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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thankful Under the Circumstances

This is the message given at the Onida Community Thanksgiving Service on Wednesday, November 26, 2014.  The Bible verses used are 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24.

As you all know, tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day.  It’s a day we set aside every year for the holy and righteous purpose of eating lots of turkey and watching football all day long.
Well, of course, that’s not the reason we have thanksgiving.  I mean, I do plan to eat some turkey, and I suspect at some point I’ll be watching some football, too.  But we know that’s not the real reason we have Thanksgiving.  The real reason we have Thanksgiving, as we all know, is to rest up for all the doorbusters sales that’ll be coming up on Black Friday.
No, that’s not it, either.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  We’re not sinning if we decide to eat some turkey and watch some football tomorrow, and we’re not sinning if we go to a Black Friday sale.  But I do hope that, at some point tomorrow, we’ll all take some time to think about all the things we really do have to be thankful for.  And I also hope that we’ll take some time in prayer to thank God for all those things.  And when I say “things”, I don’t just mean material things.  A lot of the things we have to be thankful for are not “things” at all, at least not in that sense.
But you know, there are some people in our community--and maybe some of you are here tonight--who may not feel very thankful right now.  Some of us are going through serious illnesses or injuries, or have loved ones who are.  Some of us have lost loved ones recently, and are grieving.  Some of us have serious financial problems.  Some of us feel very alone.  And some of us don’t even know exactly what it is that’s wrong, but just feel like their lives are not going very well and they don’t know what to do or where to turn.
If you’re going through something like this, or if you know someone who is,  I want you to know that it’s okay if you don’t feel very thankful at this Thanksgiving.  We read from First Thessalonians where the Apostle Paul says we should be thankful in all circumstances, but that’s a goal, not a command.  We’re not committing a sin if there are some circumstances in which we cannot feel thankful.  
Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not disagreeing with the Apostle Paul.  We will be better off if we can find a way to be thankful, nomatter what the circumstances are.  The thing is, though, that we cannot make ourselves feel something we don’t really feel.  We can know that we should feel thankful, but if we don’t actually feel thankful, we cannot make ourselves feel that way.  In fact, we’re likely to just make ourselves feel worse if we try.  When we’re going through something that keeps us from feeling thankful, we already feel bad enough.  We don’t need to pile guilt on top of everything else.
And a lot of the platitudes we hear don’t help much, either.  And we’ve all said them.  We say them with the best of intentions, we certainly don’t mean to hurt anyone or make anyone feel bad, but still, some of these things we say are not very helpful at all.  
For instance, “No matter how bad things are for you, there’s always someone else who has it worse.”  Well, yeah, there probably is, but when we’re going through some of these things, when we’re dealing with a serious illness or the death of a loved one or with loneliness or whatever, knowing that someone else feels even worse does not really help much.  
“God never gives you more than you can handle.”  Well, in the first place, I don’t believe God singles us out to give us bad things.  God may use bad things to teach us stuff.  God will definitely be there for us to help us in bad times.  God may use those bad times to ultimately make us better people in the long run.  But I don’t believe that God deliberately makes bad things happen to us because God knows we can handle them.
And in fact, sometimes telling someone that “God never gives you more than you can handle” can do more harm than good.  Because the fact is, sometimes things happen to us that are more than we can handle.  Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by all the things that are happening to us.  The idea that, well, we should be able to handle these things because God would not have given them to us otherwise just makes us feel worse.
The thing is, there are a lot of things that happen in life that we are not supposed to be able to handle.  At least, we’re not supposed to handle them by ourselves.  And that’s where other parts of those Bible verses we read come in.  
Before telling us to be thankful in all circumstances, there are some other things that Paul tells us to do.  Look at what those are.  Paul tells us to encourage the disheartened.  He tells us to help the weak.  He tells us to be patient with everyone.  He tells us to pray continually.
If we take those things seriously, if we do those things for other people, especially people who are going through hard times, it will be a lot more likely that those of us who are going through hard times will be able to find things to be thankful for.  If you’re going through a tough time right now, or if you have in the past, think about this.  Would you be thankful for some encouragement?  Would you be thankful for some help when you’re weak?  Would you be thankful for some patience when the things you’re dealing with overwhelm you?  Would you be thankful to know someone was praying continually for you?
I suspect you would.  In fact, we’d love to have those things even when we’re not going through tough times.  We’d love to have those things even when things are going well.  I’m always happy to get some encouragement.  We all have times of weakness--when I have one, I’m very grateful for some help.  I very much appreciate it when people are patient with me, because I make plenty of mistakes.  And I’m always grateful when I know someone is praying for me.  And I would think most of us here probably feel the same way.
And you know what else?  When I do one of those things for someone else, it always makes me feel better, too.  I suspect it does the same for you when you do it.  It makes me feel good to be able to encourage someone when they’re struggling.  It makes me feel like I’ve really done something right when I can help someone out who needs help.  I feel good about myself when I’m patient with someone who needs patience.  And the gratitude of people when I let them know I’m praying for them overwhelms me sometimes.
Now, I’m not saying I always do these things.  I’m no better at them than you are.  There are plenty of times I miss chances to do all of these things.  I’m just saying that on those occasions when I do do them, it does not just help the person I’m trying to help.  It helps me, too.
But notice something else in this reading.  Notice what Paul does not say.  Paul does not say “solve people’s problems”.  Paul tells us to encourage, to help, to be patient, and to pray.  He does not tell us to fix or to solve.
I think that was intentional.  A lot of times, when we’re going through a tough time, there’s no way that anyone can come in and solve our problems.  That’s okay.  We don’t need someone to come in and solve our problems.  We just need someone to let us know they care.  We just need someone to let us know they’ll be there for us.  We just need someone to let us know that, as we deal with whatever it is we’re dealing with, we don’t have to go through it alone.
God does not want us to try to go through life alone.  God knows that life is too hard for us to go through alone.  That’s one of the reasons God put us into families.  That’s one of the reasons God put us into communities.  And that’s also one of the reasons why God put us into churches.  One of the reasons the first Christian churches formed is so we will not have to go through life alone, so that we will have others around us who will care about us and who will love us.
So, as we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, and as we head into Advent and Christmas, let’s think about that.  Let’s pray about that.  And then, let’s do something about that.  Let’s ask God to help us find ways to show that we care about each other.  Let’s ask God to help us find ways to be there for each other.  Let’s ask God to help us be there for people, regardless of what church they go to and regardless of whether they go to any church at all.  If we do the things Paul told us to do, if we encourage the disheartened, help the weak, and are patient with everyone, we’ll change people’s circumstances.  And rather than just telling people to be thankful in all circumstances, we’ll create circumstances in which we can all be thankful.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

He Would Do Anything For Love (And He Would Do That)

This is the message given in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 23, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Mark 14:12-26.

            Some of you may have wondered why we read the story of the Last Supper today.  After all, it’s not Easter or Lent or anything.  It’s not even a communion Sunday.  This is Thanksgiving Sunday.  So why are we talking about the Last Supper rather than about Thanksgiving?
            Well, there is a reason.  You know, part of the Bible reading from Mark is somewhat similar to what we say every time we take communion.  In fact, some of you probably recognized it.  And there’s one line in there that’s said twice.  We say it twice every time we take communion.
           So, since we say it twice, it must be pretty important.  And yet, a lot of times, we just kind of gloss over it.  At least I do.  I’d been reading that same communion stuff for years, and then one day, all of a sudden, that line just bam hit me right between the eyes.  Some of you may know what it is already, but here it is:  “when he had given thanks”.
            “When he had given thanks”.  That line appears twice.  First, we’re told, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”  A little later, we’re told, “he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.  ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them.”
            Now, think about what’s going on here.  Jesus is eating the last meal he will ever eat on this earth.  After he eats this meal, he goes to Gethsemane.  He gets arrested.  He gets beaten.  He gets spat on.  He gets tortured.  And then, he gets killed.
            And Jesus knows all this is going to happen.  None of it catches Jesus by surprise.  In fact, he’s told his disciples what’s going to happen.  In fact, he’s told them one of them is going to betray him in order to make it all happen.  And yet, knowing all this, Jesus takes bread and gives thanks to God.  And then he takes a cup and gives thanks to God.
            What do you suppose Jesus actually said?  I mean, what would he have had to be thankful for?  The meal?  It was not much, and it was the last meal he was going to have.  The time with the disciples?  One of them was going to betray him.  They were all going to fall away and abandon him.  Do you think Jesus was really feeling thankful at that moment?
            It’s hard to imagine that he was.  And yet, he gave thanks to God.  And I don’t think Jesus just did that because it was what he was supposed to do.  I mean, Jesus did not do a lot of the things that the Pharisees and the other religious leaders thought he was supposed to do.  I think Jesus meant every word he said.  I think Jesus was sincere in his thanks to God.
            But what would he have said?  What would Jesus have found to be thankful for?  I know the Bible says we’re supposed to be thankful in all circumstances, but this is really taking that to the extreme.  In these circumstances, about to be betrayed and tortured and killed even though you’d done nothing wrong, would you be able to find anything to be thankful for?
            I doubt if I would.  In fact, I’d probably have been pretty upset with God.  I might have been pretty angry with God, if you want to know the truth.  Here Jesus was, having done nothing wrong, having done everything he was supposed to do, and this is the reward he gets for it.  It’d be pretty hard to be thankful right then.
            But Jesus knew what was going on.  Jesus knew things had to be done this way.  In fact, Jesus knew this was part of the reason he’d come to earth in the first place.  Jesus knew this was his mission in coming here.  He had come here to be punished, not for his own sins, but for our sins.  He came here to take the punishment that belonged to us, so that we would not have to take it ourselves.  And he knew the reason he was doing it.  He was doing it out of love.  Jesus took that punishment on himself and away from us because he loves us that much.
            This was a very hard thing God the Father was asking Jesus to do.  He was tempted not to do it.  There’s the story about the devil tempting Jesus while he was fasting in the desert, but I have to think Jesus was tempted time after time after time to not go through with this.  There were all kinds of ways he could’ve avoided it.  
           He could’ve used his power to wipe out the Pharisees and the Romans and everyone else and establish an earthly kingdom.  That’s what some people wanted him to do.  And it had to be really tempting, because think of all the good Jesus could’ve done for people if he’d been an earthly king.  He could’ve solved the problems of slavery and of poverty and of oppression.  He could’ve made things fair for everybody.  That had to be a tempting thing for him to do.
           And in fact, he might not’ve had to use his power to do that.  The people might’ve done it for him.  He was already a celebrity and a star for all the miracles he’d done, all the healing, that sort of thing.  If he’d done a little more of it, and especially if he’d healed the right people, some of the movers and shakers, they might’ve established Jesus as an earthly king by themselves.  Jesus might not’ve had to take power, power might’ve been just given to him.  That had to be tempting, too.
           Or, Jesus could’ve cut a deal with the Pharisees.  You know, just back off a little bit.  Acknowledge the authority of the Pharisees.  Stop healing on the Sabbath.  Stop speaking out quite so forcefully.  He could still go around and help people, but just don’t make such a big deal out of defying authority when you do it, you know?  Just kind of lay low and keep quiet for a while.
           There were all kinds of things Jesus could’ve done.  All kinds of ways Jesus could’ve avoided going through with this.  He was constantly tempted to avoid it, to not do what he came to earth to do.  But on this night, this night of the Last Supper, Jesus knew he was going to go through with it.  He was going to resist temptation.  He was going to do what he had come here to do.  The love that Jesus has for us was so great that he was going to be able to do it, no matter how hard it was going to be for him.
           And maybe that’s what Jesus was thankful to God for.  Jesus was thankful that God the Father had helped him resist temptation.  He was thankful that he was going to be who he was, who he had always been.  He was going to be Jesus, the Christ, the Savior, the Messiah.  He was going to truly be God the Son, no matter how hard it might be.  And he was going to show that God truly is a God of love.
           The Bible tells us that you and I were created in God’s image.  So, if God is a God of love, then you and I, God’s people, are supposed to be a people of love.  And once again, we come back to what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments, the ones all the law and all the statements of the prophets depend on:  that we love God, and that we love each other.
           Jesus’ love for us made him do some very hard things.  And you and I, if we love each other, are going to be asked to do some very hard things, too.  We’re going to be asked to do things for people when we’re tired and we don’t really feel like doing anything for anyone.  We’re going to be asked to give to people when we’re not sure if we have enough for ourselves.  We’re going to be asked to respond with love when people treat us badly.  We’re going to be asked to be there for people when it feels like we have all we can do to take care of ourselves.
           We’re going to be tempted not to do those things.  And there will be any number of ways we can avoid them.  We’ll be able to come up with all kinds of excuses for why we should not have to do things for people, why we should not have to give to people, why we should not have to respond with love, why we should not have to be there for people.  We’ll be tempted all the time to not do what we were put on this earth to do.
           Jesus resisted temptation because he loved us.  And if you and I truly love each other, and if we truly love the people who are out there beyond these walls, you and I will be able to resist temptation, too.  We are not Jesus, and we are not perfect, but we can still resist temptation.  We can do it the way Jesus did it--by keeping the love of other people front and center in our lives.
           And when we do resist temptation, we can be thankful to God, the way Jesus was.  We can be thankful that God has helped us resist temptation.  We can be thankful that he was are who we were created to be, who God has always created us to be.  We can be thankful because we are truly going to be God’s people, no matter how hard it might be.  And we can be thankful that we are a people of love, serving a God of love.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Attitude Adjustment

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, November 16, 2014.  The Bible verses are 2 Corinthians 9:6-15.
            We’re doing a sermon series called “Give It Up!”, talking about giving.  We’ve talked about why God wants us to give and how we determine how much we’re supposed to give.  But there’s something else we need to talk about, and that’s our attitude toward giving.
Sometimes, people give out of a feeling of duty or obligation.  We know we’re supposed to give to God, we know we’re supposed to give to the church, and so we do.  Now, that’s not wrong, exactly.  It’s not a sin or anything if we do that.  But it’s not the best attitude, either.  It’s not really an attitude that honors God.  God wants us to give lovingly, not grudgingly.  And that’s true whether we’re talking about giving money, giving time, giving talent, or giving anything else that we may give.
Our Bible reading for today included a line many of you have heard before.  “God loves a cheerful giver.”  Now, don’t take that the wrong way.  God loves us know matter what.  But God does appreciate it when we give cheerfully, out of love, rather than reluctantly, out of duty or fear or for some other reason.
I’ll show you what I mean.  Suppose Wanda wants me to do something.  And suppose I really don’t feel like doing it.  Hard to believe, I know, but that does happen once in a while.  So suppose Wanda asks me to do something, and I really don’t feel like doing it.  So, first, I put it off for a while.  And Wanda has to keep after me about it.  And she does.  And eventually, I know I’m going to have to do this thing, so I do.  I do it.  I do it, but I also make clear to Wanda that I really don’t want to do it.  I sigh.  I get up slowly.  I grumble about it.  I don’t even try to do it well, I’m just trying to get it over with.  And when it’s done I say something like, “Well, there, I did it.  Are you happy now?”
Well, of course, the answer to that question is no.  Wanda’s not going to be happy at all.  But why not?  I did what she wanted me to do.  Why is she not happy about it?
But suppose something different.  Suppose Wanda wants me to do something, and I got up right away and said, “Sure.  No problem.  Happy to do it.”  And I do it, and I do it as well as I can.  And when I’m done, I say something like, “As long as I’m up, is there anything else I can do for you?”
Which way do you think Wanda’s going to be happier, the first way or the second way?  Well, it’s obvious, right?  She’s going to be much happier if I show that I’m happy to do things for her than she is if I show that I really don’t want to do them.  But why?  Either way, the thing gets done, right?  What difference does my attitude about it make?
The answer is that it makes all the difference in the world.  If I’m do something for Wanda cheerfully and happily, Wanda feels loved.  She feels honored and respected.  She feels good about herself.  She feels good about our marriage.  Depending on what it is I’ve done, that good feeling might help carry her through the whole day.  But if I do something for Wanda grumpily and grudgingly, Wanda does not feel that way at all.  She does not feel loved.  She does not feel respected.  She does not feel good about herself and she does not feel good about our marriage.  And those feelings might stay with her the whole day, too.
Now, Wanda is not God.  Sorry, dear, I don’t mean that as an insult or anything, but, you know, you’re not.  God has more understanding than we humans do, and God is probably not as easily hurt as we human beings are.  But still, we’re told that we’re created in God’s image.  And God created us with emotions.  So it makes sense that God would have a lot of the same emotions that we have.
And in fact, the Bible tells us that.  It tells us that some things please God and others do not.  It tells us that God feels anger and jealousy.  It also tells us that God feels joy and love.  It tells us that God feels grief and compassion and a variety of other things.
I’m not saying that God reacts to things in the same way that we human beings do.  But God does have emotions.  And I have to think that God reacts to our attitudes toward giving in a way that’s somewhat similar to the way Wanda does and the way you and I do.  When we do things for God cheerfully and happily, God feels our love.  God is honored and respected.  When we do things for God reluctantly and grudgingly, just because we think we have to, we are not showing God our love, because we’re not doing it out of love.  God is not honored and respected when we do things just because we think we have to.
Now, again, either way, God still loves us.  I’m not saying it’s necessarily a sin if we do things reluctantly, just because we think we have to.  But you know, just like the fact that something is legal does not make it right, the fact that something may not be a sin does not mean it’s a good thing to do.  God asks more of us than just that we not actively sin.  God asks that we love God and that we love others.  God asks that we serve God and serve others as much as we can.  God asks that we not just meet the minimum requirement of not actively sinning.  God asks that we be the best people we can be.  Not that we be perfect--God knows better than to think we’re capable of being perfect.  But God asks us to do the best we can to be the loving, caring, giving people God created us to be.
I want to go back to what I said about Wanda and me.  When I do something for Wanda with the right attitude, when she feels loved and honored and respected, what’s likely to happen?  She’s likely to want to do something for me, too.  Not because she has to, not because she’s paying me back for anything, but because she wants to.  It’s not that Wanda will stop loving me if I do things grudgingly instead of lovingly.  It’s just that the more love I show to Wanda, the more love Wanda’s likely to want to show to me.  That’s just the way a relationship works.
And it’s the somewhat the way our relationship with God works, too.  That’s what our reading meant when it said God would bless us when we give cheerfully.  If we show love and honor and respect to God, God is likely to want to help us.  Not because God has to.  We’re not making a deal with God that if we do things for God, God has to do things for us.  God does not have to do anything.  And it’s not that God will stop loving us if we do things grudgingly instead of lovingly.  We’re told that there’s nothing that can ever separate us from God’s love.  But if we do things that are pleasing to God, if we show love and honor and respect to God, we are likely to receive blessings from God.
And there’s one more thing.  It’s no great credit to me when I do things for Wanda cheerfully and happily.  That’s what I should do.  Wanda deserves that.  Wanda deserves to get love and honor and respect from me.  I am not doing something great when I do something that gives her that love and honor and respect.  I’m just giving Wanda what she deserves.
And in the same way, it’s no great credit to us when we do things for God cheerfully and happily.  That’s what we should do.  God deserves that.  God deserves to get love and honor and respect from us.  We’re not doing something great when we show God that love and honor and respect.  We’re just giving God what God deserves.
But still, just like Wanda appreciates it, so does God.  And God will bless us for doing it.  Those blessings may or may not come in the way expected.  They may or may not come in the way we hoped.  Just like we said last week about tithing, this is not some way to get God to make us rich.  But there are a lot of ways God can bless us, and a lot of the really good ones have nothing to do with money or possessions.
            So the next time we think about giving to God, whether we’re thinking about giving money or time or talent or whatever it is we’re thinking about giving, let’s think about what God deserves.  And let’s give to God cheerfully and happily.  Let’s give to God in a way that shows God love and honor and respect.  God will appreciate it.  And God deserves it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The World Series of Life

This article first appeared in the November, 2014 issue of the Wheatland Parish newsletter.

            Most of you know I’m a pretty big baseball fan.  Well, actually, I’m a pretty big sports fan generally, but my favorite sport is baseball.  So, even though October was a pretty busy month, I paid as much attention as I could to the baseball playoffs and to the World Series.  

            I don’t know if you like baseball, but even for people who aren’t baseball fans the playoffs are kind of special.  What makes the playoffs special is that every game is really important.  

            In the regular season, a major league baseball team plays one hundred sixty-two games. Because there are so many games, one individual game does not seem like it makes a whole lot of difference.  Teams try to win each game, of course, but if they don’t, well, it’s not that big of a deal.  After all, there’s always another game tomorrow.  In the playoffs, though, a short series--best of five or best of seven--decides who stays in it and who goes home.  That means that losing any one game really hurts.  On the other hand, winning any one game can give a team a huge advantage.  So, each individual game is really important.

            But you know, if you think about it, each individual game in the regular season is really important, too.  The Seattle Mariners missed the playoffs this year by one regular season game.  That means a loss in some ordinary game in May or June or August, some game that did not seem like it made a whole lot of difference at the time, made the entire difference between that team making the playoffs and having a chance to win the championship and not making the playoffs and not having a chance to win the championship.  They did not realize it at the time, but it did.  In reality, each game in the regular season is very important.  It just does not feel that way at the time because, after all, there’s always another game tomorrow.

            It seems to me that there’s a parallel between a baseball season and our lives.  We go most of our lives feeling like one individual day really does not make a lot of difference.  We may try to do our best each day, but if something happens that we don’t, well, it’s not that big of a deal.  After all, there’s always another day tomorrow.  It’s only at the end of our lives, when we start to realize that the season of our lives is nearly over, that each day seems like it’s important and special.  

            But in fact, each individual day of our lives is really important.  Something that happens when we’re in our teens or in our twenties or in our forties can be the difference from our lives going in one direction and our lives going in another direction.  Or, it can be the difference from someone else’s life going in one direction and that person’s life going in another direction.  We don’t realize it at the time, but it does.  In reality, each day of our lives is important.  It just does not feel that way because, after all, there’s another day tomorrow.

            We cannot go back and change the days of our past, of course.  What we can do, though, is treat each day that we get in the future as special and important.  We can make sure we don’t waste a single day of our lives.  We can treat each day as the precious gift that it is.  And we can do whatever we can to make sure that our loved ones do the same.

           Take advantage of this day.  And when tomorrow comes, take advantage of tomorrow, too.  Make every day special.  Because every day is a gift from God.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Feel the Power!

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of the Wheatland Parish Newsletter.

We had our annual Charge Conference on October 12.  This is a meeting we have once a year with our District Superintendent.  People from all three churches of our parish come to it.  We talk about where we are as a parish and where we’re going into the future.

One of the things, Randy Cross, our District Superintendent, talked about this year was the power of prayer.  I know that’s something many of us believe in--I hope all of us do.  So, I want to ask you to pray specifically for the churches of this parish.  I suspect many of you have already been doing that for some time.  But I’d like to ask you to include some specific things in your prayers.

For one thing, please pray for God’s help in reaching the unchurched children of our parish.  As you know, that’s been a prayer emphasis of this parish for several months now.  And we are making progress in that area.  But there is much more that we can do.  There is much more that we need to do.  There are many more unchurched children out there.  Please pray that God will help us reach them.  Please pray that God will guide us and direct us and inspire us and put the desire in all of our hearts to reach those children.  And please pray that God will touch the hearts of those children, too.

Please pray that God will help us reach out in mission, both to the community and around the world.  Sometimes people look at those things as an either-or, but they don’t have to be.  We have a responsibility to help with local projects, but we also have a responsibility to do what we can do on projects that go far beyond this parish.  We are already doing that, of course, but we should never be satisfied with what we’re doing and decide that we’re doing enough.  There is always more we can do.  Please pray that God will touch our hearts in this area, too.

Please pray that God will help us put the addition to the Gettysburg church to good use.  Yes, that’s a Gettysburg project, but it will also house the parish offices, so in a way, it’s a parish project, too.  Please pray that God will help us use that addition wisely, so that we can use it to do God’s work throughout the parish.  After all, there’s nothing inherently sacred about a building.  A building is just a building.  It’s just metal and wood and sheetrock and whatever else goes into a building.  What makes a building sacred is what we do there.  Please pray that God will lead us to use that addition in ways that will serve God and will help us bring people to God.

Please don’t think this is an exclusive list.  There are many, many other things you could pray for in regard to this parish.  Please feel free to include those things in your prayers, too.  In fact, I’d like to specifically ask you to do so.  If you feel God nudging you to pray for something, please do it.  And while you don’t have to, you are also free to let me know about what it is that God has nudged you to pray for.  It may be that God is trying to tell the entire parish something.  It may be something that the entire parish needs to pray for.  In fact, it may be something that the entire parish needs to do something about.

           Thanks for all your prayers.  They are incredibly important to the future of this parish.  When we pray for the chance to serve God, God will always answer that prayer and will give us the chance to serve in unexpected and exciting ways.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

No More Leftovers

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, November 9, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Leviticus 23:4-21.

            We’re in the middle of a sermon series called “Give it up!”  It’s a sermon series about giving.  Last week we talked about why we give.  We talked about how everything we have truly belongs to God, not to us, and that when we go to spend some money, we need to ask the question:  “Is this a good use of God’s money?  Would God want me to spend God’s money this way?”
            Today, we’re going to talk about how much to give.  Or, more accurately, we’re going to talk about how to decide how much to give.  And when we talk about that in church, it seems like one of the first things we think about is tithing.  Giving ten percent of our income to the church.
            Now, I don’t know how many of you tithe.  I’m sure there are some here who do.  I’m also sure there are some here who don’t.
Is it a salvation issue?  No.  We’re saved by God’s grace and love and mercy and through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  We’re not saved by how much we give.  God is not in heaven with a green eye-shade on, going through our books to see how much we’ve given to the church.  That’s not how this works.
          So do we really need to tithe?  After all, tithing, giving ten percent, is a legal standard, right?  And the coming of Jesus set us free from the law.  So, did the coming of Jesus free us from the need to tithe?
            Yes and no.  As I said, it’s not a salvation issue.  We don’t need to tithe in order to be saved.  Still, I think tithing is a good thing.  Wanda and I do it.  I think everyone should.
            Why?  Because tithing holds us up to a standard.  Tithing is one way of measuring how much faith we truly have in God.
            See, I understand why tithing is such a hard thing for most of us to do.  Wanda and I tithe now, but there are a lot more years of our lives when we did not tithe than there were when we did.  And the main reason we did not tithe is probably one of the reasons lots of people don’t tithe.  We did not think we could afford it.  We were not making a lot of money.  We had a lot of expenses.  And so we did not think we could afford to give ten percent of our income to the church.
            But what Wanda and I were doing, when we looked at it that way, was looking at it backwards.  We were looking at all the bills we had to pay, and all the things we needed to buy, and then we were looking at what was left over after we paid all those things.  We were determining our giving based on our leftovers.
            That’s probably the way most people do it.  And again, I’m not saying that you’re committing a sin if you do that.  But that’s not the way God tells us to do it.  God does not tell us to give out of our leftovers.  God tells us to give out of what we take in first.  God tells us to give out of our best, not out of what’s left over.
            We read a passage from the book of Leviticus today.  We don’t read from Leviticus very often, but look at what it says.  God tells the people that they are supposed to take the first grain they harvest and give it to God.  They are supposed to give the best livestock they have to God.  They’re supposed to take the best flour, the best wine the best bread.  They are supposed to take the first and best of everything they have and give it to God.
            Why would God do that?  Why would God tell us to give God the first and the best of everything?  I mean, it’s like what we said last week about money--God does not need it.  So why does God tell us to give it?
            One of the reasons we’re supposed to give God the first and the best of everything is so we learn to trust God.  Think about it.  If we take all the money we think we need first, and just give to God out of what’s left, what are we saying?  We’re saying that we really don’t trust God to give us what we need.  We don’t really trust God to take care of us.  We need to take care of ourselves.  And so we do.  We take everything we think we need, and then, if there happens to be some left over, we give some of that to God.  Again, we’re giving God our leftovers.
            We don’t do that because we’re terrible, horrible people.  We don’t do that because we’re such awful sinners.  We do that because we’re scared.  We’re scared that if we give to God first, if we give to God out of our best, there won’t be enough left for us.
            Giving to God out of our first, and out of our best, shows that we trust God.  And that’s what we show when we tithe.  We show that we’re willing to take ten percent of our money off the top and give that to God.  And we show that we’re willing to trust God enough that, when we do God will make sure there’s enough for us.
            You know, this was not any easier for the people of Israel to do thousands of years ago than it is for us today.  When they gave God the first part of the crop they harvested, they did not know what the rest would be like.  In fact, there were all kinds of things that might happen before they even got the crop in.  It was possible that a storm would come up and wipe out the rest of their crop, just like there is for us today.  There were all kinds of things that might happen before they got the crop in.
            And it was the same with the animals.  If they gave their best animals to God, that had the potential to really hurt the herd.  They did not know if they’re next animals would be as good.  They did not know that a disease might not wipe out their herd.  There were all kinds of things that might happen.
            But they did it.  Not all of them, probably.  There were probably some who did not trust God that much.  But most of them did.  And God blessed the Nation of Israel for it.  And God will bless us, too, if we trust God enough to give to God out of our first and our best.
            But it’s hard.  I know it is.  I know what it’s like to look at a stack of bills and know I did not have the money to pay them all.  When that’s the situation, it’s hard to even think about taking ten percent of our income and giving it to God.  It’s really hard to trust God that much.  In fact, sometimes it’s hard to give God any money at all.
            So here’s what we did.  This is not my original idea--in fact, some of you have probably heard it before.  But it works.  I know it works, because it worked for us.
            At the time we started this, we were giving about one to two percent of our income to God.  And statistically, that’s about the percent that most people give.  So, what we did was say, “Okay.  For the next year, we’re going to give three percent of our income to God.  If we can make it doing that, fine.  If not, then we’ll go back to doing what we were doing.”  We were not trusting God a lot, but we decided to trust God enough to do that.
            So, for the next year, we increased our giving from one or two percent to three percent.  And God came through.  We had enough.  Not a lot extra, usually, but enough.  There were times when we wondered, times when it was tempting to cut back, but we went through the year giving three percent to God.  And it worked out.  We always had enough.
            So, the next year, we went to four percent.  We still reserved the right to cut back if it did not work out.  We still had not made a total commitment.  But we were willing to trust God a little more.  We gave four percent for the next year.  And again, God came through.  We always had enough.  Again, not usually a lot extra.  And again, there were times we were tempted to cut back.  But we kept at it.  And it worked out.  We always had enough.
            So, the next year, we went to five percent.  And the next year, six.  Now, you’d think at some point I might trust God enough to say let’s just go to ten, but I did not.  We did it a year at a time, and one percent at a time.  It took several years to get to where we were tithing.  But we did it.  And we’ve been doing it for several years now.  And God always comes through.  We always seem to have enough.  Again, not always much extra.  We still get tempted to cut back sometimes.  But somehow, it always works out.  We always have enough.
            So that’s what I’d invite you to do.  Figure out what percent of your income you’re giving to God.  And for the next year, increase it by one percent.  Trust God that much.  If it does not work, you can go back to what you’ve been doing.  But trust God that much.  Trust God enough to give God a chance.
            And if God comes through, increase by one percent more the next year.  And if God comes through again, increase by one percent more again.  Because I predict God will come through.  I’m not saying you’ll have a lot extra.  I’m not saying you won’t be tempted to cut back sometimes.  But I predict that if you stick with it, things will work out.  You’ll always have enough.
            And by the way, we’re not required to stop when we get to ten percent.  Tithing is a standard, but it’s not a cap.  It’s not a ceiling.  We’re welcome to trust God some more and go beyond that.
            But try it.  See what happens when we stop giving God our leftovers.  God deserves better than our leftovers.  God deserves our first and our best.  So let’s give try giving that to God.  Let’s trust God.  Because God always comes through.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Whose Dime Is It Anyway?

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, November 2, 2014.  The Bible verses used are 1 Chronicles 16:8-36.  If you'd like to see a video of this message, please go here.

            Today we start a new sermon series called “Give it up!”  We’re going to look at giving.
            Giving can be a sensitive subject within the church.  One of the standard criticisms of the church is “They’re always asking for money.  All they want is my money.”  Or “Well, the church must be pretty hard up.  That pastor’s talking about giving again.  The church must need money.”
            Well, no.  I mean, yes, obviously the church needs a certain amount of money to pay its bills, but that’s not why we’re having a sermon series on giving.  The church’s finances are not in bad shape.  Sure, we’d have uses for more money if we had it, but that’s not the point here.
            Because, when you look in the Bible, God does not tell us to give to the church.  You won’t find that in the Bible.  God does not say “Give to the church”.  God says “Give to God.”
            When we give an offering, it’s supposed to be an offering to God.  That’s the purpose of it.  In theory, the only reason you should write “United Methodist Church” on your check rather than “God” is that God does not have a bank account.  The money may go through the church, but it is the responsibility of the church, both the local church and the denomination as a whole, to use that money the way God wants us to.  The purpose of our offering should not be to give money to the church.  It should be to give money to God.
            But of course, that leads to another question.  Why does God want us to give?  God does not need our money, right?  After all, we’re talking about the all-powerful God here.  We’re talking about the God who, as the psalm says, owns the cattle on a thousand hills.  And God owns the hills, too, and the valleys and the plains and everything else.  Why would God need our money?
            Well, of course, God does not need our money.  We need to give our money to God.  Why?  Because our money was never our money to begin with.  Our property was never our property.  Our car was never our car.  Our house was never our house.  It all came from God.  Each and every thing we own, including our own selves, came from God.  You and I are totally dependent on God, whether we know it or not.
            Our reading from First Chronicles talked about how our relationship with God works.  It tells us to give praise to the Lord, to sing to the Lord, to glory in God’s holy name.  It tells us to look to the Lord’s strength.  It tells us to remember all the wonders and miracles God has done.  It tells us we can rely on God, because God remembers promises forever.  God saved the Nation of Israel from all kinds of powerful kings, kings Israel could never have defeated on its own.  And it tells us to give thanks to God, because everything that God does is good, and God’s love will last forever.
            And that’s why we give to God.  Because everything we have and everything we ever will have comes from God.  We need to remind ourselves of that.  And we need to thank God for it.
            Every week, as our offering is brought to the front of the sanctuary, we sing the Doxology.  “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”  There’s a reason that comes right after the offering.  Our offering is supposed to be a sign of our thanks to God.  We’ll talk about that more in the next couple of weeks, when we talk about how much we should give and what our attitude should be when we give.  But giving at all is a sign of our thanks to God.  And of course, how much we give, in relation to how much we have, is a measure of how much we’re willing to thank God.
            Singing the Doxology right after we take up our offering is a good way to remind ourselves of all that.  But when I was a kid in the Delmont United Methodist Church, there was a different song we used to sing as the offering was brought to the front of the sanctuary.  It’s a song that’s not even in the hymnal any more.  But it was in the hymnal then.  In fact, it was hymn number one hundred eighty-one.  It was called “We Give Thee But Thine Own”.  Maybe some of you remember it.  It went:
            We give thee but thine own
            Whate’er the gift may be
            All that we have is thine alone
            A trust, O Lord, from thee
            We sang that every Sunday as the offering was brought to the front of the sanctuary.  And as I think about it, I think we should’ve sung it before the offering was taken at all.  Think about the thoughts expressed in that one verse of that song.
            “We give thee but thine own.”  In other words, as we said, everything we have, everything we have ever had, and everything we ever will have, comes from God.  It all belongs to God.  When we give to God, we are simply giving back to God a part of what God has given us.  That’s true “whatever the gift may be”.  Because “all that we have is think alone--a trust, oh Lord, from thee.”
            Now, we hear that, and we nod our heads in agreement. Maybe not all of us do, but a lot of us do.  I think most of us would agree, in theory, that everything belongs to God.  We’d agree that God owns the cattle on those hills, and owns the hills themselves, and the valleys and everything else.  We’d agree that everything we have has been entrusted to us by God.  None of those thoughts are particularly new or controversial.
            So let me ask you--do we live that way?  How many of us, when we look at the things we own, think “You know, none of this belongs to me.  It all belongs to God”?  When we look at our bank statements, how many times do we think, “This really isn’t my money.  It’s God’s money.  God has just entrusted me with it”?  When we make decisions on what to spend our money on, how many of us think, “This is God’s money.  When I decide what to spend money on, I’m making a decision about what to do with God’s money”?
            My guess would be not a lot of us.  And as I so often tell you, I’m not better at this than anyone else, and probably worse than a lot of you.  I don’t think this way, either.  I believe it in theory, but I don’t very often put it into practice when I’m making decisions about what to spend my money on.
            But how different would our lives be if we did?  How many of the things we buy would we not buy if we thought this way?  How much less debt would we have if we thought this way?  How much more would we be able to give away, whether to God or to the church or to charity or just to whoever we wanted to give to, if we thought this way?
            I think it would be life-changing.  I think we’d have an entirely different way of living it we thought this way.
            Now, don’t take this the wrong way.  I’m not saying God wants everyone to take a vow of poverty and live in a hut.  I’m not going to do that, and I don’t expect anyone else to do it.  We all need decent food and clothing and shelter and transportation.  And I’m not even saying that God limits us to necessities.  I like to have fun, and I’m trying to keep anyone else from having fun.
            But I’d like to encourage us all to try something.  When we get home today, let’s take a look around our houses and look at all the stuff we have.  Let’s look at all the stuff we have that we really don’t need, or that we really don’t need as fancy of a one as we have.  Let’s look at all the stuff that we don’t use and that we have not used in years.  And let’s ask ourselves the honest question:  “Would God want me to use God’s money that way?"

           I’m not assuming what the answer is.  The answer is between you and God.  I don’t presume to speak for God.  But let’s ask the question honestly.  And let’s try to give an honest answer.
          And if--if--the answer is no, then we need to do something about that.  We need to remember that answer the next time we go to buy something.  And the time after that, and the time after that.  Every time we go to buy something, we need to ask ourselves, “Would God want me to use God’s money this way?”  And we need to be willing to abide by the answer, whatever it is.
            If we do, I suspect some things will change.  Because we’ll realize that everything we have already belongs to God.  We have just been given the care of it for a short while, for whatever our time is here on earth.  And we need to use it wisely and give as much of it as we can back to God.
            You only give your money or your property to someone you trust.  When God put us in charge of God’s money and God’s property, God was showing that God trusts us.  So let’s be worthy of that trust.  Let’s use our money the way God wants us to and let’s give as much of it as we can back to God.  When we do, we’ll be closer to being the people God wants us to be.