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Sunday, March 31, 2013


This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013.  The scriptures used are Luke 24:1-12; John 20:19-23; and 1 Corinthians 15:12-26.

 Today is the day we celebrate Easter. So, as we finish our sermon series on spiritual exercises, we're going to talk about the spiritual exercise of celebration.

Now, granted, on that first Easter Sunday they really did not celebrate. In fact, they did not know what to do. They knew Jesus was no longer in the tomb. The women had been told that he'd been raised from the dead. But most people, even the disciples, did not believe it. We're told that the women's words “seemed to them like nonsense”, and you can understand why. If you did not know the story, it would seem like nonsense that Jesus, who they knew had been killed, had been raised from the dead.

Peter went and checked things out for himself. He saw the grave cloths sitting there, but he did not know what to make of it. Neither did anyone else. If we were going to choose one word to describe the emotions of that first Easter Sunday, it would probably be confusion, not celebration. 

Eventually, though, Jesus appeared to them, and the confusion went away. We're told the disciples were “overjoyed when they saw the Lord”. Even “overjoyed” probably understates it. They were thrilled, happy, amazed, all sorts of things. That's when the celebration started.

And we should still be celebrating. Because as Paul says, Jesus Christ being raised from the dead is really the defining event of our faith. It's the proof that Jesus Christ really was the Son of God. After all, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, if he died and stayed dead and that was it, then Jesus was just a human being. Maybe he was a good human being, maybe he was a wise human being, but still, he was just a human being. And while we may like a human being, and we may respect a human being, we're not supposed to worship a human being. We're supposed to worship God.

The way we know that Jesus Christ was and is the Son of God is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. The way we know that our sins can be forgiven is that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. The way we know that eternal life is available to all of us through our faith in Jesus Christ is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. That's not just something to celebrate today, on Easter Sunday. It's something to celebrate every day of our lives.

But as Christians, that's not the only thing we should celebrate. After all, celebration is a spiritual exercise. And as we've said throughout this sermon series, the reason we call them spiritual exercises is that we have to do them regularly and consistently, just like physical exercises, if they're going to do us any good. But there's one more thing about exercises, whether physical exercises or spiritual exercises, that we've not talked about yet, and it's something that comes into play here. In order to do them regularly and consistently, we need to do them intentionally.

That's important for all of our spiritual exercises, but I think it's most important for the exercise of celebration. The thing is that life does a lot of things to us. We get busy. We get distracted. Sometimes bad things happen to us, and we don't feel much like celebrating. Sometimes nothing bad in particular has happened, but we're just kind of depressed and down. We don't feel much like celebrating then, either. And then we turn on the news, and we hear about all the bad things that are happening in the world, and we start to think that maybe there's nothing in the world that's worth celebrating.

That's why celebration is a spiritual exercise. That's why we need to be intentional about it. God gives us all kinds of things to celebrate, but a lot of times we don't even notice them. We'll only celebrate them if we're looking for them.

God gives us things we can celebrate every day. We all woke up this morning, right? That's one thing to celebrate right there. Most of us had the option of eating something, if we wanted to. That's something to celebrate. Most of us had the ability to take a shower this morning. Most of us did not have to go outside to go to the bathroom. Those are all things to celebrate. There are people who cannot count on being able to do those things.

Did you notice the sunset last night? Did you see how beautiful it was? How about the sunrise this morning? Those are things to celebrate. Do you look at all the birds and animals that we have around here? That's something to celebrate. Every time we see God's creation, we see something to celebrate, if we just look for it.

Did you notice that you did not have to fight a traffic jam on your way here this morning? That's something to celebrate. Did you notice that you did not have to lock your car when you left it this morning? And you probably did not lock your house, either? That's something to celebrate. There are all kinds of things to celebrate about where we live, if we just look for them.

Do you have somebody important in your life? Maybe it's a spouse, maybe it's kids, maybe it's relatives, maybe it's good friends, but do you have somebody? That's something to celebrate. If you needed someone, do you have someone you could call? If so, that's something to celebrate. And you do, because each person here has this church and its pastor and all the people in it if you need someone.

Did you notice the number of kids up here for the children's sermon this morning? And did you notice that they're pretty awesome kids? That's something to celebrate. Did you notice that we have nine kids from our parish in confirmation class this year, and that they're pretty awesome kids, too? That's something to celebrate.

I could go on and on, obviously. But I hope this gets us thinking. I hope it helps us notice all the good, wonderful, incredible things that there are in the world. I hope it helps us decide that we're going to make celebration a spiritual exercise in our lives, and that we're going to practice it regularly.

God has given us so much. No, our lives are not perfect. I know that. I know there are lots of people here who have serious stuff going on in their lives. In fact, pretty much everyone here has some serious stuff going on in their lives. I know that. In some cases, I may know what it is, and in some cases I may not. If you want me to know, I'll be happy to listen, but if you don't, I respect your privacy. But I know that pretty much everyone here has some serious stuff going on in their lives. If it's not you personally, it's somebody you know, somebody you care about. I'm not trying to sugarcoat things or pretend life is something that it's not.

But no matter what's going on in our lives, there are still things we can celebrate. Every day we get on this earth is a new day. Every day we get on this earth is another chance, a new chance to finally get it right. And when we no longer get days on this earth, that's still a reason to celebrate, because if we've accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior we'll go to heaven and spend eternity in the presence of God.

And in fact, that's the greatest reason to celebrate there is. Because it's such an incredible gift that God gives to us. We talked last week, on Palm Sunday, about how Jesus would not have had to go through with his death, that he could've stopped it at any moment. We talked on Maundy Thursday about how the fact that Jesus did go through with it was an act of love, love for each one of us. We talked on Good Friday about how this act of love means that we don't worship a warrior God or an angry God, we worship a loving God. What an amazing reason to celebrate!

And it's all validated by Easter Sunday. This is the ultimate proof. A human being would not have been raised from the dead. He would've stayed dead. But Jesus did not stay dead. They opened the tomb, and he was not there. He had said he would be raised from the dead, and he was.

The disciples were confused at first. Sometimes we get confused, too. Sometimes our faith starts to feel like nonsense to us, just like it felt to the disciples did at first. Sometimes we we wonder what it all means, just like Peter did at first. It seems too good to be true, and so we wonder if it really is.

That's why we handed out bracelets today. When those times come when our faith becomes a struggle, let's take a look at them. When times come that we have doubts, when we wonder if God hears our prayers, let's take a look at them. And when times come when we cannot find a reason to celebrate, let's take a look at them then, too.

Look at the message it has there. It's a simple message. Two words. “He Lives”. Two words that mean everything. If you're looking for a reason to celebrate, there it is. “He Lives”! That's the greatest reason to celebrate there could ever be.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

What's Good About It?

This is the message from the Good Friday service in Gettysburg March 29, 2013.  The Bible verses are Mark 15:1-41.

 This is Good Friday. This is the day we celebrate the death of Jesus.

Think about that. This is the day we celebrate the death of Jesus. That's quite a thing for Christians to celebrate. In fact, we even call it “Good” Friday, as if it was a good thing that happened on this day.

What's good about it? The truth is this was a terrible thing. Think about it. This was Jesus Christ. This was the Son of God, come to earth. And what did we do? We killed him.

Now, some people might say “Wait a minute, here. I did not kill him. I was not even around then. It was not my fault that Jesus was killed.”

Well, okay. None of us was around two thousand years ago, obviously. If you want to think you'd have acted differently from the way people acted at that time, I cannot prove that you're wrong. But I doubt it.

The people who lived in Jesus' day were not terrible, evil people. They were just people. They were people who worked hard, who got married, who had kids, who ate and drank and did all the things people do. A lot of them went to the synagogue regularly and prayed and heard the scriptures read and worshiped God. They were not bad people. They were just people, living their lives as best they could.

Because they did all the things people do, most of them probably did not know a whole lot about this Jesus person. They may have heard stories. They may have heard about how he healed people, how he fed people. That story about Jesus raising someone from the dead probably got spread pretty widely, although a lot of people probably thought it was exaggerated. You know how people are.

Probably people heard about the big procession when Jesus came to town on Sunday, too. Some of them might even have gotten caught up in all the hoopla and taken part in it. But then, Jesus got arrested. And most people probably assumed he deserved to be. I mean, the average person would not have known all the political maneuvering that was going on, all the reasons the Pharisees wanted Jesus out of the way. 

Most people did not keep up with politics much, just a lot of people today don't really keep up with it. Again, they were too busy just living their lives. So, when the Romans arrested Jesus, and the Pharisees approved, most people figured, well, those are the people who should know. If they say Jesus is a bad guy, then he probably is.

And then too, you know, it's pretty easy for us to want to go along with the crowd. It's also pretty easy for us to jump on a bandwagon. If most people say something is so, we figure well, it probably is. It takes a lot of self-confidence and a lot of courage to stand up to a crowd and say no, what you're doing is not right. Most of us don't do it. Most of the people in Jesus' day don't do it, either.

I don't say this to be critical of the people back then. I also don't say it to be critical of people today. I'm just saying that the chances are that, if you and I had been around two thousand years ago, we'd have reacted the same way the people back then did. We'd have gone along with the crowd. We'd have assumed the Romans and the Pharisees knew what they were talking about. And we'd have wanted Jesus crucified, too.

It's a terrible thing. And yet, in the Christian church, we call it good. And we celebrate it.

Christians did not think it was good at the time. No Christians were celebrating when Jesus was killed. The Christians, such as they were, had scattered. They were scared to death. They thought the Romans would come and arrest them, just like they'd arrested Jesus. They were afraid they'd be killed, too. So they took off. The only one we read about in Mark, after Jesus' arrest, is Peter, who kind of hung around but denied that he knew Jesus at all. The Pharisees, now—they might have celebrated. In fact, they probably did. They thought they'd gotten rid of a terrible nuisance. They thought they'd gotten rid of a threat. They may have been celebrating. But they would've been the only ones.

Jesus was certainly not celebrating. Crucifixion was a very painful thing. But you know, as painful as the crucifixion was, I suspect the mockery was even worse.

They put a royal robe on him and put a crown of thorns on his head. They sarcastically called him “the king of the Jews.” They beat him. They spit on him. While he was on the cross, they said, “You saved all those other people. Why don't you save yourself? Come on. Come down from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

And the reason that hurt so much was that the things they were saying were true. He actually was the king. He could have saved himself. He could have come down from the cross. And if he had, people would have come to believe.

But Jesus knew that doing it that way was not right. If he miraculously came down from the cross, if he proclaimed himself king, he would not have done what he came here to do. Instead, he'd have accepted an earthly kingdom. He would not have been able to help it. If the people had seen him miraculously come down from the cross, they would've insisted that Jesus become their king and that he lead a rebellion against the Romans.

It had to be so tempting to do that. But Jesus did not do it. Jesus went through the pain. He went through the beatings. He went through the mockery. And he died.

And we celebrate that. Because what we celebrate is not what the humans did. What we celebrate is what Jesus did.

Jesus stayed faithful to God the Father. He stayed faithful all the way. He stayed faithful through the pain. He stayed faithful through the beatings. He stayed faithful through the mockery. And he stayed faithful even to his death.

And that's what's “good” about Good Friday. What the humans did was terrible. But what Jesus did was good. In fact, “good” really does not cover it. We probably should call it “Great Friday” or “Awesome Friday” or “Incredible Friday.” What Jesus was able to do was so great, so awesome, so incredible, that it's worth celebrating.

And of course, because of what Jesus did, people still came to believe. The centurion watched Jesus die and said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” There was a group of women standing there who came to believe, too. And of course, later on, when Jesus was resurrected, many others came to believe as well. And we still do.

And the thing is, they and we come to believe even more than if Jesus had miraculously come down from the cross. If he'd come down from the cross, people would've believed in Jesus as the king, but they'd have believed in him as a warrior king, as a king of power. They'd have believed in a king who had come to establish an earthly kingdom right then. Instead, we're able to believe in something better. We're able to believe in a servant king, in a loving king. We're able to believe in a Savior King. And that's something we can and should celebrate.

So, when we hear the phrase “Good Friday”, let's remember what's good about it. The “good” in Good Friday has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with Jesus. Jesus is so good that he could stay faithful through pain and beatings so he could save us. Jesus is so good that he could stay faithful through mockery and even death so that we could come to believe and understand that he truly was the Son of God. Jesus is so good that not only did he stay faithful, he forgives us and offers us the chance for eternal life.

That's what's good. That's what's awesome. That's what's incredible. That even though we killed the Son of God, we are still offered forgiveness and eternal life. That's why this day truly is a Good Friday.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Dirty Jobs

This is the message at the Maundy Thursday service in Gettysburg.  The Bible verses used are John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

Imagine you're one of the disciples. You're eating the Passover meal. As far as we can tell, it was just Jesus and the twelve there. It's possible that there were others—the Bible does not specifically say—but if there were, they are not mentioned. So it looks like it's just the twelve of you and Jesus, sharing the Passover the way religious Jews did.

In the middle of the meal, Jesus suddenly gets up. He takes off his outer clothes. He wraps a towel around himself. You think, “What's Jesus doing? What's he up to?” You know better than to say anything, though. You've seen Jesus do strange things before, and he always does it to make some kind of a point. You've seen people question him before, too. In fact, you've done it yourself. And any time anyone does, they always end up looking stupid. You don't want to look stupid, so you sit there, watching Jesus, hoping you'll figure out what's going on.

Jesus takes some water. He pours it into a basin. Then, he starts going around and washing the disciples' feet. The dirty, smelly feet that have been walking in the dirt and the mud and whatever else was on the ground over the last few days. Jesus is washing those feet. It's about the dirtiest job a person could have.

You think, “I'm sure glad he did not start with me.” You watch the reactions of the others as Jesus washes their feet. You can see they're kind of uncomfortable. They don't really think this is right, that Jesus should be washing their feet. But, like you, they're afraid to say anything. So, they sit there and let Jesus wash their feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.

Jesus is getting closer. You wonder what you should do. Should you say something? Should you do something? But what should you say? What should you do? Nothing comes to mind, nothing that seems like a good idea, anyway. Jesus is almost there. It's just Peter left, and then you.

And Peter says something. Well, of course he does. If anyone was going to say anything, it'd be Peter. I mean, Peter's a good guy and everything. There's nobody more dedicated to Jesus than Peter. But if there's one thing about Peter it's that he never knows when to keep his mouth shut. Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

And you think, well, duh, what do you think is going on here? Jesus does not say that, though. Jesus is nice about it. He tells Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

And you think, “Good. I'm not supposed to understand it right now.” You relax a little. Peter won't leave it alone, though. Peter tells Jesus no. Can you believe that? Peter actually tells Jesus no. He tells Jesus he's not going to let Jesus wash his feet.

It does not work, though. Telling Jesus “no” never seems to work. Jesus says to Peter, “unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

You'd think that'd put Peter in his place, but not Peter. He tells Jesus, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus just kind of smiles and tells him no, all he needs to do is wash his feet. Then he comes to you. You sit there, allowing the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God, to wash your feet. You feel, well, strange. You feel all kinds of things. You feel unworthy. In another way, you feel honored. Most of all, though, you're still confused as to why Jesus is doing this. There's obviously a reason. It's obviously an important reason. But what is it?

Jesus finishes up. He puts his clothes back on. He asks, “Do you understand what I have done for you?”

Well, of course, nobody does. But no one says anything. Even Peter stays quiet for a change.

Jesus has some more to say, though. He says, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

You start to realize what this was all about. Not totally—you never quite totally get what Jesus is talking about—but some. It's about service. We're supposed to serve other people. We're supposed to do the dirty jobs, the stuff that the so-called “good” people are too good to do.

Well, that's not the best news you ever heard. You'd really kind of been hoping that Jesus was going to establish a kingdom on earth. You'd been hoping you'd get one of the plum jobs when he did. Now, it sounds like the best you can hope for is chief foot-washer. You've got to do this dirty, smelly, unpleasant job that nobody else wants to do.

It does not make a lot of sense. Still, Jesus said it. So, you figure, I guess I'll have to do it. I don't understand it, and I don't like it much, but if Jesus says to do it, I guess I will.

You finish the Passover meal. Jesus starts talking again. He says he's leaving, and you cannot go with him. You have no idea what that means. But then he says, “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Now it makes sense. When Jesus washed your feet, when Jesus washed those dirty, smelly, ugly feet, he was saying, “I love you.” And you feel a love and a gratitude and a closeness to God that you've never felt before.

That's what love is, really. Jesus would not have had to wash the disciples' feet. No one was expecting him to. No one thought he should. That's what made it an act of love. Love is when we do things for people that we don't have to do, that we're not expected to do. Love is when we do things for people not because we think we should do them, but just because we want to.

If there's one message, more than any other, than comes from the story of Jesus' life and death, it's that God loves us. God the Father would not have had to send Jesus, God the Son, to the earth as a human being. Jesus would not have had to come as an ordinary person, rather than as a King or a Pharisee. Jesus would not have had to teach us. Jesus certainly would not have had to die for us. And Jesus would not have had to conquer death and offer eternal life with God to us.

God was not under any obligation to do any of that. People were not expecting God to do it. God did it as an act of love.

And that's what we, as believers in Jesus Christ, are asked to do, too. When Jesus gave us that new command to love each other, that's what he meant. The religious leaders of Jesus' time, the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Scribes and all those people, they thought the way to live was by following the rules. They thought the way to live was to fulfill your obligations and your duties and to do the things you're supposed to do.

That's not love. Now, don't get me wrong. Fulfilling our obligations and our duties and doing the things we're supposed to do is important. Jesus never said not to do that. What Jesus said is that it's not enough. If we really mean it when we say we follow Jesus, then we'll do what Jesus did. We'll go beyond the things we have to do, the things we're expected to do, the things we should do. We'll do more. And we'll do it because we want to. We'll do it because we love Jesus, and we want to show that love by loving the people Jesus loved and living the way Jesus lived.

That means, sometimes, doing the dirty jobs. That means, sometimes, doing things that “good” people are too good to do. That means, sometimes, doing the dirty, smelly, unpleasant jobs that nobody else wants to do.

But if we love Jesus, those jobs won't seem like a punishment. They won't seem like a chore. If we love Jesus, we'll do those jobs willingly, out of love for others.

There will be times when people don't understand what we're doing. There will be times when people think what we're doing is really strange. Sometimes they'll feel honored by what we're doing. Sometimes they'll feel unworthy. Sometimes they'll be confused. It's okay.

Eventually, they'll realize what we're doing. Maybe not all of them, but some of them. They'll realize that we're saying “I love you”. And they'll feel a love and a gratitude and a closeness to God they've never felt before.

And you know what? So will we.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What a Load

This is the message given in the Wednesday Lent service in Gettysburg on March 27, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 11:25-30.

In these Wednesday services, we've been talking about the things we need to give up, not just for Lent but for all of our lives. We've talked about giving up control of our lives, giving up expectations about our lives, giving up feelings of superiority over others, and giving up our enemies by loving them. Last week, we talked about giving up our lives, if necessary, for the sake of Jesus.

Some of you may be thinking, “What's left?” I mean, once we talk about giving up our lives, there's not a whole lot more we can give up. What more is there to talk about?

The scripture for tonight may have given us a clue. When we talked about each one of these things, we talked about how hard they are to give up. A lot of times they go against what we might call our human nature. If we really try to give them up, the way Jesus tells us to, it feels like a pretty heavy burden. Yet, Jesus tells us that he does not give us heavy burdens. Jesus says his burden is light. How can that be?

I think the answer to this is in the one aspect of this sermon series that we've not talked about yet. We've talked about what we need to do, but we've not talked about the most important thing. We've not talked about why.

That's really the big question. That's the question whenever we're asked to do something we don't want to do, right? I mean, when you ask little kids to do something they don't want to do, what do they say? “Why?”

As we get older we never stop asking that question. And “because I said so” does not satisfy us. When we're little kids we may have to accept it, because we don't have the power to do anything about it, but we still don't like it. Sometimes when we're adults we have to accept it, too, for that same reason. The boss may tell us to do something because they said so, and there's nothing we can do about it. But we don't like it. We never like it. We resent it. And we only do it because we have to.

When it comes to these things we've talked about, though, the things God tells us to give up, we don't have to. We can choose not to give them up if we want to. And if we don't know why we're supposed to give them up, we probably won't. Saying “because God said so” does not cut the mustard. We want to know why.

The good news is that, when it comes to things God asks us to give up, we don't have to settle for “because I said so”. There is a reason why. The better news is that there's a really good reason why. The reason is because God loves us.

God loves us so much that God wants to make our lives easier. So, God gives us some help. God tells us some things we can do that will make our lives easier. That's why God tells us to do these things. God knows our lives will be easier, things will go better for us, and we'll be happier if we do the things God tells us to do.

It seems like it's hard to give control of our lives to God, but think of how much easier it would make our lives if we did. Think of all the things we're worrying about now that we would not have to worry about if we gave God control of our lives. Think of all the concerns we have about our future that we would not have if we gave God control of our lives. Think of all the regrets we have about the past that we would not have if we gave God control of our lives.

That'd really lighten our load, right? That would feel like an incredible burden lifted off our shoulders. All we'd have to do is do the best we can in the situation we're in now. We could trust that, when it's time for our situation to change, God will lead us to that change and guide us through that change. Think of how much easier life would be if we could do that.

It's the same thing if we could give up our expectations about how our life is supposed to go. Think of all the pressure that would take off of us. Think of how much easier it would be to accept things that don't go the way we want them to go. Think of how much easier it would be to deal with all the things we have to deal with in life if we just gave up our expectations of how things should go and trusted God to make things go the way they're supposed to go, even if that's not what we might've wanted.

We'd be a lot happier if we gave up feelings of superiority, too. Think of all the arguments we'd avoid. If we assume that other people are at least equal to ourselves, then we cannot just dismiss what those people say. We cannot just dismiss what those people want. If we consider other people to be at least equal to us, then we have to consider their needs and their opinions to be at least equal to ours, too. Now, that's not to say we don't have a right to our opinions, too. Giving up feelings of superiority does not mean we have to always give in. But it will make for a civil conversation. It will mean that we'll talk to each other instead of at each other. It will mean that, even if we disagree, we can stay friends rather than calling each other names.

And if, despite our best efforts, someone does not want to stay friends with us, that's their decision, not ours.  That's where giving up our enemies comes into it. Jesus had a lot of people who did not like him, but he did not have any enemies. They may have considered him their enemy, but he did not consider them his enemies.  Jesus did not even consider the people who killed him to be his enemies. He asked God to forgive them.

What Jesus understood is that he was only responsible for what he did. He was not responsible for how other people responded to him. Jesus was called to be faithful to God. Jesus was called to say the things God wanted him to say, do the things God wanted him to do, and live the way God wanted him to live. He could not make people like it or accept it, nor could he make people like him or accept him.

And that's why we're better off to give up our enemies. Again, it lightens our load. It takes the pressure off. 

When we give up our enemies, what we're doing is giving up taking responsibility for things we cannot control. If we know we are saying the words God wants us to say, and doing the things God wants us to do, and loving others the way God wants us to love them, then we know it's all good. We're covered. If others choose not to like us because of that, it's okay. We cannot control that, and we don't need to worry about it.  All we need to be concerned about is the things we do, the things we say, and the way we live. If we're doing those things right, then we can trust God to take care of the rest.

That's how Jesus lived. It's how Jesus died. And it's how Jesus was brought back from the dead. Jesus stayed faithful to God and trusted God, no matter what.

That's the key to it: trusting God. If we truly trust God, these things God asks us to give up are not hard. It's not hard to give God control of our lives if we trust God to take care of us. It's not hard to give up our expectations for our lives if we trust that God's plans are better than ours. It's not hard to give up our feelings of superiority if we trust that all people are God's children. It's not hard to give up our enemies if we trust that God will make things go the way we're supposed to go. It's not even hard to give up our lives if we trust that God loves us and that God is always there for us, no matter what.

God does not ask us to give these things up because they're hard. God does not tell us to give up these things to give us heavy burdens. It's the exact opposite. When God asks us to give these things up, what God is really asking us to do is trust God and accept God's love. When we trust God, we take the pressure off ourselves. When the pressure comes off of us, it takes away our heavy burdens. When we stop worrying and trust God, it's like a huge weight comes off our shoulders. Our load really does become easy. Our burden really does become light.

So, when our lives seem hard, when it feels like we're carrying heavy burdens, let's take the pressure off ourselves. Let's give up that big load we're carrying. Let's trust God. It'll make our lives a lot easier.

Poetry Time!

Today we are pleased to introduce a special guest blogger, my wife, Wanda.


The Ten Commandments are the seed
Disiples can lead!
Food for the soul
Inspiration on a roll
Speaking to you
Verses can do
Faith is the key
Love, can you believe?
Steering you in the direction
To resurrection
Only God can explain
Unanswered questions in vian
Heaven, if you please!
Are you willing to cease?
The road can be rough!
Unless you think of pleasant stuff
A message of meaning!
If you're day-dreaming
In search of the way
What can I say?
It's God's will
Can we fulfill?
Life's journey
To eternity
With faith, hope, and love
And all of the above
“Good will to men”
Peace, joy, and happiness. Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Crunch Time

The message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 24, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Luke 19:28-40.

Today we continue our sermon series on spiritual exercises. We're going to look at the spiritual exercise of submission.

And some of you are already thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. This is Palm Sunday. This one of the big days of the church. We cannot just go on with our sermon series as if nothing special was going on. We need to wave the palm branches. We need to celebrate Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Palm Sunday's not about submission. Palm Sunday's about celebration!”

Well, yes and no. If we look at it from the standpoint of the crowds lining the road, that first Palm Sunday certainly was a celebration. They were cheering, they were having a good old time. If they'd had those big foam fingers back then, they'd have been waving them, yelling that Jesus is number one. The people certainly were celebrating the coming of Jesus into Jerusalem.

From Jesus' standpoint, though, there was really nothing to celebrate. Jesus knew all this cheering, all this praise he was getting, was all meaningless. These people were just there for the show. Oh, some of them might have thought they were sincere. Some of them might have thought they believed. But Jesus knew that when crunch time came, they'd all leave him. He knew there was no one there, not even his closest friends, the disciples, who were going to be with him at the end. None of them would be there for him when he was arrested, and when he was tortured, and when he was killed.

How do you suppose it made Jesus feel? To see all these people cheering him on, and to know none of it meant anything? It'd make me pretty mad. I'd want to stand up and shout, “You jerks! You hypocrites! You don't mean any of this! You could not care less about me. All you want me for is what you can get from me. You're going to be gone in a few days anyway, so just get out of here now. Go away and leave me alone!”

Well, Jesus did not say that, of course. In fact, Jesus says it had to be that way. When the Pharisees told him to get the people to quiet down, he said that if those people were not cheering for him, the rocks themselves would cry out.

What Jesus realized was that everything was happening as it had to happen. The cheers on Sunday, his arrest on Thursday, his death on Friday, those were all things that had to happen on the way to his resurrection on Sunday.

Except, of course, that they did not. Things did not have to happen that way. Jesus had the ability to make things happen differently. He could have stopped things at any point. He could have refused to go to Jerusalem at all. He could have stopped Judas from betraying him. He could have fought when the soldiers came to arrest him. He could have started a battle, a revolution, the way lots of people wanted him to.

That's why the story of Palm Sunday is a story of submission. Jesus knew everything that was going to happen over the next week. He could've stopped it at any moment. He could've made things go differently. But he knew, if he made any of it go differently, he would not be doing God's will. He knew that the whole point of his coming to earth was to teach us, then to die for our sins, and then be resurrected, overcoming death itself. So he went through with it. He went through the false praise of Sunday, the betrayal of Thursday, and the death of Friday, because it was the only way to get to the resurrection of Sunday, a resurrection that does not just apply to Jesus, but applies to all of us.

Jesus knew what God's will was. But I wonder if he knew why. I mean, he knew the result of it would be our salvation. But did he know why our salvation had to come that way? Did Jesus know why people could not be saved some other way, some way that did not require him to suffer and die?

Some of you might say, “Well, of course he knew. Jesus was the divine Son. Jesus was God and is God: God the Son.” Well, maybe. Jesus was fully divine, I'm not questioning that. But he as fully human, too. And after all, he did pray to God that, if there was some other way for salvation to come to people, then please, God, use that other way. That makes me think he was at least hoping, even at that late time, that there might still be some other way. But, ultimately, he did what he was supposed to do. Jesus followed God's will, all the way to the cross.

Submitting to God's will is sometimes not easy. It was not easy for Jesus. And it's not easy for us, either.

Now, the chances are that you and I will not be asked to do anything like Jesus did. It's possible. There are people in this world who are being arrested because of their faith. There are people in this world who are dying because of their faith. There's no guarantee that you and I won't be asked to do that, too.

It's not something that we think about much, though. In fact, I'm guessing that a lot of us, as we go through our lives, don't think very often about the whole idea of submitting to God's will. Now, don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that anyone here is not a Christian. I'm not saying that anyone here does not have faith in Jesus. And I'm certainly not pointing a finger at anyone else that I'm not pointing at myself, too.

What I'm saying is that, as we go through our lives, the whole “Thy will be done” thing tends to be more theoretical than real. When we do the things we do every day, we don't very often think “am I following God's will in this”? We may do that when we're facing the big things, when we're making the big decisions that we know will change our lives. When those things happen, we may pray and ask for God's guidance. Even then, though, we tend to spend a lot more time looking at all the options and weighing the pros and cons ourselves than we do praying and asking for God's guidance. When it comes to the decisions of everyday life, we very rarely consider that God's will is going to be involved at all.

But it is. God is not just the God of the Big Things. God is the God of everyday life, too. Now, I'm not saying we have to pray to God about every last detail of our lives. I don't know that God cares a lot whether we have Wheaties or Corn Flakes for breakfast. But God is not just involved in our lives when we have a big decision to make. God is involved in the common things that come up every day in our lives.

What we're talking about here is having a relationship with God. If we have a relationship with God, if we feel God's involvement in our everyday lives, then it'll be a lot easier for us to hear what God has to say to us when it is time to make a big decisions.

Jesus knew it was God's will that he go to the cross. He may or may not have understood why. But he was able to submit to God's will, whether he knew why or not, because of his relationship with God the Father. The gospels refer to Jesus praying on twenty-five different occasions. Some of these occasions are referred to in more than one gospel, but this count of twenty-five does not double up on any of them. There are twenty-five separate times that the gospels refer to Jesus praying. That's in addition to all the other times that Jesus, as a religious Jew, would have prayed just as a matter of course.

The point is that Jesus talked to God the Father a lot. There was a close relationship there. Jesus sought guidance all the time, all throughout his ministry and probably before that. Submitting to God's will was not something Jesus just decided to do on Palm Sunday. It was not something he just started doing at the end of his earthly life. It was something he did all his life. Because Jesus had made it a habit to submit to God's will, he was able to do it at crunch time, when quite literally his life depended on it.

The reason we call these things spiritual exercises is that they are like physical exercises. If we want them to work for us, we have to do them consistently. It's going to be hard for us to spend our lives sitting on the couch eating junk food and then go out and run a ten-K race. The only way we can run a ten-K is if we've made running a habit. And it's going to be hard for us to spend our lives ignoring God and then submit to God's will when our crunch time comes. The only way we can submit to God's will is if we've made submitting to God's will a habit.

Jesus was not fooled by the cheering of the crowds on Palm Sunday. He knew their celebration was meaningless. If Jesus celebrated anything on that Palm Sunday, it was the fact that he was submitting to God's will, and that he was close enough to God that he would be able to continue submitting to God's will, all the way to the cross.

So, on this Palm Sunday, let's follow the example Jesus gave us. Let's get close to God and stay close to God. Let's get into the habit of submitting to God's will. If we do, we'll be able to submit to God's will at crunch time. It may not be easy. We may not understand why it's God's will that we go through what we're going through. But we'll be able to go through it anyway. We'll be able to submit to God's will, and we'll be able to submit all the way, even if that way leads to the cross.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

What We Can Do When There's Nothing We Can Do

You're probably familiar with the story of Job, at least in broad outlines. Job is the person in the Bible who had all kinds of terrible things happen, yet refused to give up on God. He was upset with God, he questioned God, he thought God was not being fair with him, but he would not give up on God.

When you read the story, it's almost funny the way Job finds out about all the disasters that happen. He's sitting around one day, minding his own business, and a guy comes up to him and tells him that his donkeys had been stolen and his servants who were watching them were killed. “While he was still speaking”, another guy comes and tells him his sheep and the servants watching them were all burned in a fire. “While he was still speaking”, another guy comes and tells him his camels have been stolen and the servants watching them were killed. “While he was still speaking”, another guy comes and tells him his sons and daughters have all been killed. In other words, Job find out about all these disasters in the space of about five minutes.

I read that, and I think, “There's no way someone could have all those things happen that quickly.” On the other hand....

The other day, I was sitting in my office and found out that a friend of mine had a death in his family. About an hour later, I found out that another friend had lost lots of property in a fire. About fifteen minutes later, I found out that another friend of mine had a family emergency. About a half hour after that, I found out that another friend of mine had a health crisis. I found out about all these things in the space of about two hours.

Now, I understand that none of these things happened personally to me, but still. It was a lot of bad things happening to people I know in a very short period of time.

When stuff like this happens, we want to do something. Not because I'm a pastor, not because I'm a Christian, but just because I'm a human being. When bad things happen to people, especially to people we know, we want to do something to help.

The trouble is that, in so many situations, it seems like there's nothing we can do. We can pray, of course, and obviously I think that's something, but sometimes it doesn't really feel like something. We want to do something tangible. We want to do something where we can actually see that we're helping. And sometimes, we just can't.

I don't have the answer to this, but I'd like to make a couple of suggestions. For one, sometimes what we can do is just let people know we're there. Keep in contact. Call once in a while. Send an email. If we know them well enough, drop by. Just make sure they know that we know what's going on, that we care, and that we're still there for them. Make sure they know that, whatever they're going through, they don't have to go through it alone.

The other thing we can do is remember that, even when bad things happen, God is still there. You and I aren't supposed to do everything. We're just supposed to do everything we can. Once we've done everything we can, we need to step back and let God do what God does.

That may sound simplistic. I don't mean it to be. It can be hard to step back and wait for God to do what God does. Often, we think we know what God should do, and we think God should do it now. It's hard to accept it when God does not seem to agree with us.

We don't know what God will do. We don't know when God will do it. That's where our faith comes into it. If we've done everything we can, we need to have faith that God will take care of the rest. We need to trust that what God does will be the right thing, and that when God does it will be the right time.

It's still hard to see people hurting. But God has promised to never forsake us. We need to trust that. If we really have faith, and if we've really done everything we can do, then we can leave the rest in God's hands, confident that there are no better hands in which it could be.

Going All the Way

This is the message given at the midweek Lent service in Gettysburg on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. The Bible verses are Mark 8:31-38.

In these Wednesday services, we've been talking about the things we could give up for Lent. We've talked about giving up control of our lives, giving up expectations about what our lives should be, giving up our feelings of superiority, and giving up our enemies by loving them.

None of these things is easy to do. In fact, they're all pretty hard to do. They make us to go against what society says we're supposed to do. Not only that, a lot of times they make us go against what we, ourselves, want to do. They make us go against what we might call human nature.

There's a reason for that. What we call human nature involves sin. That's not all it involves, of course. We're made in the image of God, so our human nature includes the ability to care, the ability to love, the ability to create, the ability to forgive. Human nature includes a lot of good things. But human nature also includes a lot of bad things. Those are the things we've been talking about trying to give up.

Tonight, we talk about what might be the hardest thing of all to give up. We're going to talk about going all the way. We're going to talk about giving up our lives.

That's really hard. I don't know about you, but I like my life. I'm very happy with it. In fact, right now, at age fifty-four, I'm probably as happy as I've ever been. My life is going really well. I get to do a lot of fun and enjoyable and rewarding things. I've got a great wife to do them with. I've got great people in this parish and in all three towns of this parish to do them with, too. If I could somehow call a time-out and just keep my life the way it is right now, I'd do that.

Because I like my life so much, it's really hard for me to imagine giving it up. If I claim to be a follower of Jesus, though, I need to be able to do it if that's what God wants me to do.

Could I do it? I don't know. I'd like to think so. I'd like to be able to say I'd be willing to give up my life for God. But I don't know. I don't think it's possible to know unless and until we're in the situation. And I don't really ever want to be in that situation.

Now, some of you may be thinking, well, there's another way to interpret this. We can look at it that Jesus is just asking us to give up doing the things we want to do and instead live the way he told us to live. We're giving up our selfish, sinful way of life and finding new life through Jesus Christ.

I don't really think that works, though. I mean, yes, Jesus does ask us to give up our selfish, sinful way of life. But that's not what he's talking about here. If we look at the context of this, Jesus is talking about literally being willing to give up our life. And that's hard to do. It's hard, really, to even think about.

It was hard for Peter to think about. When Jesus started talking this way, Peter told him not to do it. And Jesus got upset with Peter. He told Peter, “you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

And that's why the idea of giving up our lives is so hard. Because we have in mind human concerns rather than the concerns of God.

Now, that's understandable. After all, we are human. It's pretty natural that we'd have human concerns in our mind.

And that's not all bad. I mean, there were times when Jesus had human concerns in mind. If Jesus thought human concerns were unimportant, he would not have healed all those people. He would not have fed all those people. Jesus does not say we should never have human concerns in mind.

The thing is, though, that even though human concerns can be and are important, they are not as important as the concerns of God. So, as Christians, we need to be willing to go beyond our human concerns and focus on the concerns of God.

So, when it gets right down to it, how do we live that way? What does that mean for our lives? It sounds good to say we're going to go beyond our human concerns and focus on the concerns of God, but when we say that, what are we actually saying?

It seems to me that this is where all the other things we've talked about on these Wednesday nights have been leading. If we give up all those other things, if we truly give them up, this is where we'll end up. And I think, deep down, even though we did not talk about this before, we know that. And that's why giving up all those other things is so hard.

If we truly give up control of our lives and turn that control over to God, we will go wherever God wants us to go and do whatever God wants us to do, no matter what the consequences are. If we truly give up our expectations of what our lives should be, we will accept whatever God does with our lives, no matter what it is. If we give up our feelings of superiority to others, we will accept that everyone else is just as important to God as we are, and that we need to consider other people, and their wants, and their needs, and their desires, as just as important as ours. And if we give up our enemies, if we show love to them the way Jesus told us to, we will be living like Jesus lived and doing what Jesus did.

That's where it leads. Jesus says if you want to follow me, you need to follow me all the way. I'm headed to the cross, so if you're following me that's where you'd better be ready to go.

It's hard. It was hard for the disciples. In fact, in the moment, they were not able to do it. When Jesus was arrested, they all abandoned him. Many of you know the story of Peter, who after Jesus was arrested denied that he'd ever been with Jesus or knew him at all. He not only denied it once, he denied it three times. That makes Peter look bad, but at least Peter stayed around. At least he was still in the area. We don't even hear anything about what the other disciples did after Jesus was arrested. The impression is that they were nowhere to be found. They vanished.

When the disciples started following Jesus, I doubt that they really knew where he was going to lead them. After they'd been following for a while, Jesus tried to tell them where they were going, but they did not understand. I mean, they may have gotten it with their heads, but they did not understand with their hearts. It's not that they though Jesus was lying or anything, but it's kind of like they were in denial, really. When Jesus talked about his death, it seemed like it was just kind of theoretical. They did not think of it as something they were going to actually experience. And when they did actually experience it, they were not ready. They were not able to follow Jesus all the way.

When we start following Jesus, there are a lot of times we don't really know where Jesus is going to lead us. After a while, we start to see that following Jesus may be hard, that it requires us to give up things, that it may even require us to give up our lives, we don't understand. We may understand it with our heads, but we don't understand with our hearts. We're in denial. It seems like it's just kind of theoretical. We don't think of it as something we're actually going to have to do. And so, when we actually experience it, a lot of times we're not ready. We're not able to follow Jesus all the way.

The disciples got another chance. Jesus did not give up on them just because they had failed. Jesus came back from the dead, and he appeared to the disciples, and this time they were ready. This time they believed and they carried on Jesus' ministry. And, in fact, nearly all of them eventually did give up their lives for Jesus and for the gospel. Almost all of the disciples were eventually killed because of their faith.

That's good news for us. If we're not ready, if we're not able to follow Jesus all the way, if we're not able to, as Jesus said, take up our cross and follow him, Jesus will not give up on us. Jesus will give us another chance.

But obviously, there comes a time when our chances come to an end. And none of us knows when that time will be. That means we need to be ready now. We need to be ready to go all the way. We need to be willing to give up our lives for Jesus and for the gospel.

It's hard. It was hard for Jesus himself. It was hard for the disciples. And it's hard for us. But Jesus did it. The disciples did it. Not the first time, but they did it. And we can do it, too. We can turn control of our lives over to God. We can accept what God does with our lives. We can put others ahead of ourselves. We can give God's love to everyone, even our enemies. And we can be ready to give up our lives for Jesus and for the gospel.

Jesus showed us the way. The disciples showed us it's possible. Now, it's up to us. God will help us, if we ask. And with God's help, we can do it. We can be ready to give up our lives for Jesus and for the gospel. We can follow Jesus all the way, even when it leads to the cross.