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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Get Closer

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 26, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 21:18-22.

As you noticed, our Bible reading for today was very short.  Only five verses.  But of course God can say a lot in just a few words.  As we continue our sermon series “Road Trip!” we have another incident that happened while Jesus and the disciples were walking down the road.  Even though this a short reading, there’s a lot in there to make us think.
It starts out with Jesus walking along and getting hungry.  He sees a fig tree and goes over to get some figs to eat, but there are no figs on the tree.  So Jesus curses it.  He says to the tree, “May you never bear fruit again!”  And the tree immediately withers.
We’re told that the disciples the asked, “How did the tree wither so quickly?”  Frankly, that’s not the question I would’ve asked.  It’s not a bad question, especially if we don’t really quite realize who Jesus is.  But if we accept that Jesus is the divine Son of God, then we know how the tree withered so quickly.  It withered quickly because Jesus told it to.  Jesus had divine power.  He could do stuff like that.  It’s pretty much that simple.
But the more interesting question, as it often is, is “Why?”  Why would Jesus do that?  Why would Jesus curse this poor, innocent fig tree, which had done nothing to hurt him other than that Jesus wanted figs and it did not have any?  What’s the point of that?
Well, we’ll come back to that.  Next, we’re told Jesus’ answer to the disciples question of how the tree withered so quickly.  He says, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’, and it will be done.  If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
That’s one of those verses we struggle with.  I do, anyway.  We don’t think it can possibly be taken literally.  I mean, most of us don’t really believe that anyone, just through prayer, could physically make a mountain fall into the sea, no matter how much faith we have.  After all, have you ever known anyone who could do that?  Have you ever heard of anyone who could do it?  Jesus could have, because again, he’s the divine Son of God, but who else?  I mean, even if we grant that it would take an awful lot of faith to do something like this, there has to be somebody, once in a while, who has that kind of faith, right?  So if even they cannot make this happen, it must not be meant to be taken literally.
But on the other hand, if we don’t take it literally, how do we take it and still do justice to the actual words we’re told Jesus said?  If we put any qualifications on Jesus’ statement, if we put any limitations on it, we’re adding words that Jesus did not say.  Jesus did not put qualifications or limitations on his statement.  So, if we don’t take what Jesus said literally, but yet we don’t want to add our own words to what Jesus said, what do we do with this?  
And now you see why we’re only dealing with five verses today.  There’s more than enough in those five verses for a sermon, or even several sermons.
So let’s look at it all.  Why are these five verses in the Bible?  What are we supposed to learn from them?
Well, let’s think about the fig tree first.  What’s the purpose of a fig tree?  Well, it’s to produce figs, right?  An apple tree produces apples, a peach tree produces peaches, a fig tree produces figs.  It’s not there to be a shade tree, and it’s not there to look pretty.  A fig tree has one job and one job only:  to produce figs.  That’s the sole purpose that a fig tree has in life.
Therefore, a fig tree that does not produce figs is not doing it’s job.  A fig tree that does not produce figs has no purpose.  A fig tree that does not produce figs has no reason to exist any more.  So, Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers.  But really, in a sense, the tree had withered before Jesus got there, because it no longer served the purpose for which God had created it.
So what does that have to do with what Jesus says next?  How does it relate to what Jesus said about how if our faith is strong enough, we’ll get whatever we ask for in prayer?
Well, this is not the only time Jesus used trees to make a point.  Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, in Chapter Twelve, Jesus says this:   “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.  Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in them, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in them.”
So, if we read that along with what we’ve said about the fig tree and apply it to what Jesus said about prayer, what do we have?  Well, I’m not sure.  As I said, this is a verse I struggle with.  But try this.
A tree is recognized by its fruit.  Or, in the case of the fig tree in today’s reading, by its lack of fruit.  Jesus recognized that the fig tree was a bad tree because it did not produce any figs.
Similarly, of course, we, as humans, are recognized by what we produce.  Or, again, what we don’t produce.  If we are good, we will produce good fruit.  We’ll do things that are pleasing to God.  If we’re not good, we’ll produce bad fruit.  We’ll do things that are not pleasing to God.
Okay, so far, so good.   But how does it relate to prayer?  Well, here’s how I think it relates to prayer.  What does it mean, exactly to be “good”?  What does it mean to be a “good tree” that produces “good fruit”?  If that’s our goal, to be a good tree that produces good fruit, how do we do it?
I think the way we do it is by getting as close to God as we possibly can.  There are a lot of ways we can do that.  We can spend time in prayer.  We can spend time reading the Bible.  We can read or listen to devotional materials.  We can devote ourselves to helping people.  We can listen to Christian music, whether you like traditional hymns, gospel music, contemporary Christian music, or whatever.  We can spend time in nature, contemplating the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.  There are lots of other ways we can do it, too.
But however we do it, we need to do it.  And it’s not enough to just do these things once, or even once in a while.  At least it’s not enough for me.  I need to do them consistently.  I need to do them frequently.  If I don’t, I’ll start to slide away from God.  If I want to get as close to God as I can, I have to work at it.  And I suspect that’s true for some others here, too.
And if we get close to God, and we stay close to God, we’ll find our faith increase.  It’ll get stronger.  We’ll be in tune with God.  Maybe not one hundred percent of the time, because we remain flawed, sinful people.  But a lot of the time.  We’ll be able to say the things God wants us to say.  We’ll be able to do the things God wants us to do.  We’ll be able to live the way God wants us to live.
And we’ll be able to pray the way God wants us to pray.  We probably won’t pray for God to throw a mountain into the sea, because what would be the point of that?  But we might pray for God to help us serve others better.  We might pray for God to help us love others better.  We might pray for God to give us strength and keep us encouraged and keep us enthusiastic.  We might even pray for God to help us raise the money for an addition to this church.  We might pray for God to help us overcome our weakness, overcome our doubts, overcome our fears, and give us the courage to be the people God wants us to be.
And when we do that, I absolutely believe God will answer that kind of prayer.  Because when we’re close to God, when we’re in tune with God, we won’t be praying selfishly.  We won’t be praying pointlessly.  We’ll be praying for things that honor God and please God.  And God will hear, and God will respond.
A fig tree that does not produce figs is not doing what it was put on earth to do.  When we act selfishly, when we fall away from God, we’re not doing what we were put on earth to do, either.  But the difference is that you and I have the ability to correct that.  You and I can change our ways.  You and I can do the things we need to do to get close to God, to get in tune with God, and to start producing good fruit again.
So let’s do that.  This week, think about what you need to do to get closer to God.  Then, do it.  Let’s all figure out what we need to do and do it.  And then, we’ll find that we will receive what we ask for in prayer.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What's Stopping You?

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, January 19, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Luke 9:57-62 and Romans 5:20--6:22.

            This is the time of year when lots of people head South. Some people go to Texas or Arizona or Florida for the winter. Some people can’t afford to be gone all winter, but take a couple of weeks’ vacation in one of those places, or maybe they go to somewhere else like Hawaii or Cancun or the Bahamas or something.
            Sometimes, those of us who stay here all winter get a little envious of that. When we hear about someone going on one of those trips, we say something like, “I sure wish I could go with you.” The thing is, of course, that we can. There’s nobody stopping us. It’s just that to do it, we have to be willing and able to pay for the plane tickets and the motels and the food and all the other things it takes to be able to take a trip like that. In other words, to take a trip like that, we have to pay the price.
            We’re doing a sermon series called “Road Trip!” taking a look at the things that happened while Jesus and his disciples went on trips. One of the things that happened, as we heard today, is that people would say to Jesus, “I sure wish I could go with you.” But the thing is, they could have. Jesus did not stop them. Nobody stopped them. It’s just that to do it, they had to be willing to pay the price, and they were not.
            In our reading from Luke, three different people come to Jesus and say they want to go with him. The first one says, without qualification, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And that sounds fine. But Jesus says to him, I don’t have any resting place I’m going to. If you follow me, you’re going to have to keep on going and going.
            The second one says he wants to follow, but “first let me go and bury my father.” That sounds reasonable to us. But Jesus says, there’s no time for that. Go proclaim the kingdom of God now.
            The third one says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” That sounds reasonable to us, too. And Jesus says, there’s no time for that, either. If you’re going to keep looking backward and saying good-bye, you’re not going to be able to go forward and serve the kingdom of God.
            Now, if you read about this section, you’ll read explanations that try to soften what Jesus said. For example, I’ve read that when the guy said “let me go and bury my father”, that this was an expression. His father was still alive. What he was saying was that he would not be able to follow until his father died. And there are ways people interpret this to soften the other things Jesus said, too.
            I think, though, that looking at the specifics like that misses the point. Regardless of how you interpret these things, what Jesus was saying is that if we are going to follow him, we have to be willing to follow unconditionally. There can be no putting it off. There can be no waiting until tomorrow. There can be no putting other things first. There can be no putting other responsibilities first. Even if those other things, those other responsibilities are good things, they cannot be put first. Everything else in our lives needs to be second to following Jesus Christ.
            We can follow Jesus. There’s no one stopping us. The only one who’s stopping us is us. Ourselves.
            Most of us here, maybe all of us here, would say we are Christians. But can we honestly say that we always follow Jesus? Can we always say that we, at all times, in all places, and in all circumstances, put following Jesus Christ first, ahead of everything else in our lives?
            Maybe you can. I don’t know. I cannot. I’m more like the people Jesus was talking to. I want to follow Jesus, all right. I absolutely do. But…
            I want to follow Jesus, but I want to be able to watch the football playoffs, too. I want to follow Jesus, but I want to be able to watch Doctor Who, my favorite TV show, too. I want to follow Jesus, but I want to do lots of other things, too.
            Now, it’s not that the other things I want to do are bad things. They don’t hurt anybody. Chances are the things you want to do are not bad things, either. Chances are they don’t hurt anybody, either. But the question we need to ask ourselves--the question I need to ask myself--is whether those things are getting in the way of following Jesus Christ. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether there are times--not all the time, but sometimes--when we allow those things we want to do to get in the way of following Jesus Christ. I suspect for many of us, the answer is yes.
            Most of us probably know that. But what we do--what I do--is to make excuses for it. We say, “Well, after all, I’m not perfect. Nobody’s perfect. I cannot be expected to follow Jesus Christ 24/7/365. No one can say they’ve given one hundred percent of their lives to the Lord.”
            Well, that could be. It would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to give one hundred percent of our lives to the Lord, to have absolutely everything we ever say or do every day of our lives be something that serves God. It would be really hard to never have a time, even if only for a little while, where something got in the way of following Jesus Christ, to give one hundred percent of our lives to following him.
            And it’s also true that God knows that. God knows we’re are flawed, imperfect, sinful people. God knows we’re going to fail at this. And God will understand and forgive our failures.
            But the thing is that we are not allowed to use that as an excuse. That’s why we read the passage from Romans today. People were making that argument to Paul. They were saying, look, if God knows we’re sinners, and if our sins are forgiven through the death of Jesus, and if we’re saved by our faith and by God’s grace and mercy, then why should we change anything? Why can we not just go on living our lives the way we have been and trust that God will forgive us?
            The thing is that unless we change our lives, we cannot really say that we have faith in Jesus Christ. Because if we have faith in Jesus, if we truly believe that he was and is the divine Son of God, then we’ll do what Jesus told us to do. We’ll live the way Jesus told us to live. We’ll be willing to give up those things that get in the way of following Jesus, not because God will send us to hell if we don’t, but because we’ll want to. If we truly love Jesus, we’ll want to please Jesus, and the way we can please Jesus is by doing what he told us to do and living the way he wants us to live.
             The people who came up to Jesus on the road said they wanted to follow Jesus. And they may actually have believed that they did. But they all had reasons why they could not follow right now. They all had reasons why they could not follow all the way. They wanted to be able to follow Jesus part of the time, and go part of the way, but they also wanted to be able to do other things part of the time. They wanted following Jesus to be part of their lives, but they did not want following Jesus to be their whole life.
             What Jesus told them is exactly what he tells us. He told them it does not and cannot work that way. We cannot just follow Jesus part of the time and go part of the way. We cannot just have following Jesus be one of the many things we do. It won’t work. If we try to do it that way, then whenever things get tough, whenever we run into someone who does not like our faith, whenever our faith gets us into trouble, we’ll abandon it. Or we’ll hide it. Or we’ll soft-pedal it. Or we just won’t talk about it. And when we do something like that, we all of a sudden find that we’re not following Jesus any more. We’re just following the crowd.
The only way we’ll be able to follow Jesus is if we make a total commitment with our entire lives. Is that easy? No. Will we fail sometimes? Yes. But we’re not allowed to use that as an excuse. When we fail, we need to ask God for forgiveness and re-dedicated ourselves to following Jesus. And when we fail again, we need to ask God for forgiveness again and re-dedicate ourselves to following Jesus again. Because we will fail. We’ll fail many times. But God knows the difference between when we’re trying and failing and when we’re failing because we’re not really trying. And deep down, we know that difference, too.
So what are the things that are getting in the way of you following Christ? What are things that are getting in the way of me following Christ? Let’s ask ourselves those questions until we get some answers. Then, let’s ask God for forgiveness and dedicate ourselves to following Jesus. Because we can follow Jesus. No one is stopping us but ourselves.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Greatness Defined

The message given Sunday, January 12, 2014 in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses are Mark 9:30-37.

Jesus was called a lot of things while he was on this earth.  He was called Rabbi, he was called Immanuel, God with us, he often called himself Son of Man.  But one of the things he was often called was “Teacher”.
That is, of course, one of the reasons Jesus came to earth--to teach us.  Jesus taught us with words and Jesus taught us by his example.  Jesus was the greatest teacher who ever walked on the earth.
One of the things about being a teacher is that a teacher has to have a ton of patience.  A teacher has to go over stuff, and then go over it again, and then go over it again.  A teacher has to present the same stuff in different ways, at different times, hoping desperately that one of these approaches get through and the student will finally get it.  And then, just when the teacher thinks maybe the student really is starting to get it, the student does something or says something and the teacher’s heart just sinks, because the teacher knows the student still really does not have a clue.  It takes a ton of patience to be a teacher.
I suspect that sort of thing happened to Jesus a lot.  He’d tell the disciples something, and then he’d tell them again, and then he’d show them, and then he’d go over it one more time just to make sure, and he’d think they were getting it, and then they’d do something or say something that showed that they were nowhere near getting it.  It had to be very frustrating for the divine Teacher to have to work with students as dull as the disciples.
Our reading today described one of those times.  As we continue our sermon series “Road Trip!”, looking at the times Jesus and his disciples were on the road, today we read about the disciples having an argument.  Now, that in and of itself is not so bad.  Even the best of friends will get into an argument once in a while.  But here, we’re told that the disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest.
When Jesus found that out, he must have just shaken his head.  Of all the things for Jesus’ disciples to argue about.  He’d told them so many times about needing to be servants.  He’d told them so many times about how they needed to be humble and how they needed to put others ahead of themselves.  And there they are, arguing about which one of them is the greatest.
But, Jesus was a teacher.  He had patience.  And so, Jesus tries to teach them again.  He tells them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
And then, the way this is written, you can just see Jesus thinking, “Telling these guys is not going to be enough.  I have to show them.  I have to give them an illustration, or an example, or something.”  So, he takes a little kid who’s there, he picks him up and he says to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
We’re not told how the disciples reacted to that.  Mark leaves the story there and moves on to talk about something else.  Did they get it, do you think?  Do you think this time they really understood what Jesus was telling them?  For that matter, do we?
We understand that Jesus tells us to be humble.  But there’s more to it than that.  Let’s think about this for a minute.
What are little children?  Little children, by definition, are people who can do nothing for you.  I mean, that’s not their fault.  They cannot help being little kids.  They’ll grow, and they’ll learn, and they’ll be able to do stuff.  But a little kid, one or two or three years old, cannot do anything for you.  I mean, yes, we can get love and affection from them, and that can make us feel good.  But from a practical, real-world standpoint, a little kid cannot do anything for you.  There’s no advantage to be gained by being kind to a little kid.  They cannot help you financially, they cannot help you socially, they cannot help you accomplish anything.  And this was especially true in the society in which Jesus lived, where little kids were not considered of any value at all until they got old enough to work.
So, when we welcome a child, when we’re kind to a child, when we help a child, we’re doing something for someone who cannot return the favor.  We’re acting with no selfish motives whatsoever.  We’re acting simply and purely out of selflessness and love.
That’s what Jesus was trying to tell his disciples to do.  It’s what he tells us to do, too.  To act with no selfish motives.  To do things for people with no thought about whether they can do anything for us.  To act simply and purely out of selflessness and love.
But Jesus does not just leave it there.  He goes on to say, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”
When we see a little child, we are seeing Jesus.  When we look into the face of a little child, we’re looking into Jesus’ face.
Now some of you, if you have to deal with little kids every day, may be a little skeptical of this.  Because we all know that little kids do not always appear to us to be like Jesus.  Little kids don’t always do what they’re told.  Little kids misbehave sometimes.  In fact, sometimes little kids can get into big trouble.
But you know, that might not be so unlike Jesus after all.  You know, Jesus was a little kid once, too.  We’re not told much about what Jesus was like when he was a little kid, but I would not be surprised if, when he was two or three years old, Jesus did not always do what Joseph and Mary told him to.  I would not be surprised if Jesus misbehaved sometimes.  I’m not saying Jesus sinned, because he was the divine Son of God, but a two- or three-year-old kid misbehaving is not sinning.  They’re just doing what two- or three-year-old kids do.  
Jesus said that when we do something for a little kid, we’re doing it for him.  But that’s not all.  Jesus went on to say that we’re not just doing it for him.  When we do something for a little kid, we’re also doing it for God the Father.
That’s pretty awesome, because you know, it usually seems like there’s really nothing we can do for God.  I mean, God is all-powerful.  God is all-mighty.  God sees everything and knows everything and can do anything.  What can we do for God?
Well, this is what we can do for God.  Love people.  Especially love people who cannot do anything for us in return.  That’s how we do something for God.  
Yes, God can love them, too, and God does, but God asks us to love them as well.  And when you think about it in this context, this is an honor from God.  We are given the honor of being allowed to do something for God.  God could do it without us, but God chooses to do it with us.  That’s a privilege!  That’s an honor!  The all-powerful, all-mighty God who sees everything and knows everything and can do anything allows us to do this for God.  That’s an awesome thing, when you think about it.  God does not need our help, but God allows us to help.  What an incredible honor that is.  
The disciples wanted to become great.  And Jesus said yes, you can become great.  Here’s how.  You can become great by taking advantage of the opportunity God gives you to serve God by loving the people God created.  And you can especially become great by loving the people God created who cannot do anything for you in return.  Those are the people God especially wants you to love and to help and to welcome among you.  Jesus said, whenever you do that, you’re doing it for me.  And when you do it for me, you’re doing it for God the Father, too.
We don’t know how the disciples reacted.  Maybe, this time, they finally got it.  More likely, they again did not understand.  Or, if they did understand, it was just for a litle while, and then they went back to being who they were before.  Because that’s what usually happened with the disciples.  No matter how many times the Teacher tried to explain things to them, they never really seemed to understand.
And so often, we don’t understand, either.  But the Teacher keeps working with us, just like he worked with the disciples.  We’re allowed to read and re-read the Bible, so that eventually we can get the message.  And the Holy Spirit works on our hearts, too, so that we truly can understand and be changed people, God’s people, people who accept the honor of doing things for God the Son and for God the Father.
When we look into the face of someone who cannot do anything for us, we’re looking into the face of God.  When we do something for someone who cannot do anything for us, we’re doing something for God.  When we love someone who cannot do anything for us, we’re loving God.  And when we do that, then we truly become great in the eyes of God.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Power For Good

Below is the message given at Oahe Manor Communion on Thursday, January 9, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Psalm 29.

It almost seems like I might have talked about this psalm out here before, but even if I have, I’m going to do it again, because it is such an awesome psalm.  You probably noticed a phrase that the psalm uses over and over.  That phrase is “the voice of the Lord”.  Let’s look at what it says about the voice of the Lord.
It says that the voice of the Lord “thunders over the mighty waters”.  The voice of the Lord is “powerful” and “majestic”.  The voice of the Lord “breaks the cedars”.  The voice of the Lord “strikes with flashes of lightning”.  The voice of the Lord “shakes the desert”.  The voice of the Lord “twists the oaks and strips the forests bare”.
Think of the power God has, as described by that psalm.  And then think about this:  God does all those things with just God’s voice.  Nothing else.  Just the voice of the Lord.
That’s pretty amazing.  But I guess we should not be amazed when we remember the first chapter of Genesis.  There it says that God created the universe and everything in it with just God’s voice.  Remember?  God says “let there be light” and there is.  God says there should be dry ground and there is.  God did it all just by speaking.  Can you imagine how much power God would have if God really rolled up God’s sleeves and went to work?
Now, on the one hand, thinking about God’s power can be kind of scary.  Because, after all, if God can break trees with just his voice, if God’s voice strikes with flashes of lightning, think about what God could do to us if God chose to.  God could wipe us out in an instant.  God would not even have to work up a sweat.  God could just say, “Let there be no more Pastor Jeff” and I’d be gone without ever knowing what had happened.
And the reason I say God’s power is scary is that we all know that we’re sinners.  Each one of us.  We sin over and over and over again.  I do, and you do, too.  The Apostle Paul tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  I’m not saying you’re the worst people in the world, and I’m not saying I’m the worst person in the world.  I’m just saying that none of us is who we should be.  None of us is who God wants us to be.  God looks at each one of us, you and me and everyone else, and sees the same thing:  a sinner.
And because we know we’re sinners, we know that we are not worthy of God’s love.  We know we have not earned it.  We know we don’t deserve it.  And so, we think, what if God’s mad at me?  We think, God would have every right to be mad at me, because of my sins.  If God’s mad at me, God could do anything to me and there’d be nothing I could do about it.
Now, that’s all true.  And yet, even though it’s true, it does not matter.  It’s not relevant.  it does not matter that we’re not worthy of God’s love, because God loves people who are not worthy.  It does no matter that we’ve not earned God’s love because God loves people who have not earned it.  It does not matter that we don’t deserve God’s love, because to God, there’s no such thing as a person who does not deserve love.  God loves sinners.  God loves every one of us unworthy, undeserving people.  God loves you, and God loves me.
And because God loves us, we don’t have to be scared of God’s power.  God would never use God’s power to hurt us.  God would never use God’s power to harm us in any way.  God uses God’s power only for our good.  For your good, and for my good, and for the good of everyone else.
Bad things still happen, of course.  But those things don’t happen because of God.  They happen because people make choices, and sometimes they make bad choices.  They happen because things like disease and natural disasters are part of the world.  We wonder sometimes why God allows those things to be part of the world, but that’s a question we’re not going to get answered in this world.  We just know that’s the way it is, and that we have to deal with those things as best we can.
But even in those bad things, God is still there, and God still uses God’s power for good.  God does not promise to keep us away from bad things.  God just promises to be with us in the bad times and guide us through them.  Remember, in the twenty-third psalm, it says, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”  It does not say that God will keep us from having to go into the dark valleys of our lives.  We still have to go through them.  But we know that, even when we’re in the dark valley, God is still with us.  God will guide us through that dark valley, and eventually will lead us back into the light.
God has incredible power.  The voice of the Lord can do amazing things.  But as Christians, we don’t have to fear God’s power.  If we just trust God, and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we can know that God will only use God’s power for our good.  And we’ll also know that, when the time comes, we will go to be with God, and live not just in the presence of God’s power, but in the presence of God’s love.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Christmas in June?

Christmas is over now.  During the Christmas season, though, I got to thinking about something.  How would our Christmas celebrations be different if we celebrated Christmas in the summer, rather than in the winter?

We wouldn’t have to celebrate Christmas on December 25, after all.  We don’t really think that was the day when Jesus was actually born.  It was a date that was chosen, somewhat arbitrarily.  What if a different date had been chosen?  What if, instead of celebrating Christmas right after the winter solstice, we celebrated it right after the summer solstice, say on June 25?

Well, we probably wouldn’t be dreaming of a white Christmas, would we?  Maybe we’d dream of a green Christmas.  Santa probably wouldn’t be dressed all in fur and driving a sleigh.  Maybe he’d wear Bermuda shorts and drive a dune buggy.  We probably wouldn’t use all that tinsel, either.  Maybe we wouldn’t even do lights on our houses, since it’d be about ten o’clock at night before they’d even show up.  It’d make it harder to do candlelight services, too.

On the other hand, there’d be a good side to it.  It’d be a lot easier to travel to see relatives at Christmas if it was in late June.  We wouldn’t have to worry about snowstorms or having to cancel Christmas Eve services.  We could have Christmas picnics.  Baseball teams could play Christmas doubleheaders.  There’d be all sorts of things we could do that we can’t do now if Christmas was in late June, rather than late December.

Our Christmas traditions would be a lot different if we celebrated it in June instead of December.  But there’s one thing that would not change, and that’s the essential message of Christmas.  We would still celebrate Immanuel, God with us.  We would still celebrate the fact that God took human form.  We would still celebrate the fact that Jesus lived among us, experienced the things we experience, felt the things we feel, taught us, healed us, and ultimately died so that our sins could be forgiven.  And then, the best thing of all, we would still celebrate the fact that Jesus conquered death itself, that he rose from the grave and prepared the way for all of us, so that by God’s grace and through our faith, we can all defeat death and go to be with the Lord in heaven.

And the best thing is that we don’t have to just celebrate that at Christmas.  We can celebrate it in December, in June, in October, or in April.  We can celebrate it in every month of the year, in every week of every month, and on every day of every week.  We can and should celebrate Christmas every day of our lives.

Maybe Christmas in June sounds strange, but it really doesn’t matter when or how we celebrate Christmas.  What matters is that, every day, we celebrate the salvation that was made available to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Rules of the Game

This is the message given Sunday, January 5, 2014 in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Mark 2:23--3:6.

It’s a new year, so that means it’s time to start a new sermon series.  This one is called “Road Trip!”

Jesus did a lot of traveling in his life.  Usually, he had the disciples with him, and a lot of times he had some other people with him, too.  And you know, if you’ve ever taken a trip with someone, that’s a time when you can really get to know people.  When you travel with someone, you find out all kinds of things about them that you never find out if you just spend an hour with them here or there.
The thing about a road trip is that it gives you time to talk about stuff.  Nothing in particular, necessarily.  Just stuff.  Thoughts about life.  Philosophy.  Biography.  Interests, whether shared or not.  All kinds of things.
Jesus and the disciples had a lot of conversations while they were on the road.  A lot of stuff happened to them while they were on the road.  Much of it, of course, is not recorded in the Bible, but some of it is.  And in this sermon series, we’re going to look at some of that stuff, stuff that happened to them and stuff they talked about.  
We’re going to start by talking about a couple of incidents that happened on the Sabbath.  In one of them, Jesus and the disciples started picking crops and eating them on the Sabbath.  In the other, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath.
To the religious leaders of the time, especially the Pharisees, that sort of thing was Just Not Done.  You were not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath.  Period.  That was a law that went back to the time of Moses, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses.  God had said you are not to do any work on the Sabbath, not you, not your kids, not your servants, not your animals.  Nobody.  Now they did, out of practicality, have to make some exceptions.  For example, you were allowed to feed and water your animals.  You could leave your house, as long as you did not go very far.  They had all kinds of rules about what did and did not constitute work.  Some of them got kind of technical.  But everyone knew that picking crops was work, and that healing was work, and so you could not do those things on the Sabbath, because God said so.
And here was Jesus, this person who people called the Son of God, this person who had been raised in a Jewish home, this person who surely had to know better, doing those things.  And so were his disciples.  The Pharisees could not believe it.
Jesus acknowledged that they were not following the rules, but he explained it.  And here are his reasons.  First, he cites Biblical precedent.  He cites the story, found in First Samuel, of King David being allowed to take some consecrated bread, which only priests were allowed to eat.  Not only was David, who was not a priest, allowed to eat some of that consecrated bread, but so were his soldiers.  So, Jesus says, there are precedents for breaking some of these religious laws when the situation requires it.
But Jesus’ reasoning is more than just, “We had to break the Sabbath laws because we were hungry.”  That would’ve just been an excuse.  His real reason is this:  “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”
Think of the implications of that statement.  Again, we’re not just talking about any old rule here.  We’re talking about one of the Ten Commandments.  We’re talking about laws that came to Moses directly from the mouth of God.
What Jesus said about the law about not working on the Sabbath, and by implication what Jesus is saying about all of the other Ten Commandments, is, look, God did not give you these laws to make your lives harder.  God gave them to you to make your lives easier.  God did not intend these laws to make your lives miserable.  God intended them to make your lives better.  God did not give you the Ten Commandments to create burdens for you.  God gave them to you to ease your burdens.
And that’s demonstrated further when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath.  Jesus says to the Pharisees, look, the way you’re interpreting these rules is making life hard for people.  You’re telling me that I cannot heal this man because it’s the Sabbath.  Does that really make sense to you?  Do you really think God wants this man to continue to suffer, even if it’s just for one more day?  Would God really rather I walked away and let this guy continue to live in pain and misery rather than help him, just because it’s the Sabbath?
We read that, or hear it, and of course it makes perfect sense to us.  We wonder why in the world the Pharisees could not see it, when it seems so obvious.  And yet…
You know, the Pharisees were not trying to be evil or bad or anything.  They were trying to get it right, just as much as anyone else.  They just had fallen into a trap, and it’s a trap that it’s really easy for us to fall into, too.
What God had done in the Ten Commandments, and in a lot of the other Old Testament laws God gave the people of Israel, is lay down some basic principles for living.  And they’re really good principles.  All of us, including me, would be a lot better off if we lived the way God told us to live.  
But what the Pharisees did was turn those basic prinicples into a bunch of inflexible rules.  Do this.  Don’t do that.  Doing this is right, doing that is wrong.  If you do this, you’ll go to heaven.  If you do that, you’ll go to hell.  The Rules are The Rules.  Period.  No exceptions.
The thing is, as human beings, we like rules.  That’s why we make so many of them.  Rules make things simple.  If we have a rule, we don’t have to take circumstances into account.  If we have a rule, we don’t have to use our judgment all the time.  We just find out what the rule is and follow it.  It saves a lot of time and effort to just have rules.
But what Jesus is telling us is that God does not look at it that way.  And we should not look at it that way, either.  Because if we do, the rules can get in our way.  They can get in the way of doing good.  They can get in the way of following God.  They can get in the way of loving people the way Jesus told us to.
Now don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as sin.  There is.  I’m also not saying we should just casually ignore all of God’s principles and do anything we want to do. Jesus did not say any of those things, either.  Jesus did not tell the Pharisees, “throw out all your rules and do anything you please.”  As I said, God’s principles for living are really good principles, and all of us, including me, would be better off if we lived the way God told us to live.
But what Jesus was saying is that a slavish adherence to rules can get in our way, just like it got in the Pharisees’ way.  As I said, the Pharisees were trying to get it right.  They thought that, by slavishly following the rules, they were doing what God wanted them to do.  They could not see that, sometimes, their strict adherence to the rules was keeping them from loving people and helping people.  They could not see that, sometimes, following the rules to the letter could lead them to do the exact opposite of what God wanted them to do.
As we start a new year, it’s something for us to think about.  Because all of us have rules, whether we realize it or not.  We have rules for what we do when we get up in the morning.  We have rules for how we spend our days.  We have rules for how we do our jobs.  We have rules for how we live our lives.  We have rules for how we treat people.  We have rules for who we like and who we don’t like.  We have rules for who we care about and who we ignore.  And we have rules for what’s right and what’s wrong, who’s good and who’s bad.  A lot of the time, we may not even have realized that we made these rules, much less that we’re living by them.  But we have, and we are.
The rules we have are not necessarily bad or wrong.  Sometimes they may be exactly the same as the principles God laid out for us.  But we need to take a look at them.  We need to know what rules we have.  And we need to make sure our adherence to those rules is not getting in the way of serving God and loving the people God created.  We need to make sure we have not fallen into the trap the Pharisees did, where following the rules was leading them to do the exact opposite of what God wanted them to do.
As we start a new year, let’s take a look at our rules.  Let’s understand where they came from and why we have them.  And let’s understand that, even if they’re good rules, we still need to make sure they’re not getting in the way of what Jesus said are the two most important rules:  to love God and to love other people.  Ultimately, that’s the standard by which every rule we have needs to be measured.