stay close to God, we can disagree in love.  We can come together to help people despite our disagreements and not let our disagreements keep us from doing God’s work in God’s world.

            Jesus was the perfect example of holiness on earth.  The thing is, though, we don’t need to be Jesus in order to be holy.  All we need to do is open our hearts to God’s Holy Spirit.  All we need to do is allow God to work through us.  If we stay close to God, if we want to please God, and if we truly want to go out and serve other people, God will help us find ways to do it.  Then, we will be living holy lives.  That’s not just what we’re supposed to do as United Methodists.  That’s what we’re supposed to do as Christians and as God’s children.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Nothing to Do? Ha!

            I’ve gotten to know a variety of people from a variety of places in my life.  Some of them are people who’ve spent all their lives living in large places.  When you talk to someone like that, and you tell them you come from Onida, or Agar, or Gettysburg, you’re likely to hear something like, “How can you stand to live there?  There’s nothing to do!”

            Well, pretty much everyone here knows how silly that statement sounds.  There are all kinds of things to do in each of those towns.  We may not have fancy restaurants or nightclubs or things like that, but if you’re looking for something to do, you never run out of it.  We have high school sports.  We have concerts.  We have programs at the museum.  There’s almost always something going on, usually more things than one person can possibly attend.

            There are all kinds of things going on in each of our churches, too.  Just in the month of September, each of our churches prepared a lot of kits for the Mission Fair, Each of them sent several people to attend that event, too.  The UMW in Gettysburg and in Onida each put on a luncheon as part of the festivities surrounding high school homecoming.  All of our churches put a float in the homecoming parade, too.  The Gettysburg and Onida churches each had a Sunday school kickoff celebration.  We’ve started confirmation class with eight wonderful kids.  We have youth groups.  We have church choirs.  We have Supper with the Pastor in Onida and Agar.

            And that was just in September.  In October, we have even more.  The Onida and Gettysburg churches are each planning a hunters’ breakfast for the first day of pheasant hunting season.  The Gettysburg church will also have its annual harvest festival.  The Onida church is planning a family night.  The Gettysburg bell choir will make its return.  And that’s all in addition to the Sunday school, confirmation class, etc, that continue from September.

            “There’s nothing to do”?

            The thing is, that’s the way it should be in the church.  An active church is a vital church.  An active church is a church that will grow.  After all, would you want to join a group that never did anything?  Of course not.  What would be the point?  An active church is one that’s attractive to people.
Thinking of all the things going on in our churches makes me proud to be the pastor of the Wheatland Parish.  I hope it makes you proud to be part of this parish, too.  I want to thank every person who participates in the life of the church in whatever way you do.  This is an awesome parish filled with awesome people.
Jesus gave each church a mission statement.  He told us to make disciples of all nations.  That’s a big job.  It takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes people who are willing to reach out to the people of the community, and who are willing to reach out beyond the community, to show God’s love to everyone they can.
It takes people like the people we have in the Wheatland Parish.  As we move into the fall, let’s find even more ways to make our churches active.  Let’s continue to reach out to our communities and beyond with God’s love.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Be Honest

Below is the message given at Oahe Manor Sunday, September 23.  The Scripture is Mark 9:31-34.

            At various places, the gospels tell about Jesus choosing the disciples. The disciples, for the most part, were common, everyday people. They were not chosen because they were the wealthiest people, or the most highly-educated people, or the best speakers, or the cleverest people around. In fact, the Bible does not really tell us exactly why Jesus chose the twelve people he did to become his disciples. They were simply the ones he chose. We assume there must have been good reasons why Jesus chose the people he did, but we don’t know just what those reasons were. We just figure that since Jesus was doing the choosing, he must have made the right choices.

            I wonder, though, if there were times when maybe Jesus wondered if he’d made some mistakes. Because, when you read the gospels, there seem to be so many times when the disciples just don’t seem to get it. They just don’t seem to understand what’s going on. Two of those times come in the short scripture from Mark we read this afternoon.

            Our reading starts out with Jesus teaching the disciples, telling them what’s going to happen. He says, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But, we’re told, the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

            Jesus would have known that, of course. It must have been frustrating for him. I mean, he must have wanted the disciples to know what was going to happen, or else why tell them? But at the same time, he must have known they could not understand, because we don’t see anything about Jesus trying to explain it further. And at the same time, it must have been sad for Jesus, too. Not just because he could not make the disciples understand what was going to happen, but because they were afraid to ask him about it.

             I guess, in a way, it’s understandable that they might be afraid to ask. I mean, this is Jesus, and they’ve seen Jesus respond to questions from both religious and political leaders and make them look foolish. But still, Jesus was their friend. Besides, there are plenty of times in the Bible when the disciples not only asked Jesus questions but did not hesitate to try to tell him what to do. But here, when it comes to one of the most important things Jesus needs them to know, they’re afraid to ask him anything. Jesus must have been very sad about that.

             Then, a little while later, Jesus hears them arguing. He asks them, “What were you arguing about?” And again, the disciples are afraid to say anything, because what they’d been arguing about was which one of them was the greatest.

            And once again, Jesus must have felt both frustrated and sad. He’d have been frustrated because to argue about something like that would indicate, again, that the disciples just did not understand. They should have known better than to argue about which one of them was the greatest. But he’d have been sad, too, because they did not trust Jesus enough to be honest with him.

            As I think about it, I think the sadness was probably greater than the frustration.  Because, again, Jesus knew who the disciples were. He knew they were not learned scholars or great theologians. He knew there would be times when they did not understand. But he must have been sad and disappointed when they were afraid to ask questions and be honest with him.

            I mentioned the times when Jesus would respond to questions from religious and political leaders and make them look foolish. But you know, I don’t think there’s a time in the gospels when Jesus reacted that way to people who were asking him honest questions because they were trying to learn and grow in faith. The times when Jesus made people look foolish were the times when people were asking him questions with some other motive. When people were trying to trick Jesus, or to trap him, or to show how smart or how good they were, then Jesus would respond and put them in their place. But Jesus never put people down when they asked honest questions. Jesus also never put people down when they were honest with him about what they’d done. Jesus never put people down when they were sincerely trying to get closer to God.

            We talk sometimes about the value of prayer. One of the most important things we need to do when we pray is to be totally honest with God. We can be honest with God about anything and everything. We can be honest with God about our faults. We can be honest with God about our doubts. We can be honest with God about our fears. And we can be honest with God in asking questions, too.

            God created each one of us. That means God knows more about each one us than we know about ourselves. God knows how weak we can be, and how subject to temptation we can be. God also knows how much we struggle sometimes, and how much we hurt sometimes. God knows all of that and much more, because God created us.

            But God also knows how much good there is in each one of us. Because the thing is that, whenever you create something, you put a part of yourself into it. Whether you create a painting, or a song, or a craft project, or a piece of furniture, or a poem, or a cake, or whatever it is that you create, you put a part of yourself into creating it. That means that God put a little of himself into each one of us. And no matter what we do, that part of God is always there.

            Jesus chose common, everyday people to be his disciples. That’s what Jesus still does.  He knows there are times when he’ll be frustrated with us, and there are times when we’ll make him sad. But there is something of God in each one of us. And if we come to God honestly, and sincerely try to get closer to God, God will always be there for us.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Here's What Happens

This is the message given Sunday, September 24 in the Wheatland Parish.  The scriptures were Luke 22:7-20; Matthew 3:1-3, 13-17; and Acts 19:1-7.

            We’ve talked before about how we tend to slip into using jargon sometimes.  We use terms that we know, because they refer to things we work with every day, but which other people don’t know because they don’t deal with them very often, if at all.  As we continue with United Methodism 101, that’s true of our topic for today.  Today, we’re going to talk about the sacraments.
We use that term, “sacraments”, in church, but we never really talk about what it means. The word “sacrament” means a visible sign of grace instituted by Jesus Christ.  Grace is given by, or at least symbolized by, a sacrament.  The sacraments are, in traditional United Methodist terminology, one of God’s means of grace.

So that raises some questions.  The first one is, simply, what are they?  What are the things we consider to be these visible signs of grace?  Well, in the United Methodist Church, we have two of them.  One of them is baptism, and the other is Holy Communion. 

We should point out that there are churches that have more.  For example, in the Catholic church and in the Greek Orthodox church, they consider baptism and communion as sacraments, but they also consider confirmation, marriage, penance, the taking on of holy orders, and the anointing of the sick as sacraments.

The reason we consider baptism and communion to be sacraments is that these are things Jesus told us to do.  We read in Luke how Jesus said we were to take the loaf and the cup to remember him.  We baptize because, at the end of Matthew, Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus told us to do these things, and so we do them.  And, on one level, maybe that’s all we need to know.  I mean, we believe that Jesus Christ is God the Son—a part of the trinity that is God, along with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.  If God tells us to do something, then we’d probably better do it, whether we understand it or not.

It’s better if we at least try to understand it, though.  After all, we’re not God’s slaves, we’re God’s children.  And while there are times that we have to just tell children to do something, we’d really rather they understood why we want them to do those things.

            So, what is it that we think actually happens when we take communion?  What is it that we think actually happens when we’re baptized?

Different denominations look at it differently.  Some take Jesus’ words “this is my body” and “this is my blood” literally, and say that the bread and the juice actually, physically become the body and blood of Christ in some way.  Some go the exact opposite way, and say that there’s no actual presence of Christ at all, but that taking communion is simply a symbolic remembrance of what has been done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As United Methodists, our belief falls somewhere in between.  We don’t believe that the bread and juice actually, physically change—the bread is still bread and the juice is still juice.  Yet, we believe that communion is more than just a symbolic act.  We believe that somehow, not physically but spiritually, Jesus Christ is present in the bread and the juice, and that in some way, God’s Holy Spirit can come into us through the taking of holy communion.

That’s why communion is open to everyone in the United Methodist Church.  I’m sure you’re aware that some denominations say you have to be a member of that denomination to take communion.  There are some that even say you have to be a member of the local church to take communion in that church.  We don’t do that.  We believe that we all need to feel God’s grace and that we all need God’s Holy Spirit to come into our hearts. 

Also, because communion is a matter of God’s grace, there’s nothing we can do to earn the right to take it.  We don’t have to be good enough or meet certain qualifications and standards to take communion, because none of us could ever be good enough to deserve God’s grace.  It’s a gift from God that’s open to each one of us.  As United Methodists, we don’t want to do anything that might discourage someone from feeling the grace and love of God.

Now that’s not to say, of course, that communion, or even baptism, are the only ways we can feel God’s grace.  God can give us grace in any way God chooses.  Still, communion and baptism are two of the ways God does choose to give us God’s grace, and we all need as much of God’s grace as we can get.   That’s why John Wesley said we should take holy communion as often as we can.  Wesley would be disappointed in his United Methodists for only taking communion once a month.  He’d say we should have it every week.  In fact he said that, if possible, we should take it every day.

I’ve mentioned juice a couple of times.  In the United Methodist Church, we use grape juice in communion.  Many denominations use wine.  Wine, of course, is what it says in the Bible.  We use grape juice, though, because of people who may struggle with alcoholism.  We don’t want to hurt someone who’s fighting that struggle, nor do we want them to feel they cannot take communion. By using grape juice, we again prevent people from feeling excluded from communion, while also not making someone’s struggle with alcohol worse.  And by the way, the process for preserving grape juice was invented by a man named Dr. Welch, who was a United Methodist.

So that’s communion, let’s talk about baptism.  Why do we baptize people?  What do we think happens when we do that?

Well, first let’s talk about what it’s not.  It’s not our golden ticket into heaven.  United Methodists don’t believe that being baptized automatically gets us into heaven, and we also don’t believe that we cannot get to heaven if we’re not baptized.  Our entrance into heaven is a matter of God’s grace and our faith in Jesus Christ.  It’s not something we can get by a ritual.  It’s a matter of the heart.

Still, we do think baptism is important.  Again, it’s one of the ways God uses to give us God’s grace.  Baptism, in the United Methodist Church, signifies entrance into what we call the household of faith.  Another way of saying this is that baptism is a recognition that we’re part of the family.  Now, we don’t mean that in an exclusionary way.  Again, baptism is not a salvation issue, and it’s not a love issue, either.

What we mean is that, when someone is baptized, that’s an affirmative statement by that person, or by someone on their behalf, that they want to be part of the family of God, that they want to accept their status as one of God’s children.  That’s why some denominations don’t baptize babies.  They say this is a decision each person needs to make for themselves, and you have to be old enough to understand what you’re doing before you can be baptized.

As United Methodists, we respect that position, but we disagree with it.  We believe that everyone, of any and all ages, is one of God’s children.  Jesus told us to let the little children come to him and not do anything to get in their way.  Baptism is one of the ways we do that, even with children who are too young to understand what baptism is all about.  We do, when you’re older, ask you to understand and confirm your baptism—that’s what confirmation is all about.  But we become God’s children long before that.  Of course, if someone was not baptized when they were a baby, and wants to be baptized at an older age, we’re happy to do that.

Also, because baptism is a recognition that we’re part of the family, we don’t baptize anyone more than once.  We can do a ceremony in which someone remembers and acknowledges and affirms their baptism, but we don’t re-baptize anyone.  Re-baptizing someone would be like saying that somehow they’d lost their status as one of God’s children, and we don’t believe that can happen to anyone.

Commonly, United Methodists baptize by sprinkling water on someone, but it can also be done by pouring water over someone, or by immersing them in water.  We accept all forms.  We also accept baptisms done by other Christian churches.  If someone is baptized as a Catholic, or a Lutheran, or a Presbyterian, or a Mennonite, or as part of any other Christian denomination, they do not need to be baptized again to be part of the United Methodist Church.

Obviously, the sacraments are not the only ways we can receive God’s grace.  The ways God can give grace to us are unlimited.  Still, these sacraments, communion and baptism, are two ways we know that God has chosen to give us God’s grace.

So, the next time we take communion, or the next time you see a baptism, or if anyone here has never been baptized and is thinking about it, remember what it’s really about.  Any time we have the chance to feel God’s grace and to receive God’s grace, we should take it.  We are all sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy.  The good news is that God is always ready to give us that grace and mercy.  We are, and always will be God’s children, members of God’s family.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Being There

            As we approached the funeral of Kirk and Erik Hansen a couple of weeks ago, several people told me that they would be praying for me as the officiant at that funeral.

            I had kind of mixed feelings about that.  On the one hand, it made me uncomfortable.  After all, this was not an event that was about me.  It was about the Hansen family and the community, and I felt like that was where people’s prayers should be focused.  On the other hand, I was grateful.  I’m always grateful when people pray for me, but I understood that this was a different situation.  People knew this would be a difficult situation, and they were praying that I would be able to bring some comfort and hope to the family and to the community at large.  I appreciated their concern.

            No one ever wants a tragedy to happen, of course.  On the other hand, when you sign up to be a pastor, you know it is a real possibility that you will have to handle something like this.  In fact, you know that it’s more than a possibility; it’s quite likely.  With the number of tragic things that happen in the world, anyone who is a pastor for a significant length of time is going to have to deal with something like this.  In fact, while the circumstances were different, Gettysburg suffered another significant blow this week with the loss of Bill Lehman, a loved and respected teacher for many years.

            You know you have to deal with it, so you do.  How?  By trusting God.  One of my favorite parts of the Bible comes when Jesus warns the disciples about a tough spot they are going to be in.  He tells them not to worry about what to say when the situation comes.  Instead, Jesus says, “just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

            The truth is that I rely on that an awful lot in ministry.  There are lots of situations that come up where I really don’t know what to say.  Somehow, though, the Lord usually gives me something to say.  In fact, sometimes I look back later and wonder where those words came from, because they don’t sound like what I’d have said if it had been up to me.  Then I realize that it wasn’t up to me, it was up to God.  God put the words in my mind and in my mouth.  I just said them.

            That’ll work for you, too.  So many times, we shy away from hard situations because we feel like we don’t know what to say.  We know we should call on the family, we know we should say something or do something, but we don’t know what to say or do.  We’re afraid we might say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing.  So, we say nothing and do nothing.  And the family continues to hurt.

            We cannot take all the pain away from a hurting family, of course.  But here’s the thing:  no one expects us to.  The family certainly doesn’t—they know there’s nothing we can do or say that will make things all better.  That’s not the point.

            The point is that hurting people need to know others care about them.  Hurting people need to know others love them.  Hurting people need to know they don’t have to go through their hurt alone.  It doesn’t matter what we say.  It doesn’t really matter that much if we say anything.  The main thing is just that they know we’re there for them.

            So if you know someone who’s hurting, go to them.  Call them on the phone.  Drop by.  Send them an email.  Send them a text.  Do whatever you do, but don’t leave them alone.  Let them know you’re there for them.  And don’t worry about what to say.  If our hearts are with God, then when the time comes, it won’t be us speaking anyway.  It will be God’s Holy Spirit, speaking through us.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Love Can Be Habit-Forming

This is the message in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 16, 2012.  The scriptures were Matthew 13:1-9; Luke 10:25-37; and James 2:14-16.  

            Have you ever had someone ask you if you were saved?
As we talk about United Methodism and what it means to be a United Methodist, this is one of the places where we differ from some other denominations.  There are some denominations that believe everyone needs to be able to point to a specific date and time at which they were saved, and that if we cannot do that, then we’re not really saved.
Now, if any of you can do that, if you had a dramatic religious experience and can point to a specific date and time at which it happened, that’s wonderful.  I am not up here telling you there’s something wrong with that or that it’s somehow not legitimate.  As we talked last week, the United Methodist Church allows for differences, including differences in how we come to our faith. 

In the United Methodist Church, though, we don’t necessarily look at salvation in quite that way.  We look at salvation more as a process, one that takes place throughout the course of our lives.  Again, that’s not to say we cannot have a dramatic experience that changes our lives.  Even if we do have that kind of experience, though, we still need to look at our salvation as a process, because salvation is based on love, and for love to stick it needs to become a habit.  Sometimes we can have a dramatic religious experience only to have the drama fade and slip back to being just like we were before, like in Jesus’ parable of the sower.  That’s not what we want.  We want to form a habit of love:  love for God and love for others.

That’s why, as United Methodists, we don’t just look at salvation as going to heaven.  That’s an important part of salvation, of course, but it’s not all of it.  In the United Methodist church, we don’t say, “we have been saved” or “we will be saved.”  We say “we are saved”.  Present tense.  Salvation is a process of love that goes on all during our lives on earth.

True to our name once again, we United Methodists believe there’s a method for this.  We don’t believe that it’s our method, though.  There are other denominations that believe in it.  We don’t believe it’s a method that’s just available to United Methodists, either.  It’s a method that’s available to anyone, anywhere.  We don’t believe that you have to be part of the United Methodist Church, or part of any church, to receive salvation.

The reason for that is that United Methodists believe that salvation comes only through the grace of God.  None of us can earn our salvation.  None of us will ever deserve salvation.  We cannot be good enough, or loving enough, or holy enough, to be saved through anything we do.  We have salvation only through the incredible love and mercy of God.  God sees each one of us, as sinful and unworthy as we are, and yet offers salvation to each one of us.  It’s such an incredible gift of love that God offers us.

Not only does God offer us this incredible gift of love, God encourages us to accept it.  The way God does this has come to be called “prevenient grace.”  The word “prevenient” just means “to come before.”  In other words, God’s prevenient grace comes before we’ve accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior.  It can come before we’ve even heard of Jesus Christ.  God’s prevenient grace gives us an awareness of that God exists, even if we cannot put that awareness into words.  It makes us aware that we are not the people we should be, and that we need to do something about that.  We become aware that we need to do something to get closer to God, even if we’re not sure what it is we need to do.

This awareness is what can lead to another type of grace that has come to be called “justifying grace”.  Justifying grace is the way our relationship with God is restored to what it should be.

Now, again, this is a gift of love from God.  We don’t do anything to earn it.  We do need to accept it, though.  The way we accept it is by going to God, confessing our sins, and repenting of them.

We talked a little about this last week, but repentance does not mean that we’re never going to sin again.  Repentance means that we acknowledge who we are and ask for God’s help to change the direction of our lives.  We can do that by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior.

What this really is, is a change of our hearts.  It happens both through our action and through God’s action.  God’s prevenient grace makes us aware of our need to change, and the Holy Spirit guides us to the change we need.  The role we have is to be willing to accept the Holy Spirit’s loving guidance and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior.

I don’t want to gloss over that, because it’s not easy.  It’s not easy to change our hearts and turn them toward God.  Our old, selfish habits die pretty hard.  That’s why we say repentance does not mean we’re not going to sin again.  We are going to sin again.  No matter how sincere we are in repentance, no matter how much we want to change, no matter how much we want to accept the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even if we’re sincere about accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior, we’re going to sin again.  And again.  And again.  It’s part of who we are as human beings.

That’s why this process of salvation does not end when we repent and accept Jesus as our Savior.  It continues to something that has come to be called “sanctifying grace.”

Sanctifying grace is something that draws us toward the greatest of all God’s gifts, the gift of Christian perfection.  And you say, now wait a minute, Jeff, are you saying you think United Methodists are perfect?  Well, the answer is yes!  Of course United Methodists are perfect!  No, actually, that’s not what we mean when we talk about Christian perfection.

John Wesley described Christian perfection as having a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.  In other words, Christian perfection is taking those old, selfish habits we talked about a minute ago and replacing them with the habit of love.  Think about that.  Having our hearts so filled with love of God and love of our neighbor that it just becomes second nature to feel that love.  We don’t even have to think about feeling love any more, we just do it naturally, because our hearts are so full of the love of God and of our neighbors that there’s no room for anything else.

Is that possible?  Wesley believed it is, although he did not believe he had done it himself.  Even if we don’t think we can reach Christian perfection, though, it still should be our goal.  Because, after all, that’s what Jesus told us to do.  Jesus said those are the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love our neighbors.

            There’s one more aspect to Christian perfection.  Whether love has become a habit for us or if we’re still trying to move in that direction, love needs to be shown by our actions.  As I said earlier, we don’t earn our salvation.  If we truly love God and love others, though, love has to make itself known in some outward way.  Both faith and good works are part of God’s grace, because they both come from God’s gracious love.

We have all kinds of chances to show that love.  All around us are people who are hurting in some way.  All around us are people who are in need.  Almost everyone we see, including everyone in this church, is struggling with something.  It may be physical.  It may be emotional.  It may be financial.  It may be personal.  It may involve themselves, it may involve a family member, it may involve a close friend.  Other people may know about it or they may not.  But almost everyone we see is struggling with something.

We are put on this earth in families and in communities to help each other with those struggles.  We need to show God’s love to each other within this church.  We need to show God’s love to people in this community outside of this church.  And we need to show God’s love to people beyond our community, in every way that we can.  We need to make love for others a habit, one that we indulge in every chance we get.

That may sound like a lot.  Well, in one way it is, but in another way, it’s not.  If we have hearts filled with the love of God and the love of our neighbors, showing God’s love to all these people won’t seem like it’s so hard.  Instead, it will seem like a joy.

Remember, too, we don’t do this alone.  We do it with God.  Prevenient grace is a gift of love from God.  Justifying grace is a gift of love from God.  Sanctifying grace and moving toward Christian perfection are gifts of love from God.  We can only do these things through God’s gifts of love.

If we let God’s Holy Spirit fill our hearts with the love of God and the love of others, there is literally nothing we cannot do.  Love will become a habit for us, and we’ll truly understand what Jesus meant when he said that with God, all things are possible.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Where Do We Go From Here?

In the wake of last week’s tragic events in Gettysburg, some good things happened.  We saw a tremendous coming together of a community.  We saw a wonderful outpouring of love and support for a family that was hurting.
What a lot of people are struggling with now is where we go from here.  We feel like we need to try to get back to normal, to try to move forward, to try to recover from last week.  Some of us, though, do not feel ready to do that.  Others may feel ready to, but wonder if it’s really right to move forward so soon after such a terrible thing.

Recovering from something like this is a tricky thing.  We won’t all do it at the same pace.  The closer people were to the Hansen family, the longer it’s going to take, and the harder it’s going to be.  For the family itself, the recovery process really hasn’t begun yet.  That family is still in shock, trying to figure out a way forward.

We do, of course, have to get on with life at some point.  Tme moves only in one direction—forward.  We cannot go backward, and we cannot stand still, much as we might like to do either of those things.  The poet Robert Frost once wrote:  “I know only one thing about life—it goes on.”  We have no choice, really, but to go on with it

As we do that, though, it’s important that we stay united as a community. While we will not move at the same pace, we should not judge those who appear to move faster or slower than we do.  People have different ways of coping, and there’s no one way that’s more correct than another.  Some people need to talk, others keep things inside.  Some people build shrines or memorials, others quietly give support.  Some people may appear to dwell on the recent events, while others may seem to ignore them.  None of these things is right or wrong.  They’re just different ways in which we deal with things.  

One thing that’s important, though, is that, whatever we do, we don’t leave anyone behind.  It’s especially important that we don’t leave the Hansen family behind.  As I said, for them the recovery process has barely started, if it’s even started at all. When you’re still hurting, it’s hard to see others moving on while you cannot.  You can start to wonder if people have forgotten what happened.  You wonder if they really even cared all that much in the first place.

This community has been wonderfully supportive of the Hansen family this week, and that’s been wonderful to see.  What’s even more important, though, is that we support them in the days and weeks and months to come.  Give them a call.  Stop by and visit.  Send an email. Take some food over.  Invite them out.  Do whatever you do, but do something.  Don’t worry about what to say, and don’t worry about bringing the subject up.  It’s not like they’ve forgotten about it.  They live with it every day.  They want to know we haven’t forgotten about it, either.
There’s something else we need to do, too.  We need to make sure we’re there for all the other people in our community who have losses and who are hurting.  People in our community lose loved ones all the time.  It may not happen in such a sudden and tragic way, but it still happens, and it still hurts.  We need to give our love and support to those people, too.        

Over the last week, Gettysburg has shown itself to be what I already knew it was:  a wonderful, loving, caring community of friends.  Let’s keep that going.  In fact, let’s build on it.  Let’s be there for all the people of our community who are hurting, for whatever reason, and surround them with our love.  Then we’ll really be doing what Jesus told us to do:  loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Monday, September 10, 2012

How Do We Know?

This is the message given Sunday, September 9, 2012 in the Wheatland Parish.  The scripture used is 1 Peter 1:13-25.

            We are in the third week of United Methodism 101.  We’ve talked a little about the history of the United Methodist Church and we’ve talked a little about the organizational structure of the United Methodist Church.  I hope you’ve found that interesting, but some of you are probably wondering when we’re going to get to the good stuff.  When are we going to talk about things that really affect our lives?
Well, we’re going to get into that today.  What we’re going to talk about is how, as United Methodists, we decide what we believe.  That’s an important thing to talk about, because God created us with brains.  God did that for a reason.  God expects us to use those brains God gave us.
That’s part of our Wesleyan heritage, too.  That’s why Wesley emphasized studying the Bible.  He did not want people to trust someone else to tell them what the Bible says.  He did not even want them to trust him to tell them.  He wanted them to read the Bible for themselves, and make their own decisions about faith.

That’s why we don’t have a United Methodist catechism, like some denominations have.  We don’t have a laundry list of things you have to agree that you believe in order to become part of the United Methodist Church.  If you look at the vows you take to become a member of the United Methodist Church, they say that you repent of your sins, you believe in God the Father, you believe in Jesus Christ, you believe in the Holy Spirit, and you profess the Christian faith.  You then promise to be loyal to the United Methodist Church and to support it.  That’s it.
Now, that obviously gives people a lot of discretion.  It does not mean, however, that United Methodists don’t believe in anything or that anything goes in the United Methodist Church.  So how does a United Methodist decide what he or she believes?
Well, in keeping with our name as United Methodists, we have a method for it.  We start with the Bible.  Here’s what our United Methodist Book of Discipline, which sets out the religious standards for the United Methodist Church, says about the Bible:

Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.  Through Scripture the living Christ meets us in the experience of redeeming grace.  We are convinced that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God in our midst whom we trust in life and death.  The Biblical authors, illumined by the Holy Spirit, bear witness that in Christ the world is reconciled to God.  The Bible bears authentic testimony to God’s self-disclosure in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as in God’s work of creation, in the pilgrimage of Israel, and in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing activity in human history…Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”

Sounds simple, right?  The Bible is where we find out about God.  Well, it is simple, and it’s not simple.  The thing is that two people can read the same passage in the Bible and interpret it differently.  That’s not just true about the Bible, of course.  It’s true in just about every walk of life.  You see that in politics, you see it in law, you see it in everything.  We look at the same words, or the same set of facts, and we reach different conclusions.  In the case of the Bible, I would not even be able to begin to count the number of books that have been written to try to explain what it “really” means.

There’s another aspect, too, of course.  The Bible is a wonderful book, and I don’t mean to come across as criticizing it, but the Bible does not cover every possible aspect of life on earth.  There’s no way it could.  Life on earth is too complex for that.  The Bible gives us standards and guidelines, but we have to apply those standards and guidelines to our lives.

Studying the Bible is still very important, of course.  The point is that we cannot just say “read the Bible” as the answer to every question of faith that might come up.  That’s our starting point, but it’s not our ending point.

So, how do we interpret the Bible to get the answers we need?  In United Methodism, we use three things.  One of them is tradition.

Now, remember what we are and are not talking about here.  We’re talking theology.  We’re talking about what we believe about God.  We’re not talking about how we conduct the worship service or what style of music we use or anything like that.  We’re talking about what the church has traditionally believed about God and about how we are to live our lives so that we can serve God.

Obviously, tradition is not the be-all and end-all.  Again, we first look to scripture.  Also, tradition is not always right.  For example, at one time, religious tradition was that women could not be pastors.  United Methodists don’t believe that now. 

So, in saying that we use tradition to interpret the Bible, we are not saying that we should slavishly follow tradition.  On the other hand, traditions generally develop for reasons.  Before we throw out those traditions, we need to look at how they got started in the first place.  In other words, we need to respect tradition without being completely bound by it.

Another thing we use to interpret the Bible is reason.  It gets back to that thing about God expecting us to use the brains we were given.  “Reason” does not just include our own personal knowledge, of course.  As we said earlier, many people have used their sense of reason to try to understand the Bible.  We should read their opinions, too, and see if they make sense.  We should apply our own reason to the reasoning of others.

Finally, we interpret the Bible through experience.  Again, this does not just mean our own personal experience, although it certainly includes that.  The thing is that none of us can live long enough, or do enough things, to experience all the things that a human being can experience.  We probably would not want to if we could.  We should use the experiences of others, as well as our own experience, to interpret the Bible correctly.

Here’s what makes all this tricky.  The traditions some of you grew up with are different from mine.  Your sense of reason will sometimes tell you different things than my sense of reason does.  Your experiences are different from mine, and will lead you to a different way of looking at life than my experiences will.  In other words, even if we all use reason, tradition, and experience to interpret the Bible, our interpretations of the Bible will be different.

And you know what?  That’s okay.  Because remember what we said last week?  United Methodists are a connectional people.  We have conferences.  We talk to each other.  We listen to each other.  Or at least, we’re supposed to.

United Methodists don’t say we all have to agree on everything in order to worship God together.  God did not create us to all be the same.  God created each one of us to be different, with different ideas and different opinions.  That way, we can learn from each other.

Look at it this way:  How can we learn anything from someone who agrees with us all the time?  We cannot.  We learn by talking with people who disagree with us and listening to what they have to say.  Maybe we’ll change our minds.  If not, we’ll at least have had to think about why we believe the way we do.  And so will they.  And we’ll all learn, and we’ll all get closer to God.

So, if you disagree with something I say in one of my sermons, or something I write in the newsletter, or something I suggest the church should do, that’s okay.  You don’t have to agree with everything I say or write or do to be part of our church.  You don’t have to agree with everything anybody says or writes or does to be part of our church.

Anyone is welcome to be part of the United Methodist Church.  If you want to be a member, all you need to do is repent of your sins, believe in God the Father, believe in Jesus Christ, believe in the Holy Spirit, profess the Christian faith, and promise to be loyal to and support the United Methodist Church.  That’s it.

United Methodists don’t claim to have all the answers.  Faith is not about knowing all the answers.  Faith is about believing in God, accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior, and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.  If we do that, God will take care of the rest.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

When Faith Gets Tested

            As many of you know, the community of Gettysburg suffered a terrible tragedy this week.  Two men, a father and his twenty-year-old son, died in a sewer gas accident.

            A lot of people in Gettysburg are just kind of numb.  It just doesn’t seem possible.  One moment, both of them are alive, healthy, active, productive and important members of their community.  Then, all of a sudden, they’re not.  They’re gone.  There’s nothing we can do about it, no second chance, no nothing.  They’re just gone.

            It’s hard to come to terms with it.  Any death is sad, of course, but when someone who has reached a ripe old age passes away, it’s easier to deal with.  We can console ourselves with the thought that they lived a full life and got as much out of life as anyone could reasonably expect.  In this case, we cannot do that.  It feels so unfair.  It feels like they got cheated. 

We know, of course, that these things happen, but they’re supposed to happen to other people.  They’re not supposed to happen to people who are in the inner circle of our lives.  Not only does it feel like they got cheated, it feels like we got cheated, too.  These people were not supposed to be taken out of our lives so soon.  The whole thing just seems fundamentally wrong.

For those of us who have faith, this is a time that really tests that faith.  The natural thing is to wonder where God was at a time like this.  We wonder why God allows things like this to happen.  We may not believe that God actually caused it, but if we believe in an all-powerful God, then we have to believe that God could have prevented it.  For some reason, God chose not to.  We’d like to know why.

It’s not just this incident where this question comes up, of course.  People die in auto accidents every day.  People die in hurricanes and tornadoes and all sorts of things.  Every day, somewhere in the world, someone dies unexpectedly and inexplicably.  And everyone who’s close to them would like to know why.

Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer, at least not one that satisfies us.  We can say “accidents happen”, and they do, but why does God allow them to happen?  We can say, “it was God’s will”; I don’t really believe that, but even if it is, it begs the question:  why was it God’s will?  We know this is the way life is, but we don’t know why.  And we’d like to.

That’s why this is such a test for our faith.  We will never get an answer to the question of why, at least not while we’re on earth.  So, when something like this happens, we find out if we truly believe the things we say we believe.  Do we really believe that God loves us?  Do we really believe that God is good?  Do we really believe that God is always there?  Are we really willing to trust God at all times and in all circumstances, no matter what?

Each of us has to answer those questions for ourselves.  There’s no nice, pat, easy answer I or anyone else can give you.  I will, though, be willing to discuss it with you.  We can have that discussion in person, on the phone, by email, or any other way you want to have it.

The one thing we know is that, when things like this happen, we need to be there for each other.  The wonderful thing about small towns is that we all know each other.  We all, in a way, consider ourselves part of the same family.  When one of us hurts, we all hurt.  When a tragedy strikes one family, it strikes all of us.

So let’s resolve to be there for each other.  Let’s love each other, and care for each other, and pray for each other.  Even if you don’t know what to say, just show up.  Be there.  Not just today, but in the days and weeks and months to come.  Let’s love each other every chance we get.

Monday, September 3, 2012

It's All Connected

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 2.  The scripture is 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.

As many of you know, I was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church about two and a half months ago.  When I told people I was getting ordained, some of them were kind of confused.  After all, I’d been appointed to as a pastor in United Methodist churches for four years, and I’d been an interim pastor in the United Church of Christ for two years before that.  How could I only now be getting ordained?
Well, the thing is that each denomination has its own set of rules, not just for ordination, but for a lot of things.  As we continue our sermon series, “United Methodism 101”, looking at what it is that makes us United Methodists, we need to look at how our denomination is organized and why.
United Methodists look at themselves as connectional people.  In other words, this United Methodist Churches does not just exist in isolation.  It is connected to and are part of a much larger organization.
Part of how we’re organized comes from our history.  As we talked about last week, what is now the United Methodist Church was founded by John Wesley.  And, as we talked about last week, Wesley had been a priest in the Church of England, which pretty much had a top-down structure to it.  Also, while Wesley was alive, he was very much in charge of his “Methodists”, which gave his organization a top-down structure, too.
Wesley could not control everything, of course.  Also, he needed a good way to communicate with the pastors who were working under him.  So, every year, he called all of them together in what he referred to as a “conference.”  The purpose of these conferences was to determine doctrine, discipline, and practice.  In other words, they decided what to preach and teach, how to preach and teach it, and what to do.  That’s still kind of how United Methodist conferences work.
Because they started out this way, the word “conference” has a double meaning in United Methodism.  We use it to mean a meeting, but we also use it to refer to geographical areas.  For example, when I was ordained in June, it happened at a yearly meeting called an annual conference.  On the other hand, that meeting was a meeting of representatives of all the churches in the Dakotas Conference.  So, you could say that the churches of the Dakotas Conference got together and had a conference.  The word can be used in both ways.
The highest level of conference is the General Conference.  That’s made up of representatives of the entire world-wide United Methodist Church.  The General Conference meets every four years—it met this year, in fact.  Below that is the Jurisdictional Conference.  We’re part of the North-Central Jurisdictional Conference.  Among other things, these Jurisdictional Conferences elect bishops.  Our new bishop, Bruce Ough, was elected at a Jurisdictional Conference.
Below that is the Annual Conference.  We’re part of the Dakotas Conference which, as you probably guessed, is made up of South Dakota and North Dakota.  We share a bishop with the Minnesota conference—Bishop Ough is the bishop for both the Minnesota Conference and the Dakotas Conference—but the Dakotas are still a separate conference.  We have four districts in the Dakotas conference, and each district is supervised by a District Superintendent.  We’re part of the Prairie Hills District.
All of those conferences have expenses that have to be paid for, of course, which brings us to the always fun subject of apportionments.  Apportionments are the amounts that each local church pays to the annual conference.  The annual conference, in turn, pays an apportionment to the general conference.  A church’s apportionment is based on a variety of things, including its membership, its attendance, and its budget.
Nobody really likes apportionments, but the money goes to a lot of good things.  Some of it goes to administration, of course, just like in any organization, but some of it goes to fund mission projects.  Some of it goes to support campus ministry.  Some of it is used to sponsor youth events.  Some of it is used to support the camping program.  Without that apportionment money, the United Methodist Church would not be able to do a lot of the good things it does.
A denomination would not have to be organized, with a top-down structure, and some are not.  In some denominations, the local congregation has a lot more say than it does in the United Methodist Church.  There’s good and bad to both systems, just as there is to any system that’s created by human beings.
One obvious example of the difference is the way a pastor for the local church is selected.  I am here because I was appointed by the bishop in consultation with the District Superintendents.  We had a meeting with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, and they were asked what they thought, but they did not know me from anybody at that time.  This is pretty much how it works in the United Methodist Church.  The bishop and the District Superintendents decide what pastor serves where.  They try to take the wishes of the congregation into account, and they try to take the wishes of the pastor into account, but ultimately, it’s their decision.
As I said, there’s good and bad to that.  On the one had, local churches often do not like having little to no say when a pastor is moved.  On the other hand, when a pastor leaves, you know someone will be coming to replace him or her.  There will not be a period where the church does not have a regular pastor, like the Lutheran/Grace Bible church had/has. 

That’s not a put-down of the system those churches use, it’s just a fact.  And the United Methodist system has a lot of advantages for small towns.  I got my start preaching in the United Church of Christ in Wessington Springs, because their pastor left and they had to go out and find someone themselves.  It’s not easy finding pastors who want to come to small towns, especially to multi-point charges.  Wanda and I love it here, and we hope to stay for a long time, but a lot of people would not.  It took the Springs U. C. C. church over two years to find a full-time pastor, and then it was someone whose spouse had grown up there and wanted to come back.  In the United Methodist system, you don’t have to go out and look for a pastor yourself, nor are you going to have a period of months or years without a pastor.

That brings me to what really is the point of all this.  It’s good to know how your church is organized, of course, but the important point goes back to a word I used near the start of this message.  United Methodist people look at themselves as connectional.  When you join this United Methodist Church, you’re not just getting connected to this United Methodist Church.  You’re getting connected to a denomination that has churches in countries all over the world.

It can be really easy for us to feel isolated sometimes.  That’s true both as individuals and as a church.  Sometimes, when we look at the world around us, we wonder just how many people there really are who believe the way we do.  We wonder if there’s anyone out there to help us, to encourage us, to guide us.  We start to feel like the Lone Ranger, the only one out there who’s doing what we’re doing.  We don’t even have Tonto to help us.

            It’s not true.  We’re not out here by ourselves.  As individuals, we’re connected to a church that wants to support us.  As a church, we’re connected to a district and an annual conference to support us.  As an annual conference, we’re connected to an entire denomination of people to support us.

            Remember that special offering we took up for the Minot church last month? That’s an example of how this works.  There have been lots of people who’ve gone up to Minot and who’ve donated money and supplies to help that church and that community.  I’d bet, when the flood hit last year and their church was destroyed, the people in that Minot church felt like they were all alone.  But they were not.  They were connected to an annual conference that helped them.  All the churches of this conference were there and did something to help that Minot church when it was in trouble.  And if anything ever should happen to this church, all the churches of this conference would be there to help us, too.

That’s why it’s so important that we remember that we are United Methodists.  Because we are not alone.  We are connected of something that’s far bigger than we are.  And we worship a God who’s bigger still.  When we stay connected to each other and to God, there is nothing we cannot do.  We are one people, the United Methodist people.  We are never alone.  We are always connected.