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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Activity and Accomplishment

 As you know, I’m a sports fan. This time of year, that means basketball. It means wrestling, too, and I also enjoy that. The thing is, though, that wrestling is usually only once a week, maybe twice. Between boys and girls basketball, there are games two or three nights a week. When you consider there are two school systems within our parish, there are times when I go to basketball games four or five times a week.

It’s funny how high school sports seasons work. They pack a lot of games into a short period of time. It seems like you spend two or three months doing nothing but running around going to games, and then, all at once, it’s over. It seems like they should be able to spread it out a little more, have fewer games covering a longer period of time, but that’s not how it works.

It’s not how it works because as soon as one sports season ends, another begins, usually more than one. As soon as basketball is over, it’ll be time for track and golf. As soon as those are over, it’ll be time for baseball and softball. Once those are done, it’ll be time for football and volleyball and cross-country. After that, it’s time for basketball and wrestling again. And the chances are, I forgot about a couple of other sports that are squeezed in there someplace.

It seems to me that life can be like that, too. There’s always something going on. As soon as one thing ends, another thing comes along to take its place.

That’s okay. In fact, in some ways, it’s good. On the other hand, it can make life awfully busy. We can spend a lot of time going from one thing to another to another.

There’s nothing wrong with being active, of course. I find it far preferable to sitting around wondering what to do. Our parish is an active parish, and I think that’s a good thing. As I’ve written before, an active church is an attractive church. No one would want to join a church or any other organization that never did anything.

Still, we do need to be careful sometimes. It can be easy to confuse activity with accomplishment. A dog chasing its tail is active, but it’s not getting much accomplished. We want our parish to be active, but we don’t want to be chasing our tails.

On February 13, it will be Ash Wednesday. Then, we’ll enter the period of Lent. Lent is a time for reflection. I’d like to suggest that one of the things we reflect on during Lent this year is: how can we best accomplish things for God? What are the best ways we can use our time, our talents, our interests, and our abilities to serve God? It’s a question that applies to us as individuals, to our individual churches, and to our parish as a whole.

It’s a question that can have a lot of different answers. It may mean starting some new things. It may be expanding some things we’re already doing. It may even mean letting go of some things that we’ve been doing for a while, not because those things are bad things, but because they are no longer the best ways we can serve God.

We want and need to be an active church, but we don’t want or need to be chasing our tails. This Lenten season, let’s reflect on how we can work together to do what’s best. Let’s figure out ways to not just be active, but to accomplish things for God.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Not My Problem

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, January 27, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Mark 6:30-44.

This is the fourth week of our sermon series, "It’s a Miracle", looking at some of the miracles of Jesus. Today we’ll see what we can learn from the story of Jesus feeding the crowd.

This is a story that appears in all four gospels. In fact, Matthew and Mark each have two stories like this, with Jesus once feeding five thousand and then later feeding four thousand. The stories are all fairly similar, but the one we’re going to look at today comes from the book of Mark, and is about feeding five thousand.

As the story is presented, this was not something Jesus planned ahead of time. Mark says Jesus had intended to take the disciples with him in a boat to a quiet place where they could get some rest. The problem was that people got wind of where they were going and went on ahead to meet Jesus there. By the time Jesus and the disciples were ready to get off the boat, there was already a big crowd waiting for them.

I wonder, when Jesus and the disciples saw that, if there was at least a little bit of them that was disappointed. I mean, I would be. Here they were, thinking they could get away from everyone and just get a little rest, and here there’s this big crowd of people there waiting for him. If Jesus was disappointed at all, though, he did not give any indication of it. Instead, we’re told, Jesus had compassion on them and started teaching them.

We don’t know how long he taught them, but eventually it got late. The disciples told Jesus to send the people away so they could get something to eat. Instead, Jesus tells them, "You give them something to eat."

The disciples must have thought Jesus had gone crazy. How were they supposed to give all these people something to eat? They did not really even have enough for themselves to eat. All they had were five loaves of bread and two fish.

Jesus takes the bread and fish, gives thanks, gives them to the disciples, and tells them to distribute them to crowd. And the disciples must have thought, "Oh, this is really going to work. We’ll get maybe ten people fed, and the other four thousand nine hundred and ninety are going to kill us." They probably start out just giving a little tiny bit to each person, trying to make this food last as long as they can. Still, they know it’s going to run out pretty soon.

Except it does not run out. They feed ten people, they look in the basket, and—there’s more food there. They think, "Huh. I guess this’ll go a little farther than we thought." They feed a few more people. They look in the basket again. And—there’s still more there. This keeps happening. They keep thinking they must be about out of food, but there’s always more food there.

At some point, they must’ve figured out what was going on. And so, they look over at Jesus.

I picture Jesus just kind of smiling at them. Not making fun of them, not being upset with them, but just having this knowing smile on his face. I imagine him thinking, "See? See what I can do if you just trust me?"

Think about how the disciples reacted to this situation. When the problem of food first came up, the disciples’ idea was that Jesus should send the people away and let them fend for themselves. The thought that they, the disciples, should help these people does not seem to have occurred to them. They did not think it was their responsibility to feed these people. After all, they had not told these people to come all this way out into the middle of nowhere without any food. If those people were dumb enough to do that, well, that was their own fault. The disciples had wanted to get away from these people. They were tired. They’d been working hard, and they wanted a chance to rest. The disciples knew the people did not have anything to eat, but the disciples did not see that as their problem.

Jesus told them it was their problem. He told them, no, we’re not going to send these people away to fend for themselves. We’re going to give them something to eat. In fact, Jesus said, you’re going to give them something to eat.

The disciples reacted pretty strongly to that. They were incredulous. They thought Jesus was giving them a hopeless task. He was asking them to do something that was clearly impossible. There was no way they could do what Jesus was asking them to do. Even if they wanted to, even if they forgot how tired they were and tried really hard, there was no way the could feed all those people. The little bit of food they had would make no difference at all. The disciples were probably stunned, trying to figure out why Jesus would tell them to do something they clearly would not be able to do.

How many times does this happen to us? We see a situation. We know people are in trouble and they need some help. But we think, "That’s not my problem. I did not put those people in that situation. They got themselves in trouble, and they can get themselves out of it. The little bit I could do would not make any difference anyway. I’m tired. I just want to get away and rest for a while."

Please don’t think I’m pointing fingers here. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’ve done it plenty of times in my life. I can be awfully quick to judge people and decide their problems are their own darn fault. I can be very quick to decide there’s nothing I can do that will make a difference. This is not me trying to make anyone feel guilty, or at least not any more guilty than I am myself.

But the thing is that Jesus says the same thing to us that he said to the disciples. He says it is our problem. We’re not going to just leave them in trouble and let them try to get themselves out of it. We’re going to help them. In fact, Jesus says to us, you’re going to help them.

And, many times, we react the same way the disciples did. We’re incredulous. We think Jesus is giving us a hopeless task. He’s asking us to do something that’s clearly impossible. There’s no way we can do what Jesus is asking us to do. Even if we want to, even if we forget how tired we are and try really hard, there’s no way we can do it. The little bit we can do will make no difference at all. We cannot figure out why Jesus would tell us to do something we clearly will not be able to do.

But give the disciples this much credit: they trusted Jesus enough to do what he told them to do. Even though they did not understand, even though they thought there was no way this could work, even though they could not understand how this little bit they could do would be enough to get the job done, they went ahead and did it anyway. They trusted Jesus enough to do what Jesus wanted them to do, even when they thought it would do no good. And when they did, Jesus took that little bit they could do and turned it into enough to get the job done. In fact, it was more than enough. We’re told that when they got done, everyone was able to eat as much as they wanted and there were still twelve basketfuls of food left over.

Can we do what the disciples did? Can we trust Jesus that much?

There are lots of situations that we think are not our problem. There are also lots of situations that we don’t think we can do anything about. That’s true about situations in the world. It’s true about situations in our country. It’s true about situations in our state. It’s true about situations in our community. It’s even true about situations in our families sometimes. We look at a situation like that and we think "I can’t do anything about that. It’s hopeless. It’s not my problem anyway." Or, sometimes we might try to think of something we could do, but we cannot think of anything. Or, if we do think of something, we don’t see the point of doing it, because the little bit we could do would make no difference to anyone.

Jesus tells us to do it anyway. Even if we think the situation is hopeless, even if we cannot see the point of doing the little bit we could do, Jesus tells us to do it anyway. And when we do, Jesus can take what we do and bless it and make it go a lot farther than we ever imagined it could.

It’s not easy to trust Jesus that much. It was not easy for the disciples. I suspect that when they took those five loaves and two fish and started distributing them to the crowd, they felt pretty foolish. They may even have been kind of scared, not knowing how people would react when they ran out. They thought Jesus was asking them to do something that was not only silly, but that could be dangerous. And yet, they trusted Jesus enough to do it anyway.

That’s the kind of trust you and I need to have. We need to trust Jesus enough to do what Jesus wants us to do. We need to be willing to do it even when we feel foolish. We need to be willing to do it even when it could be dangerous. We need to trust Jesus enough to do it anyway.

If we can, Jesus will bless what we do. And we’ll see the effects of what we’ve done spread far beyond what we ever imagined.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Freedom of Choice

The other day, I was talking to someone who seemed a little bit depressed. I asked why. His response was along the lines of, "I have to do such-and-such today."

I didn’t say it, but inside my response was, "No, you don’t." You see, there are very few things in life that we actually have to do. Breathing would be one. We cannot, simply by an act of will, make ourselves stop breathing. We can hold our breath for a few seconds, maybe a minute, but eventually our bodies will force us to start breathing again. In a similar vein, we cannot, by an act of will, make our blood stop flowing or our hearts stop beating. These are things we have to do.

Everything else is pretty much a matter of choice. We can choose to do things, or we can choose not to do them. It’s our choice.

Our choices have consequences, of course. For example, I can choose to not write a sermon for Sunday. I can even choose not to show up in church Sunday. But there’d be consequences if I made those choices. The congregation would complain, word would get to the District Superintendent, maybe even to the Bishop, and I might not be able to be a pastor any more. Still, I don’t have to do those things. I do have choices.

Maybe that seems like an insignificant distinction to you, but I find it an important one. To me, it’s important to remind myself that I am choosing to do the things I do. When we feel like we don’t have any choice, when we feel like we have to do things, we start to feel trapped. That can lead to depression and burnout.

On the other hand, when we remember that we are choosing to do the things we do, we remind ourselves of the reasons we chose to do those things in the first place. We remember the joy and satisfaction that can be found in what we do. We remember that we truly love what we do. And we remind ourselves that if, for some reason, we get to a point where we can no longer feel those things any more, we can choose to do something else. It’s our choice.

I suspect that may be part of the reason God gave us free will. God would not have had to do that, you know. God could have created humans in such a way that we had no ability to choose whether we were going to believe in God or not. God could have created us in such a way that we had no ability to choose whether we were going to serve God or not. God could have created us in such a way that we had no ability to choose whether we would love God or not. God could have done those things, but God chose not to.

Maybe part of the reason for that is that God knew that, if we had no choice but to believe in God, and serve God, and to love God, we’d eventually come to resent it. We’d start to feel trapped. We’d start to feel depressed and burned out. Maybe God knew it was important for us to have the ability to choose our feelings toward God, even if that meant that sometimes we’d make choices to ignore or oppose God. I have said before that God does not want our grudging service, God wants our loving service. Without the ability to choose, there might not be the ability to truly love.

God does not want us to feel forced to go to church; God wants us to go because we find something there that helps us. God does not want us to feel forced to give; God wants us to give because we believe in giving. God does not want us to feel forced to serve; God wants us to serve because we want to, because we love God and love the people God created.

We tend to resent the things we feel forced to do. We tend to enjoy the things we choose to do. Just as Joshua said, we need to choose whom we will serve. We don’t have to serve God. There will be consequences if we don’t, but we don’t have to. We are not trapped into it. We have choices.

What’s your choice going to be? What’s mine going to be?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Doing What We Can

This is the message given at the Oahe Manor service Sunday, January 20, 2013,  The Bible verses are 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.

In our reading for today, the Apostle Paul says that there are different kinds of gifts, different kinds of service, and different kinds of working. Paul also says that’s okay, because all those gifts come from the Holy Spirit, all those kinds of service come from the Lord, and that whenever we are doing work God wants us to do, that’s God at work.

The way I’ve normally thought of this is in terms of the talents and abilities that each of us has. For instance, there are certain things I know how to do—play the piano a little, sing some, speak, write, that sort of thing. There are also certain things I have no idea how to do—build things, work on cars, basically anything that has to do with working with my hands.

And that’s certainly true. As we look at ourselves and at others, we can see that each of us has different talents and abilities, and that’s fine. In fact, it’s a good thing. It encourages us to work together and do things for each other.

There’s another aspect to this, though, which I don’t know that I’ve thought about very much. That is that as we go through our lives, we also have different kinds of gifts, different kinds of service, and different kinds of working. In other words, the way we serve God changes over time.

When we’re little kids, there are a lot of things we cannot do. We can still serve God, but only in certain ways. Part of our service to God, and that point, is to grow, to study, to learn, and to put ourselves in a position to serve God more later in life.

As we grow, the ways we can serve God increase. Still, though, they change over time. For example, in my own life, I was a lawyer for over twenty years. I believe I was serving God that way, at least some of the time. Eventually, though, I was called to serve God in a different way, as a pastor. That’s what I’m doing now.

My plan is to keep doing that for the rest of my life. The thing is, though, that may not be God’s plan. Ten years ago I had no idea I’d be a pastor today. Ten years from now, I may be doing something different. That’s not what I want, but it may be what God wants. I don’t know.

I’m sure each one of you has served God in many ways throughout the course of your lives. You have used a variety of gifts to serve God in your lives. God has worked through you in many different ways, and on many different things.

But here’s what I want you to know: that’s still true. You still have gifts from the Holy Spirit. There are still ways you can serve the Lord. There are still ways you can work for God.

Those ways are not the same as they were twenty or thirty years ago. They may not be the same as they were one year ago. You cannot do all the things you used to be able to do. If you could, you would not be here.

The thing is, and I’m sure you know this, at some point each of us has to make a choice. We can look at all the things we cannot do and be depressed and discouraged. Or, we can look at all the things we still can do, all the gifts we still have, all the ways we still can work for and serve God, and go out and do the best we can.

There is some way, probably several ways, in which each of you can still serve God. If there was not, you would not still be here. God never created a person for no reason, and God has never left a person on earth for no reason. As long as we are still here, there is something we can do, something we are supposed to do, to serve God.

I cannot tell you what it is. You know your gifts and talents and abilities better than I do. I can tell you, though, that each of one us can give a smile to someone who needs one. Each one of us can say a kind word to someone who’s down. Each one of us can be a listening ear to someone who needs to talk. I’m not saying the ways you can serve are limited to those things. I’m just saying that, no matter what your physical condition is, there is still something you can do to show love to others and to serve God.

All of us have lots of things we cannot do. But each of us has something we can do. Let’s focus on doing the things we can, show love to others, and serve God in whatever way we can.

"I See," Said the Blind Man

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, January 20, 2013.  The Bible verses are John 9:1-41.

We’re in the third week of our sermon series "It’s a Miracle", looking at the miracles of Jesus. Today, we’re talking about Jesus healing a man born blind.

Our scripture reading for today was kind of long, but you know, it would not have to have been. The actual miracle is described in three verses: Jesus sees the blind man, Jesus rubs some mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to wash it off at a certain place, than man does so and can see. Two characters and three verses. And yet, John takes forty-one verses to tell the story, and brings in a whole bunch of other characters. There has to be a reason for that. So, as we look at what we’re supposed to learn from this miracle, we’re going to look at some of these other characters and see why they’re in the story of this miracle.

We start with the disciples. They see the blind man at the same time Jesus does. And they ask Jesus, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

Now, think about that. The disciples had been with Jesus for a while at this point. They’d seen Jesus do miracles. They’d even seen Jesus heal people. And yet, what was their first instinct when they saw this man? To determine fault. They did not try to do anything to help the blind man. They did not even suggest Jesus do anything to help him. They just wanted to know who’s fault it was that the man was blind.

Jesus has such an awesome response to that. Jesus says no one is at fault that the man was born blind. Jesus does not try to put the blame on anyone. Instead, Jesus says the man’s blindness was not a punishment for anyone’s sin, but happened so the works of God could be displayed.

Let’s think about that for a second. Think about what it means. God did not cause the man’s blindness as a punishment, but the man’s blindness allows the works of God to be displayed.

Have you ever thought of it that way? When something bad happens, instead of wondering why it happened and who was to blame, thinking it gives a chance for the works of God to be displayed? What an awesome response.

It was an awesome response for Jesus, because it gave Jesus the chance to heal the man and reveal who he was. But it can be an awesome response for us in our lives, too. God did not just work through Jesus. God works through all of us, through you and through me, every day, if we just agree to let God work through us.

Remember, the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. Jesus said the first part is like the second part. We cannot love God without loving our neighbor. That means that when something bad happens to someone, we are the ones who are supposed to show God’s love to that person. We are the ones through whom the works of God are supposed to be displayed.

Again, I’m not saying God punishes people by making bad things happen to them. Jesus specifically said that’s not how it works. What I’m saying is that when those bad things do happen, they give you and me the chance to display the works of God by showing God’s love to people at the time they need it the most.

The disciples did not see that. Even though they’d seen Jesus work miracles before, even though they’d seen Jesus heal people before, they did not see that. They did not see that, when bad things happen, they give us the chance to display the works of God.

The next group of people John brings into the story is the blind man’s neighbors. How did they react to this man now being able to see? They did not recognize him. They refused to believe this was the same person.

How could that be? I mean, they’d seen this person every day. They’d walked right past him. Maybe once in a while they even gave him something. But they’d never really gotten to know him. All they knew about him was that he was blind. When they’d see him, they’d think, "Oh, that’s the blind man." And they’d go on about their business. To them, the only thing worth knowing about this man was that he was blind. Once that was no longer the case, they no longer recognized him.

Are there people in our lives like that? I’ll bet there are. In fact, I know there are. There are people whom we see every day, but we never really get to know. Maybe it’s a clerk at the store. Maybe it’s somebody who works in the same office. Maybe it’s somebody we see at a local café. And all we know about that person is that it’s the store clerk, or the office person, or the guy from the café. If we happen to see them somewhere else, out of that context, we don’t even recognize them.

And then, we have the Pharisees. The Pharisees want to know how all this happened, that this guy who was blind now can see. They even make the guy’s parents vouch for who he really is, because they don’t even want to believe it’s the same person. The parents tell the Pharisees, yeah, this is our son, but we don’t know what happened. Let him tell you the story and keep us out of it.

We’re told the parents said that because they were scared. It was against the religious law to say Jesus was the Messiah. So, even though they knew it was true, they were afraid to say it. They refused to acknowledge the truth about Jesus, even though it was right in front of their eyes, because they were scared of the consequences.

The Pharisees do ask the son, the formerly blind man. And he tells them what happened. He tells them over and over. Jesus rubbed some mud on my eyes, I washed where he told me to wash, and now I can see.

And the Pharisees refused to believe him. They admitted he could see, because they pretty much had to admit that, but they refused to believe it was Jesus who’d healed him. They’d already made up their minds about Jesus. They’d already decided that Jesus was no good, that he did not come from God, and so they were not going to accept any evidence that did not fit their beliefs. In fact, they were so determined to hold onto their beliefs that threw the formerly blind man out.

Jesus heard what had happened, and he sought out the formerly blind man. He asked if the man believed in the Son of Man. The man asked who the Son of Man was. Jesus told him that he was talking to him, that it was, in fact, Jesus. And the man believed, and he worshipped Jesus.

We don’t know anything else about that man. Did you notice, John does not even tell us the man’s name? He’s just referred to as "a man blind from birth," as if that’s all we need to know about him. If you think about it, though, there were lots of blind people in this story.

The disciples were blind, in a way. They could not see that, when something bad happens, the thing for us to do is not to assess blame for it, but to do something about it, so that the works of God can be displayed through us. They were blind to the opportunity to serve God that had been placed in front of them.

The man’s neighbors were blind. They were blind to who this man really was. They did not see that there was a human being behind those sightless eyes. They did not see that there was someone there with needs and feelings and emotions. They did not see that there was someone there who could feel pain and sadness and joy and love and all the things that all of us feel.

The man’s parents were blind, too. They knew that Jesus had to be the Messiah for their son to have been healed, but they refused to acknowledge it. They did not see that they needed to acknowledge the truth about the Savior, no matter what the consequences might be.

The Pharisees were blind, too. With all their knowledge of scripture, they should’ve known that Jesus had to be the Messiah they’d been waiting for. And yet, they could not see it. They could not see it because Jesus did not fit their pre-conceived notions of who and what the Messiah should be. They had every chance to see, but they could not see because they closed their minds and refused to see.

And I think maybe that’s why this miracle is in the Bible, and why it’s there in the form that it is. The point is not just about Jesus’ healing power. That healing power is real, of course, and it’s important. But that story could’ve been told in one paragraph.

I think the reason this miracle is in the Bible is because we all tend to be blind sometimes. We're blind to chances to serve God. We’re blind to the needs of the people around us. We’re blind because we’re scared to acknowledge the truth. We’re blind because we close our minds when the truth is not the way we think it should be.

We all tend to be blind sometimes. But Jesus can heal each of us. Jesus asks each of us the same question he asked the formerly blind man. "Do you believe in me?" The formerly blind man answered, "Lord, I believe." If we can answer that same way, then we will no longer be blind. We will be able to see, because we will have been healed by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friday, January 18, 2013

God in the Present Tense

Below is the message give for the Oahe Manor communion service January 17, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Isaiah 43:1-7.

Have you ever had a time where you felt like you’re really not very important? I have. I’ll bet most of us have. Even if we try to be upbeat and optimistic, we still have those times where we think, "Does it really matter that I’m here? If something was to happen to me today, would it really make any difference? Would very many people even notice or care that I was gone?

If you’re feeling that way, I want you to listen again to some of these words from the book of Isaiah. We’re told these are the actual words of God. They’re not the words of Isaiah. They’re not Isaiah’s interpretation of what God is trying to say. These are the actual words of God. Listen to them again:
I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.Think about that. God knows your name. God calls you by name. You, and I, belong to God. We are God’s.

That’s incredible, you know. Think of who God is. This is the God that created the universe and everything in it. Yet that same God knows your name and my name. That same God claims possession of us. God says to you, and to me, "you are mine."

God goes on to explain what that means to us. God tells us that we, you and me, are under God’s protection. God says that no matter how bad things get, even when we get so overwhelmed with things that it feels like we’re drowning, God will still be there with us and will save us. God says that no matter how hard things get, even if it feels like we’re being overcome by a fire, God will still be there with us and will protect us.

God also explains why God does that. God says:
You are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give nations in exchange for you, and peoples in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
Think about that. You, and I, are precious to God. God honors us. God honors you, and God honors me.

Again, think about who God is. This is the almighty, everlasting God. This is the God who existed before the universe was created and will continue to be after the universe is gone. That same God honors us. God honors you, and God honors me.

Why does God do that? Because God loves us. God loves you, and God loves me. God loves you and me so much that God will give nations in exchange for any one of us.

It’s so incredible to think about. It’s so amazing to think about. And you know one of the most amazing things about this? It’s all present tense. In other words, God does not say "you used to be mine" or "you’re going to be mine." God says "you are mine." Just as you are, and just as I am. We don’t have to earn the right to be God’s. We just are, just the way we are.

In the same way, God does not say "you used to be precious and honored in my sight" or "you will be precious and honored in my sight someday, maybe, if you do the right things or live the right way." God says "you are precious and honored in my sight." God sees each of us, and of course God sees us for exactly who we are, the good and the bad. God sees us for exactly who we are, and God says that, just as we are, we are precious and honored in God’s sight.

I want you to think about that. I want you to feel it, to know it and remember it. I know life can be kind of hard in here sometimes. That’s not a criticism of anybody, but when you’re in here, I’m sure there are a lot of times when one day seems pretty much like another. I’m sure there are a lot of times when you’re reminded of all the things you used to be able to do but cannot do any more. That has to be hard sometimes. When you’re in that situation, it can be easy to feel like your best days are behind you and you’re not worth much any more.

It’s not true. God says you are precious. God honors you. God loves you. God does not honor you for who you used to be. God honors you for who you are. God did not used to consider you precious. God considers you precious now. God will not love you someday, after you go to heaven. God loves you now, today.

No matter how hard life gets, God promises not to let us overwhelm us. No matter how much pain we’re in, God promises to protect us. Because of that, we can do exactly what God tells us to do. We can not be afraid, because God is always with us.

Forgiveness and Lance Armstrong

Many of you probably know who Lance Armstrong is. He’s a bicycle racer who overcame cancer to win the most famous bicycle race in the world, the Tour de France, seven times, more times than anyone else ever has. He also founded the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help and support people who are suffering from cancer and their families.

Along the way, Armstrong was accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. He was tested many times, as are all bicycle racers, and nothing was ever found. Armstrong himself denied using anything. In fact, not only did he deny it, he denied it loudly and in no uncertain terms. He denied it to the extent that he sued some of the people who made the accusation, and even won some of the lawsuits.

Now, it turns out that Armstrong was lying, and the accusers were telling the truth. Lance Armstrong has admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career.

Reactions to his admissions have been varied. People who support Armstrong are willing to excuse his behavior. They say that he did nothing that other cyclists didn’t do. Besides, they say that anything bad he did is more than made up for by all the good he’s done for people through his foundation. Others say that cheating is cheating and lying is lying, and those things cannot be justified by other things that we do. Also, they point out that Armstrong sued people and took money from them when all along they were the ones telling the truth and he was the one who was lying.

I’m not going to tell you what to think, but I’d point out a couple of things. First, I’d point out that each of us is responsible for his or her own behavior. "Everybody else does it" is not an excuse that flew with Mom, and it’s not an excuse that flies with God, either. Nowhere in the Bible does God say "everybody else does it" is a justification for doing things we know are wrong. Similarly, "the end justifies the means" is not sanctioned in the Bible as an excuse for our behavior, either.

On the other hand, most of us have used those excuses at some point in our lives. Most of us have tried to justify our behavior by pointing to what others do. Most of us have tried to defend our actions by pointing to some good thing we did to justify it. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s something most of us have done. None of us is perfect. Each one of us is a mixture of good and bad. Each of us has done things we’re very proud of and things we’re really ashamed of. Each of us has tried to cover up the things we’re ashamed of, and when that didn’t work we’ve tried to justify them somehow.

That’s why we’re told not to judge others—because none of us is qualified to do it. That’s also why we all need God’s forgiveness. God does not judge us based on what everyone else does. God does not say that the good things we do can make up for the bad things. God looks at each one of us and sees the same thing: a sinner, someone who needs to go to God and honestly and sincerely ask for God’s forgiveness and God’s help in changing our lives.

If he hasn’t already, Lance Armstrong needs to ask for God’s forgiveness. So do you. And so do I. The good news is that when we do, God will give us that forgiveness. Then, we won’t need to make excuses any more. We still won’t be perfect, but we’ll be forgiven, and we’ll be given a chance to try again. We can start our race over and do it right this time, knowing that God will be with us every step of the way.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Against the Wind

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, January 13, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Mark 6:45-52.

Jesus’ walking on water is one of his most famous miracles. If you asked most people "name a miracle of Jesus", walking on water would be one of the three or four first things they’d come up with. Almost everybody, even people who don’t believe in Jesus, knows that the Bible says Jesus walked on water. It’s an image that makes a huge impression on us as human beings.

I wonder if Jesus looked at it the same way we do. I mean, it’s not a miracle that really helped anybody. No one was healed. No one was fed. I wonder if Jesus would be pleased that the image of him walking on water is something that’s so strong for us.

Only three of the four gospels mention this story. Luke does not. Of the three that do, only one of them, Matthew mentions one of the most famous parts of the story, the part where Peter tries to walk on the water, too, and starts to sink and has to be rescued by Jesus. That part does not show up in the other two accounts of this story, including the one we read today from Mark.

So let’s look at this miracle as Mark gives it to us. Jesus has just fed five thousand people. Then he puts the disciples in a boat and tells them to go on ahead of him while he goes up on a mountain to pray. Evening comes. The disciples had gotten to the middle of the lake when the wind comes up. It’s blowing in the opposite direction from where the disciples are trying to go.

This next part is interesting to me. Listen to this. We’re told that during the evening, Jesus saw the disciples straining at the oars, trying to go against the wind and not getting anyplace. It appears, though, that Jesus did nothing to help them. It was not until it was almost dawn that he started to walk across the lake. Even then, we’re told, he was about to just pass by them. It was not until the disciples saw him and thought he must be a ghost and were terrified that Jesus spoke to them, climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. And we’re told that, at this point, the disciples were completely amazed.

I wonder, when Jesus set out walking across the lake, did he know what was going to happen? Was it his plan all along to help the disciples? Or was he just walking across the lake because he didn’t have a boat and it was a lot easier than walking all the way around on the shore? In other words, did Jesus have a plan with this, or was Jesus just walking across the lake because he could?

I don’t know. On the one hand, with Jesus being the divine Son of God, you’d think he’d know what was going to happen. On the other hand, Jesus was also fully human. The passage does not read as if this was Jesus’ plan all along. It reads as if he was intending to just walk by the disciples when all of a sudden the disciples saw him and more-or-less forced his hand.

It’s one of the things we don’t really understand about Jesus. We say that Jesus was at once fully divine and fully human, but we don’t really know how that worked. It’s one of those things we say to try to explain the unexplainable.

The point of this sermon series, though, is not to examine obscure points of theology. The point of this sermon series is for us to see what lessons we can learn from the miracles of Jesus. So let’s look at the miracle of Jesus’ walking on water from that standpoint. What can we learn from this miracle?

Well, one of the things we learn is that Jesus has tremendous power. That’s something we learn from all of Jesus’ miracles, of course, but it’s not something to be glossed over, either. Look at the last sentence of our reading. It says the disciples "were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened."

It seems like that happens just about every time Jesus performs a miracle. No matter how many times the disciples saw Jesus work miracles, they were constantly amazed by them. You’d think after a while, it would get to be kind of routine, but it looks like it never did. Time after time, Jesus would work a miracle, and time after time the disciples would be amazed by it. No matter how many miracles Jesus performed, the disciples were always caught by surprise.

I think that’s true of us sometimes, too. It’s true of me, anyway. I’ll have times when I pray to God for something. It might be for God to help me with a sermon, or for God to give me more time to get things done, or whatever. And then, I find that what I prayed for actually happened. The sermon came together, or some extra time opened up, or something did not take as long as I thought it would. And each time, I’m caught by surprise a little bit. I go, wow, God actually did that. You’d think I’d eventually get used to that happening, but I never do.

And that brings me to the second thing I think we can learn from this. Remember, we’re told that Jesus saw the disciples straining at the oars, trying to row across the lake and not getting anywhere. We’re not told that Jesus used any sort of superhuman eyesight to see this, so my assumption is that he could actually see them from the shore. If so, then it stands to reason that, if Jesus could see the disciples, the disciples could also see Jesus.

At least, they could see him if they looked. The thing is, though, that it does not appear that any of them looked. They were straining against the wind, working as hard as they could, and getting nowhere. They were so intent on their job, they were trying so hard to get that boat across the lake, that it apparently never occurred to any of them to look up and see if Jesus might be around somewhere and be able to help.

I think that happens to us sometimes, too. Again, it happens to me. I get so wrapped up in what I’m doing, I get so involved in struggling against whatever it is I’m struggling against at the time, that I forget to look up. I forget to see if Jesus might be around somewhere and be able to help. It’s not that Jesus is not there. He is. He’s right there. He’s big as life. If only I’d look. But I don’t.

Jesus did not do anything to help the disciples until they saw he was there. The way it’s written, it looks like he was going to just walk on by them and go to the other side of the lake. It was only after they looked up and saw Jesus that Jesus stopped, climbed into the boat, and made the wind die down.

Now, I’m not saying that God will never help us until we ask. There have been many times in my life where I believe God stepped in to help even though I did not ask. I do think, though, that when we get so bound and determined to do things by ourselves that we don’t notice God’s presence, even when God is standing right there, God may let us flounder around on our own for a while.

You and I can get really stubborn sometimes. We can get really determined to do things on our own. We get so determined to do things on our own that we don’t see God. God is present, but we’re so focused on trying to do things ourselves that we don’t look up to see that God is right there, waiting for us to notice and ask for help.

And maybe that’s the main reason this miracle is in the Bible. Maybe it’s a reminder to all of us. When we’re having trouble, when it feels like we’re straining against the wind and getting nowhere, we need to stop what we’re doing and look up. When we do, the chances are we’ll see God there, just waiting for us to notice God’s presence, and waiting for us to ask for help.

We may not recognize God right away, just like the disciples did not recognize Jesus right away. God may look like a friend who comes to give us a helping hand or an encouraging word. God may look like a family member who came to support us when we needed support. God may even look like a card or an email that came at just the right time. God may even look like someone we don’t even know, but who gave us a smile when we really needed one.

We all have times when it feels like we’re straining against the wind and going nowhere. When we do, we need to look up. Because God will be there, and God will be ready to help.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sick Call

Do you have a to-do list? I do. Every Sunday afternoon, I sit down and put together all the things I want to do for the week, and the day I want to do them. I also put on the list all the events I plan to go to. I put down almost everything, big things and small things. In fact, I put down lots of small things, just to give myself the satisfaction of being able to cross a bunch of things off my list.

Last Sunday afternoon, around 4:30 or so, I put together this week’s to-do list. Then I went home, had supper with Wanda, and did the first thing on the list, which was to go to Onida for the CCYG singspiration service. I did that, had a wonderful time, came home, and went to bed feeling good. My to-do list was right on schedule.

Then, about 1:30 in the morning, I got the flu. That wasn’t on my to-do list at all. I was pretty much worthless on Monday and even worse Tuesday. Tuesday afternoon, Wanda insisted I go to the clinic, and they put me into the hospital overnight. I got out early Wednesday afternoon, and am feeling much better now.

So, as I was lying in the hospital, I thought to myself, what can I learn from this? Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that I think God deliberately gave me the flu. The flu is a virus, and we all get it sometimes no matter what precautions we take. Still, the book of Proverbs tells us that we should seek understanding in everything. So, here are some things I might be able to learn from this.

For one thing, I need to listen to Wanda more. She thought I should go to the clinic earlier than I did. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have needed to go to the hospital. I kept thinking it would get better on its own. Besides, I hadn’t spent a night in the hospital since I was born. I kind of hated to break my record. Still, I probably would’ve been better off if I’d listened to Wanda sooner.

For another thing, I’m not as strong as I like to think I am. When my dad had the flu, he put on his coveralls and went out to feed the cattle. I didn’t have the strength to check my email.

For one more thing, it shows that there is no such thing as an indispensable person. I’ve believed that for a long time, but sometimes I act like maybe I think I’m the exception to the rule. I suspect a lot of pastors tend to feel like that. It is a calling, after all, and when you feel like God is calling you to do something, it’s easy to start feeling like you’re the only person in the world who can do it.

It’s not true. It’s not true of me, and it’s not true of anyone. The world was around for a long time before any of us came along. The chances are it’ll be around long after any of us are gone. That’s true on the local level, too. I like to feel like I’m making a contribution, but the towns of Gettysburg, Onida, and Agar were around quite a while before I came here, and so were the United Methodist Churches in those towns. The chances are both the towns and the churches will be around quite a while after I’m gone, too.

We should not use that as an excuse. We still all need to do our best. But we should not try to do more than our best. Just by definition, it’s not possible. If we try to do more than we can, it will simply lead to frustration and feelings of inadequacy. That’s not good for ourselves or anyone else.

So, let’s go out, do the best we can, and then just relax. I may not be as strong as I think I am, but God is stronger than I can ever imagine. Everything on my to-do list may not get done this week, but everything on God’s will.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Strange Little Miracle

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 6, 2013.  The Bible verses used are John 2:1-12.

It’s a new year. With a new year, we’re starting a new sermon series called “It’s a Miracle.” We’re going to look at some of the miracles Jesus performed while he was on earth.

We’re not going to look at all of them, of course. Depending on how you count, the Bible records roughly forty miracles that Jesus performed. Obviously, we have no idea whether he may have performed others that are not recorded, but the Bible does tell us that Jesus did many things that are not recorded, so it’s certainly possible. That means there must be some reason that the ones we know about were put into the Bible. There must be something we’re supposed to learn from the miracles we know about, the ones that made it into the Bible.
It also seems likely that what we’re supposed to learn from these miracles goes beyond just Jesus exercising raw power. Jesus did not just perform miracles for no reason. I’ll bet there were times when the disciples wished he would. They may or may not have said so, but we know many of them were expecting Jesus to be in charge of an earthly kingdom. I’ll bet there were times when they wished Jesus would just zap some of those Pharisees who were causing them trouble. Then, too, there were those times when they were traveling a long distance, and it was hot, and they were tired. I wonder if they ever said, “Hey, Jesus, why do we have to walk to Jerusalem? Why don’t you just wave your hand or something and just make us appear there?” 

Jesus did not do that. Remember, that’s the sort of thing Satan wanted him to do when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, to use his power for his own purposes. Jesus was powerful, of course, and still is, but there’s more to the miracles than that.
We’re going to start this sermon series by looking at the first miracle of Jesus that’s recorded. In fact, we’re told is the first miracle Jesus performed. It’s the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.
We’re told that Mary, Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples were invited to this wedding. That raises a couple of questions right there. For one, what happened to Joseph? Why was he not invited? Was he dead by this time? Could he not get away from the carpenter’s shop? The Bible doesn’t say.
Also, were all the disciples invited? That seems kind of strange, that all of the disciples would have known the happy couple well enough to get invited to the wedding. It seems more likely that this was more of an open house type thing, where everyone around was welcome to come to celebrate.
At any rate, whoever was in charge goofed up, because they ran out of wine. Then, we’re told Jesus’ mother said to Jesus, ‘They have no more wine.’”
I wonder, how did Mary get involved in the problem? There’s nothing to indicate she was in charge of providing wine. We’re not told she had anything to do with organizing anything. Yet, not only does she get involved, she gets Jesus involved, too.
Notice, too, the faith Mary has that Jesus can and will do something about the problem. We don’t know what Mary thought Jesus would do. We don’t know that she expected him to work a miracle. For all we know, she might have thought he’d go try to get some more wine from somewhere else, from some friends or from a shop or something. Still, even though Jesus does not seem to want to do anything, Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. She seems confident that Jesus will take care of the situation somehow, in some way.
And, of course, Jesus does. He tells the servants to fill some stone jars with water and take them to the master of the banquet, and when the master tasted the water, it had turned into wine. In fact, it was better wine that what had been served before.
When you think about it, this is kind of a strange little miracle for Jesus to have performed. Nobody was raised from the dead. Nobody was even healed. No hungry people were fed. Very few people even knew what Jesus had done. The servants knew, of course. The disciples knew, because we’re told that they put their faith in Jesus. We don’t even know if Mary found out what had happened. Why did Jesus choose this for his first miracle?
Well, as I’ve said before, I don’t pretend to know Jesus’ mind. I can think of a few possible reasons, though.
For one thing, Jesus showed love for his earthly mother. Even though he appears to be reluctant to use his power in this situation, he clearly did not want to let Mary down. Once she put him on the spot, he preferred to go ahead and act rather than have Mary be disappointed.
For another thing, it would have been important for the disciples to know of Jesus’ power before anyone else did. They needed to know that Jesus truly was the Son of God. They needed to know that Jesus had power from God the Father. They needed to know it so that, when Jesus started his earthly ministry, they’d know what was going on and not be taken totally by surprise. They still were surprised, of course. They seem to have been surprised every time Jesus did anything. But at least they had some kind of clue.
I think there was something else going on here, though, and I think it’s the most important thing about this miracle. Again, this was no big, society-changing event. It was just a small, little, intimate miracle. No one’s life was saved. No one was in healed, or if they were it’s not mentioned. No sinners repented and were saved. No advice was given on how we should live our lives. It was just a celebration of a wedding, something that has happened billions of times in the history of the world, and had already happened many, many times when Jesus performed this miracle. It was a big event for the two people involved, but for the rest of the world, it was no big deal at all.
And maybe that’s the point. Sometimes, we get the idea that God is only the God of the big picture. We think that, if God gets involved in every day life at all, it’s only in the big, world-changing events—wars, natural disasters, that sort of thing. We think that God would not care about the mundane, everyday things that we go through in our lives.
It’s not true. That’s not a Biblical idea. The Bible tells us that God knows everything about us. God knows when we get up and when we go to bed. God knows every word we say before we say it. God knows every thought we think. God knows the number of hairs on our heads. And it’s not just us. God knows everything that’s going on in creation. God notices when a sparrow dies. God sees it all, and God knows about it all.
But more importantly, God cares about it. God cares about the things that happen to us in our everyday lives. God is there in those times. God is there when we get up and when we go to bed. God is there when we’re happy and when we’re sad. God is there when things go right and when things go wrong. And God wants to help, if we just open ourselves up to that help.
As far as we can tell, no one’s life changed as a result of this miracle that Jesus did. The disciples came to believe, but surely there were lots of other ways Jesus could’ve convinced the disciples of who he was. The husband and wife, who are not named at all in the story, were already married when Jesus did this miracle—they would’ve been just as married whether Jesus acted or not. All that happened here was that whoever was in charge of the banquet was saved from a little embarrassment, and some people’s lives were made a little happier by being able to celebrate a little more.
I think maybe that’s the lesson of this miracle. Maybe that’s why we’re told about it in the Bible. It shows that God is not just God of the big picture. God is not just involved in the big, world-changing events. God is there in the moments of each of our lives, the big ones and the small ones. And God wants to help make those moments better.
Remember, one thing, though. At first Jesus showed no inclination to do anything. It was only after Mary brought the situation to Jesus’ attention that Jesus acted.
Now, that does not mean Jesus was not aware of what was going on. What it means, though, is that Mary showed her faith. When she brought the situation to Jesus’ attention she expected something to happen. She may not have known what was going to happen, but she was confident something would. She trusted that, once she made Jesus aware of the situation, Jesus would not let her down.
The longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve come to realize that almost everyone has something serious going on in his or her life. If it’s not something that involves you personally, it involves someone you care a lot about. I may or may not know what it is for you, but I know there’s something.
Whatever you’re going through, know that God knows about it. Don’t just know that God knows about it, know that God cares about it. And don’t just know that God cares about it, know that God will do something about it, if we do two things: if we ask God to do something about it, and if we trust that after we ask, God will, in fact, do something about it.
We’re not allowed to tell God what to do. Mary did not tell Jesus what to do. She just trusted that Jesus would do something, and was confident that, whatever Jesus did, it would be the right thing.
I think that’s the lesson for us. Whatever we’re going through, tell God about the situation. Then, trust that God will do something. Don’t tell God what to do. Just trust that God will do something. Then be confident that, whatever God does, it will be the right thing to do.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Coming to Grips with Tragedy

As many of you know by now, the town of Onida suffered a tragic loss on New Year’s Day. A young man, only twenty-years old, died of a self-inflicted gunshot.

It’s a loss for the entire community, of course, but especially for the family. I cannot even begin to understand how they might be feeling right now. I doubt if anyone can, unless you’ve experienced such a thing yourself. It’s something that’s really unimaginable.

There are a lot of things about this situation I don’t know. I am going to tell you a few things I do know, though.

For one thing, I know that God does not hold the way this young man’s life ended against him. You may have heard that some people believe God cannot forgive a suicide. I don’t believe that for a minute. In the first place, God can forgive anything. It is not for us to put limits on God’s ability to forgive. In the second place, God understands us better than we understand ourselves. God knows what this young man was going through, and God knows what drove him to do what he did. God knows, and God understands, and God is not going to condemn him for it.

God does not approve of suicide, of course, but I believe God’s reaction is one of sadness rather than anger. God had a plan for this young man’s life, just as God has a plan for all of our lives. God did not want this young man to end his life prematurely, before he had done all that God had planned for him. God is sad that it happened, but God is not angry at him for it.

God is not angry at anyone else for it, either. The natural thing, especially for his family and friends, is to blame yourself. You think, "Why did we not see this coming? Why did we not do something about it? Maybe if we’d done this or done that, or said this or said that, this would not have happened?"

The reason people did not see it coming is that we are all imperfect human beings. Perhaps there are things that some people see now, in retrospect, were clues that this might happen, I don’t know. It’s always easier to see things after the fact. That does not mean that you should have seen them coming in advance, or even that you could have. Most of us, no matter how depressed or upset someone seems, do not even think about them taking their life. It’s not something that comes to our minds. The chances are, there was no reason before the fact that anyone would have thought this would happen. There is no reason for anyone to blame themselves for it.

A lot of people, in thinking about this situation, are probably asking, "Why?" As we said in church last week, "why" is a question that comes up a lot in the Bible. Job asked it repeatedly. So did the author of Ecclesiastes. Even Jesus asked it: "My God, why have you forsaken me?" The problem is that, even though lots of people in the Bible ask "why", they rarely get their question answered.

So, while we will naturally ask why, as a community we also need to ask "What can we do to help?" What can we do to support this family at such a tragic time? This is why God put us into communities: so we can help each other. We need to pray, of course, but we also need to come together around this family. We need to be there for them. We need to give them all the love and support we can. We need to let them know that, as awful as this is, they do not have to go through it alone. They have lots of people who care about them and who want to help them through this time.

And we need to give them that love and support for a long time. We need to be there for them for a long time. This is not something from which it’s possible to heal in a few days, or a few weeks, or a few months. This is something that will affect them the rest of their lives. It’s something they will never forget. We need to let them know we have not forgotten, either. We need to be there for them next week, and next month, and this summer, and on and on and on.

We may never understand things like this, but we know that God is there in them. God cries with us, and God mourns with us. God is still there for us, and God still loves us. God wants us to be there for each other and to love each other, too. Let’s be there for this family in the days and weeks and months ahead.