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Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Matter of Life and Death

The message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, June 1, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, Psalm 90, and Isaiah 65:16-21.

            Today we’re going to conclude our sermon series, “A Time For Everything?” by looking at what’s probably the most basic thing of all.  It’s the very first statement in this list of things there’s a time for.  There is a time to be born, and there is a time to die.
            That’s pretty obvious, right?  The one certainty in life is that we’re going to die.  I even checked the stats on this, and I found out that, on average, one out of every one persons dies.  It’s just the way it is.
            Our psalm this morning made that pretty clear.  It says it over and over again.  “You turn people back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, you mortals.’”  “You sweep people away in the sleep of death--they are like the new grass of the morning:  in the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.”  “All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.  Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”
            Well, that’s all pretty depressing.  This is not something we really come to church wanting to hear.  In fact, it’s not something we go anywhere to hear.  I mean, we know death is a reality, but it’s not really something we like to think about very much.  
And to an extent, that’s a good thing.  It would not be good for us to go through life thinking about death all the time.  That’d be a pretty miserable way to live.  But we cannot ignore death, either.  As with most things, it’s a question of balance.  We need to find a way to live with an awareness of death but to not let that awareness keep us from doing all we can while we’re alive.
And that’s what the author of our psalm ultimately says.  Listen to this part:  “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.”  “May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us.”
It’s been said that humans are the only creatures God made that have an awareness of death, who know that it’s coming.  That’s a gift from God.  God gave us the awareness of death so that we would appreciate life while we have it.  And God gave us the awareness of death so that we would know we need to do as much as we can in whatever time we have.
Because, as the psalmist also says, life is short.  Even if we live a long, full life, even if we make it to a hundred or more, life is still pretty short.  It’s always stunning to me to think that even if I live to a ripe old age, I’ve already lived well over half my life.  I feel like I’m still young.  And, God willing, I still hope to have a substantial number of years left.  But they’ll go by all too quickly.
But as the author of our psalm says, the reason God lets us know that is not to make us sad.  The reason God lets us know that is so we can be thankful for the days we have.  We may not understand why we have to die, but we also don’t understand why we’re alive in the first place.  We did not cause ourselves to be alive.  God did not owe it to us to give us life.  Life is a gift to us.  Each day on this earth is a gift from God.  And as the author of our psalm also says, we are given this awareness of death so that we can use the days we have wisely.
That means we need to figure out what’s really important in life.  And we need to live our lives in a way that we do the things that are important.  The author of the psalm asks God to “establish the work of our hands.”  To me, that means asking God to help us do what’s important.  Help us do the things that will make the most impact.  Help us do things that will last.
Now, does that mean we should never stop and take some time just to have fun?  Of course not!  God wants us to enjoy our lives on earth.  Life on earth would not be a gift if God did not want us to enjoy it.
But it means we need to establish priorities in life.  We need to stop and think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  And in doing that, we need to remember what Jesus told us.  We need to love God, and we need to love other people.  All other people.  
I know I come back to that statement a lot.  But the reason I come back to it is that Jesus said these were the two most important things for us to do.  And if Jesus said they were the most important things for us to do, then I don’t think we can be reminded of them too often.  Everything we do should somehow be connected to loving God and loving other people.
Again, that does not mean we cannot take some time to enjoy life.  Even Jesus did not teach and heal and preach twenty-four/seven.  Even Jesus took some time off to rest and relax.  If Jesus did that, it’s okay for us to do it, too.  But we do that, as Jesus did, so we can then come back refreshed and renewed and better able to go out and love God and love other people again.
We might wish that we could stay young and strong forever.  We might wish that we could always do the things we like to do on this earth.  But that’s not the way God set things up.  And while I certainly make no claim of being able to read God’s mind, I can think of at least a couple of reasons why that might be.
For one thing, if we did not get old, if we did not die, a lot fewer things on earth would change.  And if nothing changes, nothing can ever get better.  That’s not to say that every change is a change for the better, but change is where the possibility of things getting better comes from.  Nothing ever gets better if everything stays the same.
And the other reason I can think of is that if we did not die, we would never go to heaven.  And what a sad thing that would be for us.  I mean, yes, I love my life here, and I hope it continues for quite a while yet, but I also know that the life I have here, as great as it is, is nowhere near as good as the life we’re going to get in heaven.  Life in heaven is more wonderful than anything our minds have the ability to imagine.  But we cannot experience that life while we’re still on earth.  The only way we can experience the wonder, the joy, the peace, and the love that being in the presence of God is, is to die.
There’s one other thing we know, too.  That is that the way things are is not the way things will always be.  In our reading from Isaiah, God, speaking through Isaiah, says that someday there will be a new heaven and a new earth.  Revelation talks about that, too.  When that happens, we’ll never have people who die before their time.  In fact, a person who’s a hundred years old will still be considered young.  Our life span will be like the life span of a tree--hundreds, maybe even thousands of years.
Now, I don’t know when that’s going to happen.  I don’t know how it’s going to happen.  But I know God keeps God’s promises, so I know someday it will happen.  And when it does, there’ll be no need for change any more, because the world will be as it should be.  The wolf and the lamb will lie down together.  The world will be at peace.  Even the animal kingdom will be at peace.
Until that day comes, though, there will be a time to be born and a time to die.  We will continue to live with the awareness of death.  That awareness is a gift from God.  Every day we have on this earth is a gift from God.  Let’s use that gift.  Let’s take advantage of every day of life God gives us.  And then, when our time to die comes, we will know that we are going to a life that is even better, a life with God in heaven.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, May 25, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, Matthew 28:16-20, and Luke 12:8-12.

            As we’ve been looking at the third chapter of Ecclesiastes in this sermon series, the one thing we have to say about all these statements is that we know they’re true.  In some cases, we may not like the fact that they’re true.  In some cases, we may not understand why they’re true.  But we know they are.
            Today, though, we’re going to look at one that we don’t particularly dislike, and one that we don’t have a hard time understanding.  What’s hard about this one is just putting it into practice.  We’re told that there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak.
            Now, I think we’d all agree with that.  We know there is a time to keep silent, and we know there’s a time to speak.  What’s hard for us, a lot of the time, is knowing which is which.  When should we keep silent?  And when should we speak?  That can be a tricky thing in all circumstances.  But it can be especially true when it comes to speaking about our faith.
            A lot of us are kind of hesitant to talk about our faith.  I mean, we’ll talk about it here, in church.  But a lot of us, me included, don’t talk about our faith very much outside of church.
            There are a lot of reasons why.  And they’re not all bad ones, really.  For one thing, our faith is a very personal thing.  In fact, there are not a lot of things in our lives that are more personal than our faith.  And so, it can be a very hard thing to talk about with someone else.  
That’s especially true when we don’t know how that someone else might respond when we talk about our faith.  After all, no one likes being rejected, for any reason.  And when the reason is something very personal and important to us, rejection is even harder to handle.  So, if we think there’s a chance someone might reject us because of our faith, we’re hesitant to say anything about it.
And then, too, no one wants to be thought of us as That Guy.  You know what I mean.  We don’t want people to think of us as that religious nut that won’t ever stop talking about Jesus.  And in truth, that can be a turnoff to people sometimes.  I mean, if you’re talking about who’s going to win the NBA playoffs and I start throwing Jesus in there, that’s probably not going to be a very effective witness for my faith.
But on the other hand, it can be really easy to go too far the other way and not talk about our faith at all.  And we come up with ways to justify not talking about it.  We say things like, “Well, I don’t need to talk about my faith.  I show my faith by the way I live my life.”
How we live our lives is important, of course.  It’s important that our lives show our faith.  But we cannot use that as an excuse to not talk about that faith.  Rick Warren once said that when we say that, what we’re saying is that we live such a wonderful, perfect life that anybody who sees us would just somehow automatically know we must be Christians.  And I don’t know very many people, including me, who live that kind of a wonderful, perfect life.
Also, when we say that, we’re going against what Jesus told us to do.  That passage we read from Matthew contains the last words Jesus said before he was taken up to heaven.  In those words he told us we need to go and make disciples of all nations.  He told us we need to teach people to obey everything he said to do.  It seems to me that if we’re going to do that, and especially if we’re going to do what we’ve been praying for, to reach the unchurched children of our parish, it’s not enough just to live a good life.  We also need to talk to people about our faith.  I don’t see how we can do it otherwise.
So, as a practical matter, how do we go about doing this?  How do we strike that balance between, on the one hand, needing to talk about our faith and change people’s lives and, on the other hand, not talking about it so much that we turn people off and do more harm than good?  In other words, when it comes to our faith, how do we know when it’s time to be silent and when it’s time to speak?
Well, as usual, it seems like it’s a good idea to look to Jesus as our example.  How did Jesus know when it was time to be silent and when it was time to speak?
Well, a lot of the time, when Jesus spoke it was because he was invited to.  When he began his ministry, he was asked to speak at the synagogue.  He would sometimes get invited to someone’s house for a dinner party and be asked to speak or asked to answer questions.  Other times, people would come up to him and ask him things.
So that’s one of the ways we know when it’s time to speak:  when someone asks us to.  Now, maybe you say, “Well, nobody’s ever going to ask me to talk about my faith.”  Well, maybe not, but don’t be so sure.  People may not say, “Talk to me about your faith”, but I’ll bet a lot of us get asked for advice sometimes.  I’ll bet a lot of us have times where people ask what we think about something.  Maybe it just happens in a casual conversation, but it still happens.
That’s a chance to talk about our faith.  That’s a chance to tell people what we believe.  We need to be alert for when those chances come up.  And we need to be ready to take advantage of those chances.
Other times, when Jesus spoke, it was because a crowd had gathered and wanted to hear him speak.  And we say, “Well, that’s never going to happen to me.  No crowd’s ever going to gather around me and want to hear me speak about anything, much less about my faith.”
And maybe not, but think about this.  Why did those crowds gather?  Because Jesus had a reputation.  That reputation was that he was a good man, a man who helped people, a man who cared about people, a man who had important things to say and who lived those things out.  In other words, this is how the way we live our lives enters into this.  It’s not a substitute for talking about our faith.  Instead, it’s an entrance point for talking about our faith.  If people see that we’re good people, that we help others, that we care about people, that we live out our faith, there’s a chance they may want to talk to us about it.  And again, we need to be alert for when those chances come up.  And we need to be ready to take advantage of those chances.
But it’s one thing to say that.  It’s another thing to do it.  Even if we notice a chance to talk about our faith, a lot of times we feel like we don’t know how to do it.  We don’t know what to say.  We might say the wrong thing.  So we don’t say anything.
The disciples worried about that, too.  That’s why we read the passage from Luke.  Jesus tells the disciples that even if they get into trouble for following him, they don’t need to worry about what to say.  Jesus said that, at the right time, the Holy Spirit would tell them what to say.  They just needed to be willing to say it.
That applies to us, too.  If we’ll just take a chance, if we’ll just be alert for chances to talk about our faith, we don’t need to worry about what to say.  The Holy Spirit will tell us what to say.  It’s happened to me several times.  Now don’t get me wrong, I still miss plenty of chances to talk about my faith, but when I do take advantage of one, there are a lot of times I’ll say something and then later on I’ll think, “Where’d that come from?  How I know to say that?”  The only answer I have is that in that moment, when I was willing to take a chance and talk about my faith, the Holy Spirit told me what to say.  And that’ll happen for you, too.
Now, there’s one other thing we need to notice about the times Jesus spoke.  I cannot think of a time in the gospels where Jesus went around looking for an argument.  Now, Jesus was not afraid to speak plainly and clearly.  Jesus was also not afraid to say unpopular things.  But Jesus never went around looking for an argument.  In fact, he often sidestepped situations where he knew the Pharisees were trying to draw him into an argument.  Jesus would speak the truth, but if someone did not want to hear it, that was their choice.  Jesus was sad about it sometimes, but he never tried to chase after someone or force faith on them.  Jesus allowed them to make their choice and moved on.
I think that’s a lesson for us, too.  Because if we do talk about our faith, there will sometimes be people who don’t want to hear it.  That’s their choice.  It may make us sad, but it’s still their choice.  I’m not saying we should just give up on people, but we also should not chase after them or try to force our faith on them.  We have to allow people to make their choices and move on.
There is a time to be silent.  But there’s also a time to speak.  We need to be willing to do both in service to God.  We need to be willing to speak when the situation allows it, and we need to be willing to be silent when the situation requires it.
Jesus gave us the example.  If we’re open to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will show us the time to speak and tell us what to say.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Peace Through Weeping

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 18, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 and Luke 7:36-50.

            Most of you know that I like to have fun.  I like to laugh.  I believe in the old saying that laughter is the best medicine.  That actually comes from the Bible, you know.  Proverbs 17:22 says a cheerful heart is good medicine.  Proverbs 15:15 says a cheerful heart has a continual feast.  There are lots of Bible verses that say that laughter and cheerfulness are good for us.
            That brings us to the part of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes we’re going to look at today.  It says that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh.  And, as we’ve said every week of this sermon series, it says that God has made each of these things beautiful in its time.
            Now, as I said, I have no problem with there being a time to laugh.  But, at the same time, we all recognize that there are times not to laugh.  And we also have to make sure that our laughter is not hurtful.  I’ve had times when people were laughing at me.  I’ll bet you have, too.  That’s not fun at all.  That hurts.  It hurts a lot.  When our laughter is hurtful, it is most definitely not the time to laugh.
            But why is there a time to weep?  How is weeping beautiful?
            As we answer that question, we need to think about what weeping is.  It’s not the same as crying.  There’s a reason the author says “a time to weep” rather than “a time to cry”.  Crying can be joyful.  We can shed tears of joy.  There’s no sense in which weeping is joyful.  Weeping means to be so overpowered by grief or sorrow or some similar emotion that shedding tears is the only thing we can do.
            When we think about that, we first tend to think of the people we’ve lost in the communities of this parish in the last month or so.  And things like that are certainly a time to weep.  But there are other things that cause us to feel grief and sorrow, too.  A relationship that falls apart.  Seeing someone we care about making bad choices and going down the wrong path, and knowing there’s nothing we can do about it.  There are all kinds of things that can cause us to feel grief and sorrow, and sometimes that grief and sorrow can overwhelm us.
            Sometimes we wish God would keep us from feeling those things.  But they’re part of being human.  And since God allows them to happen, we assume there must be a purpose for them, even when we cannot see what it is.  And again, Ecclesiastes tells us they can be beautiful, even when we cannot see how.
            We read a story today from the seventh chapter of Luke.  It’s the story of Jesus going to a Pharisee’s house for dinner.  A woman finds out that Jesus is there, so she goes there, too.
            Now, all Luke tells us about this woman is that she has lived a sinful life.  We’re allowed to make any assumptions we want about exactly what they may mean.  But whatever her sins were, apparently everyone in town knew about them.  This woman was not well thought-of.  She was not well-respected.  People looked down on her, and they thought they had good reasons to do so.
            We also don’t know what this woman knew about Jesus.  But she knew enough.  She knew, somehow, that this was a man of God.  And she knew, somehow, that she needed to see him.
            And when she saw him, she was immediately began weeping.  She was weeping so much that she was able to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears.  We’re not told why she felt this grief and sorrow, but we can guess.  Again, while we don’t know what her sins were, we’re told that she had lived a sinful life.  And I’m sure she knew she’d lived a sinful life.
            But then, we’ve all lived sinful lives, right?  I mean, the Apostle Paul says that all of us have sinned, that all of us have fallen short.  So, we really should all be able to see ourselves in the place of this woman.  We’re all sinners who’ve lived sinful lives.
            But you know, we say that all the time.  And we mean it.  I’m not saying that we don’t.  But at the same time, there are a lot of times we don’t let it bother us too much.  I’ve said this before, but if there’s one thing we human beings are good at, it’s justifying our own behavior.  We can justify darn near anything to ourselves.  Our reasoning may not justify our behavior to others, but we can justify it to ourselves.  
And please don’t think I’m pointing a finger here.  I’m just as good at this as anyone, and probably better than a lot of you.  I can find all kinds of wonderful ways to justify doing what I want to do and to justify not doing what I don’t want to do.
And I’m sure this woman was good at it, too.  She may have known, deep down, that what she was doing was wrong, but she found a way to justify it to herself.  She found a way to not let her sinful behavior bother her too much.
And I suspect she did something else we all do, too.  She looked at herself, and she said, you know, I’m not all that bad.  I’m doing the best I can.  After all, nobody’s perfect.  I’m better than some people.  In fact, I’m better than a lot of people.  Have you ever done that?  I have.  I suspect this woman did, too.
But then.  Then, she came face to face with the divine Son of God, Jesus Christ.  And all of a sudden, the reality of who she was hit her right between the eyes.  For the first time in years, maybe in forever, she saw herself as she truly was.  All the ways she used to justify her behavior fell apart.  All of her thoughts about how she was better than a lot of people fell by the wayside.  Everything about her life was suddenly in full view.  It was right in front of her eyes.  There was no hiding from it.  She was in the presence of perfection, and she suddenly saw how imperfect, how sinful, she really was.
And when that reality hit her, there was only one thing she could do.  The only thing she could do was weep.  She was so overpowered by the grief and sorrow of what she’d done, of all the ways she had fallen short of who God wanted her to be, who God had made her to be, that all she could do was weep.
And I suspect that’s what you and I would do, too.  If the reality of who we really are hit us right between the eyes, if we saw ourselves as we truly are, if we were stripped of all our justifications and all the ways we use to make ourselves think we’re okay, if we could no longer hide from who we are and were in the presence of the perfection that is God, I think you and I would probably weep, too.
But look at the rest of the story.  This woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears.  And Jesus tells her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
            When this woman came into the presence of Jesus, she was overpowered by grief and sorrow at the thought of who she was.  All she could do was weep.  And to Jesus, her weeping was beautiful.  And Jesus forgave her for everything.
            We’re not told what happened to the woman after that.  I assume she felt better.  I also assume, though, that her problems were not all magically solved.  People probably still looked down on her.  She may have resolved to change her life, but we all know that’s not an easy thing to do.  And even if she succeeded and really did change her life, it would’ve taken a long time for her to get people’s respect and trust.  Getting forgiveness from Jesus probably made her feel better, but it did not change anything about her condition, at least not right away.
            But Jesus did not just say “your sins are forgiven”.  Jesus said something else, too.  He said, “Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace”.
            Sometimes we hear a phrase like “go in peace” the way we hear “have a nice day”.  It’s just something people say, without really thinking about it.  But when Jesus said, “go in peace”, I don’t think it was just something to say.  I think Jesus meant every word of it.  And I think Jesus’ words have power.  When Jesus said “go in peace”, I think this woman actually felt a sense of peace.
            And that, really, is one of the greatest gifts we get from our faith in Jesus.  The greatest gift of all, of course, is salvation and eternal life.  But while we’re on earth, one of the greatest gifts we get from our faith in Jesus is to feel a sense of peace.  And we can feel that peace no matter what our circumstances are.
            As I said, meeting Jesus did not magically solve this woman’s problems.  But when Jesus said “go in peace”, she really did.  She went in peace.  She now knew that, no matter what her problems were, she was not alone.  She knew that the Lord was with her.  She knew that the Lord would always be with her, no matter what happened.  And she knew, because of that, that she could handle whatever might happen to her.
            This life on earth gives us many reasons to weep.  We don’t always understand why.  But when we’re overpowered by grief and sorrow, we need to do what this woman did.  We need to go to Jesus.  And if we need to weep, it’s okay.  Because Jesus will see the beauty in our weeping.  And Jesus will offer us forgiveness and salvation.  
           And Jesus will tell us to go in peace.  That won’t solve our problems.  But we’ll know we’re not alone.  We’ll know the Lord is with her and always will be, no matter what happens.  And we’ll know, because of that, that we can handle whatever might happen to us

Friday, May 16, 2014

Steppin' Out With My Pastor

This article originally appeared in the May, 2014 edition of the Wheatland Parish newsletter.

            As many of you know, the people of the Gettysburg church voted in April to borrow up $200,000, if necessary, in order to be able to start construction on the addition to the Gettysburg church.  We hope to begin construction later in May.

            Obviously, we’d prefer to not borrow $200,000.  We’d prefer not to borrow anything, but if we do have to borrow, we want the amount borrowed to be as small as possible.  So we will continue to seek donations, and we will continue to hold fundraising events.  I want to use this space to tell you about one of those fundraising events.

            As part of the conference’s wellness program, I wear a pedometer.  This measures the number of steps I take every day.  I plug the pedometer into a computer every week or so, and the computer tells me how many steps I’ve taken each day during that week.

            So, here’s the fundraiser.  I call it “Steppin’ Out With Pastor Jeff”.  I am asking people to pledge an amount of their choosing for every thousand steps I take from Memorial Day (the unofficial start of the summer) through Labor Day (the unofficial end).  All the money raised will go to the Gettysburg construction fund.

            To give you an idea of how much to pledge, the computer tells me that I take an average of about 8,500 steps per day.  The calendar tells me that there are about one hundred days between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  So, here’s a handy chart, based on me staying on that pace of 8,500 steps per day:

Pledge per thousand steps                                          Total pledged for the summer

$0.01                                                                           $8.50

$0.10                                                                           $85.00

$0.50                                                                           $425.00

$1.00                                                                           $850.00

$5.00                                                                           $4,250.00

$10.00                                                                         $8,500.00

$20.00                                                                         $17,000.00

$50.00                                                                         $42,500.00

$100.00                                                                       $85,000.00

$500.00                                                                       $425,000.00

$1,000.00                                                                    $850,000.00

            Your choices are not limited to the amounts listed, of course.  You can pledge any amount you want to.  We’ll be handing out a pledge sheet in the Gettysburg church, but of course, pledging is strictly voluntary.  We’re also not limiting pledges to the Gettysburg church.  If anyone reading this wants to make a pledge to the Gettysburg construction fund, it will be gratefully accepted.

            I plan to provide frequent updates on my steps on facebook and twitter.  I’ll also give you updates every Sunday in church, and monthly in the newsletter.  Help me get more exercise, get into better shape, and support the Gettysburg church addition.  Let’s get this done!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

What's New?

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 11, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 and Matthew 9:14-17.

            As we continue our look at the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, we’re going to take up one that’s a little easier to understand.  It’s not something that strikes us as wrong, such as there being a time to hate, and it’s not something that goes against our societal values, like there being a time to give up.  Today we’re going to look at the section that says there is a time to keep and a time to throw away.
            Now, I say it’s easier to understand because we all know that the time comes when we have to throw things away.  In fact, this is the time of year we tend to do that sort of thing.  We call it “spring cleaning”.  We go through our stuff and see what we don’t need any more.  That’s why this is the time of year for things like city-wide rummage sales and city-wide clean-up days.  We all know that there’s a time to keep, and there’s a time to throw away.
            At least, we know it in theory.  If you’re like me, though, you sometimes have trouble putting that theory into practice.  Any of you who’ve been in my office know that.  If you’ve been in the car I usually drive, you know that, too.  I really don’t like to throw things away.  I’m not ready for an episode of “Hoarders” yet--yet--but I do tend to keep too much stuff that I really should throw away.
            But we need to throw things away sometimes, because things change.  Technology changes.  Styles change.  I can remember when leisure suits were the in thing.  How many of you still have a leisure suit?  I won’t ask for a show of hands, because if you have one you probably don’t want to admit it anyway.  Most of us don’t have them any more.  We realized that there was a time to throw them away.
            But you know, I don’t know that the author of Ecclesiastes was just talking about stuff when he said there’s a time to keep and a time to throw away.  Stuff may have been included, but I think he may have been talking about other things, too.  Things like ideas.  Things like opinions.  Things like preferences.  Things like the way we’ve always done things.  There is a time to keep those things.  But there also is a time to throw them away.
It’s not necessarily because the old things are always wrong.  It’s that things change.  Things that were right for one time are not necessarily right for another time.  Look at TV comedy.  The top comedies of the 1960s were The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and the Andy Griffith show.  They don’t make shows like that now because things have changed.  Now, the top comedies are shows like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family.  Are the new shows better than the old shows?  Not necessarily.  Are they worse?  Not necessarily.  It just depends on what you like.
It’s the same with music.  For most of us, our favorite music is the music we grew up with.  For me, again, that’s music of the 1960s and 70s.  My favorites are people like Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, and Simon & Garfunkel.  And you young people have no idea what I’m talking about.  People don’t make music like that now because things have changed. Today it’s folks like John Legend and Justin Timberlake and One Direction.  Is today’s music better?  Not necessarily.  Is it worse?  Not necessarily.  It just depends on what you like.
It’s okay to like the old stuff.  It’s okay to like the new stuff, too.  We’re talking about preferences here.  When you’re talking about what you prefer, what you like, there is no such thing as right or wrong.  Take music as the example.  If you like one kind of music and I like another, I cannot prove that my kind is better than yours and you cannot prove that your kind is better than mine.  Again, it’s just what we like.
And that’s why I like the story from Matthew we read today.  Jesus says you cannot pour new wine into old wineskins.  If you do that, the skin will break, the wine will run out, and you won’t have either the wine or the skin.  What you do, instead, is keep the old wine in the old wineskin, put new wine in a new wineskin, and both are preserved.
Jesus does not say that the new wine is better.  He does not say that the new wineskin is better, either.  He also does not say that the old wine or the old wineskin is better.  What he says is that the old wineskin is appropriate for the old wine, and the new wineskin is appropriate for the new wine.  There’s room for both.  And there should be room for both.
But you know, the only way we can find out if we like something new is to try it.  And sometimes, the only way we can make room in our lives to try things is to throw away some of the old things in our lives.  If we have container after container after container of old wineskins holding old wine, we won’t have any room for new wine.  We’ll never know if that new wine is any good or not.  Sometimes we need to throw away some of the old wineskins--not all of them, but some--to make room for some new ones.
We can miss out on a lot of good stuff in life by holding on so hard to the old that we never make room for the new.  I love my old music, but I listen to the current pop station and the current country station, too, because I don’t want to miss out.  Sometimes I hear something I don’t like, but sometimes I hear something I do like.  If I did not throw out some of the time I used to dedicate to listening to old music, I’d never have any room for new music.
That’s why we do a contemporary Christian song every week.  We had to throw out one of the traditional songs in order to make room for it.  I’m sure some people like that and some people don’t, and that’s okay, because again, we’re talking about preferences.  But if we had not made room for that song, we’d never have known if we liked it or not.  If we don’t throw things away sometimes, we never have room for anything new.
            See, trying something new is not the same as saying the old is bad.  It’s just saying that times change, and we have to change with them.
About a month ago, we started a prayer emphasis on the unchurched children of this community.  We’re asking God to help us find ways to reach those children.  I don’t know exactly where that’s going to go, but I know it’s probably going to mean that we’ll need to try some new things.  To make room for those new things, we may have to throw away some of the things we’ve been doing.  
Now, that does not mean the things we’ve doing are bad.  It does not mean they’re wrong.  It also does not mean that we have to completely change everything we’ve been doing.  After all, there’s a time to throw away, but there’s also a time to keep.  I’m not saying we should completely throw out everything and start all over from scratch.  But times change, and some of our methods need to change, too.
            There’s a time to keep and a time to throw away.  That’s true in our personal lives.  It’s also true in the life of the church.  And the trick, in both cases, is knowing which is which.  The trick is knowing what to keep and what to throw away.
            And in the church, the measuring stick for that is the Bible.  Because the Bible is God’s message to us.  God is both the God of the old and the God of the new.  God’s message, that message of God’s love and God’s forgiveness and God’s righteousness and all the other things that are God, does not change.
            The way we share that message may change.  It always has.  You know, at one time, the use of a church organ was considered controversial, because at one time a church organ was a new innovation.  At one time, Sunday school as a place of religious instruction was a new innovation, too.  We think these things have been around forever, but they have not been.  They came about because people recognized a need for things to change.
            The way we share God’s message will always change.  The way we do things now is different from the way we did them fifty years ago.  They way we’ll do things fifty years from now will be different from the way we do them now.  But what does not change is God’s message to us.  
We worship an unchanging God.  As the letter to the Hebrews says, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  Our salvation comes from our belief in God and our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  Those things do not change and they never will change.

There is a time to keep and a time to throw away.  As this church moves forward, we will make changes, just as the church has always done.  We will throw some things away, just as the church has always done.  But we’ll keep some things, too, just as the church has always done.  And among the things we’ll keep are our dedication to serve the one holy, righteous, perfect God and to believe in the divine Son Jesus Christ as our Savior.

Friday, May 9, 2014

It's For Me.

This is the message given at the Oahe Manor Communion Service Thursday, May 8, 2014.  The Bible verses are Psalm 23.

I’m sure most of you have heard Psalm 23 before.  Some of you have heard it lots of times before.  It’s the most popular psalm there is, and one of the most popular scriptures there is.
But you know, not too long ago, something occurred to me.  And that is the number of times the first person pronoun is used.  In other words, the word “me” appears seven times, “my” appears five times,  and “I” appears four times.  That’s a total of sixteen times that “I”, “me”, or “my” is in the twenty-third psalm.  That’s more than one-tenth of all the words in the psalm.
Listen to it again, and think about how much the psalm emphasizes those words:  
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
      He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside still waters,
    he restores my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
   for his name’s sake.
 Even though I walk
   through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
   for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
   they comfort me.
 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
 Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
See, I’ve always thought of this psalm as being about the greatness of God.  And it is, of course, but that’s not all it’s about.  It’s also about me.  Yes, God is great, but God uses God’s greatness to help me.  And to help you.  To help all of us.
When I think of it that way, it gives the psalm a whole new meaning for m.  To think that God, the almighty, all-powerful God, the God who is greater than anything we can ever imagine, wants to be my shepherd.  God’s going to keep watch over me while I lie down in a peaceful place, a green pasture.  God’s going to lead me beside the quiet, still water where I can get all I want to drink and have my soul be refreshed.  God is willing to do that, God wants to do that, God is eager to do that, for me.  For each of us.
God wants to be my guide, leading me on the right path, the path I should take.  Even when things look bad, even when I’m walking through the darkest valley and I cannot see where I’m going, God will be there, guiding me along, using God’s rod and God’s staff to keep me on that right path.  God’s going to take care of me even when my enemies are all around me.  This is not anything I deserve.  God does not owe it to me to do any of this.  And yet, the almighty, all-powerful God is willing to do this, wants to do this, is eager to do this, for me.  For each of us.
I have so many blessings from God that no container could hold them all.  My cup oveflows.  And because of all this I know that God’s goodness and God’s mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and when the this life is over, I will go to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  And so, by your faith in Jesus Christ, will you.  So will all of us.
All of these things that God does for us.  God does not do it because we deserve it.  God does not do it because God owes it to us.  God does not do it because God has to do it.  The almighty, all-powerful God, the God who is bigger and greater than the biggest and greatest thing we can ever imagine, comes to me, and comes to you, and says, in effect, “Let me take care of you.  Let me watch over you.  Let me refresh you, body and soul.  Let me guide you through life and protect you from your enemies.  Let me do this for you.  I’ll do it for you all your life.  I’ll do it in the next life, too.  You don’t have to repay me for it.  I want to do this for you.  I’d love to do this for you.  All you have to do is let me.  All you have to do is say yes.”
So let’s say yes.  Let’s say yes to God.  Let’s let God take care of us.  God will do it.  God will take care of us, all through this life and all through the next one.

Monday, May 5, 2014

What Shall We Do?

This is the message from the Oahe Manor service Sunday, May 4, 2014 in Gettysburg.  The Bible verses used are Acts 2:14a, 236-41.

            In this story, Peter has just had the Holy Spirit fall on him, what’s called the day of Pentecost.  And he’s just addressed a big crowd, telling them all about Jesus.  He finishes up, as you heard, by saying, “Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this:  God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
            And the people believe him.  They accept that Jesus is the Savior, that he’s the Lord and Messiah.  But then they ask this question of Peter and the other apostles.  They ask, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
            And that’s what our question should always be, too.  You know, we talk about how we are saved through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior and by nothing else, and that’s true.  I believe that.  But at the same time, our faith is not just a private thing.  It’s not something that we’re supposed to keep to ourselves.  If we truly accept Jesus as our Savior, if we truly have faith, then we’re supposed to do something about that faith.  And so the question we should always ask is, “Now that I believe, what shall I do?”
            It’s not always an easy question to answer.  You know, there have been some really sad things happen in this area over the last couple of weeks.  Lots of people have lost people close to them, sometimes in a very sudden and tragic way.  And we wish we could help.  But then we think, “But what shall I do?”  And we have a hard time coming up with an answer.  It seems like there’s really nothing we can do.
            And that’s got to be especially true for those of you in here.  I mean, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know when I say that the reality is that you’re limited in what you can do anyway.  And then something like this happens, and you must feel even more helpless and frustrated than I do.  You see people you care about hurting, and you want to help, but “what shall I do?”  We have a hard time coming up with an answer.
            And I do, too.  But I can think of a few things you can do.  They’re not everything, but they’re a start.  At least they’re something.
            One is that you can pray.  And I know a lot of you do, and have been.  But keep praying.  Pray for all those who’ve lost loved ones.  Pray for God to give them comfort and strength and love.  Pray that they will feel God with them, so that they know they’re not going through this alone.  Pray, and keep praying.  Their hurt is not going to go away in a day or a week or a month.  Our prayers should not go away in that time, either.
            Reach out to people.  Send a card.  Make a phone call.  Let people know that you’re praying for them.  It means something to all of us to know that someone is praying for us.  It gives us strength.  It gives us comfort.  It lets us know that we’re not alone.  Sometimes, that knowledge means more than anything else.
            And let them know that you’re there for them if they want to talk.  If they want to talk on the phone, or if they want to come out and talk in person, let them know they can talk to you.  Knowing we have someone we can talk to when we need to is a tremendous comfort when we’re hurting.  Even if they never actually do talk to you, just the knowledge that they can sometimes means a tremendous amount to people.
            And don’t just do it right now.  Do it a again a few weeks from now.  Do it again a month from now.  Do it again six weeks from now.  Again, when people are hurting, that hurt does not go away quickly.  Sometimes we’re afraid to bring something up a few weeks later because we’re afraid we’ll make things worse.  We’re afraid we’ll just remind them of their sadness.  But in fact, they’re thinking about it anyway.  Again, when someone is hurting, that hurt does not go away in a day or a week or a month.  They’re not going to forget.  And sometimes, just knowing that others have not forgotten either is a very comforting thing.
            I’m sure there are other things you can do.  And in other situations, what we do will be completely different.  The point is that, no matter what the situation is, we need to do something, and there is always something we can do.  But to do it, we have to start with the question asked by the people Peter was talking to.  We have to ask, “What shall we do?”
            And if we’re stuck for something, then we need to ask God what to do.  And we need to keep asking and keep asking until God gives us an answer.  And God will give us an answer.  God loves it when we ask God for chances to serve God.  In my experience, every time I’ve asked God for a way to serve God, I have gotten an answer.  I think you will, too.
            It’s important that we have faith in Jesus as our Savior.  But if we truly have faith, we will ask the question.  “What shall we do?”  And if we truly believe and want to serve God, God will give us an answer.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

I've Been Searching So Long

This is the message given in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish Sunday, May 4, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 and Matthew 11:2-19.
            This is the second week of our sermon series “A Time for Everything”, looking at the third chapter of Ecclesiastes.  Last week, we talked about a time for love and a time for hate.  This week, we look at a different subject.  Ecclesiastes says there is a time to search and a time to give up.
            Giving up is not really something we value very much.  We never want to give up.  After all, to give up is to admit defeat.  To give up is to say we cannot have what we want to have, we cannot do what we want to do.  To give up is to quit.  Nobody wants to be a quitter.  Nobody even wants to be called a quitter.  We don’t really have a whole lot of respect for someone who gives up.
            And in fact, the Bible does not show a whole of respect for people who give up, either.  Jesus told all kinds of stories about how we should not give up, how we will be rewarded for not giving up.  He told a story about a widow who went to an unjust judge day after day after day, demanding justice.  The judge could not have cared less about what the widow wanted.  He kept shoving her aside, pushing her away, telling her to get lost.  And yet, she kept coming back, day after day after day, until finally the judge did what she wanted just to get rid of her.
            Jesus told a story about a man who had a hundred sheep and lost one.  He went after that sheep, searching and searching until he found it, and then he called all his friends and wanted them to celebrate with him.  Jesus told a similar story about a woman who had ten coins and lost one.  She swept the house, looking in every corner, under every piece of furniture, until she found that coin, and then she called all her friends and wanted them to celebrate with her.
            All these stories about not giving up.  In Galatians, Paul writes about how important it is as Christians that we not give up.  He says that at the proper time we will reap a harvest, a harvest for God, if we just don’t give up.
            I am not familiar with one story in the Bible where someone gave up and quit and got rewarded for it.  And yet, here’s the writer of Ecclesiastes saying there’s a time to search, but there’s also a time to give up.  And as you heard, and as we talked about last week, the writer says that God has made everything, including giving up, beautiful in its time.  So when is the time to give up?
            Well, there’s an old saying.  I’m sure a lot of you have heard it before.  The saying goes, “You’ll always find something in the last place you look.”  And, of course, there’s a reason why that’s true.  You always find something in the last place you look because once you find it, you don’t look in any more places, right?  There’s no point.  Why would you keep looking for something after you found it?  Once we find what we’re looking for, we can give up and stop looking.
            And that brings us to our reading from Matthew.  The “John” who’s referred to in that reading is the man we’ve come to know as John the Baptist.  John, of course, had been preparing the way for the Messiah.  He had been telling everyone who’d listen, and some people who would not listen, that the Messiah, the Savior, was coming.  But at this point, John the Baptist had made some powerful enemies, and he’d been thrown in prison.
            But he’d heard stories about Jesus.  And, of course, he’d baptized Jesus, and had heard the voice from heaven saying “This is my son, with whom I am well-pleased.”
            John thought Jesus was the one.  But he’d been searching so long, and waiting so long, that he wanted to be sure.  So he sent some people to Jesus and asked him.  Are you the one, Jesus?  Are you the Messiah?  Can I give up my search now, because I’ve found what I was looking for?
            Of course, Jesus did not come out and say, “Yep, I’m the Messiah.”  That was not his style.  He simply told them to tell John what they’d heard him say and seen him do.  He knew that if John knew what he’d said and done, John would know that Jesus was the Messiah.  He’d know that he could give up his search, because he had, indeed, found the one he was looking for.
            You know, the reason that old saying about finding something in the last place you look sounds kind of funny to us is that it seems obvious.  Of course, once you find something, you stop looking.  And yet…
            There were plenty of people in Jesus’ time who did not get it.  The Pharisees did not get it.  The Sadducees did not get it.  The scribes, the teachers of the law, they all did not get it.  You know, they were searching for the Messiah, too.  And they were sincere about it.  They really did want to find the Messiah.  
They wanted to find the Messiah just as much as John did.  And they knew the signs to look for, just like John did.  And they heard what Jesus said, they saw what Jesus did.
They had found what they were looking for, just like John had.  They had found the Messiah.  Their search was over.  It was time to give up.
And they did not realize it.  They did not realize the time for searching was over, and the time to give up had come.  And because they did not realize it, they missed out.  They missed out on the incredible joy they could’ve had from knowing their salvation had come.
When we study the Bible, and we think about the things that people like the Pharisees and the Sadducees did to Jesus, we sometimes think of them as the bad guys.  And in the context of the crucifixion of Jesus, I guess they are.  But when I think about it this way, I really kind of feel sorry for them.  I mean, can you imagine it?  Can you imagine searching for something your whole life, wanting it more than anything else in the world, and then finding it, but not recognizing it when you found it?  Going on searching, looking here, looking there, looking high and low and everywhere in-between, when the thing you wanted so desperately was right in front of your nose?  What a sad thing that would be.
And yet, how many of us do that now?  How many people are there who are looking everywhere for their salvation and for their happiness?  We look to the government, we look to power, we look to money or possessions, we look to food or alcohol or drugs, we look in all kinds of places.  We so desperately want our salvation, and we so desperately want to be happy, and we search here and there and everywhere for that salvation and for that happiness, and we don’t recognize that the time has come for us to give up our search, because the thing we want is right in front of us.  Our salvation and our happiness, is right there, right in front of our noses.  And we don’t see it.  What a sad thing that is.
And please don’t think I’m talking about people outside the church when I say this.  I’m including people outside the church, but I’m including people inside the church, too.  I’m including all of us.  I’m most definitely and specifically including me.  We are all susceptible to doing this.  We say we have faith in Jesus.  We say we believe.  And to an extent, maybe we do.  And yet, we keep looking in other places for our happiness.  We keep looking other places for our salvation.  We don’t see that it’s time to give up the search.  We don’t see that what we’ve been searching for is right here in front of us, and has been all along.
Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  I’m not saying that if we just accept Jesus as our Savior, all our problems will be over.  You all know better than that, especially given the events of the last week or two around here.  And besides, I know, and I’ve said this many times, that each person here is fighting some sort of a battle.  Each person here has something going on in their lives that is really hard to deal with.  Maybe lots of people know about it.  Maybe only a few people know about it.  Maybe nobody knows about it.  But it’s there.  And it’s serious.  And it’s not going away just because we put our faith in Jesus.
But it will be better.  It will be easier.  Because we will know we’re not fighting the battle alone.  We’ll know that we have God with us.  We’ll know that God will guide us.  We’ll know that God will give us strength when we need it, will give us courage when we need it, will give us comfort when we need it, and will give us love when we need it.  And we’ll know that God will give us forgiveness and salvation when we need it.  We don’t need to look elsewhere for help.  We don’t need to be searching.  We can give up the search.  God will give us the help we need.
There is a time to search.  But when we find what we’ve been searching for, it’s time to give up.  The Messiah is here.  Our salvation has come.  We don’t need to search for it any more.  We can give up the search, because it’s right here in front of us.  In the last place we’ve looked.