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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Appointed to Serve

The message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, August 31, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Luke 10:1-11.

            Today we come to the end of our sermon series, “Why Do We Do That?”  We’ve talked about a lot of stuff so far.  We’ve talked about why we allow for so much difference of opinion within the United Methodist Church.  We’ve talked about why we take communion and why we offer it to everyone.  We’ve talked about why we baptize people, and why we allow for infant baptism.  Last week we talked about why, as United Methodists, we’ll perform a funeral for anyone who wants one, with no questions asked.
            So this week, as we conclude our sermon series, we’re going to look at an issue that’s very important to me personally.  Why, in the United Methodist Church, are pastors appointed to churches by the conference?
            It would not have to be that way, of course.  As you know, there are denominations in which the local church is in charge of hiring its pastor.  In fact, there are denominations right here in town which do it that way.  In those churches, the pastor stays as long as both he or she wants to stay there and the local church wants them to stay there.  And if either the pastor wants to leave or the church decides it’s time for them to leave, then the local church has both the right and the responsibility of finding their next pastor.
            That’s not how it is in the United Methodist Church.  The churches of the Wheatland Parish did not hire me.  Wanda and I might never have come here if the churches of the parish had gone out and had to hire someone.  We are here because we were appointed here by the cabinet, the District Superintendents and the Bishop, of the Dakotas Conference.  And we will stay here until the cabinet of the Dakotas Conference decides to appoint us somewhere else.  That could be a long time, and we certainly hope that it is, but neither you nor we have any guarantee of that.  All assignments, for all United Methodist Churches, are made on a year-to-year basis.  We are guaranteed to be here through June of 2015.  Again, we hope to be here much longer, but no one, not even the conference, knows for sure whether we will be.  We all just have to wait and see.
            Now, I don’t want you to take that the wrong way.  These appointments are not made arbitrarily by people just acting on a whim.  The cabinet asks my opinion about whether I want to stay or move, and my opinion is taken into consideration.  The cabinet asks the parish’s opinion, too, through the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, and their opinion is taken into consideration as well.  But the cabinet is not bound by anyone’s opinion.  It still has the final say.
            So why do we do that?  Why do we assign pastors on a year-to-year basis, rather then letting the local church hire them?
            Well, one reason we do that is that we’ve always done it that way.  The United Methodist Church came from the Church of England, which came from the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church appoints priests.  So, when Methodism was started, that was the method that was used.
            There’s a lot more to it than that, of course.  We can point to a Biblical basis for it.  That’s why we read the passage from Luke today.  When Jesus sent out the seventy-two, Jesus did not say “Go wherever you want to go and stay as long as you like.”  Jesus sent them to specific places to do a specific job.  Once they had done that job, it was time for them to move on.  You could say that the appointment system started with Jesus himself.
            There are practical reasons for it, too.  By using an appointment system, the United Methodist Church can guarantee that every church will have a pastor.  We could not do that if each church had to find its own pastor.  And that especially has implications for a parish like this, where we’re in small towns in a rural area.  There are a lot of pastors who would not like coming to a three-point charge in a rural area.  
Don’t get me wrong, as I said, Wanda and I love it here and would like to stay a long time.  But if, for some reason, this parish had to go out and hire someone on its own, it could be quite a while before someone was found.  You’ve probably seen that happen in some churches.  In fact, that’s the reason I was a pastor in the United Church of Christ is Wessington Springs for two years before I got my first United Methodist appointment--they had a pastor leave, and they had a hard time finding someone who wanted to come to a small town in a rural area.  After I got my first appointment, it was six more months before they found someone.  That can leave a church in a tough spot.
There’s another thing that can happen in small town churches that have to find their own pastor.  Sometimes, a church is not particularly happy with the pastor they have, and the pastor is not particularly happy to be serving that church.  But the church knows that if they let the current pastor go, they may have a hard time finding another one.  And the pastor knows that if he leaves, he may have a hard time finding another church to serve.  And so it becomes kind of like a bad marriage, where neither side is happy but neither side wants to leave.  That’s not a good spot for either a church or a pastor to be in.
None of those things will happen in the United Methodist Church.  Each church, as long as it’s paying its apportionments, is guaranteed a pastor.  And each ordained pastor, as long as he or she is in good standing with the conference, is guaranteed an appointment.
Now, that’s not to say that our system is perfect.  It’s not.  No system designed by humans is perfect.  The cabinet does its best to make good appointments that will be good for both the parish and the pastor, but they’re human, and sometimes they make mistakes.  And sometimes, there just isn’t a really good match to be made.  Sometimes there just aren’t the same number of round pegs as there are round holes.  It would be a tough job to make all these appointments.  The cabinet does its best, but that’s all it can do.
And of course, from a pastor’s point of view, the appointment system sometimes means you have to leave a place where you’d like to stay.  Sometimes it means you have to go to a place you’d rather not go.  And sometimes you have to stay in a place you’d rather not stay.  I know pastors who’ve had all those things happen.  Again, the cabinet is trying to do its best, but sometimes there are situations where there just are not a lot of good options at the moment, and it’s not possible to make everyone happy.  That’s just the way it is.
But there’s another aspect to this, too.  It’s something you’ve probably heard many times, but I don’t know if you’ve thought of it in this context.  It’s the fact that sometimes, God does not give us what we want.  Instead, God gives us what we need.  That’s true for pastors, too.  And it’s also true for churches.
Wanda and I would love it if it worked out that we could stay here the rest of our careers and retire here.  Some of you have been kind enough to say that you’d like us to stay a long time, too.  But that may not be what God has in mind.  It may not be what’s best for us, and it may not be what’s best for this parish.
Since I got out of school, I’ve lived in a few different places.  I’ve lived in Pierre, where I met Wanda.  We’ve lived in Wessington Springs.  We've lived in North Sioux City.  And now, we live here.
Each time it came time to move, even if it was our choice, there was a part of us that did not want to go.  Because everywhere we’ve been, we’ve made wonderful friends.  And everywhere we’ve been, we’ve been very happy.  And everywhere we’ve been, we’ve had the thought that we’d be happy to stay there the rest of our lives.
But so far, God has had a different plan.  And every time we’ve moved, God moved us to something better.  And every time we’ve moved, it led to something better for the people and the churches we left behind, too.  Wanda and I did not get to have what we wanted, but what God had in mind turned out to be better for everyone concerned.
Now, of course, the cabinet is not God.  But the cabinet is made up of good people who pray and do their best to serve God and do God’s will.  And God can certainly act through the cabinet to put people in places where they can best serve God.  And God can also act through the cabinet to send to churches the pastors they need.
            The appointment system is not a perfect system.  But why do we do that?  We do it because, despite its flaws, we believe it is the best way to get pastors in the places they need to be and to get churches the pastors they need to have.  What we need may or may not be what we want at the time.  But if we pray and rely on God, it will be what’s best.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Incredible Gift

This is the message given at the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg on August 27, 2014.  The Bible verses are John 3:1-17.

            In these Wednesday night services, we’ve been looking at “Three Sixteens”, Chapter Three, Verse Sixteen in twelve different books of the New Testament.  And of course, the sermon series would not be complete without looking at the most famous “three sixteen” of all, John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
            I’m not going to say that John Three Sixteen is the entirety of Christian faith wrapped up in one sentence, but it’s pretty close.  What does it tells us?  It tells us God loves the world.  God loves the world so much that he would sacrifice Jesus, the divine Son.  And God did that so that anyone who believes in Jesus as the divine Son will have eternal life.  I’m not saying that’s all we need to know, but it’s probably the most important thing we need to know.
            Nicodemus did not know it.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  The Pharisees, as we’ve talked about before, were the rule-makers and the rule-keepers.  They did not believe in love.  I mean, they were probably not against it or anything.  I’m not saying they thought love was a bad thing.  It’s just that love as a feeling, as an emotion, did not have much of a place in their religion.  
The Pharisees knew we’re supposed to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength, but they really did not know what that meant.  To them, it meant following the rules.  You did not question the rules, and you did not worry about what the consequences of following the rules might be.  What you thought, what you felt, what your emotions were, was irrelevant.  You did not have to like the rules.  Your duty was simply to follow them, and if you did your duty and followed the rules, you showed your love to God.  And that was all that mattered.
But no matter how hard the Pharisees tried to live that way, they could not entirely shut off their minds, nor could they entirely get rid of their emotions.  Nicodemus could not.  He’d heard about Jesus.  We don’t know how much he’d heard, but he’d obviously heard something.  He’d heard enough to know that Jesus had a message that was different from the “follow the rules” message that the Pharisees had.
So Jesus starts telling him about needing to be born again, to be born of the spirit.  And that makes no sense to him.  That has nothing to do with rules.  Having God’s Spirit lead you, having God’s Spirit come into your heart, that idea did not fit into the idea Nicodemus had about religion.  That salvation could come from faith and love, rather than by following rules, was a foreign concept to him.
A lot of times, it’s often a foreign concept to us, too.  We know it.  We’ve read it or heard it from the Bible, over and over again.  And yet, so many times, it does not sink in.  We keep thinking we have to earn our way into heaven by following rules.  We keep thinking we’re not good enough to get to heaven, so we have to do more, we have to follow the rules better, we’ve got to do enough stuff to make God like us and let us get into heaven.
Why is that?  I mean, we know better.  We’ve heard over and over again that we’re saved by God’s grace and through our faith.  We’ve heard over and over again that our salvation is based on faith and not on works.  And yet, it never seems to quite sink in.  Why not?
I think it has to do with the cynical world in which we live.  How many times have you heard someone say “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is”?  Well, this is the ultimate “too good to be true”, right?  That our salvation is not based on anything we do, but that it simply is by the grace and love and mercy of God?  That all we have to do is believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and we’re saved?  How can that be?  It seems it cannot possibly be that simple.  It cannot possibly be that easy.  It seems like there just has to be more to it than that.
It’s the difference between our world and the kingdom of God.  Our world is based on quid pro quo.  It’s based on giving something to get something.  It’s based on let the buyer beware, look out for the ulterior motive.  It’s based on there always being strings attached.  It’s based on being careful with every transaction we make, because there’s always someone out there trying to take advantage of us.
But that’s not how God’s kingdom works.  God gives us salvation and does not expect to get anything back for it.  God has no ulterior motive in giving us salvation.  God is not trying to take advantage of us.  God simply gives us salvation as a gift, with no strings attached.
And it’s just really hard for us to accept that.  It was hard to accept in Jesus’ time, too.  Nicodemus could not accept it.  The rich young man could not accept it--remember, he came up to Jesus and asked “what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”  It is so hard for us to accept that God just gives us salvation as a gift.
After all, why should God want to do that?  What does God get out of the deal?  What’s in it for God?
Think about who God is.  God is all-powerful.  God is all-mighty.  God is eternal.  God is the creator of everything that is, that ever has been, and that ever will be.  Why should God even pay the slightest bit of attention to us, much less offer us salvation and eternal life?
If you look at the question based on the way our world works, if you look at it as a business transaction, there’s no way it can make sense.  God can never get enough out of the deal for it to be fair.  There’s nothing we can ever do that would be worth the salvation that God gives us.
But God does not look at the question based on the way our world works.  God looks at the question the way the kingdom of God works.  God does not look at this as a business transaction.  God looks at it as a love transaction.  Because God is love.
And the thing about love is that love cannot exist in a vacuum.  By definition, the only way love exists is if there’s an object of that love.  The phrase “I love” is meaningless unless we say who or what we love.  It can be “I love God” or “I love my wife” or “I love baseball” or “I love that doggie in the window”, but the phrase “I love” makes no sense unless it is finished by saying who or what it is that we love.
The way God gives meaning to the phrase “I love” is by saying “I love you”.  God loves you.  And God loves you.  And God loves you.  And you and you and you.  And everybody else in the world.  Including me.
And when we love someone, we do things for them without needing to be paid back.  We don’t look for the quid pro quo.  We don’t have an ulterior motive.  We don’t have any strings attached.  If we do, then we don’t really have love.  Love is given as a gift.  Period.
That’s the kind of love God has for us.  And that’s why God sent the divine Son into the world.  To be born, and to live, and to die, and to be raised from the dead.  God did that, not to condemn the world, but to save the world.  God gave the earthly life of the divine Son as a gift, an incredible gift to us.  It’s a gift that provides salvation to each one of us.  To you, and to me.  We don’t deserve it, but God does not ask us to deserve it.  We could never earn it, but God does not ask us to earn it.  God simply asks us to accept it.  God just asks us to accept this incredible gift of salvation that God is offering to each one of us out of love.
And that’s why this is the most important “Three Sixteen” of all.  If we don’t understand it, that’s okay.  God does not ask us to understand it.  If it does not make sense to us, that’s okay, too.  God does not ask us to make sense of it.  God just asks us to accept it.  God just asks us to accept this incredible gift of salvation.  God just asks us to accept God’s love.
So, as these Wednesday night services come to a close, let’s accept God’s gift.  Let’s accept that incredible gift of salvation.  Let’s accept God’s love.  And let’s feel the joy that comes from that incredible gift.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

It's All About Love

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, August 24, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Romans 14:1-13.

            One of the things the United Methodist church is known for is that it will do a funeral for anybody.  A person does not have to be a member of the United Methodist church.  A person does not have to be a member of any church.  A person does not even have to believe in God or have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.  In fact, the United Methodist Book of Worship even has a specific part of its section on funerals titled “At the Service For a Person Who Did Not Profess the Christian Faith.”  If anyone, or their family, wants a United Methodist church and a United Methodist pastor to perform a funeral, we’ll do it.  No questions asked.
            So, as we continue our sermon series “Why Do We Do That?”, today we ask the question, why will we do funerals for anybody?  Why don’t we require a person to have been a member of our denomination, or at least to have been a Christian, before we’ll do a funeral for them?
            And before we go any farther I want to say again what I’ve said at other points in this sermon series, which is that my goal here is not to criticize other denominations.  Each denomination has its own rules, and there are reasons why other denominations have the rules they have.  My goal here is not to tell other denominations what they should do.  My goal here is to tell you why we do the things we do as United Methodists.  
But I have to tell you, this is one of the things that makes me proudest to be a United Methodist.  To me, one of the best things about the United Methodist church is that we are willing to be there for people and for families who are not of our faith and maybe are of no faith at all.  We are there for them, and we will help them through what is one of the hardest things we have to go through while we’re on this earth.
So why do we do that?  Well, there are a few reasons.  For one thing, there are all kinds of passages in the gospels and in Paul’s letters about not judging people.  We read one of them today, from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Paul tells us, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?  To their own master they will stand or fall.”  In other words, people serve God.  Or they don’t.  But as the old song says, you got to serve somebody.  And people may serve God, or they may serve someone else, but they don’t serve me.  And they don’t serve you.  So it’s not our business to judge them.  God will judge them.  It’s our job to love people, not to judge them.  And one of the times we are most in need of love is when someone we love passes away.
Paul goes on to say, “why do you judge your brother or sister?  Why do you treat your brother or sister with contempt?  For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat...we will give an account of ourselves to God.  Therefore let us stop passing judgment upon one another.  Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.”
You and I don’t need to judge anybody.  Our church does not need to judge anybody.  God will judge them, just as God will judge us.  And I can tell you that God is a whole lot better at this judgment stuff than I am.  And God is a whole lot better at this judgment stuff than you are, too.
And you know, when you think about it, you and I have no ability to judge someone else’s faith even if we want to.  You and I don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s mind or in their heart.  We certainly don’t know as much about those things as God does.  We may see some of the things someone does, and we may hear some of the things they say, but that’s all.  Almost everybody, even people we know pretty well, has a side to them that they rarely if ever allow anyone else to see.  God is the only one who sees that side, and God is the only one with the ability to judge them.
And even if we think we know someone really well, we still don’t know what may have been going on in their mind or in their heart in their last moments of life.  It could be that, shortly before the end, God entered their heart, and they came to believe.  You and I have no way to know.  Only God can know that.  So we should let God handle it.
In fact, it could be said that if we were to refuse to perform a funeral for someone, if we were to refuse to be there for someone who’s lost a loved one and who is hurting, we would be doing exactly what Paul says we should not do.  We would be putting stumbling blocks and obstacles in people’s way.  We’d be making it harder for people to find faith.
Think about it.  There are people who’s only contact with a church is when someone they care about passes away.  What they see from the church and its people at that time is going to form their entire impression of who the church is and what it stands for.  And people see the church as acting on behalf of God, what they see from the church and its people at that time is going to form their entire impression of who God is and what God stands for.
Now, put yourself in the place of that person.  Someone you love has passed away.  Maybe your loved one was not part of a church.  Maybe they did not even have any particular religious faith.  Maybe you don’t even have any particular religious faith.  But you’re hurting, and you need someone.  And even though you don’t particularly believe, you feel like giving your loved one a funeral in a church is the right and proper thing to do.  
So you contact a church and a pastor.  That’s probably not an easy thing for you to do in your situation, because you really don’t know them, but you do it.  And you’re turned away.
How would that make you feel?  To be hurting, and in need, and to have taken a chance and reached out to a church, and then have that church tell you no, we won’t give your loved one a Christian burial.  What’s your impression of the church going to be?  What’s your impression of religious people going to be?  What’s your impression of God going to be?  That could become a huge stumbling block and a major obstacle to faith.
If someone is hurting and in need, we want to be there for them.  We need to be there for them.  God tells us to be there for them.  Every time I’m asked to do a funeral, I am aware that there are probably people who will attend that funeral who have not been in a church in years.  Maybe they’ve never been in a church.  They may never have met a pastor before.  What I do as a pastor, and what we do, all of us, as a church, is going to form their impression of the church and of God.
If they feel acceptance, if they feel love, if they feel God’s people reaching out to them and helping them in every way we can, well, who knows?  Maybe that will stir something in them.  Maybe that will lead to them giving the church a chance.  More importantly, maybe it’ll lead to them giving God a chance.  
Maybe not--there are certainly no guarantees--but people are certainly more attracted to love and acceptance than they are to judgment and condemnation.  Jesus recognized that, too.  Jesus ran into all kinds of people who lived questionable lives.  Those are the “tax collectors and sinners” that we hear about so much in the gospels.  Jesus did not offer those people judgment and condemnation.  He offered them love and acceptance and salvation.  Sometimes they accepted it, sometimes they did not.  But that was their choice.  Jesus still made the offer.  Jesus still treated them with love.
There are few things that can make us feel more vulnerable than the loss of a loved one.  There are few things that can make us feel more lost, more alone.  There are few things that can make us search for meaning in life more than the loss of a loved one.  When someone is feeling those things, that is not the time for the church to turn its back on that person.  That’s the time for the church to come around that person and embrace them in love.  That’s the time for the church to support them, and help them, and love them with our love and with God’s love.
So, why do we give a funeral to anyone who asks for one?  Because we believe it is up to God to judge people.  It is up to us to love them.  That’s what Jesus told us to do.  It may make all the difference in someone’s life.  Or it may not.  That’s up to that person and to God.  But either way, we will know that we have shown God’s love to someone who was hurting.  And there is nothing we can do for God that’s more important than that.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Just When I Needed You Most

This is the message from the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg.  The Bible verses are 1 John 3:16-24.

            In these Wednesday night services, as some of you know, we’ve been looking at “Three Sixteens”, Chapter Three, Verse Sixteen from various books of the New Testament.  This is one of the most meaningful.  John writes, “This is how we know what love is:  Jesus laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
            You know, that’s one of those things that we hear sometimes without thinking about it enough.  “Jesus laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
            Have you ever been in a position where you had to really consider this?  Have you ever had to really think about the possibility of giving up your life for someone else?  Some of you probably have.  The example that always comes to my mind is people in the military.  If you are in the military, especially if you’re in a war zone, you know that you may very well be asked to give up your life for others.  Other obvious examples would be police, fire fighters, people like that, who are often asked to put themselves into dangerous situations, situations in which they may be faced with the possibility of having to choose whether to give up their lives for someone else.  And I don’t mean to slight anyone here.  I’m sure there are many other times in many other occupations in which this situation comes up.
            I’ve never had one of those situations come up.  And that means that I really have no way to know whether I’d be able to do it.  We’d all like to think we could, but it’s easy to think that way as long as the idea is just theoretical.  I don’t know that it’s possible to know how we’d react to a situation like this unless and until we’re actually in it.  I don’t think we can know whether we’d be willing to give up our lives for someone else unless and until we actually have to make the choice whether we’re going to do it.
            Jesus had to make that choice, of course.  Jesus gave up his life for all of us.  And as John tells us, that’s how we know Jesus loves us.  Because that’s the ultimate definition of love:  being willing to give up our life for someone else.
            I think sometimes we don’t think enough about what a hard thing that was for Jesus to do.  We know about the beatings and the torture Jesus went through, but we don’t like to think about it.  That’s why our focus tends to be on Easter much more than on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.  We like to hear the story of Jesus rising from the dead.  We don’t really like to think about how hard it was for Jesus to get to that point.
            And even when we do think about it, sometimes we think, “Well, but Jesus knew what was going to happen next.  Even when he was going through all that pain, Jesus knew he was going to be raised from the dead.  He knew he was going to live again and eventually go to be with God the Father in heaven.  So that made it easier for him.”
            Well, maybe, but maybe not.  I mean, Jesus did know he was going to be raised from the dead.  No doubt about that.  He told the disciples about it many times.  Still, I wonder.
            Matthew tells us that, shortly before he died, Jesus said, “God, why have you forsaken me?”  Those are the last words Matthew records Jesus as having spoken before he died.  Now, I don’t know what that phrase sounds like to you, but to me, it sounds like, in that moment, Jesus felt like God the Father had abandoned him.  I don’t think God the Father had actually abandoned Jesus, but when I read that, it seems to me that Jesus seems must have felt that way just before he died.  Jesus appears to have felt like God the Father left him just at the moment Jesus needed God the most.
            So I wonder if, in that moment, Jesus was having doubts.  Did he wonder, at that time, whether it had all gone wrong?  Did he wonder if he was giving up his life for nothing?  Did Jesus, in that moment, still believe that he was going to be raised from the dead and live again and be with God the Father again?  Or was he afraid, in that moment, that perhaps he’d gotten it all wrong, and that he really was going to die and just stay dead?
            I wonder about that because while Jesus was the fully divine Son of God, he was also fully human.  And fear, and doubt, are two of our very human stumbling blocks.  They get in the way of our faith.  They get in the way of our ability to love.  And they are, quite often, the reason why we not only are unwilling to give up our lives for others, but why we quite often are unwilling to give up much of anything for others.  We have fear, and we have doubt.
            Most of us, even if we have a really strong faith, feel those things.  Maybe some don’t, and if you’re one of those who does not I salute you and I admire you.  But I think most of us, even when we have a really strong faith, have times when we feel fear, and we have times when we have doubts.  
We think we know what’s going to happen.  We think we know how things are going to go.  And then, reality comes up and hits us in the face.  And we have to deal with the pain and the hardship that reality can sometimes bring.  And we don’t understand it.  Or maybe we do understand it, but we still have a hard time dealing with it.  And so we say God, where are you?  Why have you abandoned me?  Why have you left me just when I needed you most?
But here’s the good news.  Even if Jesus felt that way, even if, while he was hanging on the cross, Jesus felt that God the Father had abandoned him, he still went through with it.  Even in his last moments, even when his life on this earth was almost gone, he was still the divine Son of God.  He still could’ve used his power to come down off the cross and stay alive on earth.  But he did not do it.  No matter what fears he may have had, no matter what doubts he may have had, Jesus still laid down his life for us. He was able to do that because God the Father was still with Jesus, even when Jesus could not feel that.  God the Father had not abandoned Jesus.  In the moment Jesus needed God the Father the most, God was there.  Jesus Christ was able to take the ultimate punishment in our place, so that our sins could be forgiven, because of the strength that God the Father gave him.  Jesus took that ultimate punishment because of the love that God the Father gave him.  And Jesus was able to take that ultimate punishment because of the ultimate love Jesus has for each one of us.
As I said, I’ve never had a moment when I was asked to lay down my life for someone else.  Maybe I never will.  But I might.  It could happen at any time.  It could happen for you, too.  Even if it’s already happened, it could happen again.
I don’t know how I’ll react if it does.  But I know that if it ever happens, God will be with me, just as God was with Jesus.  No matter what fears I may have, no matter what doubts I may have, God will still be with me.  Even if I cannot feel God there, God will still be with me.  Even if I feel like God has abandoned me, God will still be there.  And if you’re in that situation, God will be there for you, too.
And that makes me believe that, when the time comes, I may be able to do it.  Maybe not.  I’m not trying to brag here or anything.  As I said, I don’t think any of us can know how we would react in that situation unless and until we’re actually in that situation.  But it makes me think there’s hope that I would.  And maybe it’ll give you hope that you would, too.
Because God will be there for us when we need God the most.  God will be there to give us strength.  God will be there to give us love.  And God will help us give love to others, too.
Fear and doubt are a part of life.  The harder the thing is that we’re asked to do, the more likely fear and doubt are to get in our way.  Fear and doubt are so powerful that even Jesus felt them.  But Jesus was able to overcome them.  And so can we.  No matter what the situation is, even if we’re asked to give our lives, God will be there.  God will give us strength.  God will give us love.  God will be there for us, just when we need God the most.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Something to Celebrate!

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, August 17, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Mark 1:1-11 and Matthew 28:16-20.

            We’re in the third Sunday of our sermon series, “Why Do We Do That?”, looking at some of the things we do in church, both as Christians and as United Methodists, and trying to answer the question of why we do it.  Today, as you’ve probably guessed, we’re looking at baptism.
            You’re probably all seen a baptism.  Some of you have seen a lot of them.  And it’s always kind of a cool thing.  It’s a cool thing for you to watch, and it’s a cool thing for me to do.  I really enjoy doing baptisms.  But why do we do it?  What does baptism really mean?
            Well, just as we said last week about communion, one of the reasons we do it is because Jesus told us to.  As you heard in our reading from Matthew, Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And of course, as you also heard, Jesus gave us an example because he, himself, was baptized by John.
            There are people who believe that baptism is a salvation issue, that if we have not been baptized we will not be able to get to heaven.  As United Methodists, we don’t believe that.  We believe baptism is important, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but we don’t believe that our salvation depends on it.
            Our evidence for that comes from the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as told in the gospel of Luke.  Some of you remember the story.  Jesus is being crucified between two criminals.  One of them is mocking Jesus, but the other says to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  That man was never baptized, but Jesus said he would be with Jesus in paradise.  So baptism cannot, in and of itself, be a requirement for salvation.
            As you’ve heard me say many times, we are saved by God’s love and mercy and grace, and we are saved through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  We can have that faith, and we can get the benefit of God’s love and grace and mercy, without being baptized.  And on the other hand, we can have been baptized and not have faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  So baptism is not the deciding factor in our salvation.  Faith is.
            Still, as United Methodists, we believe that baptism is important.  Remember how, last time, we said communion is one of God’s means of grace?  It’s the same with baptism.  We believe that baptism is one of the ways in which God’s grace comes into our hearts and into our lives.  And as we also said last time, we are all constantly in need of God’s grace.
            So does that mean we should be baptized repeatedly, just like we take communion repeatedly?  No.  In fact, the rules of the United Methodist church, and of most Christian churches, say that we’re not allowed to be baptized more than once.  Now, there are some denominations who would say that the baptism only counts if you’re baptized by their denomination, and so in that case one might, in a sense, be baptized a second time.  But in the United Methodist church, we say that if you’ve been baptized into any Christian church, we will accept it, and there is no need for you to be baptized again.  If you’ve been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, that’s good enough for us.  After all, that’s all Jesus required.  Who are we to require more?  
As I said, we’re really not allowed to baptized again, although we can do a service which is a remembrance of your baptism.  But why is that?  Why should we not be baptized repeatedly?  The reason is that, while we believe baptism is one of God’s means of grace, we also believe it is more than that.  Baptism is the enactment and fulfillment of a promise from God.  When we are baptized, God makes a promise that we will be given God’s grace.  And God will always be faithful to God’s promises.  We can renounce our acceptance of that promise, we can refuse to accept God’s grace, but God’s will always be faithful to God’s promise to offer it.
What that means is that there is no need for us to be baptized a second time.  God has already made the promise of grace to us.  In fact, if we were to baptize someone a second time, it would show a lack of faith on our part.  It would show that we don’t truly believe that God will be faithful to God’s promises.  If we’ve been baptized once, then we have God’s promise of grace.  That’s all we need.
As most of you probably know, the United Methodist Church believes in baptizing infants.  Some denominations don’t.  Some denominations believe in waiting until a person is old enough to make a decision for themselves regarding whether they want to be baptized, often at age thirteen or so.  United Methodists are certainly willing to baptize teenagers.  We’re willing to baptize people of any age who have yet been baptized.  And that, of course, includes infants.
Why do we do that?  It has to do with our understanding of what happens at baptism.  We believe that baptism signifies entrance into the group of Christian believers, that it’s a symbol of repentance and cleansing from sin, and that it represents a new birth in Jesus Christ--what some people refer to as being “born again”.
That’s why baptism is one of my favorite things to do as a pastor.  Not because of anything I do.  Just as I said with communion, nothing happens because I put some water on someone and say a few words.  What happens, happens because of what God does, not because of what I do.  But the reason I love it so much is because of what I just said--it signifies entrance into the group of Christian believers.  And that’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.  It’s something to celebrate.
We can enter into the group of Christian believers at any age.  But in the case of an infant or a child, that infant or child needs to be raised in a Christian context, so they can come to accept the faith and confirm the promises their parents make for them during the baptism ceremony.  That means a few things.
One, it means it’s important that the parents understand and keep the promises they make at an infant baptism.  At an infant baptism, parents promise to nurture the child in a Christian context and to guide the child in such a way that he or she will come to accept Christ.  They also promise to provide a Christian example to the child by the way they live their lives.  If those promises are not kept, it’s much less likely that the child will come to accept Jesus Christ as their savior and confirm those promises.
Two, it means that the entire church has a role in baptism.  That’s why we do baptism during a worship service, rather than at a private ceremony.  Now, there have been occasions when, for various reasons, we do baptize outside of a regular worship service, but even so, we have people there to represent the congregation, because the congregation also promises to provide a Christian example for the child and do what it can to guide the child in such a way as to come to accept Christ.
And three, this is why we have confirmation class, which we’ll be starting in a few weeks.  In that class, kids are taught about the Christian faith.  They learn about God, about themselves, and about the sacrifice Jesus made for us.  And at the end of the class, they make a choice whether they will confirm the promises that were made on their behalf at their baptism.  They make a public statement regarding whether they will accept Jesus Christ as their savior.  If so, they are confirmed and can become members of the church.
There’s one other matter I want to talk about.  Normally, we baptize people by sprinkling.  In other words, we put some water into the baptismal font, I dip my hand into it and place a little of that water on the child, or the adult.  Some of you have probably seen, especially in the case of adult or youth baptism, where a person is fully immersed in water.  And there’s also a method of baptism called pouring, where water is poured over the head of someone.
Which method do we use in the United Methodist church?  All of them.  The most common method is sprinkling, but it’s not required.  It’s just the way the tradition developed in this area.  We’re allowed to do baptism by immersion or by pouring, and I would be willing to do it that way if that’s way someone wanted.  It’s entirely the choice of the person being baptized, or of their parents in the case of infant baptism.
Baptism is a wonderful thing.  Our salvation does not depend on it, but it is a way in which God’s grace comes into our hearts and into our lives.  It is a way in which we enter into the group of Christian believers.  It is a way in which God’s promise of grace is made to us.  And we know God will keep God’s promises.  That’s why a baptism is always something to celebrate.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

No Fear

This is the message from the Gettysburg WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service August 13, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Revelation 3:14-22.

            Most of you probably know that I’m a baseball fan.  You also probably know that my favorite team is the Minnesota Twins.  And you also probably know that the Twins have not been doing very well in the last few years.
            The reason for that is not because they’ve had a lot of bad ballplayers.  They’ve had some, but their main problem is not that they have a lot of bad ballplayers.  The main problem is that they have not had a lot of good ballplayers.
            What I’m saying is that they’ve had a lot of guys who are kind of average, kind of mediocre.  The problem with having a lot of guys like that is not that they do a lot of stuff that makes you lose a lot of games.  That’s not it.  The problem is that they don’t do a lot of stuff that makes you to win a lot of games, either.  They’re just kind of there.  They’re neither bad nor good, not making you lose and not making you win.
            In some ways, having a team of average, mediocre players like that is worse than having a team of bad players.  When you have bad players, it’s pretty obvious what you need to do.  You need to replace them.  You need to give some other guys a chance and see what they can do.  If they’re better, great.  If they’re not, well, you did not lose anything by trying them, because they guys they replaced were not any good anyway.
            When you have a team of average, mediocre players, though, it’s not so obvious what you need to do.  Those guys are not terrible.  They’re just not really good.  Could they get better?  Well, maybe.  It’s hard to say.  Could the guys you replace them with do worse?  Yeah, they might.  A team like this is, in the Bible’s phrase, neither hot nor cold.  So, when you have a team like this, it’s hard to know just what to do with them.
            I think that’s why the Lord was so hard on the people of the church in Laodicea.  They were not bad people.  They just were not particularly good people.  They had some faith in God.  They just did not trust God to take control of their lives.  They were not actively working against God.  They just were not doing anything to help God, either.  They were just kind of there.  They were, in the Bible’s phrase, neither hot nor cold.  And so it was hard to know just what to do with them.
            Does that describe you?  Is your faith strong?  Are you on fire, hot for the Lord?  Or are you just kind of there, neither hot nor cold?
            Now the thing is, when you preach a sermon like this to a small gathering like this, everyone thinks I’m specifically talking about them.  I’m not.  Unless, of course, that description fits you.  If, in fact, you are just kind of there, neither hot nor cold, then yes, I am talking about you.
            And I’m also talking about me.  I think a lot of us--maybe all of us--have those times, when we are neither hot nor cold, when we are just kind of there, when we are not actively working against God but we’re not really doing anything to help God, either.
            Why is that?  I mean, it’s not like we intend to be that way.  No one comes to God and says, “O Lord, make me a mediocre Christian!”  None of us prays, “God, increase my faith, but just a little bit.  Make my faith lukewarm and no more.”  We don’t start out on our Christian journey hoping to be that way.  So why, so many times, are we?
            Well, that’s a question we could probably talk about the rest of the night.  I just want to talk about one aspect of it.  One of the reasons we are lukewarm for God is that we get scared.
            See, if we decide that we’re going to become hot for Christ, we decide that we’re going to turn our entire lives over to Christ.  And if we decide to turn our entire lives over to Christ, that means we’re giving up having control of our lives ourselves and turning it over to God.  And if we give up control of our lives and turn that control to God, who knows what could happen?
            I mean, think about it.  What if we totally gave up control of our lives to God, and God told us to go to Iraq and help the Christians there?  What if we totally gave up control of our lives to God and God told us to go to Haiti and work with the poor?  Or, what if we totally gave up control of our lives to God and God told us to go live on the reservation and work with Native Americans?
            If we totally give up control of our lives to God, God might tell us to go anywhere.  God might tell us to do anything.  And that’s scary.  And so, we’re afraid to let ourselves get too hot for God.  We think, “I’ll just stay lukewarm.  It’s safer.”
            I understand that.  I’ve felt that way at times myself.  I probably will feel that way again.  But we don’t need to.  We don’t need to feel that way.  We don’t need to be afraid of God.
            That’s one of the big differences that the coming of Jesus made.  In the Old Testament, you read about the fear of the Lord all the time.  That phrase, the fear of the Lord, or something similar shows up all the time in the Old Testament.  But not in the New Testament.  In the New Testament, we read “perfect love drives out fear”.  And who has perfect love?  God, of course.  Because God loves us, we don’t have to be afraid of God any more.
            Here’s the way I think it works.  If we give up control of our lives to God, God will ask us to do certain things.  But the things God asks us to do will be consistent with who we are.
            Think of it this way.  God made you.  And God made me.  That does not mean just that God gave us physical form.  It means that God created us to be who we are.  The talents we have, the interests we have, the abilities we have, the passions we have, all came from God.  God created you to be the way you are.  God wants you to be who you are.  If God had wanted you to be somebody else, God would’ve created you to be somebody else.  God created you to be you, with all the talents and interests and abilities and passions you have.  And God created me to be me, with all the talents and interests and abilities and passions I have.
            Now, there is one thing we need to say about that.  It can be tempting, sometimes, to use that as an excuse.  We’re not allowed to justify our bad actions, or our failures to act, by saying, “Well, I’m just being who I am.  I’m just being who God made me to be.”  It does not work that way.  God wants you to be who you are, but God wants you to be the best you that you can be.  And God wants me to be the best me that I can be.
            But the things God asks us to do will be consistent with the talents and interests and abilities and passions God gave us.  For example, most of you know that I’m completely inept at working with my hands.  Wanda says I’d pound a nail in backwards.  So, God is not going to ask me to go build houses for Habitat for Humanity.  God knows I would not be any good at that and God knows I don’t enjoy doing things I’m not any good at and God is not stupid.  Now, God could ask me to do other things for Habitat for Humanity, things that I do have the ability to do and that I would enjoy, but God is not dumb enough to tell me to go do stuff that I would not be any good at and that would make me miserable.
            Now, there are times when God asks us to try something we’ve never tried.  After all, all of us have talents and abilities that we don’t know about because we’ve never tried to develop them.  God could ask us to do something that we’ve never done before because God knows we have a talent for it even if we don’t.  
But God is not going to ask us to do something that’s going to make us miserable because God does not want us to be miserable.  Giving up being lukewarm, giving control of our lives to God, does not mean that we’ll be going to be missionaries in Haiti unless God has put a desire in our hearts to be missionaries in Haiti.  And God does do that for some people.  But God is not going to force us to go there and be miserable, because again, God does not want us to be miserable.  When we give up control of our lives to God, God will ask us to do things that we have the ability to do and that we’ll get satisfaction out of doing.  God will ask us to do things that make use of the talents and interests and passions and abilities God gave us.  God will ask us to do things that are consistent with who we are, because who we are is who God created us to be.
            So let’s not be afraid to be hot.  Let’s not be afraid to give control of our lives to God.  That whole “fear of the Lord” thing, that’s so two thousand years ago. God is love, perfect love.  And perfect love drives out fear.  God loves us.  So let’s love God.  And let’s give control of our lives over to God.  When we do, we will truly be who God created us to be.  And when we are who God created us to be, we find a happiness we’ve never known befo

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Come On Over

The message given at the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg August 6, 2014.

            As you know, we’ve been doing a sermon series called “Three-Sixteens”, looking at Chapter Three, Verse Sixteen in various books of the New Testament.  And you know, God obviously has a sense of humor, or at least a sense of timing.  I’d been struggling with an issue of envy, and I’d prayed about it, and then I came to start working on this sermon and read, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
            What James is telling us is that there’s no good that can come from envy.  It does not make us better.  It does not help us love people.  It does not encourage us to try harder or to do more or to help others more.  All envy can do is cause trouble.  It can destroy relationships.  It can make us bitter.  It can make us resentful of others.  It can make us dislike people we don’t even know much about.  It can make us desire things that would not make us happy if we had them.  There is absolutely no good whatsoever that can come from envy.
            And the thing is, we know that.  I’m not aware of anyone who thinks envy is a good thing.  No one goes around saying envy is the key to happiness.  We know that envy is not helpful to us.  We know it’s not something God wants us to feel.
            And yet, a lot of times, we feel it.  We know we should not feel it, but we do.  We feel bad about the fact that we feel it, but we still feel it.  We know it’s not doing us any good, but we still feel it.  Envy is one of those feelings that is just really hard to get rid of.
            But I think James gives us some advice on how to get past it.  One of the things James says is this:  “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.”
            So that’s the first step to getting rid of envy.  Admitting we feel it.  And that may seem simple, but a lot of times it’s not.  Most of us don’t want to admit we feel envy.  We deny it.  We not only deny it to other people, we deny it to ourselves.  We tell ourselves we’re happy for someone.  We tell ourselves that we wish someone nothing but the best.  But deep down, we know better.  We know that we really want what they have.  We feel like we deserve it a lot more than they do.  We feel like we’re better people than they are.
            And those feelings tear us up.  They keep us from being happy.  They keep us thinking about all the things we don’t have, although the things we wish we had.  They keep us thinking that life is unfair, that God is unfair, that if God was fair we’d be the ones who had all this good stuff, not someone else.  They make us start thinking that the world is against us, that God is against us, that nothing will ever go right for us because we just did not get the breaks.  These other people, these lucky people, these people who we’re envious of, they’re the ones who got all the breaks.  And we get so focused on all the things we don’t have and on all the breaks we did not get that we cannot see all the blessings we do have and all the good things God has given us.
            So, like it usually is, the first step toward conquering those feelings is admitting them.  We need to admit that, yes, we do feel envy.  We do wish we had what someone else has.  And that does not necessarily mean material things.  It could be looks, it could be talents, it could be abilities, it could be relationships, it could be anything.  There are all kinds of things we can feel envy about.  We need to admit that we think we deserve those things more than someone else does.  We need to admit that we think life has been unfair to us.  We need to admit that truth to ourselves.
            And we need to admit it to God, too.  Because one of the things God wants us to do is confess our sins.  It’s not enough for us to admit these feelings to ourselves, although that’s important.  We also need to admit them to God.  And in fact, sometimes it can work the other way.  Sometimes it’s only through prayer that we can actually realize that we do feel envy.  It’s only then that we can admit it to ourselves.  But whichever way it works, we need to admit our envious feelings both to ourselves and to God.  That’s the only way we’re going to start down the road toward getting rid of them.  Just like in a lot of other cases, it seems like God does not step in to help us with this until we confess our sin to God.
            Now, notice, I said we need to confess our sin to God.  I did not say we need to obsess over our sins with God.  We need to admit our sins, but we don’t need to beat ourselves up for them.  We don’t need to wallow in our sins.  What we need to do is confess our sins, ask for God’s help, and resolve that with God’s help we are going to change.
            But still, how do we do that?  I mean, it’s all well and good to admit our sins to God and to ourselves, but we still need to figure out a way to get rid of them.  How do we do it?
            I think James gives us the answer there, too.  He says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
            “Submit yourselves to God.”  I really think that’s the key to it.  To submit ourselves to God.  If we submit ourselves to God, then envy pretty much has to disappear.  
If we submit ourselves to God, we won’t want what someone else has any more, because what someone else has won’t matter.  If we submit ourselves to God, we’ll accept whatever God has given us, and we won’t worry about whether God may have given someone else something different or something more.  If we submit ourselves to God, we won’t worry about what we deserve and we won’t worry about what someone else deserves.  If we submit ourselves to God, we’ll recognize that God knows better than we do and that God will give us what we need, which will work out better than if God had given us what we want.  If we submit ourselves to God, we won’t worry about whether life is fair or whether God is fair.  If we submit ourselves to God, we’ll realize that God knows a lot more about what’s fair and what’s not fair than we do.  If we submit ourselves to God, we won’t be envious of anyone, because our focus won’t be on what anyone else has or does not have.  Our focus will be on serving God.
James also tells us how to submit ourselves to God.  James says, “Come near to God, and he will come near to you.”
That’s such an awesome sentence that I want to read it to you again.  “Come near to God, and he will come near to you.”  If we go to God, God will always be there for us, and God will give us whatever we need.
So how do we come near to God?  There are the obvious things, of course.  Prayer.  Reading the Bible.  Going to church regularly.  And don’t get me wrong, those things are good things.  They can help us a lot.  I highly recommend them.  But I think there’s a little more to it than that.
Coming near to God is not a matter of doing the right things.  That can help, but coming near to God is a feeling.  It’s an attitude.  It’s a desire to be in tune with God.  It’s a feeling that God is with us as we go through our day.  It’s keeping God and God’s will in our minds at all times.  It’s keeping God and God’s will in the back of our minds even when we’re not consciously thinking about it.  It’s keeping a desire to serve God in our hearts at all times.  It’s opening our hearts to God.  It’s putting ourselves in God’s hands.  It’s trusting God enough to say, every day, “God, be with me today.  Lead me.  Guide me.  Send me where you want me to go.  Lead me to do what you want me to do.  Whatever happens today, be with me and guide me through it.”
Now, do I always do that?  No, I don’t.  But I wish I did.  Because the fact is that when I do it, my day goes a lot better.  I do feel God leading me and guiding me.  I do feel in tune with God.  I do feel God has come near to me.  And I don’t feel envy.  Instead, I feel at peace.  I feel at peace with others, at peace with myself, and at peace with God.
            Envy tends to be a problem for all of us at some point.  When it is, let’s admit it to ourselves and to God.  And then, let’s submit ourselves to God.  Let’s come near to God.  Let’s go to God and say, “God, be with me today.  Lead me.  Guide me.  Send me where you want me to go.  Lead me to do what you want me to do.  Whatever happens to day, be with me and guide me through it.”  And see if it works.  See if it makes our days, and our lives, go a lot better.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Just Do It

This is the message given in the Onida and Agar Sunday, August 3, 2014.  It will be given in Gettysburg Sunday, August 10, 2014.

            As you can see, today is Communion Sunday.  We get to enjoy the honor and privilege of sharing in Holy Communion.  So, as we move into the second week of our sermon series, “Why Do We Do That?”, we’re going to ask the question, “Why do we take communion?”
            Well, in the narrow sense, we take communion because Jesus told us to.  Now, that was not in Matthew’s version of the Last Supper, which we read a little bit ago, but it is in Luke.  Luke tells us that Jesus specifically says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
            For some people, that’s reason enough right there.  And I’m not saying it’s not.  After all, if Jesus tells us to do something, it’s probably a pretty good idea to do it, right?  We don’t necessarily need more of a reason than that.
            Still, we’d like to understand why we’re supposed to do it.  After all, “Because I said so” is never a reason that satisfies us very well.  Even when we were kids, if we asked Mom or Dad why we had to do something, and they came back at us with “Because I said so”, we were not very happy.  We might have to accept that as a reason, but we sure did not like it very much.
            And it’s important that we know why, because that’s the only way taking communion will be meaningful to us.  And you know, before I became a pastor, it never really was all that meaningful to me.  I mean, I did it, and I knew it was something the church considered important, but I never really knew why.  It was just something we did.
            In fact, the first time communion really became meaningful to me was when I became a pastor and was authorized to give it.  And the meaning it had for me, that first time I gave communion, was that I was totally unworthy to be doing this.  Who did I think I was, anyway?  I hold up the bread and the juice, I say a few words, and somehow something magical is supposed to happen?  I felt like a complete fraud.
            And of course, I was totally unworthy of giving communion.  I still am.  And you’re unworthy of taking it.  It we had to be worthy of taking communion, none of us would ever be able to.  And of course, too, nothing happens because I hold up bread and juice and say a few words.  Whatever happens, happens because of God, not because of me.
            So what’s communion all about?  Why do we take it?  To remember Jesus, of course, but there has to be more to it than that.  We could remember Jesus without taking communion.  In fact, a lot of people do.  So while it is important that we remember Jesus, that cannot be the only reason.
            What we remember, when we take communion and remember Jesus, is what Jesus did for us.  Jesus literally did give up his body and give up his blood for us, for the forgiveness of our sins.  Remember, the reason it’s called the Last Supper is because it was, literally, the last meal Jesus ate while he was on earth.  He went from this meal to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was arrested.  Eventually, he would be beaten and killed.  The body and blood of Christ were given up for us.
            But in the context of communion, what exactly does that mean?  When Jesus said of the bread, “this is my body” and of the wine “this is my blood”, how are we supposed to take that?
            Well, some denominations take it literally.  They believe that when Jesus said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”, he meant exactly what he said.  There are some denominations which believe that, when we take communion, the elements that we take actually transform, so that we literally eat Jesus’ body and drink Jesus’ blood.  Other denominations believe the meaning is symbolic only.  They rely more on the “do this in remembrance of me” part and say that all communion does is remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us.
            As I said last week, it’s not my intention to criticize other denominations in this sermon series.  They have reasons for believing what they do.  As United Methodists, though, we take a middle ground.   We don’t believe that the bread and juice physically transform into the body and blood of Christ, so that somehow Jesus has a physical presence in those elements.  We believe the bread remains bread and the juice remains juice.  But we don’t just believe that the meaning is symbolic, either.  We believe that, while Jesus is not physically present in the bread and the juice, Jesus does have a spiritual presence in the communion elements.  And of course, as Christians, we believe that a spiritual presence is just as important as a physical presence.
            So how’s that work, exactly?  Well, we don’t really know.  A spiritual presence is not something that can be seen or heard or touched.  It has to be felt.  It’s not something that comes into our minds as a result of logic.  It’s something that comes into the heart, out of love.  
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and others have called communion one of God’s “means of grace”.  In other words, communion is one of the ways in which God’s grace, God’s spirit, comes into us.  It’s not the only way, of course, but it’s an important way.  And we believe that all of us are in need of God’s grace, and should take advantage of every chance we can get to have God’s grace come into us.
And because we believe we all need God’s grace, we make communion available to everyone.  As I say every time I give communion, you don’t have to be a member of this church to take communion with us.  You don’t have to be a member of any United Methodist church.  You don’t have to be a member of any church at all.  All you need is a desire to have the grace of God in your heart and in your life.  If you have that desire, you are more than welcome to share in Holy Communion with us.  I would never want to be in the position of having tried to deny the grace of God to anyone.
            So, if taking communion is that important, why don’t we take it every week, instead of just once a month?  Well, John Wesley would’ve said we should.  Wesley said that, if he could, he would take it every day.  That shows the importance Wesley placed on Holy Communion and how much he believed we are all in need of God’s grace.
            There’s nothing in the United Methodist rules that says how often we should take communion.  It says we should take it, but that’s all.  There are denominations that believe you should take communion every week.  In fact, there are United Methodist churches in which communion is offered every week.  Once a month seems to be the tradition among United Methodist churches in this area, but that’s all it is, a tradition.  We could celebrate Holy Communion more often if we chose to.  We could celebrate it less often, too, if we chose to, although I personally would not be in favor of that.
            There are a few other issues in regard to communion I want to address.  As many of you know, in the United Methodist church we use grape juice for communion instead of wine.  Why do we do that?  Because we recognize the danger of alcoholism.  We would not want the taking of Holy Communion to cause someone to lose their battle with alcohol.  Also, using grape juice makes communion more accessible to children.
            And children are welcome to take communion in the United Methodist church.  I understand that some parents prefer to have their kids wait until they’re old enough to understand it better, and if that’s your choice I respect that.  I’m not telling you you’re wrong.  But if any child comes to me and wants to take communion, I’m willing to give it to them, because, again, it’s a means by which God’s grace comes into us, and I never want to be in the position of having tried to deny God’s grace to anyone.
            Sometimes we use little pieces of bread, and sometimes we have you pull it off a loaf.  Sometimes we have little cups of juice, sometimes we have you did the bread into a larger cup of juice.  Why do we do that?  What difference does it make?  Well, it makes no difference at all.  It’s whatever someone prefers, that’s all.  It does not matter how we take communion.  What matters is that we take communion.
            So, when we offer communion here in a little bit, please come.  It does not matter that you don’t feel worthy.  You’re not worthy.  Neither am I.  If we were worthy of taking communion we would not need to take it.  None of us is worthy.  We are made worthy by the grace of God.
            The grace of God is something we all need.  We all need to feel God’s Spirit in our hearts.  We all need to remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us.  We all need to be grateful for that sacrifice.  We all need to ask for God’s forgiveness and feel God’s grace, so we can be God’s people living in God’s world.
I said I would never want to be in the position of having tried to deny the grace of God to anyone.  Please don’t try to deny it to yourself, either.  We are going to move now into our time of sharing Holy Communion.  Please join us.