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Sunday, May 31, 2015

If You Build It...

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 31, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Jeremiah 52:4-19 and Ezra 1:1-8.

            Have you ever watched demolitions experts implode a building?  It’s kind of an impressive sight.  One minute a building is there, the next it’s gone.  It’s just a pile of rubble.
            That can happen in other ways, too.  You’ve all seen the pictures of the Zion Lutheran Church in Delmont.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven by that church.  It stood for a hundred years, and a few weeks ago you’d have thought it was going to stand for another hundred years.  And now it’s gone, taken down by a tornado.
            One of the truisms of life is that it’s much easier to tear down, to destroy, than it is to build.  And that brings us to our Paradoxical Commandment for today.  As many of you know, that’s a sermon series we’ve been doing based on a set of ten statements by Dr. Kent M. Keith and endorsed by Mother Teresa.  We have the complete list in the back of the church.  Today’s statement is:  What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.
            Our reading from Jeremiah today told of the destruction of the first temple of Jerusalem.  The first temple of Jerusalem was an amazing thing.  It was built of cedar.  The walls and floors were overlaid with gold.  Many of the decorations were made of gold, too.  There’s no way to measure the cost of everything that went into building that temple.  It took seven years to build it.  It was the most incredible thing that had ever been built.
            The first temple of Jerusalem stood for hundreds of years.  And then came the events we read about in Jeremiah.  The king of Babylon came and sent his army to destroy Jerusalem.  Included in the destruction was the first temple.  Everything was destroyed.  The most beautiful, incredible building there had ever been was gone in almost no time at all.
            The people of Israel were pretty much destroyed, too.  Most of them—all the people the king of Babylon thought were worth keeping—were taken to Babylon.  The only ones left in Jerusalem were the poorest of the poor people, who were left behind to work the fields.
            Seventy years passed.  There were very few people left who remembered the temple, or who remembered living Jerusalem at all.  But then, amazingly, they were allowed back.  Persia took over Babylon, and the king of Persia sent the people of Israel back with specific instructions to rebuild the temple.  The people could hardly believe it.  It was an incredible answer to their prayers.
            Think of the faith it took for the people of Israel to do this.  First, it took faith, over that seventy years that they were in Babylon, for the people of Israel to keep praying and keep hoping and keep trusting that God would someday allow them to return to Jerusalem.  After all, seventy years is a long time.  Their life in Jerusalem was a story, something grandparents told their grandchildren.  It was not something most of them had ever experienced.  They had no reason to think they ever would.  It took a lot of faith to believe that the return to Jerusalem was not just a dream, a fairy tale that would never come true.
And then, it took a lot of faith to actually go back to Jerusalem.  I mean, yes, it was home, in a way, but not really.  Most of them had never actually lived there.  And the world changes a lot in seventy years.  People’s lives change a lot in seventy years.  We get used to things.  We get settled in our ways.  We don’t necessarily want to change.  People had houses and jobs and families in Babylon.  They had no idea what they’d find when they went back to Jerusalem.  It took a lot of faith for them to go back and start their lives over again.
And when they did go back, it took a lot of faith for them to actually rebuild the temple.  They’d built it once, and it had been destroyed.  How did they know it would not be destroyed again?  Yes, the king of Persia had allowed them to do it, but how did they know Persia would stay in control?  And besides, this king was not going to live forever.  How did they know what the next king would think about this?  He might order the temple destroyed again.
It took a lot of faith on the part of the people of Israel to build the second temple.  But you know, it takes a lot of faith to build anything.  None of us knows what the future is going to be like.  It took a lot of faith to build this church many years ago.  The people who built it did not know how long it would last.  It took a lot of faith for us now to build the addition.  We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.  It’s faith that made it possible and makes it possible for us to build things when we don’t know what the future holds.  It takes faith in God, it takes faith in each other, and it takes faith in the generations to come.
And we know, just as the people of Israel knew, that anything we build could be destroyed in an instant.  And that’s not just true of buildings, either.  It takes faith to build anything, and anything we build could be destroyed in an instant, because it’s always easier to destroy something than it is to build it. 
It takes faith to build a marriage, right?  I mean, we all know how prevalent divorce is these days.  And please, if you’ve been divorced, please don’t hear that as me passing any kind of judgment on you.  Divorces happen for lots of reasons and it’s not for me to judge what happened with you.  But it’s not something anyone wants to go through.  No one gets married with the idea that you’re going to get divorced.  We get married with the idea that it’s going to last the rest of our lives.  When we say “till death do us part”, that’s what we have in mind.
But that’s an act of faith.  Because we don’t know that we’re actually going to be able to do it.  I did not.  I hoped.  I prayed.  I wished.  I planned.  But I did not know.  I don’t think Wanda really knew, either.  I mean, I’m pretty confident about it now, over twenty-five years later, but at the time, who knew?  It was act of faith.  There are lots of things that can destroy a marriage.  A decision to build one is an act of faith.
It takes faith to build a family, too.  Nobody knows whether they’ll be any good at being a mother or a father until they do it.  Nobody feels confident that they’ll know what to do or how to do it.  And even if you turn out to be a good parent, there are all kinds of unknowns.  Will you have enough money to provide for your family?  What happens if you lose your job?  What if you lose your health?  What if your kids have serious health problems?  What if they have serious behavioral problems, or have problems in school?  And who knows what the world is going to be like when they grow up?  There are lots of things that can destroy a family.  It takes faith to decide to build one.
It takes faith to build anything.  It takes faith in ourselves, it takes faith in others, and it takes faith in God.  Not building anything is easy.  It takes no faith at all to not build something.  And we can always find reasons not to.  It’s like what we said a couple of weeks ago about ideas—there are always twenty-five reasons to not do something.  If our goal is to find one of those reasons, we’ll always be able to.
But it’s only through building things that we move forward.  And it’s only through building things that we can serve God.  That’s true whether we’re talking about a building, or a marriage, or a family, or a relationship, or anything else.  We cannot serve God by not trying to do anything.  We cannot serve God by not building things.  We can only serve God by building them.
We need to build carefully, of course.  The people of Israel did not just walk out one day and start slapping pieces of wood together.  We need to talk about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.  We need to talk about what the best way is to do it.  But at some point, we need to go beyond just talking.  Nobody ever built a building, or a marriage, or a family, or a relationship by talking about it.  At some point, we have to take that leap of faith and actually build it.  And we do so knowing that what we’re building could be destroyed in an instant, and there may be nothing we can do about it.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.  Have the faith to build.  Yes, it’s taking a chance.  Yes, what we decide to build could be destroyed.  But build it anyway.  Build a church.  Build a family.  Build a relationship.  Have faith in God.  It’s the only way we can move forward.  And it’s the only way we can serve God.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Dog Days

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 24, 2015.  The Bible verses are John 7:36-50.

            Everyone loves the underdog.  That’s what we always say, right?  Everyone roots for the underdog.
            We say that, but is it really true?  Nationwide, which baseball team has the most fans? It’s the New York Yankees, the team that’s won the most championships.  Who are the most popular NFL teams?  It’s teams like the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the teams that have won the most championships.  We may we root for the underdog in a particular game, but when it comes time to actually pick a favorite team, we tend to choose on one the top dogs.  Our favorite teams tend to be the teams that usually win.
            And that’s brings us to the seventh in our sermon series on the Paradoxical Commandments.  Now, again, this is a series of ten statements written by Dr. Kent M. Keith and endorsed by Mother Teresa.  The Paradoxical Commandment we’re going to look at today is:  “People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.  Fight for a few underdogs anyway.”
            No one ever gave us a better example of fighting for the underdog than Jesus.  Who were the top dogs of Jesus’ day?  They were the religious leaders, right?  They were the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the scribes and the teachers of the law.  And who did Jesus usually get into arguments with?  That’s right, the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the scribes and the teachers of the law.  Jesus did not follow the top dogs.  Jesus fought against them.
            Who were the underdogs of Jesus’ day?  That’s right, they were the “tax collectors and sinners”.  They were the sick and the blind and the deaf and the lame.  They were the people who were threatened with being stoned.  They were the people who were looked down on by “proper” society, sometimes because of what they’d done but sometimes through no fault of their own.  Those were the people Jesus spent time with.  Those were the people Jesus fought for.  Those were the people Jesus worked hardest to save.
            And we have an example of that in our story from the gospel of John.  Jesus, for a change, is spending some time with a top dog.  He’s been invited to have dinner with a Pharisee.  So Jesus is sitting there in the Pharisee’s house, and here comes a woman who, we’re told, “lived a sinful life”.  It sounds like she was not invited to the Pharisee’s house.  She found out that Jesus was going to be there and crashed the party.  She brought with her an expensive jar of perfume.
            She comes up to Jesus, and she’s overcome with emotion.  She starts crying.  She wets his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses his feet, and pours the perfume on them.
            The Pharisee sees this, and he’s appalled.  He probably thought about kicking this woman out of the house.  But since Jesus does not seem to mind, the Pharisee does not do anything.  Still, he thinks, if this Jesus was all he’s cracked up to be, he’d know what kind of woman this person is and would not let her anywhere near him.
            Of course Jesus knew exactly who this woman was.  And Jesus knew who the Pharisee was, too.  But I want us to think about both of them.
First, the woman.  All we’re told about her is that she “lived a sinful life”.  That’s it.  We’re not given any more details than that.  We’re not told what it was about her life that made it sinful.  We could guess.  I think, though, that there’s a reason we’re not given any other details about this woman.
I think we’re not given any other details because what this woman’s sins were is irrelevant.  What’s important is that this woman was a sinner and she knew she was a sinner.  And that’s why she was so overcome with emotion in the presence of Jesus.
We don’t know how much she really understood about Jesus.  We don’t know if she understood that he was the divine Son of God.  We don’t even know if she’d have understood what that meant.  What she did know was that Jesus was someone special.  She knew that Jesus was greater than she was.  She knew that she did not deserve to be in Jesus’ presence.  But yet, she felt like she had to come.  She had to be there.  Even though she had no right to be there, even though she knew Jesus was far above and beyond what she was, she still needed to be there, in Jesus’ presence.
Now let’s think about who the Pharisee was.  He was one of the religious leaders.  He was the one who defined Jewish religion for other people.  He did not think he had led a sinful life.  He did not know he was a sinner.  And so, he was not overcome with emotion in the presence of Jesus.  It would never have occurred to him to think he did not deserve to be in Jesus’ presence.  In fact, he probably thought he’d done Jesus a favor by allowing Jesus to come to his house.  He probably thought he’d been very generous by allowing Jesus to eat with him.  He did not think he needed to be in Jesus’ presence.  He thought Jesus was lucky to be allowed into his presence.
Now, this is a pretty clear case of an underdog and a top dog, right?  And it’s pretty clear which is which.  So, two questions.
First, which of these people do we think we are?  Do we think we’re the person who’s lived a sinful life?  Do we think of ourselves as the person who really has no right to come into the presence of Jesus at all, but simply feel like we need to be there anyway?  Or do we think of ourselves as the Pharisee, the person who feels like we’ve done Jesus a favor by allowing Jesus to come into our presence.
Now, we know what the answer is supposed to be.  We know we’re supposed to say that we’re all sinners.  We’re supposed to say that we’ve all fallen short of who we’re supposed to be and that it’s only by God’s grace that we’re allowed into God’s holy presence.
We know that’s what we’re supposed to say.  And maybe, in our minds, we know that’s true.  But do we really feel it?  Do we really identify with the lowest of the low?  I want you to think of the lowest of the low, and I’m not going to put a picture up here because who I think of as the lowest of the low might not be the same as who you think of.  But think of the lowest of the low.  Is that really who you identify with?  Is that really who I identify with?
Again, we know we’re supposed to.  The point is, do we?  Do you?  Do I?
I want you to think about that.  And then, I want you to get to the other question.
The other question is this:  If you were Jesus—if I was Jesus—which of these people would be our favorite?  Which one would we want to spend time with?  Would we want to hang out with the underdog, with the woman who apparently everyone knew had “led a sinful life”?  Or would we want to hang out with the top dog, the Pharisee, the guy everyone in town looked up to and wanted to be on the good side of?
Again, we know what the answer is supposed to be.  We’re supposed to say that we’d rather be with the underdog.  But is that really true?
I already asked you to think of the lowest of the low.  Now, I want you to also think of someone who represents the top dog to you.  And again, I’m not going to put a picture up here because who I think of may not be the same as who you think of.  And when you think of that top dog, don’t think of someone who lied or cheated their way to the top.  Think of someone you really admire and respect, someone who you think of as a good person.  Because that’s how people thought of the Pharisees.  We look down on the Pharisees now because we know Jesus looked down on them, but that’s not how it was at the time.  People looked up to the Pharisees.  People respected the Pharisees.
Have you got the two pictures in your head?  Okay.  Now, which one would you rather be with?  Which one would I rather be with?  Would you rather be with the underdog, or the top dog?  Would I rather be with the underdog, or the top dog?
The Pharisee did not want to be around the underdog.  He did not understand why Jesus did.  In fact, he thought Jesus must not know who this woman was, because there was no way Jesus would want to be around her if he did.
But Jesus wanted to be with the underdog.  He told the Pharisee that this woman had shown love to him and the Pharisee had not.  And Jesus told the woman that her sins were forgiven.
Who are the underdogs in our community?  Do you identify with them?  Do I?  Do you want to hang around with them?  Do I?
“People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.  Fight for a few underdogs anyway.”  But let’s not just fight for underdogs.  Let’s spend time with underdogs.  Let’s show love to underdogs. 
            And then, let’s realize that we are underdogs.  Let’s realize that we, too, are sinners in need of forgiveness.  Let’s realize that we do not deserve to be in Jesus’ presence any more than the woman in our Bible reading did.  But let’s realize that we need to be there anyway.  And let’s realize that we—you and I—need as much as anyone to hear Jesus tell us that our sins are forgiven.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Steppin' Out with Pastor Jeff: The Return

            You may remember that last year, over the summer, the Gettysburg church ran a fundraising campaign called “Steppin’ Out with Pastor Jeff” to raise money for the Gettysburg church addition.  We raised over six thousand dollars for the addition this way.  So, we’re doing it again!

            Here’s how it works.  As part of the conference’s wellness program, I wear a pedometer.  This measures the number of steps I take every day.  I plug the pedometer into a computer every once in a while, and they computer tells me how many steps I’ve taken each day.

            So, here’s the fundraiser.  We’re asking people to pledge an amount of their choosing for every thousands steps I take from Memorial Day (the unofficial start of summer) through Labor Day (the unofficial end).  All the money raised will go to the Gettysburg construction fund.

            To give you an idea of how much to pledge, the computer said that last summer I averaged about 9,300 steps per day.  The calendar tells me that there are about one hundred days between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  So, here’s a handy chart, based on me staying on that pace of 9,300 steps per day:

Pledge per thousand steps                                          Total pledged for the summer

$0.01                                                                           $9.30

$0.10                                                                           $93.00

$0.50                                                                           $465.00

$1.00                                                                           $930.00

$5.00                                                                           $4,650.00

$10.00                                                                         $9,300.00

$20.00                                                                         $18,600.00

$50.00                                                                         $46,500.00

$100.00                                                                       $93,000.00

$200.00                                                                       $186,000.00

            Your choices are not limited to the amounts listed, of course.  You can pledge any amount you choose.  We’ll be handing out a pledge sheet in the Gettysburg church, but of course, pledging is strictly voluntary.  We’re also not limiting pledges to the Gettysburg church.  If someone from Onida or Agar wants to make a pledge to the Gettysburg construction fund, it will be gratefully accepted.  If someone who does not live in this area happens to be reading this and wants to make a pledge, we’ll gratefully accept that, too.

            I’ll give frequent updates on my steps on facebook.  I’ll also give you reports every Sunday in church and monthly in the newsletter.  You can help me get more exercise (which I certainly need), get into better shape (which I also need), and support the Gettysburg church addition.  I hope everyone will Step Out with Pastor Jeff this summer!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What's the Big Idea?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 17, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Numbers 13:1-2, 17-20, 26-33.

            Have you ever had a good idea?  Well, of course you have, but I mean a really good idea.  An idea that excites you.  An idea that gets you all fired up.  An idea that you think is really important and is really going to make a difference.  An idea so good you just cannot wait to tell somebody about it.
            And so you do.  And the person you tell it to says, “Oh, I don’t know”.  And they tell you it’ll never work, people won’t like it, somebody tried it once and it did not work, and we don’t have the time, and we don’t have the money, and on and on and on about how this idea that you were so fired up about cannot possibly work.
            Now, I’m not saying that people should not be honest, and I’m not saying that people should ignore the flaws in our ideas.  But still, when we come in all excited about something and all people can do is come up with reasons why it won’t work, it’s discouraging, right?  It can make us give up on the whole idea before we even start.  Not only that, it can keep us from telling people any other ideas we get, or even keep us from trying to think of ideas in the first place, because we figure no one will want to go along with our next idea, either.
            And that brings us to our paradoxical commandment for the day.  This is the sixth in a series we’ve been doing based on The Paradoxical Commandments, ten statements written by Dr. Kent M. Keith and endorsed by Mother Teresa.  The whole list is in the back of the church and it was also in the newsletter.  This week’s commandment is:  “The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.  Think big anyway.”
            In our reading for today, God had a big idea.  God was going to give the people of Israel the land of Canaan, what’s sometimes known as The Promised Land.  Now, there are already people living there, so the people of Israel are going to have to take the land by force.  So God tells Moses to send some people into Canaan to check things out, so they know the lay of the land and so they know what they’re going to be up against.
            So the spies go into Canaan.  And they come back.  And one of them, Caleb, says yeah, we can do this.  Let’s go.  God said to do it, we can take these people, so let’s do it.
            And all the others say no, no, no.  We cannot do that.  It’ll never work.  The people there are too powerful.  Their cities are too big and too well protected.  Besides, did you see the people there?  They’re huge!  We must look like little grasshoppers to them.  And besides, the land is not that great anyway.  It “devours those living in it”.  We cannot go into Canaan.  The Promised Land’ll just have to wait.  We’d better just stay right here.
            Caleb was frustrated.  Moses was frustrated.  God was frustrated, too.  And you can see why.  Here God had this great idea.  God wants to give these people a wonderful land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and God tells them to just go in and he’ll be with them and they’ll be able to take it, and all the people can do is come up with all kinds of reasons why God’s idea won’t work and why they should not even try.
            In fact, “frustrated” really does not fully tell how God felt.  If we’d read on, in Chapter fourteen, we’d have seen that God threatened to wipe them out.  Moses pleaded on behalf of the people, and God forgave them.  But God said there would be consequences.  None of those people who did not trust God would go into the Promised Land.  Caleb would, but none of the others.  In fact, the people who had raised all these objections were struck by a plague and were killed.
            Now, does this mean that we should automatically jump on every new idea, no matter what?  Of course not.  There are times when we can get too excited about a new idea, when we need to have somebody slow us down, when we need to have people make sure we’ve thought of all the potential hazards and pitfalls and so forth.  God created skeptics, too, and sometimes they’re valuable to have around.
            But here’s the thing.  Any big idea has risks.  Any idea that will really make a difference has some possible pitfalls.  It’s good to recognize them and make sure we go into a situation with our eyes open.  That’s why God told Moses to send people into Canaan to check things out.  God did not want the people of Israel to just charge in without knowing what they were doing.  God wanted them to make sure they knew what the risks were
            But the reason God wanted them to know that was so they’d be prepared.  It was not so they’d give up and quit.  Because God knows, and we know, too, that the easiest thing in the world is to come up with a reason why a new idea won’t work.  In fact, there are usually lots of reasons why it won’t work.  And the people of Israel thought of a lot of them.  The people are too big.  There are too many of them.  They’re too strong.  The land is not that good anyway.  Any time someone has an idea of consequence, an idea that can really change things, there are always twenty-five reasons why it won’t work.
            But there are also reasons it will work.  That’s what Caleb was trying to tell the people.  It’s a good land.  It’s worth taking a chance for.  God’s on our side.  God wants us to do this.  God will help us do it.  Let’s take a chance and trust God.
            Most of the greatest ideas in the world have come from people who constantly heard why their ideas would not work.  From the electric light to the airplane to the computer, there were all kinds of people who said that was never going to work.
            And that’s true in Christianity, too.  I mean, can you imagine God explaining his plan for the salvation of humanity to the angels?  I don’t know that this actually happened, but think about it.  God gathers all the angels together and says, “Here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to send the divine Son of God down to earth.  But he’s not going to go all around the world or anything, he’s just going to stay in this one little area around Galilee.  And he’s going to have a few people to help him, but just a few, only twelve.  And they’re going to hang around Jesus and stay in that little area with him.  And Jesus’ll talk to some people and heal a few of them.  But he’s going to break some rules, and the religious leaders’ll get mad at him, so they’ll kill him.  But by dying, he’ll conquer death and give all of humanity the chance to be saved. That’s my plan.  What do you think?”
            Can you imagine the reaction of the angels?  “You’re going to do what?  That’ll never work.  You need to send the Son all over the world, not just to that one little spot.  And he needs a bunch of people, he needs thousands of followers to help him.  In fact, you know what you should do is wait until television and computers and stuff are invented, so Jesus can spread the message a lot faster.  And he better not get the religious leaders mad at him—those are his most likely allies.  And for heaven’s sake—if you’ll pardon the expression—don’t let him get killed.  Who’s going to believe in somebody’s the Son of God if he gets killed?
            God had a big idea for Israel.  The people of Israel did not think it made much sense.  They saw all kinds of reasons why it would not work.  But God went ahead and did it anyway.  And, eventually, once people were able to trust God enough to use God’s idea, it did work.  The people of Israel eventually did go to the Promised Land of Canaan. 
God had a big idea for us.  If God had asked our opinion about that idea, we probably we would’ve said it did not make much sense.   We would’ve seen all kinds of reasons why it would not work.  But God went ahead and did it anyway.  And, if we’re able to trust God enough to use God’s idea, it works.  Jesus did conquer death.  If we’re able to have faith in Jesus Christ as our savior, we will be saved.  It all works.
            God thinks big for us.  Let’s think big for God.  There will always be reasons not to.  There will always be risks.  But let’s think big anyway.  Let’s trust God.  Because there is no idea that’s too big for God.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Where the Heart Is

If you read any of my stuff, or maybe even if you don’t, you’ve heard about the tornado that devastated the town of Delmont.  I grew up in Delmont.  Well, actually I grew up on a farm a few miles west of town, but I went to school there and played ball there.  Hearing about the tornado there has affected me quite a bit.  And, to be honest I’m not sure why.  Yes, it’s my home town, but what does that mean, exactly?

Here’s what I’m trying to say.  When my adopted home town of Wessington Springs was hit by a tornado last year, I understood my feelings.  It’s not that many years ago we lived in Wessington Springs.  We still go back and visit sometimes.  We still have a lot of friends there.  We have a lot of happy memories there.  It makes perfect sense to me that I was sad to hear about the destruction there last year.

But Delmont?  I haven’t lived there in over thirty years.  I haven’t set foot in the town for at least a few years, and haven’t spent any significant time there since the United Methodist church closed and my parents moved to Armour.  I haven’t particularly kept in touch with anybody there.  Not that I dislike them or anything, we’ve just kind of drifted apart as time has gone on.  Yet, hearing about the tornado has really affected me.  Why should that be?

All I can think of is that, for better or worse, Delmont was home.  And no matter what home is like, it’s still home.  Maybe we always have an emotional tie to “home”, regardless of how long it’s been since we were there and regardless of what home was really like.

Maybe that’s why we have such an emotional tie to life on earth, too.  We know that, by God’s grace and through our faith, a better life is waiting for us in heaven.  Yet, most of us are very reluctant to leave earth to go there.  Many of us fight as hard as we can to keep our lives on earth, even if our lives on earth are not all that good.

Don’t take this the wrong way.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.  I’m just trying to figure out why we feel that way.  And maybe one of the reasons is that, even when our life on earth is not good, earth is still our home.  And we have an emotional tie to our home here on earth, even though we know in our minds that a better life is waiting for us to heaven.

That’s not a bad thing.  That’s a good thing.  It’s something God gave us.  God gave us that emotional tie to our home here on earth.  God wants us to stay here until God decides it’s time for us to leave.

I not sure how much sense all of this makes.  Maybe it just comes down to the old saying that home is, after all, where the heart is.  And all of our hearts are tied to home, regardless of what home is.

Anyway, please continue to pray for Delmont.  Things are getting better there, but it’s going to take some time before things are close to like they were.  Your prayers are greatly appreciated.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Frankly Speaking

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 10, 2015.  The Bible verses used are 1 Kings 22:1-28.

            Most of us probably remember Jesus’s statement “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  When we talk about that statement, though, we tend to focus on the first part of it—“I am the way.”  What we don’t focus as much on is the second part.  Jesus said, “I am the truth.”
            Truth is very important.  Now, we all know that.  We pay lip service to it all the time.  We say “honesty is the best policy”.  We tell kids all the time to tell the truth.  And most of probably are truthful.  Well, most of the time, anyway.
            And in saying that, I don’t mean to imply that I think we’re all a bunch of liars.  I just mean that sometimes telling the truth can be really hard.  And sometimes telling the truth can get us into a lot of trouble.  And that leads us into our sermon series, “The Paradoxical Commandments.”  This is the fifth in a series of statements written by Dr. Kent M. Keith and endorsed by Mother Teresa.  The commandment for today is:  “Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  Be honest and frank anyway.”
            That can be true in at least a couple of ways, maybe more.  One of them is the subject of our Bible reading for today from First Kings.
            In that reading, we have the king of Israel and the king of Judah getting together and talking about going to war against the king of Aram because they think Aram has some territory that rightly belongs to Israel and Judah.  As a side note, there’s another way that the Bible shows nothing much has changed about human society in three or four thousand years.  Anyway, at this point, the Jewish people have slipped away from God, to a large extent.  But they still think that, before they go to war, they’d better find out what the Lord has to say about it.
            So, they call the prophets together, and the prophets all say, “Go for it.”  But the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, knows something’s wrong here.  We’re not told how he knows, but somehow he knows that these are not really prophets of the Lord.  So he asks, “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?”
            Well, there is.  His name is Micaiah.  But the king of Israel says, you don’t want to talk to him.  He always prophesies bad stuff about me.  But Jehoshaphat insists, so they call Micaiah.  And sure enough, Micaiah tells them that God says this is all going to end in disaster.  And for his trouble, he gets thrown into prison and given only bread and water.
            Micaiah was frank.  He was honest.  And it made him vulnerable, just like Dr. Keith said.
            It must have been tempting for Micaiah to tell the kings what they wanted to hear.  In fact, we’re told that at first he did.  It’s hard to know how to read that.  I’ve always thought that Micaiah was just being sarcastic, that he knew they would not believe him when he said it.  But we don’t know that.  It could be that Micaiah was trying to save himself some trouble by telling them what he knew they wanted to hear.
            When they called him on it, though, he told them the truth.  And it was the truth.  If we had read a little farther, you’d have seen that the war did, in fact, end in disaster for the kings, just as Micaiah had said.
            We don’t know what happened to Micaiah after that.  He drops out of the story.  Was he ever released from prison?  Did he die there?  Did he continue to prophesy?  We don’t know.  All we know is that, when it came right down to it, Micaiah was honest and frank with people who did not want to hear what he had to say.  And he paid a price for it.
            And the frustrating thing, from Micaiah’s viewpoint, is that he did not go looking for trouble here.   He did not go up to these two kings and demand they listen to him.  They sent for him.  They asked him what the Lord thought.  They insisted that he give them an honest answer.  And then they punished him when he did. 
            I suspect some of us have been in that situation.  Someone says I need your honest opinion.  And we give it to them.  And they get mad at us for it, because it was not the answer they wanted to hear.  They said they wanted an honest opinion, but in fact, they wanted us to agree with them.  It’s not easy to be honest and frank with people who don’t want to hear what we have to say.  And it’s especially frustrating when they invited us to say it.
            But there’s another way that being honest and frank makes us vulnerable.  That’s when we choose to be honest and frank about who we are.
            Most of us don’t like to reveal too much about who we are.  There are reasons for that, and some of them are valid ones.  After all, there are some things about all of our lives that are nobody else’s business.  We all have the right to maintain some privacy about ourselves.
            But there are also times when we’re afraid to reveal too much about ourselves.  Sometimes, we’re afraid that if people know too much about us, they might not like us.  Sometimes, we’re afraid that if people get to know who we really are, they won’t respect us.  Sometimes, we’re afraid that if people could really see all the sides there are to us, they might not love us.
            And so we hide ourselves.  We put up a front.  We pretend to be someone we’re not.  And sometimes it goes beyond pretending.  Sometimes we actually try to be someone we’re not, because we don’t think who we are is a very good person.
            Now, don’t get me wrong here.  We all have room to improve, and we always should try to improve.  But we should not try to be someone we’re not.  God created each of us to be who we are.  If God had wanted us to be someone else, God would’ve made us to be someone else.  God created you to be you.  And God created me to be me.  I need to try to be the best me I can be, but I still need to be me.  And you need to be you.  It’s only by being who we are, and by trying to be the best of who we are, that we truly honor God.
            But the thing is that the more honest and the more authentic we are with people, the more vulnerable we make ourselves.  If we’re putting up a front and somebody does not like us, we can tell ourselves that, well, they really don’t know us.  But if we’re being who we really are and somebody does not like us, well, that hurts.  That’s a personal rejection.  That’s a rejection that goes to our hearts.
            Remember the story of Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday?  The people were shouting for him, screaming for him.  But they did not know who he really was.  They thought he was going to be a conquering king.  And that was what they wanted.
            But over the next few days, Jesus revealed who he really was.  He told Pilate that he was a king.  But he was not a conquering king, at least not in the way the people wanted.  He was a sacrificial king.  He was a king who was going to die.  He told Pilate “Everyone who is on the side of truth listens to me.”  And Pilate responded, “What is truth?”
            When Jesus revealed who he really was, he made himself vulnerable.  Not just because it meant the Jewish leaders wanted to kill him.  They wanted to kill him anyway.  He made himself vulnerable to rejection from the people.  They wanted a conquering king.  They did not want a king who would submit to the Roman authorities.  When they found out who Jesus really was, they rejected him.
            It had to hurt.  Even though Jesus knew it was going to happen, it still had to hurt.  They had loved Jesus when they thought he was someone he was not.  When he revealed who he was, they rejected him.  Not only did they reject him, they hated him.  They hated him enough to want him dead.
            But Jesus went through with it.  He could’ve tried to be someone he was not.  He could’ve been the conquering king they wanted.  He had that kind of power.  But that would not have been honest.  If Jesus had been that conquering king, he would not have been who he was sent to earth to be.  Jesus had the courage to be who he was.  He had the courage to be honest and authentic.  It made him vulnerable, even to the point of being killed.  But he still did it.  And by doing it, he honored God.
            Jesus did not try to be someone he was not.  He was who he was sent to earth to be.  We should not try to be someone we’re not, either.  We should be who we were created to be, the best of who we were created to be.  If we do that, we will be vulnerable, just like Jesus was.  But it’s the only way we can be true to ourselves.  It’s the only way we can be true to God.  And it’s the only way we can honor God.
            “Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  Be honest and frank anyway.”  It’s not always easy.  But it’s worth it.  And it’s the only way we can truly honor God.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

God Knows

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 3, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 6:1-8.

            We are in the fourth week of our sermon series on The Paradoxical Commandments.  It’s a series of ten statements put together by Dr. Kent M. Keith when he was at Harvard to try to encourage his friends, who were becoming disillusioned over the way the world is.  We’ve put the whole list in the back of the church and it’ll be in the church newsletter, too.  Here’s the statement we’re going to talk about this week:  “The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway.”
            Most of us already know the truth of that one.  We’ve all had times when we did something good and nobody noticed.  Maybe we did something good for a specific person.  Maybe we did something good for a group.  Maybe we did something good for the community.  Maybe we even did something good for the church.  And nobody noticed.  And if anybody did notice, they did not care.
            It’s frustrating, right?  Here we go out of our way to do something good, and for all that anyone cared, we could’ve just as well saved our time and our effort.  And it’s not that we do these things for applause, necessarily.  It’s not that we want everyone to tell us how great we are.  But still, it’d be nice if, well, somebody at least noticed.  It’d be nice if someone would at least say thank you once in a while.  And it can be frustrating for us when nobody does.
            I think that’s probably what Dr. Keith’s friends were experiencing when he wrote these paradoxical commandments.  They had gone out to do good and change the world, and they were finding out that the world was not all that interested in changing.  And they were getting frustrated.  Here they were, trying to do all this good in the world, and nobody seemed to care.  In fact, nobody seemed to want to know anything about it.
            I don’t think it’s sinful for us to feel the way Dr. Keith’s friends felt.  In fact, I suspect most of us have felt that way at times.  We all want to be appreciated.  That’s part of human nature.  Again, if we’re just doing things so people will say how great we are, that’s different.  But even if our motivation is pure and we’re just trying to serve God or serve our community, it’s still natural to want to know someone appreciated it.  I don’t think that’s a sin.  I think it’s just part of who we are.
            But what Jesus told us in our reading for today is that someone does appreciate it.  It may not be someone on earth, but it is someone in heaven.  God sees the good things we do, even if human beings don’t.  And God will not forget them.
            Jesus told us that the way we’re supposed to do good things is quietly.  In fact, Jesus says to do them in secret.  We’re not supposed to let anyone know what we’ve done.
            Again, I don’t think this is a matter of sin.  Jesus does not say that.  What Jesus says is that it’s a matter of reward.  Who do we want to reward us for the good things we’ve done?  Who do we want to get praise from?  That’s the point here.
            If we’ve done good things and let people know about the good things we’ve done, we’ve still done good things.    We’ve still done things that help people.  And we get a reward for that.  But the reward we get, if we let everyone know about the good things we’ve done, is to get the applause of people on earth.  And that’s nice, but the applause of people on earth is fleeting.  It’s here today and gone tomorrow.  And nobody knew better than Jesus how fleeting that applause was.
            And so, Jesus said that we should do good things in secret.  We should not let anyone know about the good things we’ve done.  Now, that does not necessarily make the things we’ve done any better.  The fact that no one knows what we’ve done does not necessarily help people more.  But the reward we get is different.  When we do things secretly and quietly, we don’t get rewarded by people on earth.  But we do get rewarded by God.
            And you know, if we think about this, this statement actually contains a paradox within a paradox.  Because, ultimately, the harder we try to have our good deeds remembered, the more likely they are to be forgotten by human beings.  And the harder we try to keep our good deeds secret, the more they get remembered by God.
            Because, again, the applause of human beings is fleeting.  People get all excited about something today, and then the next day or the next week or the next month, they move on to something else.  Have you ever gotten an award of some sort?  It’s nice at the time, but it does not really change anything.  In a couple of days, maybe a week, nobody even remembers that you got it.  When we lived in Wessington Springs, Wanda and I got a volunteer of the year award once.  You think anybody remembers that we got that award now?  Of course not.  That’s yesterday’s news.  In fact, it’s worse than yesterday’s news—one of these days it’ll be in that news from years ago column that they put in the paper.  Again, it was nice at the time, but nobody remembers it now.  They’ve moved on.
            But when we do things secretly, when we do things quietly, they do get remembered.  They get remembered by God.  Because God sees everything.  God notices everything.  And God remembers everything.  We cannot hide anything from God.  God sees every good thing we do.  Of course, God sees every bad thing we do, too.  And God understands who we are and why we do what we do, the good and the bad.
            Now, I want to make one thing clear.  When we say that God will remember our good deeds and God will reward us for them, we are not saying that we can somehow earn our way into heaven.  We get into heaven by faith, not by good deeds.  But if we truly have faith, that faith needs to show up in some tangible way.  If we truly love the Lord, we’ll try to serve the Lord.  And God will appreciate our efforts to serve.
            You know what else is paradoxical about this statement?  A lot of times, we think that if everyone notices and appreciates all the things we do, if everyone talks about how great we are, it’ll change our life in some way.  And it won’t.  Not in any way that’s meaningful, anyway.  But when we do things for no other reason than that we love the Lord and want to serve the Lord, that will change our lives.  It will change our lives in awesome and incredible ways.
            Because the more we serve the Lord, the closer we feel to the Lord.  The more we feel God’s presence with us.  And the more we feel God’s presence with us, the more we want to serve God.  That’s one of the best things about the reward we get, really.  We eventually build a cycle that feeds on itself and builds on itself.  The more we serve God, the closer we are to God, and the closer we are to God, the more we want to serve God.  And after a while, we get to where we really don’t care if anyone notices the good things we do or not.  Because we feel God’s presence.  We know God is with us.  And feeling God with us is the most incredible feeling in the world.  Once we’ve felt the presence of God with us, we never want to be without that feeling again.
            And once we’ve felt the presence of God with us, we really don’t care that much about human applause any more.  It’s still nice, we still appreciate it if we get it, but it no longer has any hold over us.  We no longer get frustrated if we don’t get that human applause.  Because we know that human applause, no matter how much we get and no matter how sincere it is, can never come anywhere near the incredible feeling of being in the presence of God.
            So, if you’re feeling frustrated today because you did something good and nobody noticed or nobody cared, know this:  God noticed.  And God cared.  And God will never forget.  God knows exactly what you did and God knows exactly how well you did.  God knows, and God cares, and God will reward you for what you did.  And part of that reward will be to feel the joy and love that comes from feeling God’s presence with us.
            “The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway.”  Sure, it’s always nice to get human applause, but human applause never lasts.  It’s here today and gone tomorrow.  But God is forever.  When our goal is to serve God by doing good, we will feel God with us always.  And that is the greatest feeling there is.