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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Get Ready

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 1, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 24:3-44.
            We’re in the second week of our sermon series “The End of Time”, looking at what the Bible has to say about the end times.  One of the things the Bible says is that before the end, Jesus will come again.  So today, we’re going to look at what Jesus himself had to say about the end.
            It’s interesting, I think, that Jesus did not volunteer any information about this.  But when the disciples asked him about it, he answered their questions.
            Well, kind of.  You may have noticed this, but Jesus rarely gave direct answers to questions.  It’s kind of funny, you know.  Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” but Jesus almost never answered questions with yes or no.  He always went the long way around.  And that’s what he did here.
            The first thing Jesus told the disciples was to be careful.  Lots of people are going to claim to be the Messiah.  Lots of people are going to be fooled.  And then he says this:  “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.”
            I think that’s a good message for us right there.  Because we’re hearing of wars and rumors of wars now.  It’s not the first time, of course.  If you look at world history, the one constant seems to be that there have always been lots of wars.  That’s true in the history of the United States, too.  But Jesus says we don’t need to be alarmed by that.  He says, “such things must happen.”
            He does not tell us why such things must happen.  We wish they did not.  But apparently they do.  Lots of other things will happen, too.  Nation will rise against nation.  There will be famines and earthquakes.  Remember last week, we looked at the prophecy in the book of Daniel and it said there will be a time of distress such as has not happened since the beginning of nations?  Sounds like this might be part of that distress.
            And Jesus says that’s just the beginning.  Christians will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death and hated for their faith.  Many will turn away from the faith.  And false prophets will arise.  Lots of false prophets will arise.  And some of them will perform great signs and wonders.  Jesus warns us not to be fooled by them.
            And you know, we should not be.  Because here’s how Jesus said we’re going to know that Jesus has truly returned.  He said, “Immediately after the distress of these days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.  At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the peoples of the earth will mourn.  They will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.  And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call.”
            People who study theology differ on just how literally we’re supposed to take that, and I’m not claiming I know the answer.  But what does seem clear to me is that, when Jesus truly does come again, there will be no mistake about it.  It’s not going to be like Jesus’ first coming, when he was born in a stable with just his parents and a few shepherds and wise men knowing what was going on.  When Jesus comes again, everyone’s going to know about it.  It’s going to be obvious to everyone.
            But we’re not going to get much advance notice.  When Jesus comes, he’s going to come suddenly.  We’re not going to get a countdown clock.  God is not going to take out ads that say “only twenty-four shopping days until the second coming”.  He tells us it’s going to be just like what happened in the days of Noah.  People were just going around, living their lives, and all of a sudden it started raining and by the time anyone knew what was going on, it was too late.  That’s how it’s going to be again.  We’ll be going around, living our lives, and all of a sudden there Jesus will be.  And by the time we know what’s going on, it’ll be too late.
            That is, it’ll be too late unless we’re ready.  So, we need to be ready.  We need to be ready all the time.  And that’s true no matter how much we try to look for the signs, because Jesus said, “the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
            And maybe that’s the point.  Maybe that’s why God does not let us know when the day or hour will be.  Because if we knew, a lot of people would be tempted to rely on that, right?  If we knew Jesus would come on March 23, 2037, people would be tempted to say, well, no need to get ready now, is there?  We can wait.  We’ve got plenty of time.  No hurry.  I can do what I want.  When it gets a little closer, then I’ll straighten out, but right now, I’ll just do whatever I feel like.
            Of course, it doesn’t work that way.  We don’t know when Jesus will come.  As I said last week, it could be thousands of years from now or it could be before we finish the service today.  We have no way to know.  So, as Jesus said, we need to be ready all the time.  But what does that mean?  What do we do to be ready?
            Jesus told us.  We need to stay faithful.  We need to stay faithful to God.  Jesus said, “Whoever stands firm to the end will be saved.”  That was in the prophecy from Daniel, too, and Jesus confirms it.  If we have faith in God, if we put our trust in God, and we don’t lose that faith, we’ll be okay.  We’ll be ready.  And we’ll be saved.
            But it will not be easy.  That’s one thing about growing up in the United States the way we have.  We have the freedom to do what we’re doing now.  We have the freedom to get together and worship God.  We have the freedom to talk to people about our faith.  We have the freedom to let everyone know that we are Christians.  And usually, there are very few if any negative consequences for us when we do that.  In fact, around here, people usually respond positively to it.  For example, when people find out I’m a Christian pastor, nobody gets upset with me.  In fact, people are mostly positive about that.  And so, it’s easy for me and all of us to start thinking that publicly being a Christian is a pretty easy thing to do.
            But it’s not always going to be that way.  The closer we get to the end, the harder it’s going to be.  Listen again to what Jesus said:  “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.  At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.”  It may be easy for us to publicly be Christians now, but it’s not going to be then.
            That’s why we need to be ready.  We need to be ready so we can stand firm when these things happen.
            We’ve seen examples of people who are.  If you’ve been watching the news, you’ve seen stories of people who’ve been captured by the ISIS terrorists.  They’ve been tortured and killed for no reason other than that they are Christians.  It has to be really tempting, when you’re threatened with death, to turn away from your faith.  It has to be really tempting to go along with the terrorists just to save your life.  And yet, we’ve seen people not do that.  We’ve seen people who stood firm to the end.  And I have no doubt that they were saved.
            So we need to be ready.  We need to be ready to stay faithful no matter what happens.  We need to be ready to stay faithful until the end, even in the face of persecution and hatred and death.
            Can we do it?  Can I do it?  I don’t know.  I don’t know that it’s possible to know until we’re actually tested.  But we still need to do all we can to be as ready as possible.
            How do we do that?  The best way I know to do it is to stay as close to God as possible.  Pray.  Read the Bible.  Love your neighbor.  Do whatever we can to be as close to God as we can.  Invite God to be part of our lives every day, in everything we do.  If we feel close to God, if we have God a part of everything we do each day, we’re a lot more likely to stay close to God when the time of testing comes.
            It’s not going to be easy.  Lots of bad things are going to happen.  But remember, God is on our side.  God wants us to be able to do this.  God wants us to stand firm in our faith.  If we stay close to God, God will help us.  And then, when the end comes, we’ll be ready.  And we’ll be able to stand firm, all the way to the end.

Friday, February 27, 2015


I’m writing this on the day before Presidents’ Day.  That’s the day where the president comes out of the White House, and if he sees his shadow we get six more weeks of winter.  Or something.

The way we view presidents, and all public officials, seems to have changed a lot since I was young.  Or maybe it’s me who’s changed, I don’t know.  But it seems like when I was a kid, we looked up to presidents.  Any president, of any party.  We looked up to senators and congressmen and governors, too, regardless of party.  It was not just that they were powerful, important people.  They were considered good people, public servants, people who were dedicated to doing their best to make the country great.  We knew they were human beings, and we disagreed with them sometimes, but we still all believed that they were good people who had the best interests of the country at heart.

Were they, really?  I don’t know.  Probably some were and probably some weren’t.  Probably pretty much like today, really.  But it seems like we don’t see them that way any more.  More and more, we assume the worst of public officials, rather than assuming the best.

I think one of the reasons our perception of them has changed, and the reason it changes as we get older, is that we’ve been let down too many times.  We put our faith and trust in politicians only to find that they weren’t worthy of that faith and trust.  And so, eventually, we start to assume that no politician is worthy of it.  And it does not just happen with politicians.  It can happen with anyone.  It can happen with friends and family members.  It can even be that we feel let down by the church.  And sometimes, after we’ve been let down enough times, we decide that we cannot trust anyone. 

That’s sad.  It’s a hard way to go through life, believing there’s no one we can trust.  We need each other.  We need to help each other.  We need to be there for each other.  But the only way we can do that is if we allow ourselves to take the risk of being let down.  The only way we can do that is if we take a chance and trust each other.

Everyone will let us down at some point, because we’re human.  But we still need to trust each other.  We still need to reach out to each other.  I know it’s hard when we feel we’ve been let down.  But we still need to try.  Because we’re all connected to each other.  We’re all brothers and sisters.  We’re all God’s children.

Give people another chance.  And give the church another chance, too.  We’re not perfect, but we really are trying to do our best.  If we’ve let you down, we ask for your forgiveness and we ask that you give us another chance.  No one can get through life alone, not happily, anyway.  We need to be there for each other.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What's Going On?

This is the message from the Wednesday Lent service in the Gettysburg United Methodist Church on February 25, 2014.  The Bible verses used are John 11:45-12:11.

            One of the things about Lent and about Easter is that, a lot of times, we feel like we’ve heard the story before.  We may not remember all the details, but we know the general outlines.  Even if we don’t feel like we know that much about the Bible, we know that Jesus was arrested, that he died on a cross, and that he rose from the dead on the third day. 
And so, when we come to Lent services or a Maundy Thursday service or a Good Friday service or even an Easter Sunday services, we kind of know how things are going to go.  We still like the story, and we still want and need to hear it.  But it starts to lose its impact, because we know how it ends.  It’s like seeing a favorite movie or reading a favorite book.  We still like it, but it does not make the same impact on us that it would if we did not know how it was going to come out.
So for these Wednesday Lent services, let’s take a new look at the last days of Jesus’ life.  Let’s pretend we don’t know how the story comes out.  Let’s try to put ourselves in the story in some way, seeing what the people then saw and feeling what the people then felt.
Where our story starts today is right after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead.  Lots of people are putting faith in Jesus, and the Pharisees are worried.  A meeting is called of the Sanhedrin, which was the leading religious council in Israel.  They’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do about this Jesus guy.
I think the reaction of the Sanhedrin is interesting.  We tend to think that they were just mad at Jesus because he was making them look bad.  He was upsetting the apple cart.  We tend to think the Pharisees had personal reasons for wanting Jesus killed.
And maybe some of them did, but that’s not what John tells us.  Here’s why John tells us the Pharisees want Jesus killed.  He quotes the Pharisees as saying, “If we let Jesus go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
You see at this time, as you may know, Israel was part of the Roman Empire.  That’s why we hear about King Herod.  Herod was in control of Israel for the Roman Empire.  Now, Rome did not care that much about the people of Israel as people.  They just wanted to make sure they stayed in control and that taxes were paid like they were supposed to be.  The Jewish people could do whatever they wanted, as long as they did not cause trouble and as long as they paid their taxes.
But that’s why the Pharisees were so scared of Jesus.  They heard him referred to as the King, and thought he was going to try to be an earthly king, someone who was going to try to break Israel away from Rome and make it an independent country.  And even if they did not think Jesus wanted to be an earthly king, they thought the people might very well try to make him one.
And while the Pharisees were not opposed to an independent Israel in theory, they did not think there was any chance it could actually happen.  Israel had tried to break free from Rome about a hundred years earlier.  They achieved some independence for a while, but then Rome came and crushed them.  And Israel was weaker now than it had been then, while Rome was stronger.  They thought if Jesus led a rebellion, they’d be crushed again.  And this time, Rome might take away everything:  their religion, their national identity, everything.
That’s why the high priest, Caiaphas, said what he did.  He said it was better for one man, Jesus, to die for the people than it was for the whole nation to perish.  He thought the only way for the nation to survive was for Jesus to be killed.
But they had a problem.  The Pharisees did not know where Jesus was or when they’d find him.  They knew the Passover was coming, and Jewish people were supposed to go to Jerusalem for it, but would Jesus come, under these circumstances?  They did not know.  All they could do was wait and watch.
Jesus knew what was going on.  For a while, he hid out in Ephraim with the disciples.  But he knew he was going to Jerusalem for the Passover.  He first went to Bethany, where Lazarus lived.  Mary, Martha’s sister, poured expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet.  Jesus said this was to prepare Jesus for burial.  We’re also told that a big crowd came, not just to see Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, because Jesus had raised him from the dead.  So the Pharisees decided they needed to kill Lazarus, too.  We’re not told if the Pharisees ever carried out that part of the plan.
            The interesting thing--well, there are a lot of interesting things, but the interesting thing I want to point out tonight--is that the only one who knew what was really going on in this story was Jesus. The Pharisees did not know what was going on.  They thought Jesus was going to become an earthly king and start an earthly revolution that could destroy Israel.  The disciples did not know what was going on.  In fact, we’re not told that they had any clue that anything was going on.  Mary did not know what was going on.  Jesus said that she was preparing him for burial, but we’re not given any indication that Mary knew that was what she was doing.  None of the people involved in this story knew what was going on or why they were doing what they were doing.  And yet, somehow, God used all of them to make all the events of the Easter story happen exactly the way they were supposed to happen.
            And I think that’s one of the most remarkable things about this story.  And it gives me hope.  Because there are so many times now when it seems like no one really knows what’s going on.  Our leaders--whether we’re talking about religious leaders or political leaders or business leaders or any other kind of leaders--really don’t know what’s going on, even if sometimes they think they do.  The common, ordinary people really don’t know what’s going on.  Even the followers of Jesus really don’t know what’s going on.
            And yet, somehow, God is using all of us to make all the events in the world happen exactly the way they’re supposed to happen.  Is it hard to believe that?  Yeah, sometimes it is.  There are so many things happening that don’t seem right.  There are so many things that make us wonder where God is.  There are so many things that make us wonder why God allows things to be the way they are, that make us wonder if God really cares and if God really loves us.  It’s hard to believe that, somehow, God is using all this to make things happen the way they’re supposed to happen.
            That’s why we need to put ourselves in these stories.  Because the people we’re reading about felt the exact same way.  The Pharisees did not believe that what Jesus was doing was part of God’s plan.  They thought they had to stop him for the survival of their nation.  And when we talk about Jesus’ death later in this sermon series, we’ll see that no one thought that could be part of God’s plan.  The disciples did not.  In fact, when Jesus started talking about his death to the disciples, Peter told him to shut up, that he should not talk that way.  The crowds did not.  They thought this was the guy who was going to lead them to freedom and independence from Rome.
            Nobody knew what was going on.  And yet, God used it all to make the story come out exactly the way it was supposed to.
            God is doing the same thing now.  God is doing that for the world.  God is doing that for the country.  And God is doing that in our personal lives, too.
            Because we feel that way in our own lives sometimes.  I do.  Don’t you?  I think most of us do, at least sometimes.  We have times when we feel like we don’t know what’s going on or how it could possibly be God’s plan.  We feel like nobody else does, either.  And yet, if we just trust God, God will use all the things that are going on in our lives to make our stories come out the way they’re supposed to come out, too.
            You and I may not know what’s going on.  Maybe there’s nobody who knows what’s going on.  But God knows.  And if we just keep trusting God, God will use all the things that are happening to make things come out the way they’re supposed to.  God will do that for the world.  God will do it for the country.  And God will do it for you and for me.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Go Your Way

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish Sunday, February 22, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Daniel 12:1-13.

            Today we start a new sermon series.  It’s called “The End of Time”.  We’re going to look at what the Bible has to say about the time when everything, even time itself, comes to an end.
            And just that, in and of itself, is a hard concept for us to grasp.  How can time come to an end?  How can there be something that comes after time?  For that matter, how can there have been something before time?
            It’s something that really does not make sense to us.  Time is one of the few things we can take for granted in our lives.  For every event, there’s something that came before and there’s something that will come after.  How can there be a time when there is no time?  We cannot even really say it properly, much less understand it.
            But the Bible tells us it’s true.  In the first chapter of Genesis, we’re told that God created light, God saw that it was good, God separated the light from the darkness, and there was evening, and there was morning.  The first day.  So God existed before the first day.  God existed before there was such a thing as a day.  God existed before time itself.  God created time--days and hours and minutes and all the rest.  And if God existed before time, it follows that God will exist after time.
            As we start this sermon series, “The End of Time”, I need to tell you that the whole subject of the end times is not one that I feel very comfortable with.  I certainly don’t feel like I’m any kind of an expert about it.  I don’t know that I’m an expert on anything, but to the extent that I am an expert on something, the end times is not it.  There are probably some of you who know more about it than I do.  I’ve always looked at Jesus’ statement--which we’ll talk about next week--that no one knows the day or the hour at which the end will come and just left it at that.  Maybe you have, too.
            But that’s not a good thing for me to do.  Because the Bible does talk about the end times.  It does so in several places, going back before the birth of Jesus.  Ignoring those places is laziness on my part.  It’s just a way of not dealing with a subject that makes me uncomfortable.  The passages that talk about the end times are in the Bible for reasons.  There are things we’re supposed to learn from them.
            So, we’re going to talk about some of them, and maybe we’ll all learn together.  The first passage we’re going to talk about comes from the book of Daniel.
            The passage we read today is part of a vision that the prophet Daniel had.  The vision tells of mighty kings, the king of the north and the king of the south, who are going to fight a huge battle with large armies.  Lots of people are going to die.  Lots of countries are going to be destroyed.
            But, in the passage we read for today, Daniel is told that there will be someone who protects God’s people.  Michael, the great prince, is going to be there.  There’s going to be a time of distress like the world has never seen before. 
This passage does not talk about exactly what that time of distress will be like.  It might be war, either the war that Daniel was told about or some different war.  Or it could be something else.  It could be some sort of ruthless dictatorship or police state.  It could be some sort of assault on Christianity.  We don’t know what it will be.  The passage does not say. 
But what the passage does say is that God’s people, the people whose names are written in what’s referred to as the Book of Truth, will be delivered.  Both people who are still living and people who have already died will be delivered.  We’re told that “those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the star for ever and ever.”
            That implies, of course, a day of judgment.  There are those who are wise.  In this context, “wise” does not mean smart; wise means those who have faith in God and put their trust in God.  They have their names entered into the Book of Truth and are saved.  Presumably, then, there are some who are not wise, who don’t have faith in God and don’t put their trust in God.  They don’t have their names entered into the Book of Truth.  What happens to them? 
Well, the passage does not say they will go to hell, at least not in Daniel.  What it says is they will awaken to “shame and everlasting contempt”. 
            On the other hand, maybe that would be a form of hell.  To live in constant shame.  To be held in everlasting contempt.  Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever felt completely and totally ashamed of who you are?  Have you ever felt like you were held in total contempt by everyone around you?  That might be a form of hell, I think.  To have everyone look down on me, to have everyone think I was worthless, to have everyone treat me like my existence was just a waste of space and oxygen, to have there be no one who considered me to be a worthwhile or good or even useful person.  That might very well feel like hell.
            So, getting back to the questions I asked a little bit ago, why is this passage in the Bible?  What are we supposed to learn from it?
            Well, here’s what I take from it.  At the end of the passage, Daniel asks what the outcome of all this is going to be.  Here’s part of what he’s told, “Go your way...The words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end.  Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked...Go your way till the end.  You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”
            So what’s that mean?  I think what it means is that, if we’re among the wise, if we’re among the ones who put our faith and trust in God, then we really don’t have to worry too much about all this.  God will protect us.  God will be there for us.  God will deliver us.
            We don’t know when the events of the end are going to take place.  Daniel asked about that, and he was told “It will be for a time, times and half a time.”  And Daniel went, “Huh?”  Well, what he actually said is, “I heard, but I did not understand.”  And we can sympathize with him.  At least, I can.  Some people look at current events and say maybe we’re in the end times now.  I don’t know.  I suppose we could be.  Daniel did not know when the end would come.  Jesus, when he was on earth, did not know when it would come.  It could be thousands of years from now.  It could be before I finish the message today.  There’s no way to know.
            But what we do know is that, if we put our faith and trust in God, we’ll be okay.  We’ll be covered.  We’ll have our names entered into the Book of Truth. 
            You know, so many times, when the end times come up, we look at them fearfully.  We focus on the time of distress.  We look at all the terrible things that are supposed to happen, and we get scared of it all.
            But what this passage tells us is that we don’t need to be scared.  Yes, there will be terrible things that happen.  Pretty much all the Bible passages that deal with the end times agree on that point.  The book of Daniel tells us that there will be distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations.  And our earthly lives will be affected by that distress.  We will not be exempt from it.
            But we will be delivered from it.  The time of distress will affect our earthly lives, but it will not affect our eternal lives.  If we put our faith in God, if we trust God, God will deliver us.  We can do what Daniel is told to do.  We can go our way.  And when the time comes, we will rise to receive our allotted inheritance.
            We don’t know when the end times will come.  We don’t know exactly what the distress in the world will be.  But we know that God will be involved in it.  God will create the end, just as God created the beginning.  And if we put our faith and trust in God, we don’t need to be afraid of it.  We can be at peace.  We can go our way, secure in the knowledge that God will deliver us.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Doing the Impossible

This is the Ash Wednesday message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 19:16-26.

            Most of you know I used to be a lawyer.  As a lawyer, of course, I’d occasionally be in trials and question witnesses.  When you’re a witness, and you get sworn in, what do they always ask you?  “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

            I never had anyone say no.  I’m not sure what would happen if someone did.  I suppose they would not be allowed to testify.  But the thing is that, if we’re honest, all of us would answer no.

            I don’t mean to imply that we’re all a bunch of liars.  I think most of us do our best to tell the truth.  But it’s very rare that we actually know the whole truth.  And it’s even rarer that we know the whole truth about ourselves.  And it’s rarer still when we’re able to admit that whole truth about ourselves.

            Here’s what I mean.  Most of us like to think we’re pretty good people.  Not that we’re the best people ever, not that we’re saints or anything, but we like to think we’re doing okay.  Or at least, we like to think we’re doing the best we can.  And we like to think that what we’re doing is good enough.

            But is that really true?  Are you and I really doing the best we can?  Is what we’re doing really good enough?  Maybe—I’m not here to judge you.  You’ll have to make that judgment for yourself.  But if I’m honest with myself, I very much doubt that I’m really doing the best we can.  I could do better.  I suspect almost all of us could do better.  And if I admit that I could do better, then it gets pretty hard to believe that what I’m doing is really good enough.

            But I don’t like to think about that.  And so I don’t.  Maybe you don’t, either.  I don’t think very many of us do.  It makes me uncomfortable to think about that.  It makes me feel bad.  It makes me feel inferior.  And so I push that thought out of my mind.  Maybe you do, too.

            But deep down, I know that it’s true.  Deep down, most of us know it’s true.  And that knowledge eats away at us.  It sneaks through our defenses and comes into our minds when we least expect it.  It’s the thing that keeps us up at night.  It’s the thing that makes us feel down for no particular reason.  It’s the thing that keeps us from being truly and completely happy even when things are going well.  We try so hard to push it out of our minds, but we never can quite succeed.  We know we’re not who we should be, and we know that what we’re doing really is not good enough.

            And that brings me to our Bible reading for tonight.  A man comes up to Jesus.  He was not a bad man.  In fact, as far as we can tell, he was a good man.  He was someone who probably tried to tell himself that he was doing the best he could.  And he probably tried to tell himself that what he was doing was good enough.

            But it was not working.  Deep down he knew it was not true.  And that knowledge was eating away at him, just like it eats away at us.  So finally, he decided to ask Jesus about it.  He asks Jesus, in effect, I know I’m not good enough, so how can I become good enough?

            Jesus first tells him to keep God’s commandments, but that does not satisfy this man.  And if we think about it, and put ourselves in his place, we can understand why.  If we were able to admit how far short we fall, and we asked how to get better, and we were told, “Don’t break the law”, that would not be a satisfying answer.  Most of us don’t break the law, other than maybe speeding or something.  And some of us don’t even do that.  Obeying the law may be a good starting point, but we know that there has to be more to becoming better than just “Don’t break the law.”

            This man knew it, too.  So when Jesus told him to keep God’s commandments, he says, yeah, yeah, I know all that.  I’ve been keeping the commandments.  But I know that’s not enough.  There has to be more to it than that.  What is it?  What more do I have to do to become good enough?

            Jesus told him.  Jesus said he needed to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.  The man walked away sad.  And Jesus, talking to the disciples, indicates that he knew he was telling this man to do something that he would not be able to do.  He would not be able to do something that would make him good enough.  In fact, Jesus said it would be impossible.

            And as we come to another Ash Wednesday, I think that’s the position a lot of us are in.  We know that what we’ve been doing is not good enough.  We know we need to do something more.  But when we really come face to face with it, we realize that what we will not be able to do what we need to do to make ourselves good enough.  In fact, it will be impossible.

            It will be impossible for us.  But it will not be impossible for God.  And that’s the main thing for us to take away from this story tonight.

            You see, you and I don’t need to keep lying to ourselves.  We can admit who we really are.  We can admit that we’re not really doing the best we can.  We can admit that what we’re doing is not good enough.

            We can do that without beating ourselves up for it.  We can do that without making ourselves uncomfortable.  We can do it without making ourselves feel inferior.  Because we’re in the position of the man who talked to Jesus.  No matter what we do, we will never be good enough.  It is not possible for us to be good enough.  Because, as Jesus told the man, there is only One who is good.  Only God.  And you and I are not and never will be good in the way God is.  Jesus said it would be impossible for us to do that.  And we do not have to feel ashamed when we cannot do the impossible.

            So does that mean that we really are okay?  Does that mean we don’t need to try to get any better?  Does that mean we can just go on the way we are, doing what we do, and just forget about the fact that we fall short of who we could be and should be?

            Well, you’d probably be pretty surprised if I said yes.  That’s not what Jesus told the man in our story.  Jesus did not say “Don’t try to get any better, just go on the way you are and keep doing what you do.”

            Because while Jesus said it would be impossible for us to be good in the way God is, Jesus said something else.  He said, “With God, all things are possible.”  And that, really, is the message for tonight.

            We cannot and never will be able to make ourselves good enough.  But God can.  God can take us the way we are, as far short as we fall, and make us good enough because of God’s goodness and love and grace and mercy.

            How does that work?  Well, one of the ways it works is through what we’re going to do here tonight.  It starts with a decision to go to God.  And when we go to God, we need to confess our sins.  Now, “confess our sins” is one of those churchy phrases, but what we’re really doing is going to God and admitting all the times we’ve messed up.  We admit all the times when we were not good enough.  Sometimes it’s by things we did that we should not have done or things we said that we should not have said.  Sometimes it’s by things we should’ve done but did not do or things we should’ve said that we did not say.  Sometimes its by our attitude, regardless of what we did or said.   But in all of it, we admit what we already know deep down:  that we are a long way from being the people we should be and could be.  That we are a long way from being the people God wants us to be.

            That’s one of the things the ashes are about.  They’re a sign of mourning.  They’re a sign of sadness for all the times we’ve failed God.

            But we don’t stop there.  We then ask God for forgiveness.  We ask God to forgive us for all those times we’ve messed up.  We ask God to forgive us for all those times we were not good enough.  We ask God to forgive us for all being so far away from being the people we should be and could be and from being the people God wants us to be.

            Those are both good things to do.  Confession and asking forgiveness are very important.  But they’re not enough.  We then need to repent.  We need to ask God to come into our lives and make us different people, better people.  We need to ask God to come into our hearts and take control of our lives so we can be the people God wants us to be.  We still won’t be perfect--our human nature will keep trying to take that control back from God--but if we’re sincere and open our hearts to God, God will work with us so that we can be a lot closer to being the people God wants us to be.

            Our Bible reading tells us that the man Jesus was talking to turned away.  We’re not told what happened to him after that.  I’d like to think that maybe, at some point, what Jesus told him sunk in.  I’d like to think that maybe, possibly, there came a time when the man did confess, ask for forgiveness, repent, and give his life to God.  Does the Bible say he did?  No.  But it’s possible.

            Because again, with God, all things are possible.  They’re possible for the man Jesus was talking to.  They’re possible for you.  And they’re possible for me.

            So now, let’s take that first step.  Let’s confess our sins to God.  Let’s pray.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Giving It Up

This article first appeared in the February, 2015 edition of the Wheatland Parish newsletter.

            Ash Wednesday is February 18.  That means that we have once again come to the season of Lent.

            I’ve said this before, but I’ve never really gotten into the whole “give up something for Lent” deal.  Maybe that’s a lousy thing for a pastor to admit, but it’s the truth.  I’ve just never seen the point of it.  I know it’s supposed to bring us closer to God, and I know it’s supposed to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus made for us.  If it does that for you, that’s great.  I’m certainly not criticizing people who give up things for Lent.  Anything that brings us closer to God is all for the good.

            It’s just never done that for me.  Anything I might give up seems so far removed from the sacrifice that Jesus made for us as to make the comparison ludicrous.  Jesus gave up his earthly life in a very painful way, I give up Diet Coke for several weeks.  It seems to me like an insult to the Lord to suggest that the one has anything at all to do with the other.

            So, as many of you know, last year I did something to try to give it a point.  I gave up Diet Coke, but I took the money I saved by not drinking Diet Coke and put it toward a local project in each of our churches.  I also challenged each of you to do something similar:  give up something and give the money saved toward a local project.  In Gettysburg, we chose the addition to the church.  In Onida, it was the swimming pool project.  In Agar, it was the local fire department.

            With Lent on the horizon, I’m going to do it again.  I’m again going to give up Diet Coke and put the money saved toward a local project.  And again, I’m challenging you to do the same, but with a twist.  If you want to give up something and put them toward the chosen project, that’s great.  That’s what I’d really prefer you to do.  But if you choose not to give anything up, you can still participate by pledging to match whatever money I save from not drinking Diet Coke.

            In Gettysburg, we’ll again put the money toward the church addition.  It has not yet been determined, at this writing, where the money will go in Onida or Agar.  We’ll let you know once we decide.

            In one other change from last year, I’m going to pass around a sign-up sheet where you can, if you choose, agree to participate in this and indicate whether you are going to give something up yourself or simply match whatever money I save.  You can, if you choose, participate without signing up.  Some people like to keep private that they are giving something up for Lent.  I understand that, and I respect that. 

The reason for the sign-up sheet is really the same reason I choose to make what I’m giving up public:  accountability.  If I don’t tell anyone that I’ve given up Diet Coke for Lent, I can sneak one in once in a while and no one will know.  But if I make a big deal out of giving up Diet Coke, I know people will be watching me.  I know that if I buy one at the ball game, or at a convenience store, or even at the grocery store, people are going to notice.  They’re going to call me out on it.  Knowing that helps me not cheat.  It keeps me from being led into temptation, you might say.  And it might help you that way, too.

So let’s give something up for Lent, and let’s give the money we save toward a good cause.  Will that make us feel closer to God?  I don’t know.  It will, at the least, do something good.  And who knows?   Sometimes, doing good is one of the ways we can feel closer to God.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What's Love Got to Do With it?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish Sunday, February 15, 2015.  The Bible verses are Exodus 20:1-21.

            Today we end our sermon series, “Holy Moses”, with one of the most famous passages in the Bible.  God gives Moses, and all of us, the Ten Commandments.

            It’s interesting to note how all this came about.  We’re told earlier, in chapter nineteen, that God has descended to the top of Mount Sinai and has called Moses to come up.  The rest of the people did not come up.  They stayed behind, some distance from the mountain.  We’re told that they saw thunder and lightning.  They heard the sound of a trumpet and saw smoke.

            And they were scared to death.  They had no desire to go up on that mountain and talk to God.  They were terrified of God.  It says, “They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen.  But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

           And Moses said, “God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

            That phrase, “the fear of God”, comes up over and over again in the Old Testament.  And as I think about it, I think it explains to me something that I’ve noticed about the Ten Commandments.  And maybe you’ve noticed it, too.

           Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  But you know what?  Those don’t appear in the Ten Commandments.  They’re not there.  The closest we come is in the third commandment, the one about not making images, where we’re told that God will show love to those who love God and keep God’s commandments.  But even there, the commandment is not to love.  The commandment is to not make images.  The love talked about there is not love as an emotion or as a feeling.  The love talked about there is simply obedience.

            Now don’t get me wrong.  This is not in any way a criticism of the Ten Commandments.  I have absolutely no standing whatsoever to tell God that there’s anything in any way wrong with the Ten Commandments.  The Ten Commandments are perfectly fine just the way they are.

            But the question is, why are they that way?  Why did God not include love, either love of God or love of others, in the Ten Commandments when Jesus said those are the two most important commandments of all?  Did God change?

           Well, no.  We’re told in the letter to the Hebrews that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and I’m not challenging that a bit.  God has not changed.  But what has changed is the people God was talking to.

            Today, most Christians are used to the idea of God loving us.  Not only that, but we’re used to the idea of God loving us as individuals.  We’re used to the idea that God knows each of us by name and knows everything about us.  We’re used to the idea that God loves us and that we should feel love toward God.

            But it was not always that way.  Now, we don’t know just when the events described in Exodus took place, but it was probably more than a thousand years before the birth of Christ.  And people had a different way of understanding God back then.  Not just the Jewish people, but all people.  Lots of societies had more than one god.  Lots of societies worshipped gods who were totally arbitrary.  Lots of societies worshipped gods who might kill you or might bless you, and you had no idea which it might be from one day to the next.

            The idea of a loving God, a God who loved people as individuals, was a completely foreign concept at this time.  I mean, God might possibly love someone like Moses, someone who was great and was constantly in the presence of God.  But God certainly would not love average, ordinary, individual people.  That idea just did not make sense to them.  And the idea that average, ordinary, individual people should love God in an emotional way was a completely foreign concept to them as well. 

            In fact, it was seen almost as an insult to God to suggest that God might love us as individuals or that we should feel an emotional love for God.  God was too far beyond us to want to know us as individuals.  God was too far above us to want or need our love.  God was powerful beyond our ability to understand.  God was too great and too awesome to take any notice of us as individuals at all.

            We were not supposed to love God and it was silly to think that God would want to get to know us.  We just needed to obey God.  We just needed to do what God wanted us to do.  And then, maybe, hopefully, God would show favor to us rather than killing us or allowing us to be killed.  That was the best they could hope for:  that God would show favor to them because of their obedience.
         And what was the best way to get that obedience?  Fear.  “The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”  If you don’t obey God, God’s gonna get you.  So you better toe the mark.  You better walk the line.  You better follow God’s commandments, not because you love God so much, but because you want God to be pleased with you and show you favor.  And especially because you do not want God to get mad at you and strike you down.

            That concept does not work for us today, but it worked for people back then.  And that’s one of the reasons the Ten Commandments are the way they are.  If Moses had come down from the mountain and told people that God loved them as individuals and that they should feel emotional love for God, they would’ve thought there was something wrong with Moses.  They’d have thought he’d been up in the mountains too long and lost his mind.  The idea that the great and powerful and awesome and righteous and holy and perfect God would love us as individuals, and would care whether we loved him, just did not make sense to them.  People at that time could understand a fearsome, powerful God.  They could not understand a loving God.

            And sometimes we cannot understand a loving God, either.  We say we do, and in some sense we do.  But sometimes we wonder.  Don’t you?  Especially when we mess up.  I mean, I’m not just talking about the little mistakes we all make every single day.  But sometimes, life has a way of showing us just how flawed and weak and imperfect and sinful we are.  And when that happens, when we have one of those moments when we have to come face to face with just exactly who we are and just exactly who God is, and when we see the tremendous difference between the two, it’s really easy for us to think “How can God, a God who is greater and so far beyond anything I could ever be, how can that God love me?  In fact, why should that God care about me at all?”

           It would not have made sense to the people of Israel in Moses’ time.  That’s one of the reasons the Ten Commandments, as great as they are, don’t talk about love.  And in fact, it did not make a lot of sense to the people of Israel in Jesus’ time, either.  We’ve talked before about how the Pharisees had all these rules for people to follow.  If you followed the rules, you got on God’s good side and God blessed you.  It did not matter whether you felt any love for God.  It did not matter what your attitude was at all.  It did not matter what you thought about the rules.  It just mattered that you followed them.

           That’s one of the reasons Jesus came to earth--to show God’s love to us.  Jesus told us about God’s love lots of times.  And a few people understood it from what Jesus said, but most people did not.  Jesus showed God’s love through his healing lots of times, too.  And a few people understood it from that, but most people did not.  But then, Jesus was arrested.  And he was tortured.  And he went to the cross.  And he was killed.  And through all of that, he kept showing people God’s love.  He even prayed on the cross that God would forgive the people who were killing him.

           And then, people got it.  People finally understood that God did love them as individuals.  And people finally felt love, emotional love, for God.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him shall not die, but shall have eternal life.”  People heard Jesus say that, but when they saw him die on the cross, they actually understood it.
          Not everyone, of course.  Not everyone then, and not everyone now.  And that’s where we come into the picture.  We need to understand how much God loves us.  And we need to do the work of Jesus.  We cannot do it as well as Jesus, of course.  But we need to do it as well as we can.  We need to show God’s love to people every time we can, as well as we possibly can.

            The Ten Commandments are awesome.  We cannot go wrong by following them.  But to truly call ourselves Christians, we have to also follow Jesus’ two commandments.  We need to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, and we need to love our neighbors as ourselves.  God does not want us to live our lives in fear.  God wants us to live our lives in love.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reaching Out

We had an open house at the parsonage last month.  We invited everyone from the parish over for coffee and cookies.  We gave them a tour of the parsonage, we had some football on TV, and we visited about anything and everything.  It was a fun time.

One of the things that gets hard, as we get older, is maintaining contact with people.  That’s especially true when we lose the ability to get out on our own.  I see that in my parents.  Dad still drives, but not very much.  Mom doesn’t drive at all.  So, keeping in contact with people becomes difficult.  They don’t see people very often unless someone comes to visit, and that doesn’t happen nearly as often as they would like.  Maybe it’s the same for you.

There are two things about that.  One is that all of us need to do a better job of visiting people who can’t get out much.  We can always make excuses, but the excuses are usually just that.  And I’m not pointing fingers here.  I need to do a better job of it, too.  It’s something we need to make more of an effort to focus on.

But the other thing is that, if you are someone who can’t get out much, there are ways you can reach out to maintain that contact.  Make some phone calls.  Write some letters.  Or if you don’t think you have enough to say for a letter, send a post card.  If you have a computer, send out some emails.  Use facebook.  If you have a smart phone, send some texts.  Invite people over to see you.

Is that easier to say than to do?  Of course it is.  It’s always easy to tell someone what they should do, especially when, in this case, I’ve never been in that situation.  But the point is that, when we’re in a situation we don’t like much, we need to be proactive.  As I’ve said before, when we’re faced with a situation, we have three choices:  1) accept the situation; 2) change the situation; 3) complain about the situation.  Number three, while it may be temporarily satisfying, doesn’t help in the long run, so we’re really just left with one or two.  We can accept the situation or change it.

And there’s nearly always something we can do to change the situation if we try hard enough.  If you’re someone who can’t get out much, try some of those things I suggested.  If you don’t like those suggestions, think of something else.  If you don’t know who to call, call me.  Or call Wanda.  We’ll be happy to talk to you.

One of our prayer emphases in the parish is for people who are feeling alone.  We’re asking God to help us find ways to reach those people.  If you’re one of them, help us reach you by reaching out to us.