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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Follow Me

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, June 28, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Luke 1:26-38.

            You may remember that this past winter we had a tournament to choose the favorite person in the Bible of our parish.  The winner was Mary, the mother of Jesus.  So today we’re going to start a sermon series based on the life of Mary.  We start with the first time we meet Mary in the Bible, when she is visited by an angel.
            Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with this story.  It’s interesting, though, that as familiar as we are with it, the story only appears in the gospel of Luke.  Mark and John don’t deal with the birth of Jesus at all.  Matthew looks at it more from Joseph’s point of view, and goes on to tell us about how the family had to be on the run for a while because the government was out to kill Jesus.  It’s only in Luke that we read about Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel and how she learned that she was going to give birth to the savior of the world.
            We don’t really know how old Mary was when this happened.  Most people assume that she was pretty young, probably still a teenager, maybe still in her early teens.  The Bible does not actually say that—we assume it because the common practice at the time was that girls were married off at a pretty young age.  We assume, again because of common practices at the time, that Joseph was probably somewhat older, but we really don’t know that, either.  Again, the Bible does not tell us.
            We’re not told anything about Mary’s early life.  We don’t know if Mary had any brothers or sisters—it would be unusual if she did not, but the Bible does not tell us.  A lot of people seem to assume that Mary’s family was poor, but the Bible does not tell us that, either.  They most likely were not rich—that’s something that probably would’ve been mentioned, if it was so—but they may have been middle class.  We don’t know anything about what Mary’s family may have done for a living.  We know that Joseph was a carpenter.  Assuming he was a good one, he may have been able to provide fairly well for his family—we don’t know.
            Most likely, though, Mary was still living with her parents at the time the angel Gabriel came to see her.  And every time I read this story, I’m struck by how matter-of-factly Luke tells it.  Try to put yourself in Mary’s place.  You’re minding your own business, doing your daily work, and all of a sudden, there’s an angel right in front of you.  We don’t know how Gabriel made himself known to Mary, if there was some sort of heavenly fanfare, if Gabriel just suddenly appeared out of nowhere, if Gabriel was waiting for Mary as she was walking down a path, or what.  Apparently, though Mary recognized that this was, in fact, an angel she was seeing.
            And yet, Mary just seems to accept that.  I mean, it seems like you’d be pretty freaked out about this, does it not?  To just suddenly, with no warning, have this angel there talking to you?  But Mary does not seem to be.  We’re told that Mary was greatly troubled by Gabriel’s words, and we’ll come to that in a minute, but she does not seem to have been at all bothered by actually seeing Gabriel there.
            What does that tell us about Mary?  For one thing, it tells us that she must have been pretty brave, right?  To suddenly see an angel and not even flinch?  Mary is clearly someone who is not easily thrown off stride.  She’s pretty capable and pretty confident in her ability to handle stuff.
            The first words Gabriel says to her, the ones at which we’re told that Mary was greatly troubled, are “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”
            We’re not told what about that greeting troubled Mary, but we can guess.  She may have wondered why she would be “highly favored”, what she had ever done to deserve that kind of greeting.  I suspect, though, that Mary also knew that something more was coming here.  She’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.  The angel Gabriel would not have just shown up to pass the time of day.  Gabriel must be giving her a message that God wants her to do something.  And of course, he was.
            Let’s just think about that for a minute.  For Mary, at least, the troubling thing about seeing an angel was not the presence of the angel itself.  The troubling thing was that the angel was going to want her to do something.
            And you know, that would probably be the most troubling thing for you and me, too.  I mean, yes, I probably would be kind of freaked out if I was sitting at home or in my office or something and an angel suddenly showed up.  But that would not be the scariest thing about it.  The scariest thing about it would be knowing that God wanted me to do something.  And I suspect that might be the scariest thing for you, too.
            But why should that be so scary?  If we trust God, why should we be so scared of doing something that God told us to do?
            Well, why was Mary scared of it?  We’re not told, but think about it.  Mary was young.  She was about to start a new life with Joseph.  She thought she knew how her life was going to go.  And now, Gabriel comes and he’s going to want her to do something.  What’s it going to be?  What’s it going to mean for me?  How hard will it be?  Is this going to mess everything up?  This whole life that I’m planning with Joseph—is it going to just be gone?  Is my whole world going to be turned upside down?
            I think that would be the scariest thing of all about having an angel show up.  And really, it’s the scariest thing about really living our faith as Christians.  It’s the scariest thing about turning our lives over to God.  If I do what God wants me to do, well, what’s it going to mean for me?  How hard will it be?  Will it mess up my whole life?  This life I have, which may not be perfect but is fairly good and is something I’m used to and am comfortable with—is it going to just be gone if I follow God?  Is my whole world going to be turned upside down?
            And all these were thoughts Mary may have had before she even knew what it was the angel wanted her to do.  They’re the thoughts we have before we even know what it is that God wants us to do.  They are troubling.  They are scary.  And if we let them, they can stop us from ever following God and doing what God wants us to do.
            They did not stop Mary.  The angel told her what was going to happen.  She was going to have a son, Jesus.  Jesus would be great and would be called the son of the Most High.  He would get the throne of David.  He would reign over the house of Jacob forever.
            And again, Mary accepts it.  Mary does not protest.  She does not say, “Who, me?  You must have the wrong Mary.  There’s another Mary a couple of houses down—that must be the one you want.”  She does not say, “What?  This is crazy.  I cannot do this.  I’m just a kid.  Find somebody else.”  The only thing she says is, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
            “How will this be.”  No protest, no complaint, not even the slightest hesitation.  Not a hint that she might not be willing to do what the angel said.  Just “How will this be.”
            That’s a pretty awesome faith.  That’s a faith that says, “If God wants me to do this, then I’m going to do it.  I’m not going to worry about what’s going to happen to me.  I’m not going to worry about how hard it’s going to be.  I’m not going to worry about what anybody else says or what anybody else thinks.  If God wants me to do it, then I’m going to do it.  Period.”
            That’s the kind of faith Mary had.  That’s the kind of faith you and I are supposed to have.  Do you have it?  Do I?
            Maybe you do.  Maybe I do.  I’m sure a lot of us have done things we were scared to do.  A lot of us have probably done things just because they were the right thing to do.
            The question is, how far are we willing to go in that direction?  Because it’s not enough to just do stuff like this once in a while.  God does not say “Follow me when it’s convenient for you.”  God does not say, “Follow me every once in a while, when you can get your courage up.”  God says, “Follow me all the time.  Follow me even when it’s hard.  Follow me even when it turns your whole world upside down.”  God says, “Follow me even when you don’t know where I’m leading you.”  God says, “I don’t want just part of your life.  I want all of your life.”
            Mary was willing to give God all of her life.  She was willing to follow God even though it was going to be hard.  She was willing to follow God even when it was going to turn her whole world upside down.  She was willing to follow God even when she did not know where God was going to lead her.  She was willing to give God all of her life.
            The result of that was not always smooth.  We’ll hear more about that in the future weeks of this sermon series, and you know some of it already.  God did not reward Mary with an easy, carefree life while she was on earth.  But Mary still did it, and she obviously decided that it was worth it.
            It’ll be worth it for us, too.  It won’t be easy.  We’ll want to resist.  We’ll be scared.  We won’t want to have our lives upset.  And again, I don’t want my life upset any more than you do.  But if we can have the faith Mary had, if we can follow God even when it’s hard and even when we don’t know where God’s leading—if we can give God all of our lives—it will be worth it.  God will be with us.  And we can be the people God wants us to be, just like Mary was.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

An Inside Job

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, June 21, 2015.  The Bible Verses used are Mark 15:16-32.

            This is the last in our sermon series “The Paradoxical Commandments”, a series of ten statements written by Dr. Kent M. Keith and endorsed by Mother Teresa.
And if you look at these commandments, each one of them recognizes a harsh reality.  People can be illogical and unreasonable.  The good we do will be forgotten.  Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  And on and on, through all of the commandments we’ve talked about and that are posted in the back of the church and were in the newsletter.  And the point is that, despite that harsh reality, we’re still called, as Christians, to love people and do all we can to help people.  By doing that, we’ll be showing God’s love to them.  And by doing that we may, over time, do whatever we can, whether it’s a little or a lot, to change the world.
If there was ever someone who understood all this, it was Jesus.  Jesus spent his entire time in ministry trying to help people.  He fed them, he healed them, and he loved them.  He gave them the chance for salvation and eternal life.  And what did he get for it?  Well, our Paradoxical Commandment for today says it pretty well.  “Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.  Give the world the best you have anyway.”
Jesus, of course, had a lot more happen to him than getting kicked in the teeth.  He got hung on a cross to die.  And before that happened he got whipped, and beaten, and spat on, and humiliated.  He had given the world the best he had.  And of course, it was the best the world would ever have.  And this was his reward.
And of course, Jesus knew this was going to happen.  He predicted his death several times to his disciples.  And yet, he did not let it stop him.  He could have—we’ve talked about that before.  Jesus could’ve soft-pedaled things.  He could’ve stopped speaking out so forcefully.  He could’ve compromised with the Pharisees.  Or, Jesus could’ve used his power to wipe them all out—we are talking about the divine Son of God, after all.  But if Jesus had done any of those things, he would’ve been giving the world less than his best.  And his best was what the world needed.  Giving the world his best, and God’s best, was why he had come to earth in the first place.
It’s why we’re on earth, too.  After all, we claim to be Christians.  We claim to be followers of Jesus.  If we’re really mean that, then we have to take it seriously.  Following Jesus means doing what Jesus did.  It means going where Jesus went.  And where Jesus went was to the cross to die.
That does not seem right, does it?  And maybe you think it makes me a hypocrite, because I talk all the time about how our faith should make us happier and how we should feel the joy of being God’s children.  And yet, now I’m saying our faith means we need to be willing to go to the cross to die.  How does that make sense?
The thing is that the joy we feel as Christians needs to not come from outside of us.  It does not come from other people.  It needs to not come from other people liking us or praising us or making us feel good.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  We all like to feel appreciated.  There’s nothing wrong about that.  But we can’t depend on that for our joy or our happiness.  If we do, we’re going to spend a lot of time being miserable.  Because there are going to be a lot of times when we do the right thing and people don’t appreciate it.  In fact, sometimes people are going to try to punish us for it.
Our happiness, our joy at being Christians, needs to come from inside of us.  Most of all, it needs to come from having God’s Spirit inside of us.  When we can feel God’s presence with us, when we can feel God leading us and guiding us, when we can feel that we are where God wants us to be and we are doing what God wants us to do, there’s a joy and a peace that comes from that.  It’s a joy and a peace that the world cannot take away.  It will stay with us no matter what other people may do to us.
That’s how Jesus did it.  That’s how Jesus was able to keep giving the world his best, despite all the things that happened to him.  Jesus had God’s Spirit inside of him.  He felt the presence of God the Father with him, leading him and guiding him and sustaining him.  He knew that he was where he was supposed to be and was doing what he was supposed to do.  And he felt the joy and the peace that comes from that.
Maybe you think, how could he feel peace and joy while he was suffering on a cross?  Well, don’t get me wrong here.  I don’t think Jesus was ready to start laughing and singing for joy at that point.  He was in terrible pain.  He was dying.  The pain and suffering Jesus felt was real, just as real as it is for any human being.
But I think there’s a sense in which Jesus still felt peace and yes, even joy.  Because he knew that he was obeying God.  He knew he was doing God’s will.  And when we know we are doing God’s will, then even hard things, even suffering, and yes, even death, can give us a sense of peace and even joy.
Look at the Christians in the Middle East who are being killed because of their faith.  How do you think they do it?  Why don’t they just renounce their faith and save their lives?  They do it because they feel God’s Spirit inside them.  They do it because they feel the presence of God leading them and guiding them and sustaining them.
Is it easy?  Of course not.  It was not easy for Jesus.  That’s why he prayed so hard in the Garden of Gethsemane.  That’s why he prayed that, if there was another way to do this, God would use that other way and Jesus would not have to go through it.  But when there was no other way, Jesus was able to go through with it, because of that presence of God, the presence of God’s Spirit inside him.
That’s what we need to have.  Because what our paradoxical commandment says is right.  There are going to be times when we give the world our best and we get kicked in the teeth for it.  It will happen.  In fact, I suspect a lot of us have already had it happen. 
And when that happens, it’s tempting to give up and quit.  But we need to keep giving the world our best anyway, because that’s what God wants us to do.  And we can, if we feel God’s presence and God’s Spirit inside us.
Now, understand that giving the world our best does not mean we’ll be perfect.  We won’t be.  We cannot be.  God does not expect perfection.  God just asks for our best, just like our paradoxical commandment says.
How do we do that?  How do we feel God’s presence and God’s Spirit inside of us?  We do it the way Jesus did it.  By praying.  Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer.  It was not just the Garden of Gethsemane.  We read all the time in the gospels about how Jesus would go off by himself and pray.  Jesus knew he needed to feel God’s presence.  He knew he needed God’s Spirit inside of him.  Because he knew that, he spent lots of time praying.  He spent lots of time making sure he stayed close to God.  He knew that was the only way he could do what he was supposed to do, and was the only way he could feel the peace and joy that comes from doing God’s will.
And there’s one other thing we need to do, or rather not do.  We need to not try to do it alone.  Even Jesus did not try to do this alone.  That’s one of the reasons Jesus called the disciples.  Jesus needed close friends to help him through the tough times.  There were a lot of times those close friends did not get it.  There were a lot of times those close friends had no clue who Jesus was or what he was going to do.  There were even times they argued with him.  But even so, Jesus knew they loved him.  He knew they would do what they could to help him.  And Jesus needed that.
And that’s one of the reasons the church is here.  Because no matter how strong our faith is, we’re not supposed to try to live our lives as Christians alone.  We need close friends to help us through the tough times.  There may be times when those close friends don’t get it.  There may be times when those close friends don’t have a clue.  There may even be times those close friends argue with us.  But even so, we know they love us and will do what they can to help us.  We need that.
That’s what the church is for—to be those close friends to help us through the tough times.  And we should not just do that for others who are in the church.  That’s part of it, but we also need to be there for people who are not part of a church.  Because those people need us in their lives, just like we need each other in our lives.  Jesus did not just tell us to love people inside the church.  Jesus told us to love everybody.  No exceptions.
            If we give the world the best we have, we may get kicked in the teeth.  But we need to give the world the best we have anyway.  That’s what God wants us to do.  And if we pray and stay close to God, and if we support each other and help each other and love each other, we can do it.  And then, we’ll be the people and the church that God wants us to be.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Doing Unto Others

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, June 14, 2015.  The Bible verses are Exodus 15:22--16:5.

           We’re all familiar with the Golden Rule, right?  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  Treat people the way you’d like them to treat you.  Do everything you can to help people, just like you’d want them to do what they could to help you if you needed it.
            The thing about that is that, even if we follow that, there’s no guarantee the people we come into contact with will do the same.  In other words, the fact that we try to help others does not necessarily mean they’ll try to help us.  In fact, they may refuse our help and may even come to resent us trying to help them.
That brings us to our Paradoxical Commandment for today.  As many of you know, this is a sermon series we’ve been doing based on a series of ten statements written by Dr. Kent M. Keith and endorsed by Mother Teresa.  We’re on the ninth one today, and here it is:  “People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.  Help people anyway.”
If you’ve ever had that happen to you, understand that God knows exactly what it feels like.  There are all kinds of times in the Bible where God helps people only to have those people turn on God and actively fight against God.  An example of that is in our Bible reading for today.
Remember what the context of this is.  The people of Israel were in slavery in Egypt.  For a while it had not gone too badly, but their conditions got worse and worse.  If there was ever a people who really needed help, it was the people of Israel.
And God helped them.  In fact, God helped them in about the most awesome way possible.  God forced the Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, to set the people of Israel free.  And then, when the Pharaoh tried to take them back into slavery again, God led the people of Israel across the Red Sea and destroyed the Egyptian army so that the people of Israel could be free.
And that was not all.  God not only rescued the people of Israel, God promised them that they would be given a good land to live in.  In fact, it was more than good, it was wonderful.  It was a land flowing with milk and honey.  God was going to lead them across the desert to this incredible land.  It was the most wonderful thing anyone could have imagined.
But it was not an easy trip.  They went three days without finding water.  So what did the people of Israel do?  Did they say, “We can trust God to provide water for us, God has brought us this far, God certainly won’t abandon us now”?  Nope.  Not even close.  Instead, they whined.  They griped.  They complained.  They criticized.  They grumbled.  You’d have thought they’d be grateful.  You’d have thought they’d trust God.  After all, God had always been there for them.  God had done so much for them already.  But no.  Instead, all they could do was find fault with God and blame God because they did not have water when they wanted it.
Have you ever had that happen?  Have you ever tried your best to do something for somebody, to try to help somebody, and instead of thanking you for it all they did was criticize what you’d done?
It’s not a good feeling, is it?  In fact, it stinks, right?  We wonder, what’s the point?  Why try to help someone?  No one ever appreciates it anyway.  Might as well just not even try.
But of course, that’s not how God responded.  God was not happy with the people, of course.  But God did not give up on them.  God did not abandon the people or turn away from them.  God continued to help them.  God gave them water.  Even though the people God was trying to help turned on God, even though they complained about God and blamed God for all their problems, God kept helping them.
And for a little while, the people of Israel were happy again.  But only for a little while.  Because pretty soon the people got hungry.  They wanted food and they did not have any.  What did they do this time?  Did they say, “We can trust God.  God provided water for us when we needed it.  God certainly will provide us with food, too”?  Again, not even close.  Once again, they whined and they griped and they complained and they criticized and they grumbled.  Once again, instead of being grateful for all God had done for them and trusting God to do it again, they blamed God for their troubles.
And once again, God responded.  God again did not give up on the people of Israel.  God still did not abandon them or turn away from them.  God continued to help them.  God gave them food, bread from heaven.  Once again, even though the people God was trying to help turned on God, even though they complained about God and blamed God for all their problems, God kept helping them.
And that’s what we’re supposed to do, too.  We’re not supposed to stop helping people when they don’t appreciate our help.  We’re not supposed to give up on people or abandon them or turn away from them even if they turn on us and seem to resent our attempts to help.
And that brings us back to the Golden Rule.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Think about times you were in trouble.  Think about times when you needed help.  Have you ever had a time when you needed help, and somebody helped you, and you resented or even complained about their help?
I suspect you have.  I suspect most of us have.  Why do we do that?  Well, there might be a lot of reasons, but I think one of the big ones is pride.  And that pride shows up in a lot of ways.  Our pride keeps us from admitting that we’re in trouble in the first place.  Our pride keeps us from admitting we need help to get out of our trouble.  Our pride keeps us from accepting help when we need it.  Sometimes, our pride even leads us to resent the person who gives us the help and to get mad at them for having helped us.
I can think of times in the past when I’ve done that.  I probably still do it from time to time.  But when I look back at some of those times in the past, I realize how much I needed help, and how fortunate I was and still am that people cared about me enough and loved me enough to help me even when I did not want to admit I needed their help and did not want to accept it.
And so, that’s what I need to do for someone else.  It’s what we all need to do.  We need to be there for each other and help each other.  And we need to do that even if the pride of the person we’re trying to help keeps them from admitting they need our help and keeps them from acting grateful that we’ve helped them.
It’s not easy.  It goes against our instincts.  In fact, if you think about it, the whole Golden Rule thing goes against our instincts.  Oh, we like it all right in theory, but there a lot of times when we don’t want to live our lives that way.  We don’t want to treat people the way we want them to treat us.  We want to treat people the way they actually do treat us.  In other words, if you’ve been kind to me, I’ll be kind to you.  If you’ve been a jerk to me, well, then that gives me the right to be a jerk to you. 
That’s the human rule.  That’s the rule that says if you’re not going to be nice to me when I try to help you, then I’m not going to try to help you any more.  You can just dig yourself out of that hole you’re in, if you can.  Good luck.  That’s the human rule.  But it’s not the Golden Rule.
And it’s not God’s rule.  It may have been tempting.  When the people of Israel reacted the way they did, when they turned on God despite everything God had done for them, there might have been a part of God that wanted to punish them for that, that wanted to just leave them there in the desert to find their own food and water or die trying.  And it would’ve been, literally, die trying if God had done that.
But God did not do that.  God would never do that.  God would never have done that to the people of Israel, and God will never do it to you or to me.  God will never abandon us.  God will never turn away from us.  God will always be there for us, and God will always help us, even when we don’t recognize that it’s God and even when we don’t accept the help that’s offered.
            God will always be there for us.  So we need to be there for each other.  We need to be there for each other even when others don’t appreciate our being there or even get upset with us for being there.  As our Paradoxical Commandment says, “People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.  Help people anyway.”  Why?  Because that’s what God does for us.  And that’s what God wants us to do for each other.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Gift

I was in Fargo last week, attending United Methodist Annual Conference.  Now that I’m back, I’ve had a few people ask me how I liked it.

           I’m never sure how to answer that.  I enjoy seeing people, some of whom I rarely if ever see otherwise.  And some of the teaching sessions were good.  And I understand the importance of the business that gets done.  But I really don’t enjoy annual conference very much.  It takes me away from Wanda, and it takes me away from doing work that I love.  I know we have to have it, and I know I have to go, but I’ve come to look at it more as a necessary evil than something I’m going to really enjoy.
That’s a sharp contrast to my time as a lawyer.  I didn’t go to the bar conventions very much, but I was city attorney for Wessington Springs and I always went to the municipal league meetings.  I looked forward to those.  I really enjoyed them. 

As I look back on it, though, I didn’t enjoy the meetings for the meetings themselves.  I didn’t even enjoy them for the people.  I looked forward to the meetings because they got me away from my work for three days.  It was a chance to get away from a job I really didn’t like all that much.

 And as I thought about that, I suddenly realized, not for the first time by any means, how fortunate and blessed I am to have work that I love so much.  I don’t look forward to time away from my job.  I look at time away from my job as a nuisance.  I love what I do.  I don’t want to get away from it.  I want to be here to do it.  And I want to be with the people I do it with.  That includes Wanda, of course, but it also includes the people of all of our churches.  It includes people from other churches, or even from no church, as well. 

I do have to be away sometimes, but please don’t think I’m doing it because I want to get away.  I love everything I do (well, I don’t love filling out reports for the conference, but pretty much everything else).  I want nothing more out of life than to be able to do it with Wanda and with the other wonderful people of our parish for a long time to come.

Ecclesiastes 3:13 says, that to “eat and drink and find satisfaction in all our toil—that is the gift of God.”  I am completely feeling that gift.  I have been blessed by God in many ways, and while I’m sure I don’t appreciate that as much as I should, I do appreciate it.  May you feel that same gift and that same blessing.