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Thursday, October 30, 2014

It's Working, Folks!

This is an article that appeared in the October, 2014 issue of the Wheatland Parish newsletter.

           Six months ago, we began a prayer emphasis in the churches of this parish. Our prayer was that God would help us reach the unchurched children of the parish, the children who are not going to church or to church school anywhere.

            We said we would do this not because our parish needs the kids, but because the kids need us. The kids need to know who God is. They need to feel God’s presence with them as they go through their lives. They need to know about the salvation offered to them through faith in Jesus Christ. They need the love and care that the churches of this parish can give them.

            We also said we were doing this with no plan in mind. We said we did not know how this would happen. But we said that we have faith in God, and we have faith in the people of this parish. We were confident that if we asked for the chance to serve God by reaching those children, God would answer our prayers.

            And God is doing just that. We had a very successful VBS this summer in both Onida and in Gettysburg. The Sunday school in Onida has grown from one class to three, with as many as twenty kids attending. In Gettysburg, the church school was moved from Sunday to Wednesday, and attendance has more than doubled, with as many as twenty-one kids attending. As an added benefit, the church attendance in Onida has been growing, too.

            This is awesome. This is an incredible tribute to the power of God. It’s also an incredible tribute to the people of our parish. God is at work, but most of the time God chooses to work through us. God is working with us and through us and answering our prayers to reach the unchurched children of this parish.

            But let’s not be satisfied yet. What is going on right now is wonderful, but what’s happened so far is not an ending. It’s a beginning! There are still many more unchurched children we need to reach. And we can reach them, if we continue to pray and continue to be determined to do God’s will. We can reach them if we continue to have faith in God and to have faith in the people of this parish. We can reach them if we continue asking for the chance to serve God by reaching those children and remain confident that God will answer our prayers.

            I don’t want the Agar church to feel left out of this either. We don’t currently have children who regularly attend at Agar, but that does not mean it always has to be that way. We know there are unchurched children who live in the Agar area. We know God wants us to reach them. So if you’re part of the Agar church, this prayer emphasis includes you! We may not know how to reach those children, but if we have faith in God and in each other, if we sincerely ask God to help us reach those children, and if we remain confident that God will answer our prayers, we can reach the unchurched children of Agar, too.

            I have said before that God is doing something very special in the churches and communities of this parish. I believe we’re still at the very beginning of what God is doing. So let’s keep praying, keep trusting God, and keep doing what we can to reach the unchurched children of this parish, and even beyond this parish. With God’s help, with God’s power, with God working through us, there is no limit to what we can do!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Being There

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, October 26, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Hebrews 10:19-25.

            Today we are concluding our sermon series “Theology 101”.  There’s a lot more we could talk about in regard to theology, of course.  Still, we’ve covered a lot of ground.  We talked about the trinity, both as a whole and as three persons.  We talked about sin and about salvation.  Last week we talked about heaven and hell.  Those are some serious subjects.
            One thing we have not talked about yet, though, is—us.  The church.  How does the church fit into God’s plan?  What does God want the church to do?  In fact, why do we need the church at all?
            After all, you hear people all the time who say, “I don’t need to go to church.  I can be a good Christian without going to church.”  And of course, that can be true.  There are people who have faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior who rarely go to church.  And I’m sure there are also people who attend church regularly who don’t have faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior.
            Now, don’t get me wrong here.  Don’t get the idea that the pastor is up here telling people they don’t need to go to church.  I think we do need to go to church.  But God is not in heaven taking the roll to see who comes to church and who does not and making a red mark next to our names if we’re not here.  Heaven is not a perfect attendance prize.  That’s not how this works.
            I want you to come to church, of course.  I like it when we have a lot of people in church.  But I don’t want you to come to church just because you’ll feel guilty about it if you don’t.  I think guilt is a lousy motivator.  We may decide to come to church out of guilt, but we’re not likely to want to be there when we get there.  And if you don’t want to be there, we’re not likely to get much out of coming to church.  We’re just putting in our time, doing our duty, fulfilling an obligation.  We’re not trying to get closer to God or closer to each other.  We’re not likely to feel love for God or love for each other.  And as soon as it’s over, we’ll go home and forget everything that happened there.
            That’s not what I want.  It’s not what any pastor wants.  And I have to think it’s not what God wants, either.  God wants us to come to church because we want to, not because we have to.  God wants us to be happy to be here.  In fact, God wants us to be excited to be here.  And we should be.  This is a chance to come and worship the almighty, the awesome, the perfect God.  This is a chance to worship and praise the God who made us, the God who gave us life, the God who gives us every good thing we ever get.  That should be an exciting thing!  We should look forward to it!  Coming to church and worshipping God and praising God should be the highlight of our whole week!
            But again, some people would say, “I don’t have to come to church for that.  I can worship God and praise God at home.  I can worship God and praise God when I’m out in nature.  I can worship God and praise God anywhere.  Why should I come to church to do it?”
            Well, it’s true that we can worship and praise God anywhere.  In fact, we’re supposed to.  Our worship of God and our praise of God is not supposed to be limited to one hour on Sunday morning at a church service.  Our worship and praise of God is supposed to be something that’s part of every aspect of our lives.
            But still, I think we miss out on something when we don’t attend church.  And I think the author of the letter to the Hebrews, which we read for today, nailed it.  Listen again to what he says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
            That’s why we need to come to church.  So we can think of ways to spur each other on toward love and good deeds.  So we can encourage each other.  I need that.  I think you probably need it, too.  I think everybody needs it.  That’s what we miss out on if we decide to just worship and praise God by ourselves.  We miss out on that encouragement.
            I think that’s at least one of the reasons why God created the church.  I think that’s at least one of the ways the church fits into God’s plan.  God created the church because God knows the followers of Christ need each other’s love and encouragement if we’re going to make it.
            Because the fact is, life is hard.  You don’t need me to tell you that, of course.  And being a Christian can make it even harder.  At least it can if we take being a Christian seriously.  Jesus did not say that his followers would have an easy life on earth.  In fact, Jesus said the exact opposite.  Jesus said that following him could lead to all kinds of trouble.
            I have a pastor friend who, every time I see him, asks, “Are you staying out of trouble?”  If I say yes, he responds, “Well, what are you doing that for?”  At first, I thought he was just joking, but eventually I realized he has a serious point.  Our goal, as Christians, is not to stay out of trouble.  In fact, if we’re taking our faith seriously, we’re likely to get into some trouble.  There may be times our faith keeps us from doing things that would help us financially.  There may be times our faith keeps us from doing things we know would make us more popular, but that we know would not be right.  In fact, there may be times when our faith leads to strained relationships.  There can be all kinds of trouble that comes from taking our Christian faith seriously.
            God knows that.  God knows we cannot keep our faith strong alone.  And God does not want us to try.  Think about it:  even Jesus did not try to keep his faith strong alone.  Yes, there were times when he went off by himself, but most of the time he had the twelve disciples with him, and I think that’s one of the reasons why.  Remember, Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.  That means Jesus felt all the things we feel.  That includes feeling discouraged.  That includes feeling depressed.  That includes wondering if he could do everything he was supposed to do and if it was all worth it.
            Jesus felt all those things.  And he knew he could not do it alone.  So he gathered twelve people to help him, to encourage him, to keep him going.
            Now, notice something about those twelve disciples.  A lot of the time, they did not understand what Jesus was going through.  They did not understand what was going on or why.  They had no idea what it was like to be Jesus.
            But they helped him anyway.  How?  Because they were there.  They were there with him.  They did not always say the right thing.  In fact, sometimes they said the exact wrong thing.  They did not always do the right thing.  Sometimes they did the exact wrong thing.  But they were there.  They were there, and they cared, and Jesus knew that they cared.  And their caring helped Jesus do what he had come to earth to do.
            And that’s why we need the church.  We need people to be there for us.  A lot of the time, they won’t understand what we’re going through.  They won’t understand what’s going on with us or why.  They’ll have no idea what it’s like to be us.  But they can help us anyway, just by being there.
            And sometimes, as the church, we need to be the people who are there for others.  Again, a lot of the time, we won’t understand what someone else is going through.  We won’t understand what’s going on with them or why.  We may have no idea what it’s like to be that person.  But we can help anyway, just by being there.
            We won’t always say the right thing.  In fact, sometimes we may say the exact wrong thing.  We won’t always do the right thing.  In fact, sometimes we may do the exact wrong thing.  But we can be there.  We can be there, and we can care, and we can let them know we care.  And that caring will help.
            The church was not given to us as something to make us feel guilty.  The church was not given to us to give us another duty or another obligation.  The church was given to us out of God’s love.  The church was given to us as a gift.  The church was given to us by God so that we would not have to go through life alone.  The church was given to us to assure us that we will always have a group of people who will be there for us and who will care about us.
            So let’s be the church.  Let’s be a group of people who will always be there for each other.  Let’s be a group of people who will always love each other and care about each other.  And let’s go out and look for other people who need someone to be there for them and love them and care about them.  Then, we’ll be on the way to being the church that God wants us to be.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Heaven, Hell, and the Wheatland Parish

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, October 19, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Revelation 4:1-11.

            Do you ever think about heaven?  I’ll bet most of us do.  We wonder what it’s like there.  We wonder what we’ll be like.  We wonder what other people will be like.  Will we really see our loved ones in heaven?  Will we be able to recognize them?  Will we even have a physical form?  Or will we just be spirits, floating around, with no particular shape or size to us?
            Those and lots of other questions go through our minds when we think about heaven.  And we really don’t have any answers.  We really don’t know what heaven is like.  But John, the disciple of Jesus, was given a vision of heaven.  And we read some of it today.
            Some of it sounds really awesome.  A rainbow surrounding the heavenly throne.  Lightning and thunder coming from the throne.  Twenty-four elders around the throne, dressed in white, with gold crowns on their heads.  A sea of glass, clear as crystal.
            And some of it sounds really strange.  Four living creatures covered with eyes.  Six wings on each of them.  That sounds pretty scary.
            Is that really what heaven’s going to look like?  I don’t know.  If you believe it is, I cannot tell you you’re wrong.  And I’m certainly not trying to say I think John was lying or made it up anything like that.  I believe John described the vision he was given by God as accurately as he could.  It’s just that I suspect that what heaven truly looks like is completely beyond the ability of humans to understand.  I think God showed John a vision in terms that John might be able to understand.  But that does not mean heaven necessarily looks like that. It might, but it might not.
            But I don’t think the point of this passage is to tell us what heaven looks like.  That might be the part we’d like to know, but I don’t think that’s the main point of what John saw.
            Look past how strange these creatures are that John described, and look at what they’re doing.  They’re praising God.  They’re worshiping God.  They’re saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”  And when they do that, when they give glory and honor and thanks to God the elders, those people who are sitting on thrones with gold crowns, fall down before God.  They lay their crowns in front of God and they say, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
            I think that’s the main point of this passage.  I think that’s what we’ll be doing in heaven.  No matter what we look like, no matter what heaven looks like, no matter what else we may be doing there, one of the things we’ll be doing there is praising God and worshiping God.
            Now, maybe that sounds strange to you.  Maybe you don’t think that sounds like much of a deal, to just praise God and worship God all the time.  Maybe it even sounds kind of boring to you.  If so, I’d like you to think about a few things.
            Number one, this is the awesome and holy and perfect and all-powerful God we’re talking about here.  This is the God that, as the elders said, created all things, including us.  This is the God who’s beyond our ability to understand.  And we, as sinful and unworthy as we are, we will be in the presence of that incredible God.  I think it may well be that all we’ll want to do is worship God and praise God.  I think we may be so overwhelmed to be in God’s presence that there won’t be anything else we can think of to do but to praise God and worship God.
            Having said that, though, I don’t think praising and worshiping God necessarily means we’ll just be sitting around.  We can praise God and worship God by the things we do.  And if you look further in Revelation, it talks about God’s servants serving God.  It seems to me that means we’ll still have things to do.  It seems to me there will be ways we’re supposed to serve God in heaven, just like we do while we’re on earth.  It’s just that our service to God in heaven will not seem like a burden to us.  It’ll seem like a joy.
            That’s what our service to God is supposed to be like on earth, too, of course.  And sometimes it is.  But it will be all the time when we’re in heaven.  We will constantly feel in heaven what we sometimes feel on earth--the incredible joy that comes from being with God and serving God.
And there’s another aspect to this, too.  If in heaven we’re constantly praising God and worshiping God, think of all the things we won’t be doing.  We won’t be worrying.  We won’t be arguing.  We won’t be struggling.  We won’t be afraid of anything.  We won’t be sad about anything.  If you think about it, there are times when it feels like just that would be heaven enough for us--to be in a place where we have no worries, no fears, no arguments, no sadness, and no struggles.  What an awesome thing that will be.
            Now, of course, we can’t talk about heaven without talking about hell.  We really don’t know what hell is like, any more than we know what heaven is like.  There are a few references in the Bible to fire, which is kind of the popular conception of hell.  And just like in the references to heaven, it’s not clear how literally we’re supposed to take them.  Just like with the description of heaven, if you take hell as literally being a lake of fire, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong.  That may be what it is.  What I suspect, though, is that just like what heaven truly looks like is beyond our ability to understand, what hell truly looks like is probably beyond our ability to understand, too.
            But again, what hell looks like is probably not the main point.  It might be what we’d like to know, but I don’t think it’s the main point.
            If we look past the physical description of hell, what we find is that hell is described as a place of eternal torment.  In other words, hell is a place of constant suffering.  And suffering can take a lot of forms.  It can physical, but we can also have mental or emotional or psychological suffering.  And those kinds of suffering can be just as bad as, if not worse than, physical suffering.
            Most of us have probably been through some form of suffering in our lives.  But here’s the thing about suffering.  We can put up with a lot of suffering if we believe things are eventually going to get better.  We can go through a lot of suffering if we have the hope that what we’re going through is not permanent.  We can keep going through our suffering as long as we have faith that it’s not going to last forever, that better days are coming if we can just get past what we’re going through right now.
            But when suffering gets really hard is when we lose that hope.  When suffering gets really hard is when we lose our faith.  When suffering feels unbearable is when we no longer think things will ever get better, when think things will never change and the way things are now is the way things will always be.  It is really hard to go through suffering when we don’t have hope.
And where does hope come from?  Hope comes from God.  God is our hope.  So to me, what hell really is, is the absence of God.  Just as in heaven we are constantly in the presence of God, worshiping God and praising God, in hell we will have no hope of ever being in the presence of God.  In hell, we will be totally cut off from God.  We will suffer with no hope of things ever getting better.
            Have you ever felt that way here?  Like you were cut off from God, like you were suffering and God either did not know or did not care about your suffering, like God had abandoned you?  I’m sure some of you have.  I have.  And it’s a pretty miserable feeling.
            That’s part of the story of the cross, after all.  Jesus was suffering.  He was arrested and he was tortured.  And he was hanging on a cross, dying.  And he put up with it all.  He did not even complain about it.  But then, he felt like God the Father had abandoned him.  He cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  That was the only thing that really got to Jesus, the thought that God the Father had abandoned him.  To me, whatever else hell might be, that’s the real meaning of hell:  being totally cut off from the hope that comes from God.
            But the good news is that we don’t have to feel that way.  Because God has promised to never leave us.  God will not abandon us.  Can it feel that way sometimes?  Yes.  But I can tell you that, for me, the reason it feels that way is because I’m trying to tell God what to do.  I want God to respond to my prayer in a certain way, and when God does not do that, then I assume God is not hearing my prayer.  I forget what it says in the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s not “my will be done”.  It’s “thy will be done”.
            So let’s do everything we can to do God’s will.  Sometimes that may involve suffering.  But we can endure it, because we know our suffering will not last forever.  God is here.  God is with us.  So let’s worship God and let’s praise God.  Because with God, we are never without hope.  God sees what we’re going through.  And at the right time, God will respond.  And things will get better.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Wind at Our Backs

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, October 12, 2014.  The Bible verses are John 3:1-17.

            As many of you know, we’re doing a sermon series called “Theology 101”, trying to learn more about God and about our relationship to God, which after all is all theology really is.  When we talked about the trinity, we talked about how God, in the form of Jesus, God the Son, took the punishment that we should get for our sins so that we can have salvation and eternal life.  And we know that we receive that salvation by our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior.
            So the question, then, is what does “belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior” mean?  Obviously, it has to be more than just saying the words.  Anybody can do that.  We have to mean the words.  If I say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior” but I don’t do anything about that belief, I’ve done nothing.  If we mean the words, if we truly believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, that belief needs to affect our lives in some significant way.
            That brings us to our Bible reading for today.  Jesus is talking to a man named Nicodemus.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council.  Now, the Pharisees are often thought of as the bad guys in the gospels, and there are reasons for that, but whatever the Pharisees were they were not dummies.  And this one was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  Nicodemus was a man who had studied the scriptures and who knew what he was talking about when it came to the Bible, or at least the Old Testament, which of course is all the Bible they had back then.  And Nicodemus, unlike most of the Pharisees we read about, seems to have had a favorable opinion of Jesus.
            But Jesus gives him a concept that he cannot understand.  It’s one that you and I struggle to understand sometimes, too.  Jesus tells him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again."
            Nicodemus had no idea what that meant.  His instinct was to take it literally.  He said, well, how’s that possible?  How can I be born when I’m already an old man?  I cannot somehow get back into my mother’s womb and be born again.
            And Jesus explains it, kind of.  It’s not exactly a detailed explanation.  But Jesus says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”
            For Nicodemus, the explanation did not explain.  And it can feel that way for us, too.  But it is something we need to deal with.  We need to take it seriously.  Because Jesus said no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.  And I assume we’d all like to see the kingdom of God when our time comes.  I know I would.  So, we need to try to figure out what Jesus meant when he said we have to be born again.
            Jesus said we need to be born of the spirit.  For some people, that means a sudden specific event.  Just like we have a specific day and time at which we are born on this earth, there are people who believe there needs to be a specific day and time at which we are born of the spirit.  And there are people who say they’ve had that experience.  There are people who can tell you the exact day and time at which they believe they were born of the spirit, born again.
            Maybe some of you have had that.  If you have, that’s great.  I do believe it can happen that way.  I believe that the Holy Spirit can come on us all at once and change our lives.  When that happens, it must be an awesome experience.  It’d definitely be something you’d never forget.  It’d be something no one would ever forget, I would think.  To have the Holy Spirit come on you suddenly, and completely turn you around.  That would be incredible.
            But as United Methodists, we don’t believe that’s the only way it can happen.  Now don’t get me wrong.  We do believe that we need to be born again, to be born of the spirit, just as Jesus said.  It’s just that we don’t think it has to be a sudden, life-changing experience.  It can happen that way, but we believe that the Holy Spirit can also come on us slowly, gradually.  The Holy Spirit can come on us over a period of time.  And when the Holy Spirit does that, it ultimately has the same effect.  It does completely turn us around.  And when we look back from where we were to where we are, it is pretty incredible.
            And we think this is consistent with what Jesus said next.  Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Jesus compares the Holy Spirit to the wind.  And in fact, I’m told that in Greek, the word for “spirit” is the same as the word for “wind”.
            Now “wind” is a concept we’re pretty familiar with around here, right?  The wind blows.  Sometimes it blows hard, sometimes it’s soft.  Sometimes it comes from one direction, sometimes it’s from another direction.  Sometimes it swirls.  Sometimes it does several of those things within the course of a day.  And how much control do we have over the wind?  Zero.  Zip.  None.  The wind does what the wind is going to do.  We can put up walls and try to block it, but we cannot stop it or even change it.  The wind does what the wind is going to do.
            And that’s how the Holy Spirit works.  And that’s how the Holy Spirit works in our lives.  Sometimes it comes on us hard, all at once.  Sometimes it comes on us softly, slowly, gradually.  Sometimes we feel the Holy Spirit coming from one place.  Sometimes we feel the Holy Spirit coming from another place.  And we have absolutely no control over the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit is going to do.  We can try to block out the Holy Spirit, but we cannot stop the Holy Spirit or even change the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit is going to do.
            There’s one other thing about the wind.  We can accomplish a whole lot more when we go with the wind than when we go against it, right?  Have you ever tried to row a boat against a strong wind?  You don’t get very far, do you?  Have you ever tried to run against a strong wind?  You can do it, but it’s sure a lot harder.  
I rode my bike a lot this summer, and I take kind of rectangular route.  That means there were times when I was riding against the wind, and there were times I was riding with the wind.  And I can tell you that going with the wind is a whole lot easier.
And that’s true of the Holy Spirit, too.  When we try to work against the Holy Spirit, we don’t get very far.  And even when do get somewhere, it’s really hard.  But when we work with the Holy Spirit, it’s like we have the wind at our back.  Everything seems easier.  Everything just sort of falls into place.
I think that’s at least part of what it means to be born again.  To work with the Holy Spirit instead of against the Holy Spirit.  To go where the Holy Spirit leads us to go.  To do what the Holy Spirit leads us to do.  To be faithful to God in all things, to the best of our ability.  To trust that if God is leading us to go somewhere and to do something, then it must be right, and so we’ll do it even if we’re scared of it or even if we’re not sure what’s going to happen as a result.  Because we know that we can trust God in all things.
God would not have to let us work with the Holy Spirit like that, you know.  God does not need us to accomplish God’s purposes.  God chooses to work with us.  God chooses to allow us to work with God the Holy Spirit.  God chooses to allow us to be taught and guided by God through God the Holy Spirit. This is an incredible gift that God gives to us.
When we are born on this earth, we have our earthly parents to teach us and to guide us.  We trust their teaching and their leading because we trust them to have our best interests at heart.  When we’re born of the Spirit, we have God the Holy Spirit to teach us and to guide us.  We can trust the Holy Spirit’s teaching and leading because we can trust God the Holy Spirit to have our best interests at heart.
Jesus said we need to be born again.  We need to be born of the Holy Spirit.  Let’s take that seriously.  Let’s open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit.  Let’s let God the Holy Spirit teach us and lead us and guide us.  It’ll feel like we have the wind at our back.  And when the time comes, we will see the kingdom of God.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Choice to Love

This is the message given in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 5, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Genesis 3:1-13.

            As we think about God and who God is and how God does the things God does, one of the subject that comes to our mind is sin.  So today, as we continue our sermon series “Theology 101”, we’re going to talk about sin.
            God created the world.  God created everything in the world, including you and me.  And God, as we know, is perfect.  And yet, the perfect God created all these imperfect people.  All these people who do things they know they should not do.  All these sinful people.
            Why is that?  I mean, it seems like kind of shoddy workmanship, when you think about it.  A perfect God should be able to create perfect people, right?  And presumably, God could’ve done that, if God had chosen to.  And yet, God did not do that.  God did not create perfect people.  Instead, God created flawed, weak, selfish, stubborn people.  People like you.  And, of course, people like me.
            And it’s been like that from the beginning.  People have been sinful from the beginning of time.  That’s one of the points of the story of Adam and Eve.  Think about this.  God gave Adam and Eve everything they could possibly want.  They could go anywhere they wanted to go.  They could do anything they wanted to do.  They could have anything they wanted to have.  There was just one thing God told them not to do.  God said you can have all the best stuff that’s ever been on earth, but just do one thing for me.  See that one tree over there?  Don’t eat the fruit from that tree.  You can eat anything else you want.  You can eat the fruit from every other tree on earth.  Just leave that one tree alone, okay?
            And so, of course, what did Adam and Eve do?  They went right to that tree and started eating.  They had some “help”, of course, some prompting from the serpent, but still, they knew what they were doing.  They knew God had told them not to eat the fruit from that tree, and they knew they were eating that fruit.  They deliberately did what God had told them not to do.
            And that’s pretty much what we do, too, right?  We do it all the time.  I know I do.  We constantly do things that God has told us not to do, and we constantly fail to do things God told us to do.
            And I’m not just talking about legalisms here.  I’m not just talking about all the “thou shalt nots” that the Bible has.  I’m not discounting them, either, but what I keep coming back to, whenever we talk about something like this, is what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments of all.  And what are they?  We’ve talked about them many times before.  Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Love God and love the other people God created.  Jesus said those are the two greatest commandments.  Jesus said that all of the law and everything that the prophets ever said comes from those two commandments.
            So any time we don’t do that, we sin.  Any time we don’t love God, we sin.  Any time we don’t love other people, we sin.  So for most of us, that means we sin several times a day.  Sometimes several times an hour.  Any time we do something, or say something, or just feel something that is unloving toward God or unloving toward someone else, we sin.
            That’s true no matter how much we wish it was not.  And it’s true no matter how hard we try to make it not true.  We should try to make it not true, but we know we’re going to fail.  Even the Apostle Paul could not do it.  He wrote in the letter to the Romans, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”  No matter how hard we try to get sin out of our lives, we can never do it.
            And I come back to my question, why is that?  If God could’ve chosen to create perfect people, why did God not do that?  Why did the perfect God, with the ability to create people in any way God chose, choose to create--us?
            Well, we don’t know, obviously.  None of us can read the mind of God.  We assume that if God did it, it must be right.  It must be the best way.  But still, we wonder.  Why would God, who has unlimited power and unlimited ability and could have chosen to create humans any way we can imagine, and probably ways that we cannot imagine, have chosen to create us the way we are?
            Well, think about this.  We are told that we should love God and love each other, right?   If we were made in such a way that we could not help but love God, would that really be love?  It seems to me that love, for it to really be love, involves choice.  It involves having options and making a decision.  If there’s no choice, if there’s no decision to be made, then we’re just doing what we have to do.  That’s not love.  It may be duty, it may be obligation, but it’s not love.  Love has to be voluntary.  It has to involve having options and making a choice.  We have to choose to love for it to really be love.
            And of course, for us to be able to choose to love, we also have to be able to choose not to love.  The choice of not loving, of not thinking, speaking, or acting in loving ways has to be there.  So I think that’s part of the reason God created us the way we are.  That’s part of the reason God allows sin to exist.  Because without the possibility of sin, there could not be the possibility of love.
And then, too, consider this:  God may not be finished with us yet.  The way people are now may not be the way people are going to stay.  God is still working with us.  God is still working on us.  God is still working in us to make us better, to make us God’s people, to make us the people God wants us to be.
            It takes a long time with us flawed, weak, selfish, stubborn people.  We don’t change easily.  And again, God does not force us to change, because God gives us the choice.  But God keeps working with us and on us and in us, and we do change.  We are better.  For example, in most parts of the world, we don’t have slaves any more.  There are still some places that do, sadly, but most don’t.  In most parts of the world, we don’t treat women as property any more.  Again, there are sadly still some places that do, but most don’t.  Humanity is improving.  We are getting better.
            We’re still a really long way from where God wants us to be, of course.  And we don’t know how much time God may give us.  I don’t know that there’ll ever be a time when we completely conquer sin.  But we can get better.  And we do get better.
            So what’s the point?  How can all this talk about sin help us?  Well, here’s the point.  Our life on this earth is about choices.  Everything we say and everything we do is about choices.  That’s how God set it up for us.  We choose to do some things.  We choose not to do other things.  We do that every single day.
            What that means is that every single day, we have choices to make.  We can choose to sin.  Or, we can choose to love.  That’s the choice we make every day.  In fact, we make that choice many, many times over the course of a day.  Every time we say something or don’t say something, every time we do something or don’t do something, we are making that choice.  We either choose to sin or we choose to love.
            But what that also means is that every single day, we get another chance.  No matter how many times we sinned yesterday, we can choose to love today.  In fact, it’s better than that.  If we chose to sin an hour ago, we choose to love this hour.  If we chose to sin ten minutes ago, we can choose to love in the ten minutes to come.  No matter how many times we’ve chosen to sin, and no matter how recently we chose to sin, we can now choose to love.  We can do that any time we want to.  In fact, we can do it right now.  We can choose right now, in this instant, to love instead of sin.  We can love God and we can love the people God created right now, no matter what we’ve done before.
            God could have required our obedience, but God did not do that.  God decided, instead, to let us choose.  So let’s choose wisely.  Let’s choose to love.