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Sunday, April 28, 2013

The 'D' Word

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, April 28, 2013.  The Bible verses are Mark 10:1-12; John 4:1-26; and John 8:1-11.

We are near the end of our sermon series called, “Seriously, Jesus?” We're looking at the hard sayings of Jesus, the things we might wish Jesus had not said.

The fact is that I don't like some of these sayings any more than you do. It'd be a lot easier to just preach “love your neighbor” and “do unto others as you'd have them do unto you.” And there's nothing wrong with preaching that, of course. We need to do those things.

But the thing about doing a sermon series on this topic is that, by definition, it forces us to deal with some hard issues, issues we might really rather avoid. Today we're going to talk about one of those issues. We're going to talk about what Jesus said about divorce.

You know that divorce is pretty common today. Some of you may have gone through it yourselves. If not, you know people who have, maybe people in your own family. Both of my brothers married someone who was divorced. So did my niece and one of my nephews.

Now, before I go any farther, I want to make clear that I am not here today to judge or condemn anyone. Judgment is God's job, not my job, and I prefer to leave it in God's hands. Besides, I have not lived anyone's life but mine. I don't know the circumstances of anyone's life but mine. I'm not bringing this up to hurt anyone or to judge anyone.

Still, Jesus said what he said, and the whole point of this sermon series is to see how the hard sayings of Jesus apply to our lives. So let's look at what Jesus said in our reading from Mark, and also at what he did not say.

First, Jesus did not bring the subject up. Jesus was not standing there thinking, “I need to tell these people about divorce.” It was the Pharisees who brought it up. And we see that they did that to test Jesus.

That's something the Pharisees did a lot, of course. They were always trying to trick Jesus, to trap him, to get him to say something that would get him into trouble. And that's what they were trying to do when they asked Jesus about divorce. They thought that no matter what Jesus said, some people would be mad at him for it.

So, they asked Jesus “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife.” In that society, of course, a woman would not have been allowed to initiate the divorce against her husband. That's just the way it was—only a man could start divorce proceedings. So they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife.” And Jesus answered, “What did Moses command you?”

Moses, of course, was the great lawgiver. He was the one through whom the Ten Commandments were given. Much of the book of Deuteronomy is Moses telling the people what God had said about the law. So, when Jesus asks, “What did Moses command you”, he's really asking “What does the law say about divorce?”

The Pharisees answer that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and send his wife away. But people must not have been very comfortable with that, or there'd have been no controversy and they would not have asked Jesus about it. They knew what the law said, but it just did not seem right. It did not seem like that was really the way it's supposed to be.

And Jesus told them they were right. That's not the way things are supposed to be. Jesus said Moses allowed that because “your hearts were hard.” What Jesus was talking about is sin. He says that, when God created Adam and Eve and brought them together, divorce was not part of the plan. But then, sin entered the world. Adam and Eve sinned and so have all the rest of us.

In other words, every marriage, including mine, is a marriage of two sinners. And when two sinners marry, things happen, things that don't make God very happy. They don't make the people involved very happy, either. But they happen, and God knows they happen. So, Jesus says, God allowed divorce under certain circumstances.

Now, notice what Jesus does not say. He says divorce is not part of God's plan, but he does not condemn anyone who's divorced. He does not say if someone gets divorced, they're going to hell. The reason God is against divorce is not because God wants to condemn us, it's because God loves us.

Because God loves us, God knows how painful divorce is. Even under the best circumstances, it's a very painful process. It's hard. The effects never totally go away. That's not to say a divorced person cannot start over and have a happy life, but the effects of divorce are still always part of their lives.

When the Bible says that in a marriage two become one, that's not just a nice poetic phrase. It really happens. And when that one gets ripped apart back into two, it's painful. Even if the pain heals, it leaves a scar that never completely goes away. That's why divorce is not part of God's plan. God loves us and does not want us to go through that pain.

We're told that later, the disciples asked Jesus some more about this. And we're told that Jesus says “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

That's a tough one. I'm not very comfortable with that. I suspect a lot of us are not. We think of adultery as a serious thing, especially when we're in the context of the Bible. We wonder if Jesus really is saying that divorce leads to condemnation and to eternal punishment.

Before we decide that, though, let's look at a couple of other passages in the Bible. We read the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Jesus knew who this woman was and the kind of life she'd led. He knows she's had five husbands and now has a man who is not her husband.

Does Jesus condemn her? No. He offers her salvation. He says, “Those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” And when she says she knows the Messiah is coming, he tells her, “I am he.”

You know, there were lots of times when Jesus was given the chance to claim he was the Messiah. Sometimes it would've really been to his advantage to make that claim. But he did not do it. Yet, when he's with this Samaritan woman, this woman who had five husbands and is now with another man, this woman who surely in that society would've been considered to have committed adultery, Jesus tells her right out who he is. He wanted to make sure she knew. He wanted her to be saved. Jesus did not offer this woman condemnation. He offered her salvation.

In John 8, the Pharisees say to Jesus, “This woman was caught in an act of adultery...Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Does Jesus condemn her? No. He offers her salvation. He says, “Let any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, when no one does and they all leave, Jesus says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus refuses to condemn the woman. But he also says, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” See, God knows we cannot go back in time. We cannot go back and correct our past mistakes and do away with our past pain. What we can do is start from where we are. We can drink that living water Jesus offers us and start over. We can learn from our past mistakes and start living our lives the way God wants us to live them.

We're all sinners. My sins may be different from yours, but we're all sinners. The fact that our sins are different does not mean anyone's sins are better or worse. In God's eyes, we're all equal. That means we're all equally in need of God's forgiveness, God grace, and God's mercy.

The good news is that all those things are available to us. Any time we turn to God and repent of our sins, God is there. God is there, and God offers forgiveness, and grace, and mercy. When we turn to God, God does not offer condemnation. God offers salvation. God does not want us to have pain. God offers us the living water.

Jesus does not say what he says in Mark to condemn people who've been through divorce. Jesus is pointing out how painful it is. The reason it's not what God wants is that God does not want anyone to go through the pain of divorce. God wants to spare us from it. But God knows it's going to happen sometimes, because we're imperfect, sinful people. So when it does, God does not offer judgment and condemnation. God offers forgiveness and salvation.

I think that's the message from Mark today. Jesus does not offer condemnation for divorce. He's saying he wishes no one ever had to go through it, because he knows how painful it is. And he's saying that, no matter where we are, no matter how much pain we're in, we can always turn to Jesus. We can always receive God's love, God's forgiveness, and God's salvation. We can have our pain taken away. And we can always make a new start. With God's help, we can then start living our lives the way God wants us to live them.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Strengths and Weaknesses

  I remember reading a quote once for Oscar Wilde.  I may not have it exactly right, but it was something like “I love criticism, as long as it is unadulterated praise.”
Whether we’d admit it or not, most of us are like that.  We’d much rather hear praise than criticism.  I know that’s true of me.  When I ask Wanda what she thought of my sermon, I’m hoping she’ll say something complimentary.  I want to hear her say it was a good sermon, or it made her think, or it helped her in some way.  I don’t like hearing her say that she didn’t understand it, or it didn’t make sense to her, or she thought it really didn’t come together very well.  I may need to hear that, but I don’t like it very much.
This came to mind when I went to the School of Ministry meetings a couple of weeks ago.  A lot of what we heard from the speakers was what the church is doing wrong, what the conference is doing wrong, what pastors are doing wrong, and what congregations are doing wrong.  Now, some of the things they said—many of the things they said—were true.  There are certainly things that all of us do wrong.  I’m not a perfect pastor, I don’t have a perfect congregation, I don’t belong to a perfect conference, and the United Methodist Church is not a perfect church.  We all have plenty of room for improvement.
There are a few things about that, though.  On the one hand, if we’re going to improve, we definitely need to be willing to hear constructive criticism.  Pretending problems don’t exist won’t solve them.  On the other hand, if all we hear is what we’re doing wrong, well, that’s kind of discouraging.  We also need to hear some positive news.  We need to get the sense that we actually can improve, that our problems are not insurmountable problems.
And I can report that we did hear some of that, too.  We heard about ways we can improve.  We heard that we need to strive for excellence—as a church, as a conference, as pastors, and as congregations.  If we want to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to strive for excellence.  The Lord expects nothing less.
Striving for excellence is a good thing.  We should all do it.  On the other hand, very few of us are excellent at everything.  Most of us have strengths and weaknesses.  We can and should try to strengthen our weakness, of course, but the chances are we’ll still have some.  
         It’s like sports.  There are a very select few players in a sport who are excellent at all phases of the game.  Those are the true superstars, and there usually aren’t more than about ten of them in any sport at any one time.  The rest of the players have strengths and weaknesses.  They have things they’re really good at and things they’re not so good at.  They try to improve the things they’re not so good at, but they’ll probably never become excellent at them.  So, they and their teams try to find ways to maximize their strengths while hiding their weaknesses.
        Jesus understood that.  Look at the people he chose as his disciples.  They weren’t perfect people by any means.  They weren’t people who were excellent at everything.  Some of them don’t appear to have been excellent at anything.  For that matter, look at the people the Lord chooses now.  People like me.  I have some things I'd like to think I’m fairly good at, but I’m certainly not excellent at everything.  And I never will be.
        Now, again, we need to be able to hear criticism.  We also need to strive for excellence.  But we can’t let our failures discourage us.  We need to keep trying and keep striving.  And when something does go right, we need to celebrate that, while still trying to do better.
        We should all strive for excellence, but we don’t have to be superstars to serve the Lord.  Jesus did not put together a team of superstars.  Let’s maximize our strengths, work on our weaknesses, and work together to serve God.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Family Feud

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 21, 2013.  The Bible verses are Luke 15:24-35.

We’ve been looking at things we really wish Jesus had not said. This is probably one of the hardest ones of all. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

That just intrinsically does not make sense to us. For most of us, our family is the number one thing in our lives. Now, I don’t have children, but I have a father and mother. I have a wife. I have brothers. And they’re very important to me. I love them. I’m guessing you love your family, too. And here’s Jesus telling us to hate them.

And that’s not all Jesus said. Jesus said we should hate even our own lives. That does not make sense to us, either. I’ve told you this before, but I like my life. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier. I suspect most of you like your lives, too. Even if you don’t, most of us probably don’t hate our lives.

But that’s what Jesus tells us to do. And we don’t understand it. It seems to contradict the Jesus we know, the Jesus who tells us that we’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can we love our neighbors and hate our family? How can we love our neighbors “as ourselves” if we hate our lives?

Not only does it conflict with the Jesus we know, it does not seem to be what Jesus did. There’s no evidence that Jesus hated his mother, Mary. In fact, while Jesus was on the cross, he told one of the disciples to take care of Mary. He said to Mary, “Woman, here is your son” and to the disciple he said, “Here is your mother.” So if Jesus did not hate his mother, why would he tell us to hate our mothers and fathers?

Now, the explanation we often hear is that, well, Jesus did not mean this literally. He was just making a statement about priorities. Jesus was just saying that we need to make sure that nothing—not our families, not even our lives—is more important to us than he is.

Now, that’s a good explanation. I’ve used it myself. It makes sense to us. It seems to cover the situation. In fact, I suspect it's probably right.

But let’s think about it a little more. If we say that’s the explanation, where does it lead us? Because too often, what we do—what I’ve done—is to hear that explanation, nod my head, and say yes, of course, that’s right. Nothing should be more important to us than Jesus is. And then I go on about my business.

When Jesus said stuff like this, that’s not the reaction he was looking for. When Jesus said stuff like this, he did not want us to just nod our heads in agreement and then go on about our business. When Jesus said stuff like this, he wanted us to do something about it. He wanted us to realize we’re not living the way we should and we need to make some changes.

The thing is that, for most of us, our families are so important to us that we have a really hard time thinking of a situation where we’d be forced to choose between our families and God. It’s easier, really, for me to think of a situation where I’d be forced to choose between my life and God. Those situations are pretty much theoretical—I’ve never been in a situation where I felt like my life was threatened because of my beliefs—but I can at least think of them. But thinking of a situation where I’m forced to choose between, say, Wanda and God is a lot harder.

Here’s one that I suppose could’ve happened, but did not. As you know, I decided to become a pastor when I was forty-seven. That was a big decision for Wanda and me. We made it together, and Wanda was on board with it. Suppose she had not been. Suppose I had been convinced that God was calling me to be a pastor, but Wanda had been dead set against it. Would I have still gone ahead with it anyway?

I don’t know. See, I really cannot imagine that situation actually having happened. Wanda’s agreement that we should do this was part of what confirmed to me that what I was feeling was actually real. If Wanda had been against it, that would’ve made me re-think the whole deal. It might very well have made me think that God was not actually calling me to do this. I can say, in theory, that if God was really calling me to be a pastor, I should’ve done it anyway. I don’t know that that’s what I actually would’ve done if I’d been faced with that situation, because I really cannot imagine that situation coming up.

It would be a really tough thing to feel you had to choose between your family and God. Let’s look at a situation that I know affects some of you. There are a lot of times when youth sports events take place over weekends. If your kids participate in those events, that means you cannot be in church on Sunday. So what do you do? Do you tell your kids they cannot be in those events because they need to be in church on Sunday? Or do you let the kids be in these events, knowing how important these events are to them?

Now, before we go any farther, please don’t assume what I’m going to say next. I know the standard pastor statement on this is to say that when I was a kid they did not have sports on Sundays and that’s the way it still should be and you should have your kids in church every Sunday. Well, that’s not what I’m going to say.

The reason I’m not going to say it is that it’s just not that simple. Things are not the way they were when I was a kid, and they’re not going to be. We need to deal with the world the way it is, not the way we wish it was. And the fact is that there are sports on Sundays, and kids want to be in those sports.

Besides, I remember when I was in Wessington Springs, before I became a pastor. Springs was hosting a state teener baseball tournament, and I was the public address announcer. Because of a rainout, they had to reschedule a game for Sunday morning. On Sunday morning, I was at the ballpark rather than in church. And these were not even my kids playing. So I understand that often these are not easy decisions to make.

There are other factors involved, too. For one thing, choosing to sit in church is not the same thing as choosing Jesus. It’s entirely possible to sit in church on Sunday morning and not have Jesus be the most important thing in our lives. It’s also entirely possible to put Jesus first even if we’re not in church every Sunday. I mean, you’re going to miss out on these wonderful sermons, but it’s still possible to put Jesus first without being in church every Sunday. It's also possible that if we tell our kids they cannot be in sports because they have to be in church on Sunday, they'll come to resent the church and we'll get the opposite result of what we hope for.

On the other hand, we have to be careful. We especially have to be careful with the message our kids get from our choices. What we don’t want is for our kids to get the message that sports are more important than our faith, and that if we have to choose one or the other, it’s okay to choose sports. Much as I love sports, I don’t want to give that message to anyone, and I don’t think anyone else here does, either.

So, if we’re not in church on Sunday, we need to make sure our kids learn that faith is more important than sports in some other way. Maybe that means doing daily devotionals together. Maybe that means watching the sermon over the internet together and then talking about it. Maybe that means attending church on the road wherever we are.

It could mean a lot of things. The point, though, is that we need to find some way to give kids the message that believing in Jesus is more important than sports. We need to be intentional about giving them that message. It’s not going to be enough to say the words. Kids hear people tell them things all the time, and they can tell who’s phony and who’s sincere. They can tell whether faith is the number one thing in our lives. They can tell whether we expect faith to be the number one thing in their lives, too. If we want kids to get the right message about the importance of faith, we need to do things that show them that message.

I don’t mean to pick on families with kids in sports here. That’s just one example. There are lots of other examples we could use. We could talk about camping trips. We could talk about vacations. We could talk about caring for sick relatives. There are all sorts of times when family considerations make demands on our lives. I have elderly parents, as do some of you. As they continue to get older, I may have to go and spend more time with them. That may cause a conflict with some of my work here, and it may be something we need to work through.

We need to spend time with our families, of course. We need to take care of our families. But Jesus tells us that nothing, not even our families, not even ourselves, should come before loyalty to him. We always need to put our faith in Jesus Christ first. Again, Jesus did not tell us this just so we’d nod our heads in agreement like bobblehead dolls and than go about our business. Jesus said it because he wants us to do something about it. Jesus said it to challenge us. Jesus said it because he wants us to change.

Family is important, but Jesus is more important. It’s not enough for us to just say it. We need to show it. We need to teach it. We need to live it. No matter what may come up in our family’s life, we need to make sure none of it is more important to us than our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior. We may not need to literally hate our families, but we need to make sure that, no matter what's going on with our families, we’re choosing Jesus first.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Through the Dark Valleys

This is the message given at the Oahe Manor Communion service in Gettysburg on April 18, 2013.  The Bible verses are Psalm 23.

The twenty-third psalm is one that almost everybody loves. In fact, I'd guess some of you know it from memory. I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at it and think about why we love it so much. I think when we do, we find out that there's more to this psalm than we may have realized at first.

I think part of why we love this psalm so much is that some of the images it uses are ones that we can really get hold of. We live in an agricultural area. A lot of have lived on farms, and even those who haven't have some knowledge of farming. We've seen those green pastures. We've been beside quiet waters. We know how peaceful that is. We know what a wonderful feeling it is to see a green pasture, with maybe a herd of cattle or sheep or something grazing on it. A lot of us have been on the quiet water, fishing or boating or just enjoying the sunshine. It's a wonderful image, and it's one that we can understand a lot better than someone who lives in a city.

Then, too, it talks about God guiding us along right paths. That's another beautiful image. We're walking along, and God is showing us where to go, making sure we take the right path, making sure we'll be safe and that nothing bad will happen.

Except that's not what the psalm says. Yes, it says God will guide us along the right path, but it does not say that right path will necessarily be a safe path. In fact, it pretty much promises that it won't be. The next words are “even though I walk through the darkest valley”. The path God guides on is not necessarily a bright, cheery path. Sometimes, God guides us to go down into the dark valleys.

I suspect most of us have been in the dark valleys at various times in our lives. Some of us may be there now. We wonder how in the world we got there. We wonder why God would lead us into such a dark valley. We wonder, when we find ourselves, in a dark valley, if we'll ever get out again. We even wonder if God has abandoned us and let us stumble around in that dark valley on our own.

The thing is, God does not promise to keep us out of the dark valleys. The psalm does not say that. What it does say is that even when we're in the darkest valley, we don't need to be afraid. God is still with us.

God does not abandon us when we go into the dark valleys. God's still there. It can be hard to realize that. It can be hard to see God through all that darkness. It can be hard to feel God's presence. But God's still there. Because God's still there, we have nothing to fear. God does not leave us alone in the dark valleys. God stays with us.

The rod and the staff, as many of you know, were things shepherds used to keep the sheep on the right path. Sometimes the sheep did not want to go the way they were supposed to go. They wanted to go off somewhere else. They wanted to try something else. Sometimes, the shepherd had to lead the sheep into a dark valley to get to the green pastures, and the sheep did not want to go there. The shepherd had to physically keep them on that right path. The shepherd knew, even if the sheep did not, that they'd get through that dark valley and get to a better place.

That's why, if we trust God, God's rod and God's staff comfort us. They let us know that God's still there, and that God's still guiding us. God is guiding us through that dark valley and into the light. If we really trust God, then we, just like those sheep, will get through that dark valley and get to a better place.

God does not promise that we won't have enemies, either. What God does, again, is stay with us. God lets us know we still have nothing to fear, not even from our enemies. Even if we're surrounded by them, God will take care of us. God will take care of our physical needs and our spiritual needs. If we truly trust God, we'll still feel the joy that comes from being with God, even when we're surrounded by our enemies. And we'll feel God's goodness, and God's mercy, and God's love, all our lives.

And, of course, the good news does not end there. When our lives are over, we go to be with God. We will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.

But notice how we get there. We get there only by trusting God. We get there only by letting God lead us to those wonderful, peaceful places. We get there only by letting God guide us along the right paths, even when those paths go into dark places. We get there only by trusting God enough that we keep going, even when we cannot see the way. We get there by trusting that God will take care of us and will never leave us.

Psalm 23 is a wonderful psalm. But it's not just this quiet, peaceful psalm. It's a psalm that challenges us. It challenges us to trust God, no matter what our situation is. It challenges us to trust God, no matter how many enemies we have or how prominent they may be. It challenges us to trust God at all times and in all places, no matter what. It's only by trusting God that we can get to the place where we feel our final, eternal peace, when we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Loving Our Enemies

You've obviously heard about the bombing that took place at the end of the Boston Marathon. It was a terrible, horrible, awful thing, resulting in three deaths and numerous injuries.

I really haven't said much about it, mainly because it seemed to me that once you've said it's terrible, horrible, and awful, there's not much left to say. As I thought about it, though, the words of Jesus in John 5:44 kept coming back to me. Jesus said, “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

That's hard for us to do. It's even harder in a situation like this, where we're faced with what appears to be a deliberate act of evil. We can, perhaps, pray for the people who did this. But love them?

We don't want to love those people. In fact, we have no desire whatsoever to love them. Our desire is for them to be arrested, convicted, and either executed or thrown in jail for a long, long time. And if they were mistreated while they were in jail, well, many of us would not be too upset about that.

I feel the same way. I have no desire to love those people. But Jesus' words keep coming back to me. This was not something Jesus made optional. Jesus did not say, “love your enemies if you feel like it.” I don't think “but I don't want to” is something Jesus would consider a legitimate excuse.

So what do we do? Love, after all, is an emotion. It's a feeling. How do we make ourselves feel something that we don't feel and have no desire to feel?

It's not easy. I think, though, that Jesus gave us the ultimate example to follow. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he said of those who were responsible for killing him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Think about that. In one sense, of course, the people responsible knew exactly what they were doing. They knew they were killing Jesus. They wanted to kill Jesus. They deliberately and purposely killed Jesus.

What I think Jesus meant, though, is that even though they did this on purpose, they did not really realize what they were doing. They thought they were killing someone who was a troublemaker, a heretic, a blasphemer, someone who was opposing God. They did not realize that what they were actually doing was killing the divine Son of God. They did one of the most terrible things it's possible to do, but they did not set out to do a terrible thing. They thought they were doing a good thing. In some way, they thought, and they convinced themselves, as hard as it may be for us to understand, that they were doing God's will.

Maybe that applies here. At this writing, we don't know why the people who did this did it. But it is entirely possible that they did not really realize what they were doing. They did one of the most terrible things it's possible to do, but they may not have set out to do a terrible thing. They may have thought they were doing a good thing. In some way, they may have thought, and they may have convinced themselves, as hard as it is for us to understand, that they were doing God's will.

I don't know whether I will reach a point where I can love the people who did this, but I hope I will. It'll be hard, but I hope I will. Not because I particularly want to, but because I know it's what Jesus wants me to do.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Now What?

This is the message given at the Oahe Manor service in Gettysburg on Sunday, April 14.  The Bible verses used are John 21:1-14.

Two weeks ago we celebrated Easter. And that’s always a big day in the church. We had more people at our services we had a bunch of Easter lilies in the front of the church, we did all sorts of special things. And in fact, we’d been preparing for that celebration for weeks. We’d had special Wednesday night Lent services, we’d had special services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we did all sorts of things to get ready to celebrate the fact that the tomb was empty and that Jesus Christ, has, in fact, been raised from the dead and is alive.

And it’s good that we did all that. But now, it’s two weeks later. Easter is long since over. And we look around and we say, “Okay, now what?”

It’s a legitimate question. What do we do now that Easter is over? Do we do anything different? Or do we just go back to normal, the way we’ve done so many other years?

The disciples asked that same question after the first Easter. They’d watched Jesus die, and that was awful. Then, they found out the tomb was empty, and that was confusing. Then, Jesus appeared to them, and that was wonderful. But now what?

Well, the disciples did just what we do so much of the time. They went back to normal. Peter says, “I’m going fishing”, which of course is what Peter had done before he met Jesus. And the other disciples, some of whom had been fishermen too, said, “We’ll go with you.”

We cannot be too hard on them. They probably did not know what else to do. I mean, they knew Jesus was alive, and that was really cool, but where were they supposed to go from here. Jesus had not just been their teacher, you know. He had been their leader. He’d made the decisions. He’d said where they were going and when they were going to go there and what they were going to do when they got there.

Now, Jesus was gone. There had been no clear second-in-command, no one who was in place to take over the leadership of the group. Jesus was it. Now that he was gone, they did not know what to do or where to turn. So, they did the only thing they knew to do. They went back to doing what they’d done before.

And if Jesus had not appeared to them again, that might have been what they kept doing. They might have just gone back to being fishermen. The Christian church might have been over before it started.

But Jesus did appear. And he talked to all of them, but he especially talked to Peter. And he told them, no, this is not what you’re supposed to do. You’re not just supposed to go back to doing what you did before. You’re not supposed to go back to being who you were before. You have a job to do. You need to take care of my people. You see, I’m alive. If you follow me, nothing about your life should ever be the same again.

And it’s the same for you and me. We’re tempted, now that Easter is over, to go back to doing what we did before. We’re tempted to go back to being who we were before. But that’s not what we’re supposed to do. We have a job to do. We need to take care of God’s people. You see, Jesus is alive. If we follow him, nothing about our lives should ever be the same again.

Now, that’s an easy thing to say. It’s not so easy to live. It’s a hard thing to live at any point in our lives. But then, we look around here. I suspect a lot of you are thinking, you know, I’d love to take care of God’s people. In fact, I used to do all kinds of things to take care of God’s people. But what am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to do anything to take care of God’s people when it’s all I can do to try to take care of myself?

I understand. There are still things you can do, though. You may not be able to do all the things you’d like to do, but there are still things you can do.

See, even though you may not get out much, or maybe you don’t get out at all, you still see God’s people all around you every day. And every one of these people you see, including the staff, has some hard things they’re going through. There are thing you can do to help them. You can be a listening ear when they need someone to talk to. You can tell someone a joke and make them laugh so they don’t have to think about their problems for a little while. You can tell stories about the old days, and for a while be transported back to those times. You can smile at each other. You can pray for each other.

Did you ever wonder why Wanda and I like to come out here? It’s really not for you. I mean, we hope you like seeing us here, but that’s not the main reason we do it. We don’t do it because I’m a pastor, either, because we used to go out to the nursing home in Wessington Springs before I ever became a pastor.

The reason we like to come out here is that when we do, we feel better. We feel happier. You do that for us. Visiting with you, sharing a laugh, sharing what’s going on in our lives and in your lives, makes us feel good. You do that for us every time we come out here. That’s what I mean when I say we don’t come out here for you. We come out here for what you do for us.

And you can do that for each other, too. You can do it for the staff. And you can do it for anyone who comes out here to visit. You can still take care of God’s people in all kinds of ways.

Nowhere in scripture is there the idea that we ever retire from being Christians. The ways we serve God change, but we still have a job to do. You see, Jesus is alive. And nothing about our lives should ever be the same again.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Imperfectly Perfect

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 14, 2013.  The scriptures used are Matthew 5:43-48 and Matthew 19:16-30.

 We are in the second week of our sermon series called, “Seriously, Jesus?” We're looking at some of the hard sayings of Jesus, the things we wish Jesus had not said. As we look at those things, our reading for today is probably at or near the top of a lot of people's lists. A man came to Jesus and asked what he should do to get eternal life. Jesus told him, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Later, Jesus said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Most of us really don't like that one. You can tell that we don't by the efforts we make to figure out ways around it.

One of the things we'll say is, “Well, that's addressed to the rich. I'm not rich. Therefore, this does not apply to me.” Well, okay. If you want to believe that, well, it's your business. I don't believe it, though. 

Jesus does not define what qualifies as “rich”. You and I may not be rich by American standards—we may not have the money of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or somebody like that—but by the world's standards, pretty much all of us are “rich”. Just the fact that we have a roof over our heads and food to eat and clothes to wear makes us rich, no matter what our bank balance may say. We may not feel rich, but I don't think I want to bet my eternal life on the theory that Jesus was not talking about me here.

Another statement that used to be popular is that Jesus did not mean a literal “eye of a needle” the way we look at it now. I've heard it said that this referred to a certain type of gate that walled-off towns used to make sure it was hard for people to get in, that it was just barely big enough for a camel to squeeze through. So, according to this theory, Jesus was not saying it was impossible for the rich to get into heaven, just that it was really difficult.

The trouble with that is that most scholars say it was not true. That type of gate did not exist in Jesus' time. Besides, we're told that when Jesus said this, the disciples were “greatly astonished.” They could not believe what they were hearing. It's doubtful the disciples would've had that reaction if all Jesus was saying was that it was going to be hard for the rich to get to heaven. So, while this is a nice theory, and we might wish it was true, it does not seem to actually be true.

Another thing we hear said is, look, Jesus did not require everybody to get rid of everything they owned and follow him. I mean, even Peter owned a house, apparently. Therefore, what Jesus said just applied to this one guy. It does not apply to you and me.

Well, I suppose that's possible. It's true that Jesus did not require everyone to sell everything they had. 

On the other hand, as we said in the series on Jesus' miracles, we need to ask ourselves why this story is in the Bible. If this was a message Jesus intended to apply just to this one person, if Jesus' words do not have any application to the rest of us, why would Matthew have included it in his gospel? It would not make sense to include this story if we're not supposed to get something from it. So I really don't think we can just assume what Jesus said does not apply to us, no matter how much we might want to.

So, if we decide that we're going to take these words of Jesus seriously, if we decide that they do apply to us, what are we going to do about them? Do we need to take them literally? Do we need to literally sell everything we have and give the money to the poor if we're going to get to heaven? Or is there some other way we can look at this?

Well, I told you last week that, when it comes to the hard sayings of Jesus, I don't claim to have all the answers. It is really tempting for me to do exactly what I've said others have done, to try to figure out ways around it. In fact, it's entirely possible that that's what I'm doing here today. But I will tell you what I think. You can decide if it makes sense to you. If you'd like to discuss it further with me sometime, I'd be happy to do that.

When the man first asks Jesus what he should do to get eternal life, the first thing Jesus tells him to do is keep the commandments. The man replies that he has done that, but that he feels he is still lacking something. Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

“If you want to be perfect.” Earlier in Matthew, in the other part of Matthew's gospel that we read today, Jesus tells us to be perfect. And he apparently used “perfect” to mean exactly what it says. He tells us “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The thing is, Jesus knew we're not perfect. We cannot be perfect. It's not possible for a human being to be perfect. Jesus is telling us to do something that it's not possible for us to do.

The disciples thought the exact same thing. Again, when Jesus went into more detail with them, when he told them it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to go to heaven, they were “greatly astonished.” They could not believe it. They asked Jesus, well, then, who can be saved?

And Jesus admitted that it was impossible. That is, it's impossible for humans. With God, though, all things are possible.

See, Jesus was not making a point about giving to the poor. Jesus was in favor of giving to the poor, of course. We should give to the poor. I suspect Jesus would tell most of us, including me, should give a lot more to the poor than we do. But I don't think that's the main point Jesus was making here.

The man who came up to Jesus asked Jesus what good thing he had to do to get eternal life. He was looking at eternal life as something he had to earn. And Jesus says, well, if you want to earn it, you have to be perfect. To be perfect, you have to sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and follow me.

Jesus knew the man would not be able to do what Jesus told him to do. None of us can do everything Jesus tells us to do all the time. That's the point.

Jesus tells us that the only way we can earn eternal life is to be perfect. But we cannot be perfect. Therefore, it's not possible for us to earn eternal life.

Yet, we can have eternal life. But we don't get it because we've earned it. We get it because we have such an awesome, incredible God who offers it to us. Despite our imperfections, despite our sins, if we just have faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, God offers eternal life to us even though we have not earned it and never will be able to earn it.

So why does Jesus tell us to be perfect if we cannot do it? Because that's the goal. It's an impossible, unattainable goal, but it's still the goal. We want to be as close to being like God as we can be. God is perfect. That means we need to try to be perfect, too, even though we know we cannot be.

Look at it this way. A major league baseball team plays one hundred sixty-two games each season. The players know they're not going to win every one of those one hundred sixty-two games. No one ever has. No one has ever come remotely close. The most any team has ever won is one hundred sixteen, which is a lot, but it still means they lost forty-six times during the season. They won a lot of games, but they did not come anywhere near winning them all. No team can ever win them all.

Yet, every time a team goes out on the field, it tries to win. They try to win today's game. Tomorrow, they'll try to win tomorrow's game. The day after that, they'll try to win that day's game. Each team is trying to win every game. In other words, each team is trying to be perfect, even though they know it's not possible.

That's how it is with our faith. We try to be perfect, just like God is perfect. We won't do it. No one ever has. We won't come remotely close. No one can. Yet, each day, we try to do it. We'll try to be perfect, like God is perfect, today. Tomorrow, we'll try to be perfect, like God is perfect. We keep trying to be perfect, even though we know it's not possible.

It's not possible for us. But it is possible for God. Through our faith in God, and through God's incredible love and mercy for us, God can look at our imperfections and make them perfect. We cannot be perfect by our own merits. But we can be made perfect, and have eternal life, by God's love and grace and mercy, through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.

So, do we have to sell everything we have and give it to the poor? I don't think so. I do think, though, that we need to take a look at our lives. We need to get rid of all those things that are standing in the way of our relationship with God. If that's money and possessions, then we need to get rid of them. If it's our attitude, we need to change our attitude. If it's things we do for fun, then we need to find fun in different ways. 

Whatever it is that's getting in the way of our relationship with God, what ever it is that feeds our imperfections and keeps us from showing love to others, we need to get rid of it and put God and God's people first.

Jesus said you and I are to be perfect. Even though we cannot be, Jesus told us to be. We need to be as much like God as we can. It's not possible for us. But it's possible for God. If we do our part, we know God will do the rest.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Complaints Department

        Well, we’ve been saying for months that we wanted moisture.  We sure got it this week.

Some people are happy about this, but many are not.  “We didn’t want it that way!  We wanted rain.”  “This won’t do any good.  It’ll all just run off.”  “Why did this have to happen during calving season?”  “It’s supposed to be spring!  We didn’t want all this.”

Sometimes I wonder what it must feel like to be God.  God  gave us exactly what many of us asked for.  And what do we do?  We complain.  We gripe.  We criticize.  Whatever God gives us, it’s the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way.  To hear us talk, God is totally incompetent.  God can’t do anything right.  If only God would listen to us and do things our way, everything would be a lot better.

Now, please don’t think I’m being critical of you.  At least, I'm not being any more critical of you than I am of myself, because I’m the same way.  I’m none too happy about our recent snowstorm, either.  I'd much rather we'd gotten (non-freezing) rain instead of snow.  I'd also much rather it had come at a different time.  As I’m writing this, on Thursday morning, I’m still stuck in a motel room in Sioux Falls, a day after I was planning to be home.  I’ll probably be home before you read this, but I’m expecting to have a long and uncomfortable trip.  I’m not looking forward to it.

If I was God, I'd get awfully frustrated with all the criticism I was getting from these mere human beings, human beings who would not even exist if not for me.  God does not seem to react that way, though.  At least, if God does, God does not show it.  God understands why we do the things we do.  God understands everything.  God understands us better than we understand ourselves.

Still, it must be disappointing to God.  God does so much for us, and instead of being grateful for it, it seems like all we ever do is whine and gripe and tell God what God should be doing.  It’s pretty arrogant of us to think we know more about being God than God does, but a lot of times, that's what we do, and not just when it comes to the weather, either.

So, the next time we start to complain, let’s stop.  Let’s think about who God is.  Let’s think about how wise, and how good, and how loving God is.  Let’s think about all the things God has done for us.  And instead of complaining, let’s say “thank you” to God for everything God has given us.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Yeah, But...

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 7, 2013.  The Bible verses used are John 14:1-7.

Jesus said a lot of things during the course of his ministry. A lot of them we like. “Love thy neighbor.” We like that one. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” We like that one, too. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” That's another good one.

But you know, Jesus said a lot of things that we don't like so much. He said a lot of things that make us uncomfortable. He said a lot of things that we'd really rather not deal with. So, today we're starting a new sermon series called, “Seriously, Jesus?” We're going to look at some of the hard things Jesus said. We're going to look at what they mean and how we can apply them in our faith and in our lives.

Now, I'm going to tell you at the start of this series, and I'll probably tell it to you again throughout the series, that I don't claim to have all the answers here. Some of these things we're going to look at are statements that Bible scholars have debated for centuries. We're not likely to come up with the answers in ten or fifteen minutes. Still, even if we don't come up with “the answer”, we need to deal with them. If I just ignore the parts of the Bible I don't like, I end up with the gospel according to Jeff. That's a gospel that's not going to do anyone, including me, much good.

To start out our sermon series, we're going to look at the statement of Jesus that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

And some may be thinking, “Wait a minute. We like that one. That says if we believe in Jesus we get to go to heaven. What's wrong with that?”

Well, I'm not saying anything's wrong with it. I believe it myself. One of the main parts of our faith is that salvation comes by God's grace and through our faith. That part is fine. It's the second sentence. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” What do we do with that?

Well, some would say we don't do anything with it. We just accept it. If you believe in Jesus you go to heaven. If you don't, well, then, you don't. That's just the way it works. We can like it, we can not like it, but that's just the way it is.

And maybe it is. But then we start thinking of situations, you know? Say there's an infant, a few days or a few weeks old, who passes away. An infant cannot “believe in Jesus”. An infant cannot believe in anything, really. So are we saying that because that infant did not believe in Jesus, he or she will not go to heaven?

Well, some people might say so. Most, though, are not very comfortable with that. We don't like the idea that a loving, caring God would not allow an innocent baby into heaven. And so, theologians developed the idea of prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is defined as a form of God's grace that comes before any decision that human beings make. It's a type of God's grace that is automatically in us. One of the things that means is that an infant has God's grace in her or him, and so in that sense can be said to “believe” in Jesus Christ even though the infant does not have the ability to actually make that decision.

Okay. That kind of makes sense to us. We like it. It's a lot more in line with our idea of who God is. By saying God's prevenient grace is in that infant, we can say that the infant is coming to the Father through Jesus, at least in a way.

But then we think of other situations. What about someone who grew up in a remote area of Africa and never even heard the name of Jesus? Is that person not allowed into heaven?

We're not very comfortable with that, either. It does not seem fair. After all, how can someone believe in Jesus if they never heard of him? It's not possible. Would a loving, caring God hold it against someone that they did not believe in Jesus when there was no chance that they could?

So, theologians expanded prevenient grace. And they said, well, if God's grace is in all of us, then even if we don't hear about Jesus, we should be just kind of able to look around and see the beauty of creation and figure out that there has to be a God behind it all. Even if we don't know the actual name of that God, prevenient grace let's us figure out that there is one. And so people who have not heard about Jesus are covered.

Okay. That's kind of makes sense, too. It kind of fits with what we talked about before. But then we think of more situations. What about someone who grew up in an Islamic county? They may have looked around and seen the beauty of creation and figured out there's a God behind it all, but instead of the Bible they read the Koran and call that god “Allah.” If they ever heard the name of Jesus, it was in a negative way. They don't believe in Jesus as their Savior, but what chance was there that they could?

Or, take someone who grows up in the inner city in the United States. Their neighborhood is infested with drugs. They don't know their dad. They may not even know their mom. It's all they can do to survive every day. The only time they ever hear the words “Jesus Christ” are as swear words. They don't look around and figure out that there's a God behind the beauty of creation because the creation they see does not look beautiful at all. Again, what chance was there that they could come to believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior?

When we look at all these situations—and there are lots of others we could think about and talk about—it just does not seem right to us that God would not allow all these people into heaven. It does not seem fair to us. And so we try to find ways around Jesus' words. We try to find ways to carve out exceptions. We try to make what Jesus said fit our definitions of what's fair and what's right.

That's not automatically wrong. If we're going to believe in a loving, caring God, then there needs to be some way in which God makes sense to us. If God is not fair, if God does not make sense, then God is simply arbitrary. God exercises raw power just because God can, and we have no choice but to sit here and take it. We might have to respect a God like that, and we might have to obey a God like that, but we could never love a God like that.

On the other hand, we also need to remember that God is not obligated to follow our definitions of fairness and righteousness. God has a better idea about what those things are than we do. It's not enough to say, “I think that's not fair, so therefore that must not be what God does.” What we think is fair and what God thinks is fair can be two different things. And of course, we need to accept that God's opinions are better than ours.

This is why I say this is one of the hard sayings of Jesus. On the one hand, if we say “If you believe in Jesus you go to heaven and if you don't, you don't”, it leads to a lot of situations that don't seem very fair to us. On the other hand, if we start looking for ways around what Jesus said, if we start carving out exceptions, if we start trying to make God fit our definition of fairness, where does that end? It's a slippery slope that eventually leads to “everyone goes to heaven no matter what they believe”, which does not seem like a very Biblical concept at all.

So where are we? What do we do with this statement? What do we believe?

Well, I told you I don't have all the answers. If you disagree with some of the things I've said here this morning, that's okay. You may be right. I mean, I know I'm the pastor and all, but there are a lot of things about the way God works that I don't know. And there always will be.

So, instead of speculating about the stuff I don't know, I'm going to tell you some things I do know. I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I know that Jesus Christ is the Savior, my Savior and your Savior. I know that Jesus Christ provides our way to heaven. I know that by God's grace, and through our faith in Jesus, we will be able, when our time comes, to go to heaven and be with the Lord.

I don't know if there are exceptions. Frankly, I'd like to think there are. When you read the descriptions of hell in the Bible, it's hard to think of anyone, even the most despicable person, having to spend eternity there. I'd like to think that God does make allowances for circumstances and situations. But just because I'd like to think that does not necessarily mean that's the way it is.

What I know is that Jesus told us one way that we do get to heaven. I know this is one way that
works. And so, if I don't want to think of people spending eternity in hell, then I need to do everything I can to get everyone I can to believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And so do you.

The issue may or may not be complicated, but our response should be pretty simple. It's to do what Jesus told us to do: go and make disciples. If we do that, then we don't have to worry about whether there are exceptions to Jesus' statement or not.

Friday, April 5, 2013


The other day, I got an invitation on facebook to join a group called, “Baseball Is a Religion”. Now, I don't think the group meant it literally. It's just intended as a clever name. Still, it got me thinking.

I know baseball is not a religion. Religions have to do with God. The reason this got me thinking, though, is that while my religious faith is an important part of my life, it's not the only thing that's important to me. Lots of things are important to me. My wife is important to me. My family is important to me. My friends are important to me. The churches of this parish are important to me. The communities in which those churches are located are important to me. Music is important to me. Laughing and enjoying a good joke are important to me. And, as you know, baseball is important to me.

Now, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that. I don't think God demands that our religious faith be the only thing in our lives. God gave us things like spouses and families and friends and churches and communities and music and laughter and sports so we could enjoy them. I don't think God minds that we do enjoy them. I think that's what we're supposed to do.

I do think, though, that we need to be careful sometimes. I know I do. God does not demand that our religious faith be the only thing in our lives, but God does want it to be the most important thing in our lives. We know that, but it can be easy to get distracted. It can be easy to give other things more importance than we should, especially when those things are things you really enjoy. I could watch ball games all day long and not get tired of it—but it would not be a good thing for me to do. The same goes for music or laughter or anything else. There's nothing wrong with enjoying them, but we need to keep them in their proper place.

That's true of the other things I mentioned, too. It's good to do things for the community—but it's not as important as our faith in God. It's good to do things for and with our friends—but it's not as important as our faith in God. Even our spouses and our families are not as important as our faith in God.

Obviously, it's possible to serve God while serving our spouses and families and communities. I think that God even uses my sports fandom in ways that serve God. The point is that we need to keep our priorities in order. We need to make sure we know what our focus is. We need to make sure the things we do are serving God, not distracting us from serving God.

I love baseball, but baseball is not a religion. I'll continue to watch baseball when I can. But I hope my focus always remains on God.