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Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Little Things

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 26, 2015.  The Bible verses used are John 2:1-12.          
            We continue our sermon series looking at the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  About eighteen years have passed since Jesus was left behind in Jerusalem after the Passover.  What were he and Mary doing all that time?  We don’t know.  The gospels don’t tell us.  We assume he continued to live in Nazareth.  We assume Mary continued to live there, too.  We don’t know about Joseph.  After Jesus was found in Jerusalem, Joseph never shows up in the Bible again.  If the theory that Joseph was significantly older than Jesus is correct, he may well have been dead by this time.  We don’t know.  We just know that he does not get mentioned any more.
            In our reading, Jesus and Mary have been invited to a wedding in Cana.  Cana was about four or five miles from Nazareth, so it was not nearly as hard a trip as going to Bethlehem or Jerusalem.  Shortly before this, according to the gospel of John, Jesus had been baptized and had started gathering his disciples.  We don’t know if he had all of them yet, but Simon Peter and Andrew are mentioned, as are Philip and Nathanael.  We’re told that Jesus’ disciples were also at this wedding, as well as Jesus and Mary.
            This is one of those stories where we don’t get nearly as much detail as we’d like.  We’ve already mentioned a couple of things we don’t know—whether Joseph is still in the picture and whether Jesus has all the disciples at this point.  But there are lots of other things.  Whose wedding was this?  How were these people connected to Mary and Jesus?  How did they come to run out of wine?  Why did they tell Mary about that?  Why did Mary feel like it she needed to do something about it?  There are so many things about this that we simply don’t know.
            However, and for whatever reason, Mary finds out that the people in charge of the wedding have run out of wine.  And she tells Jesus about it.
            Which is another thing we don’t understand, really.  Why did she tell Jesus?  What was it she expected Jesus to do?  Or did she have any specific expectation at all?
            Think about it.  If, as we assume, Jesus was living in the same town as Mary, she probably was used to asking him to do stuff for her.  After all, Mary was not a young woman any more when this happened.  Life was hard back then, and life expectancies were not as long.  Even if Joseph was still around, but especially if he was not, Jesus was probably used to helping Mary out with one thing and another.  People usually do that for their parents as they get older, especially if they live close by like that.
            So it could be that Mary, knowing Jesus was the divine Son of God, expected him to perform a miracle.  But it could also be that Mary had no particular expectation of anything that Jesus might do.  Maybe she was just so used to asking Jesus for help, and maybe Jesus was so good about helping, that she just kind of went, “Jesus, do something”, just assuming that somehow, in some way, Jesus would be able to figure something out because he always did.
            Jesus did not want to do anything at first.  He resists.  He says, “Woman, why do you involve me?  My hour has not yet come.”
            We don’t know if Mary knew what that meant or not.  She was not about to take no for an answer, though.  So, she told the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do.  And Jesus helps his mother.  He takes ordinary water and turns it into wine.  Mary was pleased.  Everyone was pleased.  And that’s the story of the first miracle Jesus performed while he was on earth, or at least the first miracle that we have recorded in the Bible.
            Apparently, Jesus had not planned for this to be his first miracle.  We don’t know what he was planning for it to be, or if he had a specific plan at all.  Again, he’d already been baptized, the Spirit had come down from heaven upon him, he’d started gathering disciples.  Something, at some point, was going to be his first miracle.  Yet apparently, from a human standpoint, the first miracle he actually did happened almost by happenstance, by accident.  God the Father may have planned it that way, of course, but it appears that Jesus did not. 
And yet, after this happened, Jesus’ life on earth was permanently changed.  And so was his relationship with Mary.  Because from then on, Jesus started his ministry.  He was no longer a carpenter who lived in Nazareth.  He started traveling all over the area, preaching and teaching and healing.  He came back to Nazareth sometimes, and I don’t doubt that when he did he looked in on Mary to see how she was doing and helped her when he could.  But after this episode, Jesus’ life was never the same.  And neither was Mary’s. There are two things that occur to me as I think about that. 
One of them is how, in parent-child relationships, a lot of times there’s that moment when you realize that the relationship has changed.  There’s that moment when you realize that things are different now, and they’re never going to be like they were.  Maybe it’s when the child graduates from high school or college.  Maybe it’s when they get their first job.  Maybe it’s when they get their own place.  Maybe it’s when they get married.  Maybe it’s when they start having kids.  But whatever it is, there’s that moment when you realize that my child is no longer my child.  He or she is now an adult.  You still love each other.  You still care about each other.  And of course, if you’re a parent, there’s always a sense in which you’ll still look at that adult as your child.  But you realize they’re not a child any more.  They’ve grown up.
I suspect, when Jesus turned the water into wine, that both Mary and Jesus knew this moment had come.  Jesus knew it was coming—that’s one of the reasons he’d started gathering the disciples.  And in some sense, I’m sure Mary knew it was coming, too.  But I don’t know if she knew it was coming right then. 
And I wonder if she was really ready for that moment when it came.  She was proud of Jesus, of course.  And yet I wonder if, later, she regretted having asked Jesus to act in this situation.  The moment would still have happened sometime, of course.  I’m sure Mary knew that, just as every parent knows it.  But maybe, if she had not said anything to Jesus, she could’ve put it off a while.  Maybe she could’ve kept Jesus in Nazareth with her a little longer.
And while I’ve never had kids, I suspect those mixed feelings happen for every parent when this moment comes.  You know the moment has to come when they go off on their own and the relationships changes.  And you’re proud of them for becoming adults.  But still, a part of you wishes you could put that moment off for a little while longer.  A part of you wishes you could keep them your kids for a while yet.
And the other thing that occurs to me about this incident is how a small thing can irrevocably change our lives.  The way it reads, when Mary and Jesus went to this wedding, they had no idea anything significant was going to happen.  Even when Mary asked Jesus to do something, she may have had no idea anything significant was going to happen.  And yet, it did.  Mary uttered two sentences.  She said to Jesus, “They have no more wine” and she said to the servants “Do whatever he tells you”.  Ten words.  And yet, those ten words changed Mary and Jesus’ lives forever.
It seems to me that happens a lot in our lives.  Small things happen.  We hardly notice them at the time.  We don’t really think about them.  And yet, they change our lives forever.
Can you think of something like that?  I can.  One day when I was living in Pierre, I looked out the window of my apartment.  I saw this pretty girl out on her landing, working on a craft project.  A week or two later, I happened to meet her in the parking lot when I was coming back from somewhere.  Now, we’ve been married almost twenty-six years.
A little more than four years ago, I was minding my own business, watching a basketball game, when the phone rang.  It was Bob Ruedebusch, asking if I’d consider being the pastor of the Wheatland Parish.  I said, “Where’s that?”  Now, we hope we never have to leave.
Our lives can change in an instant.  They can change as the result of small things, things we hardly notice.  We answer the phone.  We look out the window.  We go to a wedding.  It can happen any time.  It can happen when changing our lives is the farthest thing from our minds.  And yet, it still happens.
That’s why it’s important for us to stay close to God all the time.  Because if we do, then when these small, seemingly insignificant, but life-changing things happen, we’ll be able to handle them.  We’ll be able to take advantage of them.  And we’ll be able to trust that, even though we were not expecting this to happen, it’s part of God’s plan and things are going to work out the way they’re supposed to work out.
Mary did not expect anything major to happen when she went to this wedding.  She may not have expected anything major to happen when she asked Jesus to help with the wine situation.  But when something did happen, she was able to handle it.  Because she was close to God, and she knew God was involved, and she knew this was part of God’s plan and things were going the way God wanted them to go.
            So let’s stay close to God.  Because a life-changing event can happen at any time.  We may not realize it.  But if we’re close to God, like Mary was, we’ll be able to handle it.  We’ll be able to trust that it’s part of God’s plan.  And we’ll be able to trust that things are going the way God wants them to go.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Changing Hearts

If you follow the news, or maybe even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard about the flap involving the existence of a confederate flag, along with a union flag and a cannon, on an emblem worn by the Gettysburg police department. 

Now, I’m not going to tell you what you should think or how you should feel about that.  That’s entirely up to you. What I want to do, though, is go through some of my own thoughts and feelings about this whole discussion.  The reason I want to do it is that I think there’s a point to be made in regard to the church and its mission.

My first reaction was to be upset at the news media for reporting on this in the first place.  Nobody in Gettysburg cared about it.  As far as I can tell, most people in Gettysburg didn’t even know about it.  Nobody had actually seen it on a Gettysburg policeman and been offended.  Why make this a story at all?  It felt like the media was trying to create a controversy where none existed.

After I thought about it, though, I calmed down.  After all, I’m one of those people who didn’t know of the existence of this emblem until the media reported on it.  So, what difference does it make to me whether Gettysburg police wear this patch?  How is my life affected by that in any way?  And of course, the answer is that it’s not.  So, I got over being upset about it.

I thought about it some more, though, because I wanted to know why I was so upset in the first place.  I think there were two reasons.  One, when these stories first hit, it felt like an attack on the place I live and, by extension, an attack on its people, including me.  When we’re attacked, our natural human impulse is to defend ourselves and strike back.  So that was one part of it.

Beyond that, though, what really had me upset was that this was a “controversy” that was entirely created by outsiders.  It was created by people who knew nothing about Gettysburg and showed no interest in finding out anything about Gettysburg.  They did not care about the town or its people.  And yet, they felt like they could come in and demand that we make changes to suit them.  My thought was, “What gives them the right to tell us what to do?  Who do these people think they are, anyway?”

And that brings me to the point about the church.  I think that sometimes, quite unintentionally, the church comes across that way to people who are not part of it.  When we start talking about sin and sinful behaviors to people who are not part of the church, they look at us as outsiders.  They look at us as people who know nothing about them and have shown no interest in finding out anything about them.  We’ve done nothing to show that we care about them.  And yet, we give the impression that we feel we can come in and demand that they make changes to suit us.  And their reaction is, “What give them the right to tell me what to do?  Who do these church people think they are, anyway?”

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying that the church doesn’t care about people.  It does.  But the people we’re talking to don’t always believe that we care.  And the reason they don’t is that, sometimes, we focus too much on changing behavior and not enough on changing hearts.

Behavior can be changed in lots of ways, including by force, by threat, or by intimidation.  What we in the church are supposed to be about, though, is changing hearts.  Hearts cannot be changed by force, threat, or intimidation.  Hearts can only be changed by love.

So our emphasis needs to be less on behavior and more on love.  That means we need to get to know people.  We need to do things that show them that we care.  We need to get to the point where people stop looking at us as outsiders and start looking at us as friends.

That takes time.  Sometimes, it takes a long time.  But there’s no way to hurry the process.  There are no short-cuts.  If we’re serious about changing hearts, we need to be willing to take whatever time we need to take.

It’s one thing to change behavior.  It’s another thing to change hearts.  But if we’re going to do what Jesus told us to do—make disciples—it’s what we need to do.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Reminders of God

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 19, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Luke 2:41-52.
            We’re continuing our sermon series on Mary, the mother of Jesus.  At this point, Mary and Joseph are back in Nazareth.  They’re back home, raising Jesus just as they’re supposed to.
            Every year, though, they have to make that trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  That was just what good Jewish people did back then, at least if they lived within a reasonable distance from Jerusalem.  You may recall that’s why Jesus went to Jerusalem in the last week of his life on earth—because it was the Passover.
            So, Mary and Joseph and Jesus go to Jerusalem.  Jesus is twelve years old at this point.  They celebrate the Passover.  Everything goes fine, the Passover ends, it’s time to go home.  Our reading describes them as traveling in a group, sort of like a caravan.  That’s what people did back then.  So, Mary and Joseph set out with everyone else in the caravan.  They don’t know exactly where Jesus is, but there’s nothing unusual about that.  They figure he’s around somewhere, with his relatives or his friends or somebody.  They’re not worried about it.
            They travel for a day.  And then night comes, and they start looking for Jesus.  And they cannot find him.  I can imagine them going from family to family, getting more and more frantic.  “Have you seen Jesus?  Have you seen Jesus?”  And each time, the answer is no.  No one’s seen him.  He’s not there.  He must have somehow been left behind.  He must be back in Jerusalem.
            Can you imagine how they felt?  Not unless you’ve experienced it, probably.  Those of you who have kids, has any of them ever gotten lost, even for just a little while?  How did you feel?  Probably pretty panicked.  Where is he?  What could’ve happened to her?  You start frantically calling out their name.  You start trying to figure out where they might be.  If you’re on the road, you start backtracking, trying to think when the last time you saw them was.  Where could they be?  What if they got kidnapped?  What if they got killed?  I imagine all kinds of things are going through your mind when you have a child that gets lost.
            I imagine all those things were going through the minds of Mary and Joseph.  And oh by the way, this is not just any twelve-year-old boy who’s lost.  It’s the boy who’s supposed to grow up to be the savior of the world.  God has specifically chosen you to raise this special child.  And what did you do?  You went and lost him!  What if you can’t find him?  Is the chance for salvation lost?  Is God going to strike you down and send you to hell for messing this up? 
Well, there’s nothing for it but for them to go back to Jerusalem and start a search.  Now, it took them a day to get to where they were, so I assume it took them a day to get back to Jerusalem, too.  So that’s two days that Jesus has been missing.  And Jerusalem was not a small town.  The information I saw said that, in Jesus’ time, it had about sixty thousand people in it.  That’s roughly the size of Rapid City.
            So, imagine trying to find one twelve-year-old boy in a town the size of Rapid City.  Talk about looking for a needle in a haystack.  And of course, this was two thousand years ago.  There was no communications technology.  You could not put out an amber alert.  You could not even put his picture on a milk carton.  In fact, you did not even have a picture you could show anyone.  All you can do is go house to house and give a description of him, a description that probably fits a thousand other twelve-year-old boys.
            No one can help you.  You want to tell them to keep an eye out and let you know if they see him, but how are they going to do that?  It’s not like you have a cell phone they can call.  They don’t know where you’ll be.  You probably don’t know where you’ll be.  All you can do is go to the next house, and the next, and the next, hoping desperately that someone will have some kind of information that will help you find Jesus.
            We’re told that three days passed.  That makes five days since Jesus was lost.  Is he finding something to eat?  Is he finding somewhere warm to sleep?  Is he even still alive?  Mary and Joseph had no way to know.  All they can do is keep looking.
            And finally, they go to the temple courts.  We don’t know why they went there.  Did they have reason to think Jesus was there?  Did they go there to pray?  Did they think maybe the rabbis could help them?  Was it just the next place to look?  We don’t know.  But they go there, and there’s Jesus.  And he’s fine.  He’s sitting there among the teachers, listening and asking questions.  And everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.
            We’re told that “When his parents saw him, they were astonished.”  Were they astonished at what he was saying, at his questions and his answers?  Or maybe they were simply astonished that they’d found him!  After five days, they found him!  And he was alive, and he was okay, and everything was going to be all right.  And Mary says to Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us like this?  Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” 
That’s written really matter-of-factly.  But I’ll bet Mary did not say it matter-of-factly.  There had to be all kinds of emotions going through her.  Joy and anger and relief and frustration and happiness and I don’t know what-all.  Mary probably did not know whether to laugh or to cry.  She did not know whether to hug Jesus or to smack him for putting them through all that.  Maybe she did both, who knows.
Jesus answers here, “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  But of course, Mary and Joseph did not know what that meant.  And Jesus went back to Nazareth went them.  And life went on.  And Mary and Joseph continued to raise Jesus, and he eventually grew into a man. 
But we’re told one other thing here.  It’s the same thing we were told after the shepherds left the stable.  We’re told, “his mother treasured all these things in her heart.”
Mary may not have understood all the things that were going on.  In fact, she may have understood very little.  But she knew that somehow, these things were all important.  She knew they meant something, even if she did not know what.  She knew God was involved in them.  So she remembered them.  And she thought about them.  Maybe someday she’d understand what they meant, or maybe she never would.  But she knew they were important, and she knew God was involved in them, and she was not going to forget them.
I think most of us have times like that in our lives.  Not every day.  Most days just go on as they do, calmly and unremarkably, just like most of the first twelve years of Jesus’ life did.  But every once in a while, something happens that we know is significant.  We may not know why it’s significant, but we know it is.  We know it’s something important.  We know it means something, even if we don’t know what.  We know God is involved in them.  And so, we make sure we remember them and think about them.  Maybe someday we’ll understand what they mean, or maybe we never will.  But we know they’re important, and we know God is involved in them, and we’re not going to forget them.
One of the things that times like this are, I think, is that they’re reminders that God is active in our lives.  God is active in our lives all the time, of course.  God never leaves us or abandons us.  But when these special times come, these important times, these that are important even though we don’t understand why, we become more conscious of God’s presence in our lives.  And those times, those reminders of God’s presence, carry us through and help us keep believing and keep trusting in those times when we have trouble feeling that God is with us.
Mary had a huge responsibility, raising the Son of God.  There had to be a lot of times when she wondered if she was doing things right.  Every mother, and every father, probably goes through that.  But when you’re raising the Son of God, you probably feel it even more.  You think, am I doing this right?  Is God pleased with me?  Is that the decision God wants me to make?  Am I messing this whole thing up?
It’s then, I think, that these things that Mary treasured in her heart came back to her.  She remembered the angel Gabriel talking to her.  She remembered the visit from the shepherds.  She remembered finding Jesus in the temple.  And those things reminded her that God was with her, even if she did not feel God right then.  And they helped her know that God was always with her, and God would help her, and things would turn out the way they were supposed to turn out.
God is always with us, too.  You and I will have times when we have trouble feeling God’s presence.  We’ll have times when we wonder if we’re doing things right.  We’ll have times when we wonder, am I doing okay?  Is God really pleased with me?  Am I living the way God wants me to live?  Am I messing this whole thing up?
That’s when we need to remember those reminders God has given us.  That’s when we need to remember those significant times, those important times, those times when God is involved.  Those things remind us that God is with us, even if we don’t feel it right at the moment.  They help us know God is always with us, and God will help us, and things will turn out the way they’re supposed to turn out.
            God was with Mary.  God is with you.  And God is with me.  We don’t always understand what things mean.  And maybe we never will.  But God is involved in them.  And if we trust God, things will turn out the way they’re supposed to turn out.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Step by Step

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 12, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 2:13-23.
            Last week, as we continue our sermon series on Mary, the mother of Jesus, we looked at the birth of Jesus.  We don’t know how long Mary and Joseph had to stay in Bethlehem after Jesus was born.  Long enough for the wise men to come, but we have no way of knowing how long that actually was.
            However long it was, though, I’m sure both Mary and Joseph reached a point where they just wanted to go home.  Get back to Nazareth, get started on their life together, start raising Jesus the way good Jewish parents should.  But, as we heard in our Bible reading for today, it was not that simple.
            An angel appears to Joseph.  The angel could’ve appeared to Mary, or to both of them, but the angel just appears to Joseph.  And the angel says that they cannot go home.  They’ve got to go to Egypt instead, because King Herod is out to kill Jesus.  They’ve got to stay in Egypt until Herod is dead, and of course they have no idea how long that will be.
            The Bible does not tell us how Mary and Joseph felt, but we can imagine it, right?  To have been through all this, to have gotten through the long trip and the difficult birth of Jesus, and then not be able to go home again?  And not only were they not able to go home, they had to go to a foreign country, a country where people spoke a different language and where people worshipped different gods.  It had to be so disappointing and discouraging for them.
            You know, when the angel Gabriel told Mary about giving birth to the savior, Gabriel somehow left out a whole bunch of stuff.  Not only did Gabriel leave out the part about having to travel eighty miles to Bethlehem for the birth, Gabriel somehow forgot to mention that when they left, it would be quite some time before they were able to come home again.
            I wonder if Mary kind of felt like she’d been tricked.  I mean, I can imagine her thinking, “So, Gabriel, when you told me about Jesus, you did not think all this stuff was important?  You did not think I’d be interested?  It did not cross your mind to tell me that I’d have to travel eighty miles while I was nine months pregnant?  It never occurred to you that it would be helpful for me to know that I would not be able to go home again afterward?  Somehow, that all just slipped your mind?”
            I mean, think of what Mary and Joseph are facing.  They’ve got to go to a foreign country.  We don’t know if they spoke the language there.  And they probably have very little but the clothes on their backs.  After all, they were planning to go back home to Nazareth when all this was over.  They probably left a lot of stuff behind.  They’re having to start from scratch, having to try to find a way to start life over again in Egypt. 
And, by the way, they have to do this with a baby, a baby who incidentally is supposed to grow up to be the savior of the world.  They’ve got to teach him about Jewish law and Jewish customs.  They’ve got to teach him about God.  And they’ve got to do that in a place where there’s no temple, no synagogue, no rabbis, no nothing.
Can you and I relate to any of this?  Well, not directly.  I mean, none of us was asked to be the parent to the savior of the world.  But I’ll bet there’s a way some of us can relate to it.
Have you ever been faced with a situation that was not really of your making, a situation that you did not ask to be in, but it just kind of got dropped on you?  And you figured, well, okay, I’ll take care of this and do my best, and then as you got into it you found out there was a bunch more stuff involved, stuff that the people who put you into that situation had to know about, but did not tell you?
I’ll give you an example from my life.  My first United Methodist appointment was in North Sioux City.  Now, I knew that this was a church that was struggling.  And I was told, before I went there, that the church building they had was far too big for their needs, that they could not afford it, and that they’d eventually need to move out.  But somehow, everybody forgot to mention to me that they’d need to move out one month after we got there.  That we had one month to try to find a place to have worship services and to try to figure out what we were going to do with all our stuff.
Now, I’m not at all comparing what I faced with what Mary and Joseph faced.  I’m just saying that a lot of us can think times where we got into a situation and found out that there were things about that situation that people just kind of conveniently forgot to tell us.  And when something like that happens, we feel a little bit betrayed, right?  We feel like, how come you could not just be honest with me?  Why could you not just tell me all the stuff I needed to know right away, instead of waiting until I was committed and could not turn back and then telling me all this stuff?  Were you afraid I would refuse to do it, and so you thought you had to trick me into it?
So, was God dishonest with Mary?  Did God trick Mary into this?  Did God betray Mary’s trust by not telling her everything she was going to have to face if she agreed to this?
Well, I can understand why someone might look at it that way.  But before we do, let’s think about it a little more.
Think again of that time when people conveniently forgot to tell you some things about a situation.  How’d it turn out?  Were you able to succeed anyway?  And even if you did not succeed, did you feel good that you at least tried?  Did you get some satisfaction out of doing the best you could to help, even if everything did not go the way you wanted it to?  Did you learn some things—and maybe even learn some things about yourself—that helped you later in life?  Were you glad for the experience, even if you might not have gotten into it in the first place if you’d known everything about it?
That’s how it was for me.  I might not have taken that first appointment if I’d known everything.  I might have been too scared of it, too intimidated by the situation.  Whether we succeeded depends on your definition of success, but we felt good about the things we did.  We got satisfaction about doing our best.  We learned some things about ministry and we learned some things about ourselves.  And we’re glad we had that experience.  It made us better able to serve you and to serve this parish.
And maybe that how it was with Mary.  Mary was not told everything she would’ve liked to know before she agreed to give birth to Jesus.  And maybe, if the angel Gabriel had been directed by God to tell Mary everything, to tell her about the trip to Bethlehem and the shepherds and the wise men, to tell her about how they were going to have to go to Egypt after the birth of Jesus, maybe she’d have said no.  But I think she’d have been sorry if she had.  The Bible does not give us even a hint that Mary ever regretted her decision to be the mother of the savior.  In fact, it tells us that she saw it as an incredible honor from God.
God never shows us the whole future.  In fact, sometimes God shows us very little of the future.  I’ve said that sometimes I wonder how my life would’ve turned out if I’d known what I was doing.  The fact is that it might’ve turned out a lot worse.  Because while there have been and still are many times when I don’t know what I’m doing, God always knows what I’m doing.  And God knows what you’re doing, too. 
Martin Luther King defined faith as being able to take the first step even when we don’t see the whole staircase.  We might like to see the whole staircase, but it seems to me there are reasons God does not show it to us.  It might be too long.  It might be really winding.  It might not have handrails.  If we saw the whole staircase, we might never have the courage to take the first step.
  God very rarely shows us the whole staircase.  God does not tell us everything that our future holds.  God asks us to take that first step, and to have enough faith in God to believe that God will guide us for the second step, and the third step, and the fourth step, and all the other steps after that.  And, step by step, God will guide us through life.
Mary took the first step when she agreed to do as the angel Gabriel said.  She did not see what the other steps were going to be.  She may have been scared.  She may have felt like God was not being fair to her.  But in the end, Mary did what she needed to do.  And as far as we can tell, Mary thought it was all worth it.
Mary trusted God every step of the way.  If we trust God, God will lead us, step by step by step.  And eventually, we’ll get where God wants us to go.  And we’ll find out that it’s all worth it.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

A Strange Way

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 5, 2015.  The Bible verses are Luke 2:1-20.

            We’re in the second week of our sermon series on Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Today we’re looking at her trip to Bethlehem and the birth of the savior, Jesus Christ.
            It was about eighty miles from Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph lived, to Bethlehem.  A lot of times we picture Mary making the trip riding on a donkey, but the Bible does not saying anything about them having a donkey or anything else.  They might have, or they might not have.  Either way, they’d have had to take some supplies because, obviously, back then you did not get eighty miles in one day.  Given Mary’s condition, it could’ve taken several days for them to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Then, they finally get to Bethlehem, and of course there’s no place for them to stay.  They have to stay out in the barn with the animals.
            Remember how last week we said that Mary’s faith was not a guarantee that everything would go smoothly?  Well, this would be an example of that.  Here’s Mary, nearly ready to give birth, and she has to make a long and difficult trip across the country, for no really good reason other than the fact that the emperor says so.
            We’re not told how Mary reacted to this, but I cannot imagine that she was particularly happy about it.  I’m not suggesting that she lost faith or lost her willingness to serve God or anything like that.  But she had to at least wonder about some things, don’t you think?  I can imagine her thinking, “Uh, Gabriel, could you come back here again?  A have a few questions for you.  I mean, if this is all planned by God, could God not have arranged for me to have this baby at home?  Where I could have my family and my friends around to help?  Was it really necessary for me to have to make this long trip and then have my child be born out in a barn with just Joseph and a bunch of smelly animals around?”
            Did you ever think about that?  Why was it necessary for Jesus to be born this way?  Why could he not have been born somewhere more comfortable, somewhere safer, somewhere better?
            Well, we’ll come back to that.  Because the next thing that happens in this story is that, while Jesus is still lying in the manger, a bunch of shepherds show up.  Did you ever think about that part from Mary’s perspective?  I mean, here Mary is, she’s just had a baby, I assume she’s probably pretty tired and just wants to rest, and all these strangers just come barging in. 
You know, we’re told that an angel told these shepherds to go to Bethlehem to see Jesus, but nothing says any angel told Mary and Joseph to expect them.  What do you suppose Mary thought about this?  We don’t how many shepherds there were, but here they come, wanting to see her baby.  And they probably smell about as bad as the animals, you know?  And she has no idea what they’re doing there.  What do they want with Jesus?  Do they want to hurt him?  Are they going to take him away?  What’s going on?
We’re not told what the shepherds did while they were there.  We’re told what they did afterward, and we’ll come back to that, too.  But Mary had no way to know what was going to happen.  All she knew is that they came, they saw, and they left.  And Mary and Joseph were finally alone with Jesus.  And the animals, of course.
So let’s go back to the question we asked earlier.  Why was it necessary for Jesus to be born this way?  Why could he not have been born somewhere more comfortable, somewhere safer, somewhere better?  And what’s the point of these strangers, these shepherds, intruding on the story?
Well, I don’t think God would’ve left something like the birth of the savior to chance.  There were reasons why Jesus had to be born in that way.  And I’m sure I don’t know all of them, but I think maybe I know at least one of them.
And it has to do with the shepherds, those improbable shepherds who without warning just drop in on Mary and Joseph, see Jesus, and then leave.  What does the Bible say about them?  It says “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what they had seen, and all who heard it were amazed by what the shepherds said to them.”
The shepherds spread the word.  See, if Mary had given birth to Jesus in Nazareth, with her family and friends around, there would’ve been nothing remarkable about his birth.  He would’ve been just another baby, one of many who were born in Nazareth.  There’d have been no birth story for people to remember.
But why is that important?  Why do we need to know Jesus’ birth story?  Well, remember who Jesus was.  Jesus was the fully divine son of God, but Jesus was also fully human.  He was the word made flesh.  But without that birth story, the human side of Jesus could’ve been lost.  We would still know the divine Jesus, but we might not know the human Jesus.  We would not know the Jesus who did what we do, who experienced what we experience, who felt what we feel.  We would not know the Jesus who felt joy and sorrow and happiness and sadness.  We would not know the Jesus who experienced real pain in the process of crucifixion.  We would not know the Jesus who experienced real death, just as we will some day.  And we would not know the Jesus who triumphed over that real death, conquering death not just for himself but for us, too.
But when Jesus was born in this strange, unusual way, everyone knew about it.  The shepherds spread the word far and wide.  And I suspect they did not just talk about this for a few days.  They told and re-told and re-re-told this story for years.  After all, this was the most important thing that ever happened to those shepherds.  And everyone they heard was amazed by it.  And they told and re-told the story, too.  I would think that the story of Jesus birth spread to towns all over the country.  It was an incredibly memorable story.  It was so memorable that people still remembered it and told Luke about it when he went to write his gospel years after Jesus’ death.
So you may be thinking, well, this is all interesting, kind of anyway, but what’s the point?  What am I supposed to take away from all this?
Well, sometimes, we think—in fact, we’re convinced—that we’re doing what God wants us to do.  And sometimes, when that happens, it seems like God paves the way for us, everything just falls into place, and we feel like that proves we were right.
Sometimes that happens.  But not always.  Sometimes, we think—and in fact, we’re convinced—that we’re doing what God wants us to do, and it seems like nothing is going right.  It seems like not only is God not making it easy for us, it seems like God is going out of his way to make things harder for us?  Not only are things not falling into place, things we took for granted are suddenly falling out of place.  And we don’t understand it.  And we wonder what’s going on.  And maybe, we even start to wonder if we really got the message right, whether we really are doing what God wants us to do.
Well, those are legitimate questions to ask.  But we should not jump to conclusions about the answers.  Because sometimes, when we’re doing what God wants us to do, things don’t go the way we think they should go.  Sometimes, God takes us along what seems to us to be a really strange path.  And yet, that path still takes us where God wants us to go.  And in fact, that path has benefits we never would’ve thought of, and that path is better than if we’d just taken the easy, straight road that we thought God should have taken us on.
God has plans that we don’t know.  God has plans that we will never know.  God does not tell us we need to know everything.  God tells us to trust and to have faith.  If God has led us to start down a path, then all we need to do is stay on that path, no matter how many twists and turns it takes.  Because that’s the path that will get us where God wants us to go, and it will get us there in the way God wants us to get there.
I don’t doubt that Mary had questions.  I don’t doubt that Mary wondered why things were the way they were.  But I also have no doubt that, despite her questions, Mary continued to trust God.  Mary continued to have faith.  Nowhere in the Bible do we read even a hint that Mary may have had second thoughts about any of this.  Mary trusted God and had faith.  And things turned out, not the way Mary might have planned them, but the way God planned them.
            So if we’re doing what we think God wants us to do, and it seems like things are not going the way they should, let’s do what Mary did.  Trust God.  Have faith.  It’s okay to have questions and wonder about things, but continue to trust God.  Continue to have faith.  Things may not turn out the way we would’ve planned them.  But they will turn out the way God has planned them.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Overcoming Evil

If you pay any attention to the news at all, you heard about the shooting in a church in South Carolina a couple of weeks ago.  Unfortunately, these things don’t seem to be particularly uncommon.  It seems like every few weeks, or at least every month, we hear about something like this. 

And each time it happens we hear the same reactions. The politicians all make the same speeches.  They say what a terrible thing it is, and they then use the occasion to push whatever their own pet political agenda is.  And then the other side, whichever side the other side is, responds with their same speeches, agreeing that it’s a terrible thing and trying to use it to push their own pet political agenda.  And they start arguing back and forth, and nothing much actually happens.  And a few weeks later, or a month later, or two months later, something else happens, and the cycle repeats itself.

I’ll tell you right now that I have no political agenda to push.  The reason why is that I have no idea what the solution is.  I don’t know what should be done.  And that’s what’s most frustrating about this.  We sit here, and we watch events unfold, and we feel powerless to do anything about it.  We can pray, and we should.  Some churches even held prayer vigils or similar events.  But we’ve done that before, when other things like this have happened, and again, it does not seem to have changed anything.

Does that mean that we should give up on prayer?  Of course not.  We should pray.  As the Apostle Paul says, we should pray without ceasing.  But the thing is that, while God has unlimited power, and can do anything God chooses to do, God usually chooses to work through us.  So, while we should pray, we should also do something.

But I just said we feel powerless to do anything.  I do, anyway.  How can we do something if there’s nothing we can do?

Well, here’s something to think about.  I read something that the shooter in this South Carolina incident said.  He said that, while he was in the church, everyone was so nice to him that he almost could not go through with the shooting.

Think about that.  He had been planning this for months, but the people in that church showed him so much love in just the hour or so that he was there that it almost negated all his months of planning.

Now, don’t take this the wrong way.  I’m not blaming anyone other than the shooter for his actions.  I’m certainly not blaming his victims.  But think about it.  What if more people had shown the shooter more love at other times?  What if he’d been shown more love in the days and weeks and months ahead of that night?  Maybe he wouldn’t have ever gone to that church.  Maybe he’d never have come up with this plan in the first place.  Maybe he’d never have had any desire to try to do something like this.

It’s speculation, of course.  But I think that’s the one thing we can do in the aftermath of this.  We can show more love.  Show more love to our families.  Show more love to our friends.  Show love to people we don’t even know.  Show love to the person we see on the street, or in the store, or in the clinic, or wherever you see people.  Not that we’ll save the whole world that way, but on the other hand, who knows what might happen?

If we show love to everyone we see, maybe it’ll catch on.  Maybe those people will show love to the people they see, and those people will show love to still more people, and on and on and on.  And maybe, somewhere along the line, that love will convince someone not to go through with something like this.  Maybe, eventually, that love will even change the world.
I don’t know. 

Maybe that seems far-fetched, and maybe it is.  But maybe not.  Here’s what the Apostle Paul had to say in Romans 12:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

“Overcome evil with good.”  I really think that’s the only way these kinds of things will be stopped—with goodness.  With love.  More laws aren’t going to stop it—he already broke all kinds of laws.  More speeches aren’t going to stop it.  More political arguments aren’t going to stop it.  The only thing I can see that will stop it is goodness and love.

            So let’s show as much love as we can to everyone we can.  Let’s show love to people we don’t even know.  Who knows?  Maybe, in a small way, we’ll contribute to something that will eventually change the world.