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Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Honor Roll

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, November 24, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Mark 14:12-26 and Psalm 139.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving, so it seemed like the perfect time to end our sermon series called “Thank God”.  So far, we've talked about how thanking God helps us feel joy and feel like we are one with God.  We've also talked about how, even though we know, as the Apostle Paul says, that we should be thankful in all circumstances, it can be a really hard thing to do, and how God understands if sometimes we just cannot do it.

The thing is, though, that even though God understands when we simply cannot feel thankful, that should still be our goal.  Not in the sense of feeling guilty if we don't feel thankful, but in the sense of knowing that we'll feel better if we do.  It's okay for us to feel whatever we feel, but we also need to try to find ways to not feel it any more, to start feeling the thankfulness that really will help us once again feel joy and feel that we are one with God.

And that's why we read the story from the gospel of Mark about the Last Supper.  Some of you might have wondered about that, because we usually read that story when it's getting close to Easter, not at Thanksgiving.  But it seems to me, when I read that story, that one of the things Jesus does there is give us an example of being thankful in all circumstances.

Let's look at what's going on here.  Jesus is about to take the Passover meal with his disciples.  This is the last time he's going to be with them before he gets arrested—that, of course, is why we call it the Last Supper.  The arrangements are made.  The meal is prepared.  Jesus comes, and the way it's written, the first thing he tells the disciples is that one of them is going to betray him.

The disciples—other than Judas—are shocked.  Judas himself might be shocked, at least shocked that Jesus knows what he's going to do, anyway.  But Jesus tells them it really is going to happen, and that it really is one of them.

Then, it's time to eat.  What happens then?  Here's what it says:

"Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it, this is my body.”  Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it."

Think about that.  Jesus knows exactly what's going to happen.  He knows that later on that night, he's going to be arrested.  Then he's going to be beaten, he's going to be tortured, and he's going to be killed in a very hard way.  And he knows that the person responsible for turning him over to the authorities and making all this happen is sitting right there with him.  And yet, Jesus gives thanks.  He gives thanks twice, once before giving his disciples the bread and once before giving his disciples the cup.  Knowing everything that's going to happen, Jesus still gives thanks to God the Father.

I wonder what Jesus actually said.  There's no way to know, of course.  None of the gospels quote Jesus there.  They just say he gave thanks.  It may have just been a ritualistic Jewish prayer, just a formula prayer that Jews always said before taking a meal, especially the Passover meal.  That would explain why we don't have Jesus' words.  On the other hand, all the gospels that talk about this specifically point out that Jesus gave thanks twice.  If it was just a ritual, there'd have been no need to say it at all.

What would Jesus have had to be thankful for, at that point?  The food?  What good was that going to do him?  This was the last meal he would have on earth.  His friends?  One of them was going to betray him, and all of them were going to abandon him.  The coming day?  Jesus knew what that was going to bring for him.  Yes, he knew he would eventually triumph over death and would later go to be with God the Father in heaven, but he was going to have to travel a long, hard road to get there.  And as we learn from Jesus' time in the Garden of Gethsemane, it's not a road he particularly wanted to travel, any more than anyone else would.  If you were Jesus, what would you be thankful for right then?  Anything?

Again, there's no way to know what Jesus was thankful for.  The only thing I can think of, though, is that Jesus was thankful for the chance to serve God the Father.  Jesus was thankful for the honor of being the one who would bring salvation to the world.  Jesus was thankful that, as the Divine Son, he had the privilege of being the one who would suffer, die, and then conquer death so that our sins would be forgiven.

Maybe some of us would look at that and think, “Oh, yeah, that was some honor, all right.”  But if we think about it, it really was an honor.  After all, who else could've done it?  Who else could have been fully divine and fully human at the same time?  Who else could've been sent from heaven to do what Jesus did?  Who else could have left the presence of God the Father, abandoning the power that comes from God the Father, leaving the joy and beauty and peace and love that comes from being in the presence of God the Father, in order to bring salvation to us?  No human could've done it, obviously.  No angel could've done it, either.  None of the cherubim or seraphim or any other heavenly beings could have done it.  Out of all the earthly beings and all he heavenly beings, there was only one who could do it.  The only one who could be sent from heaven, the only being capable of doing what Jesus did, was Jesus himself, the divine Son of God.

Only the divine Son was uniquely qualified to suffer, die, and then conquer death so our sins would be forgiven.  And we're told that Jesus was honored for it.  If you wonder why we're told that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father, well, that's one of the reasons why.  To be seated at the right hand of the king was the place of greatest honor.  And Jesus was given that honor because he accepted the chance to serve God the Father in a way that only he could do.

You and I are asked to serve God the Father, too.  We are asked to serve God in a way that no one else can.  Each of us is.  There is some way in which you are uniquely qualified to serve God, just like Jesus was.  And I can just hear some of you thinking, “Oh, yeah, right.  I'll just bet there is.  I'm no better than anyone else.  There's nothing I can do that lots of other people cannot do.  In fact, they can all do those things a lot better than I can.  There's nothing special about me.”

I understand why you think that, but it's not true.  Each of us is special and unique.  Our psalm today talked about how God knows everything about us.  God knows when we get up and when we go to bed.  God knows when we go out and when we come back.  God has known us since before we were born.

What that means is that there is something about you that is different from everyone else on earth.  There is something about me that is different from everyone else on earth.  If I was exactly like someone else, there'd have been no need for God to put me here.  If you were exactly like someone else, there'd have been no need for God to put you here.  The fact that you are here, and the fact that I'm here, shows that there is something we are supposed to do, something that no other being on earth or in heaven can do.

That's part of what it means to be one of God's children.  Those of you who have children, think about it.  Are any two of them alike?  Even if you have twins, are they exactly alike?  Of course not.  Even if they're identical twins, they're still not exactly alike.  Each of us is different.  Each of us is unique.  Each of us is special.  And each of us has something God wants us to do that no one else can do.  Each of us is asked to serve God in some special and unique way.

Think of the honor that is.  Out of all the billions of people on this earth, out of all the heavenly beings, there is something you, and only you, have been chosen by God to do.  It may be easy.  It may be hard.  It may be enjoyable.  It may not be.  It may be something you do with a group of people.  It may be something you do alone.  It may not be the same thing all your life.  In fact, it probably won't be.  But God has chosen you, and only you, to do something.  Out of all the billions of people on earth, God has selected you.

So if you have a hard time thinking of something to be thankful for, be thankful for that.  Be thankful that, out of all the billions of people on earth, out of all the billions of people who are and who have been and who will be, God knows your name.  God knows everything about you.  God has known you since before you were born.  There is no one else on earth like you.  And there is something God wants you to do that no one else can do.

Think about what an honor that is.  And be thankful for the honor of serving the almighty, all-loving, eternal God in your own special, unique way.

Friday, November 22, 2013

That's Different

This is the message at the most recent United Methodist Oahe Manor Sunday service, November 10, 2013.  The Bible verses are Luke 6:27-36.

Mark Twain once said that he was not bothered by all the things in the Bible he did not understand.  What really bothered him, he said, was all the things in the Bible he did understand.

When we read these verses, we can see what Twain meant.  These verses are not hard to understand.  But they are really hard to live.  These are things we wish Jesus had not told us to do, because we really do not want to do them.

Look at it.  Look at the things Jesus tells us to do here.  Love our enemies.  Bless those who curse us.  Pray for those who mistreat us.  If someone takes our coat, do not withhold our shirt.  Give to everyone who asks.  If someone takes something that belongs to us, don't demand it back.

There's some of that we might, grudgingly, be able to go along with.  We might, possibly, understand that we need to pray for people who mistreat us, so that their hearts could be changed.  We can least understand in theory why we should love our enemies.  Maybe, possibly, we could even do that, as long as we did not have to, you know, actually have anything to do with them.  And on a good day, we might even be able to bless someone who cursed us, at least after our first emotions settled down.

But some of this other stuff?  No way.  We reject that out-of-hand.  Someone takes my coat away from me, and I should just smile and give them my shirt?  I should give to everyone who asks, no matter how much they have or how little I have?  If someone takes something of mine, I should just let that go and not do anything about it?  None of that makes any sense.

Jesus tells us what we're supposed to do these things.  For one thing, he says, look, if we just love people who love us, that's meaningless.  We're no better than the unbelievers.  Everybody loves people who love them.  Same thing with doing good for people who do good to us.  There's nothing special about that.  Everybody does that.  If we only lend money to people we think can and will pay us back, all we've done is conduct a business transaction.  That's not something that has to do with God, that's just good business.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we're supposed to do more than just be like everybody else.  We're  supposed to be different.  We're supposed to live our lives differently from people who don't follow Jesus.  If we don't do that, our claim of following Jesus Christ is meaningless.

Jesus says it's not our job to judge people.  It's not our job to condemn people.  It's our job to love people.  It's our job to show mercy to people.  It's our job to forgive people.

I suspect most of us agree with that in theory.  We know we're supposed to love others.  We know we're supposed to forgive.  We know we're supposed to show mercy.  We agree with it in theory, but in practice, it's something that's hard to live out.

It's just as hard for me as it is for you.  I don't do this any better than anybody else does.  In fact, I'm sure I'm worse at it than many people are.  I try not to be greedy, but at the same time, if someone takes something of mine, I'm probably not going to just smile and say “Sure, here it is, take it.  In fact, take some more, too.  Have as much as you want.”  I certainly don't give to everyone who asks.  I judge who it is and what they're asking for and what they're going to do with the money.

Some would say Jesus did not mean for us to take all this literally, and that's possible.  I mean, Jesus did not live in a world of telemarketers.  Jesus did not live in a world where there are people who's whole job is to call us and ask for money.  I don't know that we have to be too hard on ourselves if we don't literally do everything Jesus told us to do here.

But we also need to make sure we're not too easy on ourselves.  Because, again, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are supposed to be different.  We are not supposed to just do what everybody else does.  We're supposed to be better.  Better at giving, better at forgiving, better at showing mercy, better at all of that.  In short, we're supposed to be better at showing love.  Love for our enemies.  Love for people who curse us.  Love for people who mistreat us.  Love for people who want our stuff.

So what do we do?  Well, I don't know that I have a nice, easy answer for you.  I think it's something we need to work on.  I think we need to pray about it, certainly.  When we're dealing with people who hate us or curse us or mistreat us, when we're dealing with people who want us to give us things or who just come up and take them, we need to think about these words.  We need to ask ourselves what Jesus would want us to do.

Whatever our answer is, we need to make sure it's an answer that's based on love, because that's what Jesus' answer would be based on.  Jesus told us, after all, that the two most important things are that we love God and that we love people.  However we answer this question, if the answer is not based in love, then it's not Jesus' answer.

We may wish Jesus had not told us to do these things, but Jesus did.  If we claim to follow Jesus, we cannot ignore what Jesus said just because we don't like it.  We need to deal with it honestly.  We need to pray about it.  We need to ask what Jesus wants us to do.  And then, we need to act the way Jesus did.  We need to act out of love for God, and love for others.

A Prayer to Change the World

This message was given at the Communion service at Oahe Manor on Thursday, November 7, 2013.  The Bible verses used are 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12.

In our Sunday sermons in the United Methodist church, we recently did a sermon series on the power of prayer.  We did not use these verses I just read, but maybe we should have.  Look at what they say about prayer.

The Apostle Paul is writing to the church of the Thessalonians, and starts by saying, “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters.”  That's one of the most important things there is about prayer:  thanking God.  There are all kinds of things we should thank God for, of course, but the one Paul mentions here is to thank God for other people in his life, the Christian brothers and sisters in this church.

We should thank God for the people in our lives, too.  Those people are important to us.  They're our friends, they're our relatives.  Friends and relatives are people who help make us what we are.  They're the people who help us when we're down, who are there for us when we need someone.  They're the people who help make us what we are and who we are.  We need to thank God for those people.

Now, maybe some of you feel like you don't really have much for family or friends any more, but you do.  There are people in this room who are your friends.  I know there are a lot of people on the staff here who consider you friends.  I consider you my friends, too.  It means a lot to me to be able to come out here and visit with you.  It means a lot to Wanda, too, even though she was not able to be here today.  We thank God for all of you.  You make our lives a lot fuller and happier, just by being who you are.

But Paul goes on to say something he's specifically thanking God for about these people.  He's thanking God that their faith is growing and their love for each other is increasing.  And those are two more things we should thank God for:  faith and love.  We should thank God for our own faith and love, and we should thank God for the faith and love of other people, too.  We should thank God for the times when we're able to show our faith and love by doing things for other people, and we should thank God for the times when other people are able to show their faith and love by doing things for us.

Everyone here has chances to show that faith and that love.  I know some of you feel like you cannot do much, but everyone here can do something.  You can be a friend to someone who needs a friend.  You can give a kind word to someone who needs a kind word.  You can listen to someone who needs to talk.  There are all kinds of things each one of us can do if we just make up our minds to do them.

And everyone here has times when we need to give others the chance to show their faith and love by doing things for us.  Sometimes that's hard.  Sometimes we'd rather be on the giving end than on the receiving end.  We remember the old say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  But at the same time, if no one receives, no one will be able to give.  There are times we need to be givers, but there are also times we need to be receivers.  And when those times come, we need to be grateful, both to the ones who give to us and to God.

And then, in the last couple of verses, Paul says something else he is doing in his prayers.  He is not just thanking God for these people, he's also praying for them.

We need to do that, too.  We need to pray for the other people in our lives.  But look at how Paul says he is praying for them.  He is praying that God will make them worthy of God's calling.  He is praying that God will make it so that every desire those people have is for goodness, and that all of their deeds will be prompted by faith.  He is praying that the name of Jesus Christ will be glorified in those people.

Have you ever done that?  I mean, I'm sure most of you, maybe all of you, have prayed for the people who are important to you.  But have you ever prayed in that way?  Have you ever prayed that God would make them worthy of being called by God?  Have you ever prayed that God would make it so that they desire nothing but goodness, and that all their deeds would be prompted by faith?  Have you ever prayed that the name of Jesus Christ will be glorified in the people you pray for?

Maybe you have.  I don't know.  But if not, try it.  Pray for your relatives, pray for your friends, to desire nothing but goodness.  Pray that all their deeds will be prompted by their faith in God.  Pray that the name of Jesus Christ will be glorified in them.

And we should pray for that for ourselves, too.  We should pray that we, too, desire nothing but goodness.  We should pray that all our deeds be prompted by our faith in God.  We should pray that the name of Jesus Christ would be glorified in us, too.

I don't know, but I think that a prayer like that would please God.  I think God would be happy if we prayed that way.  And I think that's the kind of prayer that God would answer.  And if God did answer that prayer, think of what could happen.  If we and everyone we know would desire nothing but goodness, would have our deeds prompted by faith, would live so that the name of Jesus Christ would be glorified in us, that could change the world.

So let's pray that way.  Let's pray that way for ourselves and for the people we know.  Let's pray that we desire nothing but goodness, that all our deeds be prompted by our faith in God, and that the name of Jesus Christ be glorified in all of us.  Let's pray that prayer not just today, but every day.  And let's see what happens.  If we all do it, I'll bet we'll be surprised at the result.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

All the Time?

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 17, 2013.  The Bible readings used are Job 1:1-22 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24.

So we're in the middle of a sermon series called “Thank God”, and we've been talking about how thanking God helps us feel joy and helps us feel that we are one with God.  And some of you have given me some compliments on these first couple of sermons, and I appreciate that.
Now, all this stuff about thanking God sounds really good.  We know it's what we should do.  And a lot of time is does make us feel good when we remember to thank God for stuff.
But here's the thing.  What about those times when we don't really feel like we have much to be thankful for?  What about when our life stinks?  What about when it feels like life has punched us right in the nose, and then just when we're about to get up life kicks us in the stomach?  What about when we feel so beaten up by life that we feel like we can hardly catch our breath?  Are we supposed to be thankful then?  For what?
Well, the Bible tells us we are supposed to be thankful.  Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, says we should be thankful in all circumstances.  And we know that, but it's sure hard to do.
In our reading from Job, Job had almost every bad thing happen that it's possible to have happen.  He loses all his possessions, all his servants are killed, finally all his children are killed, too.  Later, in a part of Job we did not read, Job himself is afflicted with painful sores all over his body.
Now, Job stays faithful to God through all this.  He does not turn his back on God.  He says, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”  Later on, he asks the question, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”  Obviously, Job thinks the answer is no.  We need to accept whatever God gives us, good or bad.
And we know that, too.  And sometimes that helps us, but sometimes it does not.  It's like all the other platitudes we hear.  “Count your blessings.”  “Things could be worse.”  “Think of all the people who have it worse than you do.”  Those things may be true, and the people who say them may mean well, but when we feel like our lives are falling apart, those platitudes don't make us feel any better.  In fact, sometimes they make us feel worse.  We know we should feel thankful, but we don't, and we start feeling guilty about not feeling thankful, and we pile that guilt on top of all the other stuff we feel.
You know what, though?  I think God understands how we feel.  I don't think God gets mad at us when life turns on us and nothing's going right and we don't feel very thankful.  We might be better off if we could feel thankful, but I think God understands that sometimes we just cannot do it.  No matter how much we may know we should feel thankful, we really cannot force ourselves to feel things we don't feel.  Sometimes, we cannot feel things until we're ready to feel them.  And we don't need to feel guilty if we're not ready to feel thankful at the moment.
And you know, that's in the story of Job, too.  Job may have said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised”, but in a lot of the book of Job he is not praising the name of the Lord at all.  There are a lot of times in the book of Job where Job basically says, “God, what in the world are you doing?  This is not fair.  I don't deserve this.  And these friends of mine who keep giving me these platitudes about needing to trust you and to ask your forgiveness and all that are just making things worse.  If I'd done something wrong, I'd ask you for forgiveness, but I have not done anything wrong.  I've praised you, I've honored you, I've glorified you.  I've served you as well as I could all my life.  And this is the thanks I get?  What's the matter with you, God?  What are you doing here?”
All that does not sound like Job was feeling very thankful.  That does not sound like Job was just graciously accepting what had happened.  Job was upset.  Job was angry.  Job was demanding answers from God.
I'd guess that some of us have felt that way at some time in our lives, too.  We've felt like we've been mistreated by God, like God is not treating us fairly, like we've served God as well as we could and the thanks we get is to get shoved down into the mud.  If you've never felt that way, I'm glad, but you still might at some point in your life.  It's not that uncommon of a thing.
But there's one thing to notice about the story of Job.  Job may have been upset with God.  Job may have been angry with God.  But Job never gave up on God.  Job never decided that God was not there.  Job never decided that God did not care.  Job never lost faith in God.  No matter what happened to him, no matter how bad or mad or sad Job got, he never gave up on God.  He may have been arguing with God, he may have been demanding answers from God, but he never turned his back on God.
That's what we need to do.  When we cannot feel thankful to God, when we're upset with God, when we're angry with God, it's okay.  God understands it.  God won't be mad at us.  All God asks is that we not lose faith.  All God asks is that we not give up on God.  No matter what happens, all God asks is that we never turn our backs on God.
Job goes on being angry with God, being upset with God, demanding answers from God, for verse after verse, page after page, chapter after chapter.  These bad things happen to Job in the first two chapters of the book of Job.  Chapters three through thirty-seven are Job being upset with God and Job's friends giving him these platitudes about asking forgiveness.  Finally, in chapter thirty-eight, after we've heard thirty-five chapters of Job being mad at God and at his friends, and demanding answers from God, God finally shows up.
And you know what?  God does not give Job any answers.  Instead, God reminds Job of just who God is.  God reminds Job that God is eternal.  God is all-powerful.  God is all-knowing.  God created everything there is.  And God is in control of it all.
God spends about four chapters telling Job this.  Some people read this as God being mad at Job, but I don't think so.  The people God gets mad at are Job's friends, the ones who sit there spouting these platitudes.  God explicitly tells them, “I am angry with you...because you have not spoken of me what is right.”  God tells them they need to apologize to Job for not being more understanding of Job.  God is angry with them, but God is not angry with Job.
I think God understands why Job felt the way he did.  I think the reason God goes on for a while telling Job who God is, is so Job, and we, will get the point.  God knows more than we do.  God sees more than we do.  God knows the reasons for things that we cannot even being to understand the reasons for.  As Job ultimately realizes, “I spoke of things I did not understand, things to wonderful for me to know.”  
When you and I have those times in our lives when it seems like every bad thing in the world is happening to us, that's what God wants us to know.  God does not get mad at us for being angry with God.  God does not want us to feel guilty about it, and pile guilt on top of all our other problems.  God understands.
But God wants us to understand, too.  God wants us to understand that God is eternal.  That God is all-powerful, and all-knowing.  That God created it all, and God is in control of it all.  That God knows more than we do, sees more than we do, and knows the reasons for things we cannot even begin to understand.
At the end of the book of Job, because Job stayed faithful to God, God blesses the rest of Job's earthly life even more than he had the first part of Job's life, before all the bad things happened.  That may or may not happen to us in our earthly lives.  But we know that if we stay faithful to God, God will certainly bless our eternal lives.
We are better off if we can be thankful to God in all circumstances.  But if you're having trouble being thankful, it's okay.  In fact, if you're mad at God, it's okay.  God understands.  Just stay faithful to God.  Just remember who God is, and that God knows the reasons for things that we cannot even begin to understand.  Don't give up on God.  Because God will never give up on you.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Beyond Joy

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, November 10, 2013.  The Bible verses are Luke 17:11-19.

Last week we talked about joy.  We talked about how knowing that we are God's people, God's children, knowing that the perfect, almighty God actually loves each one of us and cares about each one of us, as weak and flawed and sinful as we are, is something that should fill us with incredible joy.

But here's the thing about that.  Joy is an emotion.  It's a wonderful emotion.  It's one that we all need to feel sometimes.  But the thing is that emotions change.  Emotions are momentary.  They are never permanent.  No matter how intense a feeling of joy is, there's going to come a time when that emotion fades.  So while it's great to feel joy, what we really want is not just a momentary feeling of joy.  What we really want is a feeling that we are one with God.  What we really want is a feeling that God is with us and that we are with God, and that there's no separation, no distance between us and God.

So today, as we reach the second week of our sermon series called “Thank God”, we're going to look at how being thankful can give us that feeling of oneness with God.  And the example we're going to use is the ten people Jesus healed in our Bible reading for today, the ten people who were suffering from leprosy.

Now, understand that leprosy is a very serious illness.  It’s an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms and legs,  It's not necessarily fatal, but what it would do is put you in a position where you could not do any physical work.  And as we've talked before, since everything people did back then involved physical work of some kind, and since there were no welfare or disability payments at that time, if you could not work you either begged or died.  So, even though the disease itself was not fatal, it pretty much amounted to the same thing.  It was not a highly contagious disease, but people were scared to death of getting it, and so they would have nothing to do with people who had leprosy.

So these ten people with leprosy approach Jesus, but they keep their distance.  They did not know how Jesus would react to them.  They also did not know how those with Jesus would react to them, either.  Still, they call out to Jesus, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Jesus responds, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

We’re not told what the ten people expected Jesus to do, but I’d guess that this was not it.  I'd guess that they probably expected Jesus to lay hands on them, the way he did with other people.  They probably expected Jesus to call on God.  But Jesus did not do any of that.  In fact, as far as they could tell, Jesus did not do anything.  He just said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

They must have really been disappointed.  After all, Jesus was probably their last hope.  No doctor had been able to cure them.  No priest had been able to help them.  They were probably thinking, “Show ourselves to the priests?  The priests are the ones who declared us unclean in the first place.  They won’t even let us into the temple, because they’re afraid we’ll ruin it for everyone.  Show ourselves to the priests?  The priests won’t even talk to us.”

Still, they went off to show themselves to the priests.  Maybe they had faith in Jesus and believed that something was going to happen.  Maybe they just figured they had nothing to lose.  Whatever they thought, they did it.  And on the way to show themselves to the priests, they were healed.  We don't know how that happened.  We don't know how far they'd gone when it happened.  But at some point, on their way to the priests, they were healed.

And one of them came back to Jesus.  We’re told nothing about the one who came back, other than that he was a foreigner, a Samaritan.  He praised God with a loud voice and threw himself at Jesus’ feet, thanking Jesus for healing him.  Jesus tells him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

We don’t know what happened to the other nine.  We’re told all ten were healed.  There's nothing in the Bible that says they paid any penalty for not coming back to thank Jesus.  Nothing says they got their leprosy back or anything.  Maybe the other nine went to the priests, were pronounced clean, and then went on to live their lives the way they wanted to.  We don't know.

So maybe you’re thinking, “Now, wait a minute.  You said we were going to look at how giving thanks to God helps us.  It does not seem like it helped this one leper at all.  After all, the nine who did not thank God were healed just the same as he was.  Seems like they all got the same thing, the thing they wanted.  It seems like this story says it does not matter whether we thank God or not.”

Well, yes and no.  It’s true that all ten of them were healed from their leprosy.  In that sense, the same thing happened to each of them.  There was no physical difference at all.

There was no physical difference, and yet there was all the difference in the world.  Because when the Bible talks what happened to the other nine, the scripture first says they were “cleansed”, and then that they were “healed”.  Jesus says the other nine were “cleansed”, too.  At the end of the verses, though, Jesus says to the one who came back, “Your faith has ‘made you well.’”

Your faith has ‘made you well.’  See, it’s one thing to have a physical healing.  That’s important, of course.  Anyone who’s suffering from a serious illness, or who ever has, or who has a loved one who is or has, knows how important physical healing is.  Every Sunday there are people for whom we ask God to bring about physical healing, and it’s important that we ask God to do that.

Still, it’s one thing to be healed physically.  It’s another thing to truly be made well.  To be well means to be healed in body, in mind, in soul, in spirit, all of it.  It means that things are pleasing, that they’re good.  It means that everything is in a proper and satisfactory situation.  In short, to be made well means that things are as they should be in every way.

That’s what Jesus was saying to the one who came back to say thank you.  When that one person came back to say thank you to Jesus, he showed that he had faith in Jesus as his Savior.  Jesus told him that because of his faith, he was not only physically healed, he was well.  He was well in every way:  physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  Everything about him was right.  He was who he was supposed to be, he was where he was supposed to be, and he was doing what he was supposed to do.

When the nine had their pain go away, when they were healed, I'm sure they felt joy.  It may have been the greatest joy they'd ever felt in their lives.  But eventually, that joy went away.  Eventually, the joy faded, and they had to figure out a new way to go on with their lives, to deal with whatever the rest of their life was going to hold for them.

I'm sure the one who thanked Jesus felt joy, too.  But he felt more than joy.  And after the joy faded, he was still happy.  Because, when he felt thankfulness in his heart, he had been made well.  God was with him, and he was with God.  He was one with God.  He did not have to worry about what the rest of life was going to hold for him.  He knew that, whatever it held, God would be with him.  He knew that, whatever life held for him, it would be all right.  He knew that because he had not just had his physical problem taken away.  He had been made well, in every possible way.

Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever felt, even if just for a little while, that everything was right, that you were who God wanted you to be, that you were exactly where God wanted you to be, and that you were doing exactly what God wanted you to do?  It’s a pretty incredible feeling.  In fact, it’s pretty much the greatest feeling in the world.  To know, in that moment, that you are who God wants you to be, that you are exactly where God wants you to be, and to know you are doing exactly what God wants you to do.  There’s really nothing like it.

That’s what the one person who’d had leprosy felt when he came back and thanked Jesus.  And he did not just feel it for that moment, he felt it for the rest of his life.  He had been made well.  And we can be made well, too, if we truly live our lives giving thanks to God.

It's a great thing to have moments of joy in our lives.  I hope we all do, and I hope we have a lot of them.  But when we live our lives with the awareness of what God has done for us, and truly being thankful for it, we get something even better than joy.  We are made well.  We know that, no matter what life holds for us, it will be all right.  Because we are one with the all-loving, all-caring God.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Giving Thanks

As we move into November, I'd like to talk about two little words.  They're common words, ones that you're familiar with.  If you're like me, though, you don't use them nearly as often as you should.  The words are “thank you”.

Those are words we never get tired of hearing.  I don't know anyone who gets tired of being thanked for what they do.  Even if we don't feel like we did that much, even if we feel like we don't deserve the thanks, we still like hearing those words.  When it comes to actually saying them, though, we often fall short.

So, I did a little experiment recently.  As I started my day, I thought about all the things I should be thankful for in each thing I did.

First, I woke up (thanks for another day!).  I then used the restroom, then got a drink of water (thanks for indoor plumbing!).  Then, I turned on the light (thanks for electricity) and went to my computer to check on news headlines (thanks for modern technology!).  Then I shaved and showered (more electricity!  more indoor plumbing!).  Then I got dressed (thanks for warm clothes!).  Then I made breakfast (thanks for grocery stores!  thanks for plates and cups!  thanks for microwave ovens!).  Then I watched sports highlights while I ate breakfast (thanks for cable TV and satellite dishes!).  Then I brushed my teeth (more indoor plumbing!  plus, toothbrushes and toothpaste!).  All this before I even left the house in the morning.

And of course, behind all those things I should be thankful for are lots of people.  There are lots of people involved in making sure the water and sewer working properly.  There are lots of people involved in making sure the electricity works properly.  There are lots of people involved in all the technology we use every day without even thinking about it.  There are lots of people involved in the content we receive in that technology, too.  And of course, there are lots and lots of people involved in providing the food we eat and getting it to the store.

There are others we should be thankful to, as well.  There are the people who are our relatives and our friends, the people who makes our lives better and happier just by their mere presence in our lives.  We need to be thankful for them, too.

And behind those people, of course, is God.  God who created the day.  God who created water.  God who created food.  God who created everything.  God, on whom we depend for our very existence.  The almighty, all-powerful, everlasting God.  God, to whom we don't say thank you nearly as much as we should.

So, what I'd like you to do is do what I did.  Try that same experiment.  As you go through your day, think about all the things that allow you to do whatever it is you do.  Be thankful for those things.  Actually say the words:  “thank you”.  And then, think about all the people behind those things.  Be thankful for them, too.  And then, think about all the people who make your life better and happier by their mere presence in your life, and be thankful for them.

And any chance you get, tell them, “Thank you.”  That many “thank you”s, day after day, week after week, just might change some people's lives.  And if we include God in those “thank you”s, it just might change our own life, too.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Shout For Joy!

This message was given Sunday, November 3 in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Psalm 100.

It's November, and November is the month of Thanksgiving.  So, we're going to start a new sermon series called “Thank God”.  We're going to look at the whole idea of giving thanks:  why we should do it, how it benefits us, and how it affects our relationship with God.

The Bible, and especially the Old Testament, tell us all the time that we should thank God.  In fact, one of the Old Testament rules that the people had to follow, one that's referred to lots of times in the Old Testament, is the thank offering.  This was a specific offering that was to be given to God at certain times and in certain ways as an expression of thanks to God.

In fact, even though we don't follow the Old Testament rules on thank offerings, we still carry on the spirit of them.  After all, we still take up an offering every week, right?  The real purpose of that offering is not to pay the bills of the church.  It's not even to fund mission projects or things like that.  That's what the money is used for, but that's not the reason we take up an offering.  We take up an offering to give thanks to God.  That's the real purpose of it.

One of the things people will say sometimes to make fun of the Christian faith—and I'll bet some of you have heard this one—is “Why do we have to thank God all the time?  Is God so dependent on praise and thanks that God needs to constantly hear us say it?  Is God vain, or weak, or needy, or something?”

Obviously, none of that's true.  God is not vain, or weak, or needy, or anything else.  God does not need to hear our thanks.  We need to say it.  We need to thank God for our benefit, not for God's benefit.

One of the reasons we need to do that is just to make sure we have our priorities straight.  It's to make sure we recognize how important God is to our lives.

Because it can be easy to forget, you know?  One of the things about our human nature is that we tend to take things for granted a lot of times.  If I go to the store and buy, say, some hamburger, and it turns out to be pretty good hamburger, am I going to go to the store and thank them for selling me such good hamburger?  Probably not.  I'll eat it and I'll go on about my business.  But if I go to the store and buy some hamburger and it turns out to be lousy, am I going to go to the store and complain?  Probably, yes.  It's just the way we are.

And we tend to be that way toward God, too.  When things do not go the way we think they should go, we tend to be pretty quick to complain to God and ask why God is allowing those things to happen.  When things go the way we think they should go, though, we often don't take the time to go to God and say thank you for that.  We just accept it and go on about our business.

That's not due to a lack of faith, necessarily.  It could be, but it also could be that we just take God for granted.  We know God is good, so when things go in a way we think is good, we just figure, well, okay then.  God is doing what God is supposed to do.  “God's in His heaven, all's right with the world”, as the saying goes.

And there's truth in that.  God is good.  Good is what God is supposed to do.  It's just that there's
a really fine line between recognizing that God is good and thinking God owes it to us to be good, that God owes it to us to do good things for us.  And that's not true.  God does not owe us anything.  And when we think that way, we get our priorities out of order.  We start thinking God is there to serve us, rather than realizing that we are here to serve God.

That's why we read Psalm 100 today.  I don't often preach from the psalms.  We read one every week as a responsive reading, but I don't very often preach on it.  But there's a lot of good stuff in the psalms, and we need to not just read them, but think about what they say and do what they tell us to do.

Our psalm today tells us to “shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.”  When's the last time you did that?  When is the last time you shouted for joy to the Lord?  Did you do it in the last week?  In the last month?  In the last year?  Have you ever done it?  Have you ever been so full of joy for what God has done that you shouted for joy, that you shouted your thanks to God?

Now, I know we're midwesterners.  Shouting for joy is not really our thing around here.  And yet, I go to a lot of football games and volleyball games, and in the winter I go to a lot of basketball games and wrestling meets, and I hear a lot of shouting for joy at those things.  I'm not being critical of that—you all know I love sports, and if you've seen me at a game you know I shout as much as anyone.  The thing is, though, how come we can shout for joy when our sports team wins, but we cannot shout for joy for all the things God has done for us?

We should shout for joy.  The psalm tells us why.  “Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”

That, right there, should be enough to make us shout for joy.  God made us, and we are his.  That's what it means to be God's children.  We are God's people, the sheep of God's pasture.

And yet, that's what we so often take for granted.  And that's sad.  Not because we're going to go to hell for it or anything, but because when we take those things for granted, we deprive ourselves of the joy of knowing them.

We are God's people.  Think about that.  Think about how awesome that is.  God made us, and we are God's people.  We are the sheep of God's pasture.

That's incredible.  We did nothing to deserve that.  We never could.  We could do nothing to deserve God creating us at all.  And we can do nothing to deserve being called God's people.  I'm not saying we're all terrible people, but we're people.  We're weak.  We're flawed.  We're sinful.  And yet, the all-powerful, flawless, sinless, perfect God claims us and calls us God's people.  God loves us, and God is with us, and God helps us, despite who we God is and who we are.

The wonder of that is beyond my ability to describe.  The thought of that should constantly fill us with joy.  That joy is we lose when we take what God does for granted.  That joy is what we take away from ourselves when we don't think about all the amazing things God has done for us and when we don't stop and thank God for them.

That's why we need to do what Psalm 100 says.  We need to come into God's presence with thanksgiving.  We need to come with praise.  We need to give thanks to God.  Not because God needs to hear it, but because we need to say it.  Because when we say it, and when we mean it, we realize all that God does for us.  And when we realize that, we cannot help but feel incredible awe and wonder and joy.

And then, we will realize why it is that we are asked to serve God.  God does not ask us to serve as some sort of punishment or duty or obligation.  God does not ask us to serve because God needs us to do things.  God could do anything and everything God wants to do without us.  God does not need us to do anything.  We are allowed to serve God.  We are given the privilege to serve God.  When we think about how great and how good and how loving God is, we realize that it is an incredible honor to be allowed to serve our wonderful God.

As Psalm 100 says, the Lord is good.  God's love endures forever.  God's faithfulness continues through all generations.

So, if you're struggling today, if you're having trouble feeling joy, if you feel like things are going wrong and you don't know what to do, read Psalm 100 and really think about it.  Think about the fact that you are one of God's people.  Realize that God is not there to serve us, we are there to serve God.  Realize what an incredible honor that is.  And then, do what the psalm says.  Shout for joy to our amazing, incredible, awesome God.