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Friday, May 31, 2013

What, Not Why

 A month or so ago, people around here were worried about a drought. Now, not so much. We've gotten quite a bit of rain around here recently, which has put smiles on a lot of people's faces. Now, it's still May, and when it comes to moisture, nothing is assured around here. It could still dry up, as everyone knows. Still, people are not as scared of a drought now as they were a few weeks ago. Not only have we received some much-needed rain, but we also have been spared from any destructive storms.

Other people, however, are not so lucky. You've heard about the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, but we don't have to go that far. There's been flooding in Harrisburg. There's been hail in various places. There have been fires caused by lightning strikes in Sioux Falls.

We wonder why that is. Why have we been blessed by rain, and nothing more, when other people have had such destructive weather? It's certainly not because we're better than anyone else. It's certainly not because we're somehow more deserving of blessings than anyone else. Why did it happen this way? And in asking this question, I'm not wanting to know about low-pressure systems and the jet stream and all that. I'm asking the larger question of why.

This question could be asked in a much larger context, of course. Some people seem to get all the breaks, and others seem to get none. Some people are born in a context in which they can have a relatively easy life, while others struggle all their lives just to get by. Why does it happen like that?

Some people would say there's no reason. It's just the way it is. That's not an answer that's very satisfying, though. That would lead us to believe that either there is no God at all or that God is totally and completely arbitrary. That's not what the Bible tells us about God. The Bible tells us that God is love and that God loves everyone. A God who loves everyone would not act in a completely arbitrary fashion like that.

Other people would say that everything happens for a reason, even if we don't know what the reason is. That's not an answer that's very satisfying, either. That would lead us to believe that God singles out certain people, giving some lots of good stuff and giving others nothing but misery. That's not what the Bible tells us about God, either. Again, a God who loves everyone would not single out certain people for miserable lives, especially when the misery is the result of things that are not in their control.

So where does that leave us? If, on the one hand, we say that there are reasons for things, but if, on the other hand, we say that not everything happens for a reason, how do we deal with questions like this?

Well, all I can tell you is how I deal with it. Frankly, I would classify myself in the category of those who have gotten an awful lot of breaks. I don't know why that is. It's certainly not because I've done anything to deserve them. Some of it may have been blessings from God. Some of it may have been random coincidence, which is another way of saying dumb luck.

For the most part, I don't know which is which. There are times in my life when I believe God played a part in how things turned out, but I don't have a reliable way for telling when it was God and when it was luck. I wish I did, but I don't. I also don't have a way of telling why I have received those blessings from God and others did not.

So, to be honest, the way I deal with it is to not think about it too much. I say that not as a way of being dismissive of the subject, but because I don't see how I'm ever going to get any answers. It's one of those situations where God knows the answers and humans don't, and God has decided it's best if things stay that way. It's not that I don't want to know more, but knowing more does not seem to be one of the possibilities.

So, instead of trying to figure out why, the question I think we need to ask is what. As in, what can we do about it? What can we do to help those who have not received the blessings and/or luck that we have? What can we do to show those people that God loves them, too? What can we do to show those people that we consider them our neighbors, and that we love them, as Jesus told us we should?

“Why” is a question we'll never be able to answer. “What”, however, has many answers. Let's start working to find them.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

No Strings Attached

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 26, 2013.  The Bible verses are 1 Samuel 1:1-28.

As we enter the second week of our sermon series “Mothers and Fathers”, it's kind of interesting how many of the great people in the Bible have remarkable birth stories. Last week, we look at the parents of Moses, Jochebed and Amram. Today we're going to look at Hannah.

Hannah was the mother of the prophet Samuel. Samuel was the first of the great prophets of Israel. He was the one who anointed Saul as the first king of Israel, and when Saul went astray he eventually anointed David to replace Saul. Samuel was obviously a really important person in Israel at that time. There are two books of the Bible named after him, First Samuel and Second Samuel.

But of course, at the time of our Bible reading for today, Hannah had no way of knowing all that. Hannah was, as far as we know, just an ordinary woman. What we read today is pretty much all we know about her. Chapter two of First Samuel goes on to quote a prayer of praise and thanks that Hannah gave. We're told that Eli blessed Hannah and asked God to give her more children, and that Hannah did indeed have more children: three sons and two daughters. But who those sons and daughters were, or what became of Hannah and her husband Elkanah, we don't know. The story we read today is the only thing about Hannah that the people who wrote the Bible decided to include.

Our reading says that Hannah was one of two wives that Elkanah had and that sounds really strange to us today, but at the time, that was no big deal. It's just the way it was at that time. It's not hard to see some of the problems that would come with that kind of arrangement, though, and some of them happened with Hannah and Elkanah's other wife, Peninnah.

Peninnah was able to have children and Hannah was not. It's a really sad thing even now when people want to have children and cannot have them, but at that time, being able to have children was considered a large part of a woman's value. In fact, people considered a woman to have been cursed by God if she could not have children. Again, I'm not making a value judgment about that. I'm just saying that's the way it was.

So think about how Hannah must have felt. She has to share her husband with another woman. This other woman is able to give her husband children and she's not. She's feeling worthless. She's wondering if God has cursed her, and trying to figure out what she might've done to cause that curse and what she can do to get rid of it. And then, to make it worse, there's Peninnah, constantly throwing it in Hannah's face that she's able to have children and Hannah's not. We're told Elkanah loved Hannah and tried to comfort her, but it did not work. Hannah was miserable.

So, Hannah and the rest of the family were making their annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, where there was a temple, to make a sacrifice to God. Hannah goes into the temple, and she's desperate. She tells God that if God will only give her a son, she will dedicate him to God and he'll serve God his whole life. And it happens. Hannah and Elkanah have a son, Samuel. Hannah keeps her side of the bargain. Once he's weaned, she takes him to the temple at Shiloh and he serves God, serving under the priest, Eli.

Now, that's a story of faith, of course. But I think there's more to it than that. Think about it. God knew how Hannah felt. God knew how miserable Hannah was. God know how desperately Hannah wanted to have children. And yet, God did nothing about it. It was not until Hannah made a deal with God, promising that if God gave her a son she would dedicate him to God, that God did what Hannah asked.

Have you ever tried to make a deal with God? Have you ever prayed to God, look, if you'll just do this for me, then I'll do that for you?

I'd guess that a lot of us have at one time or another. If you did, how'd it work out? Did God accept the deal? Or did nothing really change for you?

God obviously does accept the deal sometimes. After all, God did that for Hannah. A lot of times God does not accept it, though. So why is it that God will do this sometimes and not at other times?

There are times, of course, when God knows we're not going to follow through on the deal. I mean, if we're desperate enough, we'll promise almost anything to God. At the time, we may even think we're sincere. After the danger passes, though, we realize we don't really want to do what we promised God to do, and we don't. But I don't really think that's the answer.

I also don't think it's just because sometimes we don't offer God a good-enough deal. It's possible, I suppose. After all, Hannah offered God a pretty good deal—the service of her son for his whole life. And since we know who Samuel became, we can say that God came out pretty well on that deal.

I don't think that's it, though. After all, there are lots of people God could've used to do what Samuel did. God is God. God can do anything, and God can use anyone. If Hannah had not offered Samuel to God, God would've found some other way to accomplish God's plan.

I don't claim to know the whole answer. I do think, though, that sometimes God tests us. Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think that every bad thing that happens is God testing us. There are a lot of reasons that things happen, and a lot of times we don't understand it and we never will understand it. A lot of times, we just have to accept that things are the way they are, even if we don't know why.

Sometimes, though, I think God tests us. The test is not so God can see how we're going to respond. God already knows how we'll respond. The test is so we'll know about ourselves and so we'll learn to trust God.

Sometimes it's important for us to not only know what we want, but to know how badly we want it. We all have lots of things we want. And sometimes we have things that we think we really want. And when I say “things”, I don't just mean material things. It can be health, friendship, love, anything. We all want those things.

But sometimes we don't want them badly enough to do much about them. We may want friendship, but we don't really want to put ourselves out to do things for others. We may want love, but we don't really want to give up the things we need to give up to show love. We honestly do want these things, but sometimes we don't want them badly enough to do whatever it takes to get them.

Hannah wanted to have children. God knew that. Hannah knew it, too. But did Hannah know how badly she wanted to have children? Did she know whether she wanted them badly enough that she'd take care of them even when it was inconvenient or hard? Did she know whether she wanted children badly enough that would put her children's needs above her own? Did she know whether she wanted children badly enough that nothing would be more important to her than those children?

We don't know how Hannah felt at the beginning of this story. But we know how she felt at the end. We know that, by the time Hannah got to that temple at Shiloh, she knew that she wanted a child so badly that there was nothing else in the world that was as important to her. Having a child was so important to her that, if God would give her that child, she would give that child back to God. No questions asked. No strings attached.

Again, I don't think every bad thing that happens is God testing us. But when God does test us, that's the point God wants us to reach. God wants us to reach the point that, if God does give us what we ask for, we will be willing to give whatever God gives us back to God. No questions asked. No strings attached.

That's true no matter what it is. Whether it's wealth or possessions, whether it's health, whether it's friendship, whether it's happiness, no matter what it is, that's how God wants us to feel about it. God wants us to reach the point that, if God does give us what we ask for, we're willing to give it back to God. No questions asked. No strings attached.

So, we need to think about what we want out of life. Then, we need to think about how badly we want it. Do we want it so badly that if God gives it to us, we'll give it back to God? If so, let's pray for it. It worked for Hannah. It may work for us, too.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Sunshine On My Shoulders

I'm writing this on Thursday. As I write it, it's a beautiful, sunny morning. The wind is supposed to come up later, but right now there's just a nice, gentle breeze. The temperature is pleasant as well.

In other words, it's a nice day. There's nothing that unusual about a nice day, I suppose. We have them from time to time. We probably have them more often than we realize. I say that because as human beings, we tend to remember the bad days a lot more than the good ones. Everyone remembers “the blizzard of '97” or something similar to that. No one remembers “the nice days of '98”. It's just the way we are.

The thing is, though, that we've had almost a week of grey, cloudy, rainy days. I'm not complaining about that, because we really needed the rain. Still, day after day of clouds and rain can get a little tiresome. Then, too, we had a really cold, snowy April, which makes it even worse. I really like warm weather. I'm ready to have some of it, and so far, we really haven't.

So, when we get a nice day like today, it really stands out. It seems like a day to treasure. It seems like a day to get out and enjoy. It seems like a day to celebrate.

I remember, when I was a kid, reading a short science fiction story about a world that had two suns. One of them was always up, so you never experienced night except for one time every fifty years or something like that. The point was that people would be amazed at a starry night if they rarely saw one, but when we see them all the time we get so used to it that we rarely even notice.

This is the same principle. When we have a bunch of nice days, we might enjoy them, but after a while we don't even notice. When we have a bunch of rainy days, though, and then get a sunny day, it stands out. We're almost amazed by it. We appreciate the warmth of the sun. We appreciate the soft, gentle breeze. We appreciate the incredible gift of sunshine that we too often take for granted.

That's true of so much of life. We tend to take a lot of the good things in life for granted. When things are going well, a lot of times we forget to thank God for them. When things aren't going the way we want them too, though, we can be very quick to blame God for that. It's almost like we think God owes it to us to make things go right, so we just accept that without even thinking about it. When things go wrong, though, we feel almost like God has betrayed us somehow.

I do this at least as much as anyone, so don't think I'm pointing a finger here. It's backwards thinking, though. The truth is that God does not owe us anything. There's nothing we can do for God that God could not do without us. In fact, it would probably be easier for God to do it without us. Given the number of times we disobey God, the amazing thing is not that sometimes things go wrong. The amazing thing is the number of times things go right. The amazing thing is the number of good things God does give us. And the other amazing thing, of course, is the number of times we thought things had gone wrong, only to find out later that things had actually gone right after all and we just didn't realize it at the time.

So let's not let the good things God gives us go by without noticing them. Let's appreciate the sunshine. Let's appreciate the rain, too. Let's appreciate the food we eat, the water we drink, and the clothes we wear. Let's appreciate the grass and the flowers and the birds. Let's appreciate the people in our lives, too. And let's thank God for all the wonderful things God gives us.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Faith of Our Parents

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, May 19, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Exodus 1:5-2:10. 

Today we start a new sermon series, “Mothers and Fathers”. We're going to look at some of the mothers and fathers in the Bible and see what we can learn from them.

Now, I'm going to tell you right off that I'm not going to include Mary and Joseph in this series. They'd certainly be worthy of inclusion, but I've talked about them at Christmas, and probably will again. Instead, we're going to look at some mothers and fathers that maybe you're not quite as familiar with. Today, we're going to look at the story of Jochebed and Amram.

I'm guessing most of us are not familiar with the names “Jochebed” and “Amram”. As you may have guessed from the Bible verses we read today, though, these were the parents of Moses. Jochebed was Moses' mother, and Amram was his father.

If you did not catch the names during the Bible reading, that's not your fault. Their names are not mentioned in that reading. Amram is referred to only as “a man of the house of Levi” and Jochebed is referred to simply as “a Levite woman”. It's only in some lists of genealogies, one found in Exodus six, one in Numbers twenty-six, and one in First Chronicles six, that we learn that the name of Moses' father was Amram, his mother's name was Jochebed, and that they had three children together, Moses, his brother Aaron, and their sister Miriam.

And by the way, I did not know all this stuff off the top of my head, either. Before I started working on this sermon series, I could not have told you what the names of Moses' mother and father were. I had to look this up just like you would.

Moses, of course, became the greatest leader of the nation of Israel. He led Israel out of captivity in Egypt. He stood up to the mighty Pharaoh and demanded “let my people go”. He talked directly to God. The Ten Commandments were given to us by God through Moses. Lots and lots of Jewish law came through Moses. Moses led Israel to the doorstep of the Promised Land.

And because we know all that, it became really easy for Jochebed and Amram to be forgotten about. What I want you to do today, though, is try to put yourselves in their place and think about what they did.

The nation of Israel had come to Egypt during the time of Joseph. Joseph, of course, was an Israelite who was sold into slavery in Egypt but eventually worked his way up to become the number two person in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. There had been a famine, and so lots of Israelites had come to Egypt to find food. Then they stayed and lived there.

And for a while, that was fine. But then Pharaoh died. Joseph died. All the people who were around when this had happened died. And there was a new group of leaders in Egypt. Those new leaders looked around and saw all these foreigners living in their country, and they got scared. They were not sure they could trust these Israelites. So they forced them into slavery.

More time passed. The Israelites kept having children. There were more and more of them living in Egypt. And because the Egyptians had mistreated them, now they were even more scared of them. They did not want all these Israelites living in their country. On the other hand, they could not just kick them all out, because they'd come to depend on that slave labor.

They felt like they needed to do something to keep the Israelite population from growing. Since they did not have modern methods of birth control back then, they did what they thought was the next best thing. They decided that every male child born to the Israelites should be killed. They let the girls live because they figured the girls would not form an army and take over the country. But the boys would all be killed.

So that's what the world was like for Amram and Jochebed. Think of what it would be like to live in that world. You're a slave, and you're probably always going to be a slave. If you have a son, he's going to be killed. Would you even want to get married in that situation? Would you want to have children at all in that situation?

Well, Amram and Jochebed did get married. And eventually, Jochebed told Amram that they were going to have a baby.

How do you suppose they felt? Were they happy to be having a child? I mean, a part of them probably was, but at the same time, they knew what would happen if they had a son. We're not told this, but I bet they prayed. I don't know what they prayed, but I bet they prayed a lot. Maybe they prayed that the child would be a girl. Maybe they prayed that, if it was a boy, God would take care of it somehow. There had to be all kinds of mixed emotions going on inside them.

The first child was a girl, Miriam. And Amram and Jochebed were relieved. A girl would be allowed to live. Life could go on for all of them.

Then, at some point, Jochebed must have told Amram that they were going to have another child. And they went through the same emotional roller coaster again. A part of them was probably happy to have another child. Maybe, in some ways, they even wanted to have a boy. But they knew what would happen if they did. So again they waited, and again they prayed, and again they had all kinds of mixed emotions going on inside of them.

Eventually, of course, this child was born, too. And this time it was a son. How would they have felt then? I'm sure both Amram and Jochebed loved their son, but they knew what was going to happen. They hid him as long as they could. Then, finally, Jochebed put Moses in a basket and put him in the reeds along the banks of the Nile.

And a miracle happens. It must have felt like a miracle to Jochebed and Amram, anyway. Moses is found. And he's not found by just anyone, he's found by the daughter of the mighty Pharaoh. What's more, she does not send him away to be killed, which is what they probably expected her to do. Instead, at Miriam's suggestion, she has Jochebed herself take care of Moses until he gets older, and then brings Moses into Pharaoh's household as her son.

It took a lot of faith for Amram and Jochebed to get married in that situation. It took a lot of faith for them to have children. They knew what the law said. And yet, somehow, they were able to trust God enough to have children. They trusted that, somehow, if they had a son, God would take care of that son. And of course, God did take care of Moses. Not only did Moses live, he was brought up in Pharaoh's house. Eventually, with God's help, Moses led Israel out of exile in Egypt and across the Red Sea into freedom. And it all started with the faith of Jochebed and Amram. That's a lot of faith.

But you know, it always takes faith to bring children into the world. We don't live in the world Amram and Jochebed lived in, but there are still a lot of problems in the world. There are wars going on, and there is the threat of more wars to come. There's all kinds of uncertainty about the economy. We're currently in a drought. There are drugs and crime. There are lots of other dangers in the world, too. Things may not be like they were in Jochebed and Amram's time, but it's still a very dangerous and difficult world to bring children into.

And yet, people do. They do all the time. And I think a lot of it has to do with faith, the same faith that Amram and Jochebed had. A faith that says that somehow, bringing a child into this world is the right thing to do. A faith that says that, somehow, if we have children, God will take care of those children. A faith that says, if we have children, who knows what those children might become? With God's help, those children might even go on to do great things, just like Moses did.

I think that's what we can learn from this mother and this father, Jochebed and Amram. That even in a situation that seems hopeless, we can still have hope. We can still have hope because of our faith in God. No matter how bad the world looks, there is always hope that God will make it better. And there is always hope that God will use us to do it.

So the next time you start feeling depressed about the situation the world is in, look at a little kid. Think about what God may do with that kid. And realize that as long as God lives, we're never without hope.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Topday Show

I do a lot of typing. And, of course, the fact that I use the word “typing” shows my age. Nobody learns “typing” any more, because nobody uses a typewriter any more. They learn “keyboarding” and they do it on a keyboard. But I digress.

I'm a fast typist. Unfortunately, I'm not an accurate typist. I make a lot of typos. Sometimes I don't catch them and they make it into my posts, which is a bit embarrassing.

It occurs to me that even though nobody learns “typing” any more, our mistakes are still called “typos”. I've never heard anyone say they made a “keyboardo”. I guess typo is just shorter and easier. But I digress, again.

As with most people, there are certain typos I make over and over again, usually because my fingers aren't positioned quite right. One of them is “topday”. I mean to type “today”, but there are a lot of times I hit both the “o” and the “p” at the same time. For some reason, it never comes out “tpoday”. It always comes out “topday”. One time, after I did that, though, it struck me that “topday” is actually better than “today”.

Think about it. “Today” sounds average, boring, humdrum. “Today” is just wherever we happen to be and whatever we happen to be doing at the present moment. There's nothing special about it. “Today” could be anything. It might be good. It might be bad. It might be neither. “Today” is no big deal.

But “topday”? “Topday is special. “Topday” is good. In fact, “topday” is awesome. Nothing is higher than the top. So a “topday” is as good as it gets. A “topday” is great, wonderful, incredible. It just doesn't get any better than a “topday”.

All of us have days that seem routine. If that's how it feels to you today, don't have a “today”. Have a “topday”. Make tomorrow a “topday”, too. In fact, try to make every day a “topday”. You might find out that it makes quite a difference in your life.

Friday, May 10, 2013

That's Incredible!

This is the message given at the Oahe Manor Communion service Thursday, May 9, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Psalm 97.

As I was reading this psalm, it struck me that too often, when we think of God, we bring God down to our level. We humanize God.

There's a good side to that, in a way. It's easier for us to think of God that way. It's easier for us to imagine God as a friend, as loving us, as caring about us, when we bring God down to our level. And it is true that God is our friend, that God does love us, and that God does care about us, so in that way, bringing God down to our level can be a good thing.

On the other hand, if we go too far with that, it can lead us to do things we should not do. It can lead us to start trying to order God around. It can lead us to start demanding that God act in a way that makes sense to us, and when God does not do that, we think there must be something wrong with God. We don't understand how God could not do things our way.

What this psalm does is remind us how powerful, how mighty, how awesome God is. It reminds us how God is so far from our level that we cannot even imagine it.

As I read this description again, try to picture it. Try to imagine what this would look like. It says of God, “Clouds and thick darkness surround him.” So we cannot even actually see God, all we can see is clouds and darkness.

Then it says, “Fire goes before him.” So, in front of those clouds and thick darkness, there's fire. And we're not just talking about a little fire from a candle, either. We're talking about a blaze. We're talking about a raging inferno, consuming everything in its path. So, you've got this big fire, and then you've got clouds and thick darkness. If we were somehow able to see God, that's all we'd be able to see.

Then, as God moves, here's the description of that. “His lightning lights up the world...The mountains melt like wax before the Lord.”

Think of the power involved in all this. Think of the might of God, that if God moves, mountains would melt like wax before God even gets there. This is one incredible God we're talking about here. This is a God way beyond anything we could ever even try to imagine. The power, the might, the absolutely incredible awesomeness of God are more than we can comprehend. When you think about it, you can see why the Bible says that no one on earth can see God and live. It's not that God would kill us if we saw God. It's that our minds would explode if we did. We'd never be able to handle it.

This is the God we pray to. Think about this. This God, who's so far beyond anything in human experience that I really cannot come up with words to do God justice, this is the God we talk to, and ask for things from, and make demands of, and get mad at, and get disappointed in when we don't get what we want.

God is so far beyond us. And yet, we're told we don't have to scared of God. Not if we believe in God, anyway. We're told that God guards the lives of the faithful. We're told God's light shines on us, and we'll feel joy, as long as we trust God and praise God.

You know, that might be the most awesome thing of all. That this God, who is so far beyond us, still really does love us, still really does care about us, still really is our friend. That's beyond my imagination, too.

Seriously, I don't know why God would love me. I don't know why God would want to be my friend. I mean, I'm glad about it. I can see what I get out of the deal. But what does God get out of it? What can I do for God? Nothing. There is absolutely nothing I can do for God that God could not do better without me getting in the way. The only thing I can see that God gets out of it is disappointment and frustration. God tries to guide me along the right path, and yet I keep wanting to go my own way and do my own thing. I keep thinking I know better than God does. You'd think God would just get disgusted and give up on me. But God never does.

God never gives up on you, either. God never gives up on any of us. No matter what we do, no matter how ignorant or selfish or just plain stupid we get, God still loves us, guides us, and wants to be our friend. It's beyond my comprehension why. But it's true.

But that's what love is. That's what love does. Love, true love, never gives up. Love never quits. No matter how disappointed or frustrated or even disgusted we are with someone, we never give up on someone we truly love. If we mere humans can love through all that, our all-powerful and yet all-loving God can love us through it even better.

God has incredible power and might. But God also has incredible love. May we all feel God's incredible love every day of our lives.

Time Enough

I wrote a week or so ago about how I like to be active. Being active has a down side. When you're active, it means you have a lot of stuff to do. When you have a lot of stuff to do already, and then something happens where you have some extra stuff to do, well, life can get pretty hectic.

Now, please understand, this is not a complaint, nor is it a request for sympathy. All pastors lives get hectic sometimes. In fact, all people's lives get hectic sometimes. There's an old saying that nothing in life is ever evenly distributed. We all have times when it seems like everything happens at once.

When that happens, we can get a little frantic. I do, too, sometimes. I don't get frantic as often as I used to, though. You see, I've noticed something.

What I've noticed is that every time I look at all the things I need to do and think there's no way I'll ever get them all done, something happens. A project doesn't take as long as I thought it would. Someone comes along and, out of the blue, offers to do something for me. A deadline I thought was coming up right away gets pushed back. And, suddenly, I have some time that I wasn't expecting to have, and I have time to get everything done that I need to do.

This probably has happened all through my life, but when I really noticed it was when I started seminary. At that time, I was a part-time lawyer, a part-time pastor, and a full-time student. You might think, doing all that, there'd never be time to get it all done, but there always was. Every time I'd start to get scared that I'd never get it all done, something would happen so that I could. Time after time after time, so many times that I've long since lost count.

You can say this is a coincidence if you want to. I can't prove you wrong if you do. That's not what I think, though. I think this is God affirming the things I'm doing and helping me get them all done. I think this is God telling me that I'm on the right track—not perfectly, not all the time, but in general—and helping me do all the things I need to do. God rarely gives me extra time—at least in the sense I might like—but God always seems to give me time enough.

So, I don't get frantic about running out of time very often any more. Don't get me wrong, I still get concerned about it sometimes. But I don't very often get frantic. God always somehow gives me the time I need to get everything done. If I stay on the right track, I have every confidence that God will continue to do that.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

That's Different

This is the message given in Onida and Agar on Sunday, May 5, 2013.  The Bible verses are Matthew 5:38-47.

 Today we come to the end of our sermon series, “Seriously, Jesus?” As we look at some of the things Jesus said that we wish he had not said, I think what we read today really takes the prize.

Of all the Bible verses we talked about in confirmation class, this may be the one the kids struggled with the most. It may be the one adults struggle with the most, too. All of it goes against what our instincts tell us to do.

Listen to what Jesus said again:

“I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you”

None of that makes any sense to us. Are we supposed to just do nothing when we're attacked, just stand there and take it? Are we supposed to give everything we have to anyone who wants it, whether they need it or not?

If it makes you feel better, nobody else seems to like this statement of Jesus any more than we do. I read several Bible commentaries on this passage, and they all seem to struggle with it just as much as we do. It just does not seem like a reasonable way to live our lives. After all, if we don't defend ourselves, who will? If we give stuff to someone just because they ask for it, we won't have anything left for ourselves. And then, after we've been beaten and taken advantage of, how in the world can we love the people who did that to us?

It goes against all our conventional wisdom. In fact, it went against all the conventional wisdom of Jesus' time. All this sounded just as strange, and just as impractical, to the people who heard Jesus say it as it does to us today, maybe more so.

What we need to remember, though, is that Jesus did not come to give people the conventional wisdom. There'd have been no need for him to do that. He would not have gotten killed on a cross if he'd done that.

If there's one thing that should come through in our look at all these hard statements of Jesus, it should be that Jesus is telling us that if we want to follow him, we have to be different. We cannot call ourselves Christians if we just go along with the crowd and do what everyone else does.

That's the point of what Jesus says next. He says, look, there's nothing special about loving people who love you. Even tax collectors, the people who were considered at the bottom end of the social scale, loved people who loved them. There were not very many people who did love them, but they loved the ones who did. Jesus says if you're just friendly to the people who are like you and agree with you, there's nothing special about that either. Even pagans, people who don't believe in God at all, do that.

Followers of Jesus are supposed to be different. There's no point in saying we follow Jesus if our following him does not mean that our lives change in some way. If we defend ourselves when we're attacked, well, everybody does that. If we just give when we're forced to give, well, everybody does that, too. If we just do what everybody else does, our Christian faith is meaningless.

Now, Jesus does not say that we can take ourselves out of a bad situation. If someone is being abused, Jesus does not say they should not try to get away from the abuser. Jesus is talking about not joining the battle. He's not talking about being a punching bag.

Also, let me say that I'm no better at this than anybody else. If I'm attacked, my instinct is to fight back, too. I'm not just talking about a physical attack, either. If someone disagrees with me, whether it's about faith or anything else, my instinct is to come back at them just as hard as they came at me. And I don't give to everyone who asks just because they ask. I'm not making excuses for myself. I'm just being honest. I need to work on it. We all need to work on it.

The thing is, though, what happens when we come back hard at someone who disagrees with us? We start an argument, right? And what happens then? We have hard feelings. We have people who are upset and angry, often including ourselves. We're usually upset and angry, too. Did we really accomplish anything that way? We may have made ourselves feel better for a minute or two, but now we've got a problem that will last long after we can even remember what our original argument was about.

I think the main point of it all is when Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That's a really hard thing to do. I wrote in the newsletter this week about the people who conducted the bombings at the Boston Marathon. I don't love those people. In fact, I have no desire whatsoever to love those people. Anyone who would do what those people did does not deserve my love.

But of course, that's exactly the point, right? As Christians, we're supposed to love people who do not deserve our love.

That's what Jesus did. Jesus loved the “tax collectors and sinners”, the people who the rest of society did not love. Jesus loved Judas, who betrayed him. Jesus loved the Roman soldiers who beat him. Jesus even loved the people who had him killed.

See, Jesus did not ask us to do anything he did not do. When Jesus was arrested, he did not fight back. In fact, he specifically told his disciples not to fight back. When Jesus was beaten, he did not fight back. When Jesus was mocked and taunted, he did not fight back. When Jesus was hung on a cross and killed, he did not fight back. He could have. He's the divine Son of God. He had all kinds of power, much more than he ever actually used while he was on earth. But he did not.

It's also what God does. None of us deserves God's love. None of us is worthy of it. None of us, on our own merits, has any right to come anywhere near God. Yet God loves us anyway. Even when we ignore God, God still loves us. Even when we criticize God, God still to loves us. Even when we deny God, God still loves us. Even when we betray God, Got still loves us. God does not ask us to do anything that God is not willing to do.

It's hard, though. Because this is not a story. I've mentioned this once before, but when I was a kid, I'd read these children's stories where people would do this, where they'd keep loving people who were being mean to them, and those people would start to feel ashamed of themselves and start to change. In real life, it does not work that way. It might, but it probably won't. Jesus did not say we are to do these things because it'll make others change. That's not the point. We're supposed to do these things because that's what a follower of Jesus is supposed to do.

Jesus knew others might not change. The Bible does not tell us that the Roman soldiers changed because of what Jesus did. It does not tell us that the Pharisees changed. That was not the point. The point of living the way Jesus told us to live is not to shame others into changing. The point is that living the way Jesus told us to live is what a follower of Jesus is supposed to do.

We are supposed to love people whether they love us or not. In fact, we're specifically supposed to love people who don't love us. We're supposed to love people who beat us and take our stuff. Again, we can take ourselves out of a bad situation, but we're not supposed to respond with anger. That's just not what a follower of Jesus is supposed to do.

It's hard. We don't want to do it. I don't want to do it, either. But Jesus did not say, “do this if you want to.” Jesus did not say, “do this if you feel like it.” Jesus said this is what his followers are supposed to do. Period.

This is where we decide whether we truly want to be followers of Jesus or not. If we do, we need to decide we're going to try to do these things, whether we feel like it or not. We'll fail sometimes, but we need to keep trying if we want to be followers of Jesus.

We had two young people come up here today and say they want to be followers of Jesus. Most of us here have said that at one time or another. Jesus said that if we want to follow him, we have to do some things we don't want to do. Are you willing to? Am I?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Because Life is Short

I'm fifty-four years old. It still comes as kind of a surprise to me when I write that, but it's true. Now, fifty-four isn't old, exactly, but it's not young either. I still feel young, sometimes, but then I spend time with people who actually are young and realize that things that seem like they happened not that long ago took place before they were born. When that happens, you know you're not young.

When I write that I'm fifty-four, it makes me realize that I have, in all likelihood, already lived more than half my life. In fact, I may have lived substantially more than half my life already. I realize that life is short, and there are only so many years that I have left. Not that I expect it to all come to an end today or tomorrow, although it always could. There is a point, though, at which it will come to an end.

It strikes me that there are two ways to look at that. Well, there are probably a lot more than two ways to look at it, but there are two that I want to discuss here.

One of them is to say that, since life is short, we need to be as active as we can. We need to do as much as we can, because there will come a day when we can't do it any more. We need to get up early and work as hard as we can for as long as we can, so that when the day comes when we cannot do those things, we can feel like we absolutely did as much as we could.

The other way is to say that, since life is short, we need to take some time to have fun. We need to take time for ourselves. If we become too active, if we try to do too much, we'll burn ourselves out. We'll lose the joy and the fun of being alive. We need to, as the saying goes, stop and smell the roses, or we miss out on the joy of just living.

Earlier in my life, I tended toward the latter view. Now, I tend toward the former. This is a direct consequence of how much I enjoy my work now. Don't get me wrong—I enjoyed being a lawyer. But I love being a pastor. And I especially love being a pastor here in these beautiful communities with such wonderful people. I'm as active as I am because I enjoy what I do.

Besides, if I did take more time off, I'm not sure what I'd do with it. I could read more, I suppose. I could watch more ball games. Maybe I could travel. But you know, there's only so much reading you can do. There are only so many ball games you can watch. And the fact is, I don't like traveling all that much. I could spend more time with Wanda, and there are times when that would be a good thing to do, but Wanda is at least as active as I am, and enjoys it just as much as I do.

I am learning that I have to pace myself, though. I need to make sure I get enough rest, because if I don't, I'll eventually wear myself down and get sick. I need to take the time to get some exercise and to eat properly, too, because again, there will be consequences to my health if I don't. As I get older, I will probably need to be even more careful about these things.

I'm not saying my way is the way it should be for everybody. We're all different. As I said, I did not always feel the way I do now. Maybe at some point in the future I'll feel differently again. For now, though, I'm going to stay as active as I can. Because life is short, I love what I do, and there's really nothing else I want to do with my life.