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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Forgiveness and Change

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 30, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Hosea 1:1-11 and 3:1-5.

            Today we start a new sermon series called, “Who Are These Guys?”  We’re going to take a look at what are called the Minor Prophets.  There are twelve of them, each with one book in the Bible.  We’re going to look at who they were, what their message was, and what they have to say to us today.
            The Minor Prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  Most likely you’ve heard of at least some of them.  But we don’t read them very often.  In fact, unless you’re one of the people who’s read through the entire Bible, the chances are that you’ve never read their books.
            That’s too bad, because they do have something to say to us.  They are not called Minor Prophets because their books are unimportant.  It’s not like these are the bush league prophets, the prophets who couldn’t make the majors and got stuck in Triple-A.  The Major Prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the rest, are not sitting in heaven making fun of the Minor Prophets.  The only reason they’re called Minor Prophets is that their books are shorter.  But their books are just as important and just as much a part of the Bible as any other books.  We’re going to look at them in order, starting with Hosea.
            Hosea lived, as far as we can tell, in the eighth century B. C.  As you may know, the Jewish nation was divided into two parts at this time.  There was the Northern Kingdom, which we call Israel, and there was the Southern Kingdom, which we call Judah.  This was the period of Israel’s decline and fall.  The kings and the priests had led the people away from the worship of God.  Instead, they were worshiping other gods, especially the Canaanite god Baal.
            Because of that, the people of Israel are compared to a person who has been unfaithful in their marriage.  And to illustrate that, God uses Hosea’s life as an example.  God tells Hosea, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord”.  And Hosea does.  He marries a woman named Gomer, and they have children.
            Maybe it seems like God is being a little tough on Hosea, using his life as an object lesson for the nation of Israel.  It kind of seems that way to me, too.  But, you know, being a prophet of the Lord is not an easy thing.  It never has been.  As we’ve talked before, following God and obeying God does not guarantee an easy, stress-free life.  Lots of prophets suffered terribly in their lives.
            Even the names of Hosea and Gomer’s children have messages in them.  God says the first son is to be named Jezreel because that is where Israel’s kingdom will be ended.  The first daughter is to be named “Lo-Ruhamah”, meaning “not loved”, because God is no longer going to show love to Israel because of Israel’s unfaithfulness.  The second son is to be named “Lo-Ammi”, meaning “not my people”, because God is no longer going to consider the people of Israel to be God’s people.
             Most of the rest of the book goes into detail about that, explaining all the charges against Israel, all the ways in which Israel has been unfaithful to God, and how Israel is going to suffer the consequences of its actions.  But then, in the last chapter, Israel is given hope.  We’re told that if Israel will only turn back to God and ask for forgiveness, God will once again love Israel and give it God’s blessings.
            And God once again uses Hosea’s life to illustrate this.  God tells Hosea, as we read, to go and take Gomer back as his wife, even though she has been unfaithful to him.  Hosea is to forgive Gomer and lover her again, just as God will, eventually, forgive Israel and show love to Israel again.
            So, what does the book of Hosea have to say to you and me?  How can we apply what it says to our lives?
            Well, I think it says a few things.  One of the things it says is that actions have consequences.  When we ignore God, when we turn our backs on God, when we put other things ahead of God, there are things that happen as a result of that.  We like to say “God is love”, and that’s true, but it’s also true God is not a fool.  God may love us no matter what, but that does not mean we can use God or take advantage of God.  God is love, but God is not obligated to love us.  If we think we can do anything we please and nothing bad will happen to us because, after all, God loves us, we’re probably going to be in for a rude awakening at some point.  When we turn our backs on God, when we put other things ahead of God, there are going to be consequences we have to deal with.
            And most of us have times when we do.  We may not be terrible, evil people, but how many of us can say that we give one hundred percent of our lives to God?  Probably not very many.  I cannot say it, at least not honestly.  And if we’re not giving one hundred percent of our lives to God, what does that say?  It says that we’re giving a certain percentage of our lives to other things.  There are times, at least, when we’re putting other things ahead of God.  And there are consequences for that.
            Now, don’t get me wrong.  When I talk about giving one hundred percent of our lives to God, I’m not saying we all need to spend all of our time praying and reading the Bible and doing other specifically “churchy” activities.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but we can do other things and still be giving one hundred percent of our lives to God.  But if we’re doing things just for ourselves, if we’re doing things with no thought of God, then we’re putting those things ahead of God.  And while our salvation is based on our faith and not our works, the things we do should reveal our faith, or our lack of it.  And if they show our lack of faith, again, there are consequences for that.
            But while there are consequences, there is also forgiveness.  The book of Hosea also teaches us about forgiveness in two ways.  We need to receive forgiveness.  And we need to give it.
            In the last chapter, Hosea tells the people of Israel “Return, Israel, to the Lord your God…Take words with you and return to the Lord.  Say to him:  ‘Forgive our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.”  And if they do that, God says, “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely for my anger will turn away from them.”
            As badly as Israel treated God, all Israel needed to do was turn back to God and ask for forgiveness.  If they would do that, God would forgive them and heal them and love them and bless them.
            That’s true for you and me, too.  Most of us have times when we treat God badly.  Maybe we don’t intend to, maybe we don’t even think about the fact that we’re doing it, but we do.  I know I do.  But when we do, all we need to do is turn back to God.  When we do, God forgives us and heals us and loves us and blesses us.
            But there’s one other thing.  God told Hosea to take Gomer back and forgive her and love her.  But notice a couple of things about that.  For one, we’re not told that Gomer asked for forgiveness.  We’re not even told that she was sorry for what she’d done.  But Hosea was to take her back and forgive her and love her anyway.
            Jesus said many times that the way we forgive others determines the way God will forgive us.  Even in the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  We talked a few weeks ago about how we need to forgive people even if they don’t feel they’ve done anything to be forgiven for, not for their sake so much as for ours.  That’s what Hosea did.  That’s what we need to do.
            But notice something else, too.  Hosea said to Gomer, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”  That says a couple of things to us.
            First, it says that forgiving someone does not require us to be played for fools.  Hosea would forgive Gomer, but Gomer needed to change.  She could not expect Hosea to take her back if she continued to hurt him and take advantage of him.  In the same way, when we forgive someone, we don’t need to let them continue to hurt us or take advantage of us.
            But it also says that, when we ask God for forgiveness, we need to change our behavior.  Again, God is not a fool.  We cannot expect God to forgive us and take us back if we continue to ignore God or take advantage of God.  God loves us, but God does not allow us to take advantage of God.
            Hosea may be a minor prophet, but he has a major message for us.  We need to give God one hundred percent of our lives.  When we don’t, we need to ask God for forgiveness.  But we can’t take advantage of God—we need to change our behavior.  And we need to forgive others, but we can’t let them take advantage of us—they need to change their behavior, too.
            It’s not easy.  It was not easy for Hosea.  It’s not easy for us.  But if we do it, we will be a lot closer to truly being the people of God.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Step Toward Thankfulness

As you may know, I wear a pedometer.  Recently, the one I had wore out, and I had to get a new one.

I don’t like it as well.  You see, the old pedometer kept a running count of how many steps you took.  To find my daily total I plugged it into a computer but you could, if you chose, make a note of what the count was at the start of the day and then keep track of how many steps you were taking at the end of the day.  That was kind of neat.  I try to get at least seven thousand steps a day, if not more, so I could see if I was running behind and maybe needed to go for a walk or something.

The new one does not do that.  I still plug it into a computer to find my daily total, but it does not keep that running count of steps.  Instead, the readout sends me inspirational messages, such as “Hello, Healthy!” or “We make a great team”.  Right now it’s giving me a cartoon sun with a smiling face on it.  I’m not sure what it will do if I have a day where I have to be in the car or at the computer all day and can’t take many steps.  Maybe, “Get off the couch, Lardbutt!”

There’s nothing wrong with inspirational messages, of course.  I try to be encouraging and to inspire people, too.  The thing is that, to be effective, those messages need to be connected to something concrete.  If the readout keeps telling me how great I’m doing when I know I’m not doing all that great, any inspiration that might be derived from the message will be lost, because I’ll it doesn’t mean anything.

I think that has application to our relationship with God, too.  We’re told that we should give our praise and thanks to God, and we should.  But we should give our praise and thanks for specific things.  A general “Thank you, God” that’s not tied to anything really doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning.  We need to think of specific things that we’re actually thankful to God for.  And we need to express our thanks for those specific things to God.  That way, our thanks and our praise will have meaning, both to God and to ourselves.

It has application to our relationships with others, too.  There are all kinds of reasons that we could think of to praise others and be thankful to them, if we think about it.  We need to think about it.  And then we need to actually express that praise and that thanks.  And our praise and thanks needs to be for specific things that someone has done for us.  It can be nice to hear general praise, but knowing that someone noticed and appreciated a specific thing we did goes a lot farther.

So think of some specific thing you could thank someone for today.  And think of some specific thing you could thank God for, too.  Then, express that thanks.  It may make a lot of difference, both in your relationship to that person and in your relationship with God.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Story Goes On

This is the message given in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 23, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Luke 24:1-12.

            This is the last in our sermon series on the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  When we left Mary last week, she was at the cross.  Jesus told a disciple, described only as “the disciple whom he loved”, to take care of her.  And then, Mary watched Jesus die.
            We read the story today of the women discovering the empty tomb and learning that Jesus was no longer dead.  But Mary, the mother of Jesus, was not with them.  None of the versions of the story of the empty tomb say that Mary was there.  Other Marys were there.  Mary Magdalene was there.  Mary the mother of James was there.  But Mary the mother of Jesus was not.
            We’re not told how Mary found out that Jesus had risen.  I wish we were.  Don’t you?  Don’t you wish we knew how that conversation went?  To see Mary at first not understanding, then maybe not believing, and then finally being convinced that Jesus was no longer dead, that he had in fact risen and was alive!  That would be an incredible thing.  But we don’t get that.
            We do see Mary one more time in the Bible.  It’s in the first chapter of Acts.  Jesus has ascended and gone back to heaven for the last time.  The disciples all went back to Jerusalem, to the room where they’d been staying.  We’re told “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”
            And that’s it.  That’s the last time we hear about Mary in the Bible.
            We don’t know how long she lived after that.  We assume she would’ve seen at least the start of the work of the apostles.  She would’ve seen Jesus’ message start to spread.  Maybe she even saw enough to know that what Jesus had started was really going to endure.  Maybe she saw enough that she started to really understand what Gabriel had meant when he said that Jesus’ kingdom would never end.
            I like to think of Mary near the end of her life—and by the way, you don’t seem able to find any pictures that show Mary as an old woman—but I like to think of Mary near the end of her life, surrounded by her other children and her grandchildren, reflecting on the life she’s lived.  She probably never did understand why God would’ve chosen her, of all people, to be the mother of the Savior of the world.  But at that point, she probably stopped wondering about it.  After all, why she was chosen really did not matter any more.  She had been chosen, and she’d done the best she could. 
            It was quite a life that she had.  She gave birth to the Savior in a barn, surrounded by a bunch of smelly animals.  She went on the run with Joseph and Jesus for a few years, escaping the authorities that were out to get them.  She brought Jesus to the point where he was ready to go out on his own.  And then, she let him go.  She had to be content to seeing him only once in a while, when he happened to come back to Nazareth.  She had to stand by and watch when he was arrested and killed, knowing there was nothing she could do about it.  And then, the joy of hearing that he’d been raised from the dead.
            There had to be a lot of times where she felt like she did not really know what she was doing.  Don’t you think?  I suppose all parents feel that way sometimes, like they really don’t know what they’re doing, but here she was, trying to raise the divine Son of God.  How do you do that?  How do you discipline him?  Do you dare spank the divine Son of God?  I’m not suggesting Jesus was a bad kid or anything, but little kids misbehaving doesn’t make them bad kids.  It just makes them kids.  But yet, even when you know they’re not bad kids, you still have to discipline them in some way.  How do you do that when you know this is God’s son?
Well, she did the best she could, and she trusted God to take it from there.  And God did.  Mary played the role she had been given, and she played it as well as she could.  And when her role was finished, when she had done what she was supposed to do, she left the stage.  And the story went on without her.
            And when you think about it, that’s how it works for all of us.  We go through our lives, and a lot of times we don’t know what we’re doing.  But we do the best we can, and trust God to take it from there.  We play the role we’ve been given, and we play it as well as we can.  Sometimes, we’re given different roles to play at different stages of our lives.  But still, we play them as well as we can, and trust God to take it from there.  And then, when our role is finished, when we’ve done what we’re supposed to do, we leave the stage.  And the story goes on without us.
            That’s how it’s always been.  Think of the history of this church.  Think of all the people, both lay people and clergy, who’ve been important to the history of this church.  Each of them had a role to play.  They played it as well as they could, trusted God to take it from there, and then, for one reason or another, they left the stage, and the story went on without them.
            Right now, we’re all here.  And each of us has a role to play.  Each of us needs to play that role as well as we can.  Then, we need to trust God to take it from there.  Because at some point—I hope it’s not for a long time, but at some point—we will all leave the stage, and the story will go on without us.
            Maybe that sounds kind of sad.  But I don’t think it is.  I think, instead, that it’s very hopeful.
            The history of this church is a good one.  There have been some incredible things that have happened.  They happened because God worked through some good people to make them happen.  It’s important that we recognize that history and be proud of it.
            But there are some incredible things that are happening right now, too.  Onida has made some wonderful upgrades to its audio/visual equipment, to where it’s as good as any church in the area.  Gettysburg has built a wonderful addition which is helping in ways that I, at least, never even thought about when we decided to build it.  In both Onida and Gettysburg, our children’s programs have seen incredible growth.  Even in Agar, the church still makes solid contributions to missions and is still a community of loving, caring people who take care of each other and reach out to the community in every way they can.  Incredible things are happening here, and they’re happening because God is working through some good people to make them happen.
            And I’m convinced that God is just getting started.  I’m convinced that God has a lot more incredible things in store for this church.  It seems to us like this church has been here a long time, and maybe in human terms it has been, but remember, we’re talking about God here.  We’re told that a thousand years are like a day to God, and this church has been here a lot less than a thousand years.  This church has had some great days in the past, and it’s having some great days now, but I’m firmly convinced that its greatest days are still to come.  I’m convinced that God will work through good people to make things happen in this church that you and I cannot even imagine.  The story of this church is nowhere near its end.  In fact, I think it’s still near the beginning.
            Mary played the role she was given to play.  She did not know why she’d been chosen to play that role.  She sometimes felt like she did not know what she was doing.  But God worked through her, and incredible things happened.  Mary just saw the beginning of them.  She was just a part of a larger story, a story that’s gone on for two thousand years, a story that will go on for a number of more years that, quite literally, only God knows.
            You and I have been given roles to play.  We don’t know what we’ve been chosen to play those roles.  We sometimes feel like we don’t know what we’re doing.  But God will work through us.  And incredible things will happen.  You and I will just see the beginning of them.  We’re part of a larger story, a story that will go on, again, for a number of more years that, quite literally, only God knows.
            Someday, our role will be finished.  We’ll have done what we’re supposed to do, we’ll all leave the stage, and the story will go on without us.  But that’s okay.  Because the story will go on, to the honor and glory of God.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What Not Why

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 16, 2015.  The Bible verses used are John 19:25-30.

            In our Bible reading today, Mary is near the cross.  Jesus is on it.  He’s dying.  Mary knows he’s dying.  She’s watching him die.  And she knows there is absolutely nothing that she can do about it.
            We don’t know how she came to be there.  This, after all, did not take place in Nazareth, where Mary lived.  This was in Jerusalem, about a hundred twenty miles away. Mary could not have been there because of Jesus’ arrest.  Even if word got to Nazareth, she’d never have had time to get there.
            A guess is that she went to Jerusalem for the Passover.  She and Joseph had gone there before for that reason.  She was there, and Jesus was there.  We don’t know whether they met before his arrest, but if they did, the Bible does not tell us so.
            Was she in the crowd when the chief priests were stirring the people up against Jesus?  Was she there when the crowd was shouting “Crucify!  Crucify!”?  Was she watching when Jesus, having been beaten and whipped, was trying to carry his cross and could not make it?  Did she see Simon of Cyrene forced to carry Jesus’ cross for him?
            In some ways, this was probably harder on Mary than it was on Jesus.  What I mean is that Jesus, of course, knew he was going to die.  He had known for some time.  He knew he was going to die, and he knew how he was going to die.  He tried to tell the disciples about it, but they did not understand and did not want to believe it if they did understand.
            Do you suppose he ever told his mother?  Did Jesus ever tell Mary what was going to happen to him?  Did he tell Mary that he was going to be killed on a cross, but that he was going to rise again on the third day?  And if he did, did she understand it?  Did she believe it?
            I mean, none of this was not part of what the angel Gabriel had told Mary.  Remember how that went?  Gabriel said about Jesus that “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
            He will reign forever.  His kingdom will never end.  And now, here he is, hanging on a cross, dying.
            This was not what Gabriel had told her.  This was not part of the plan at all.  Mary had been promised, by an angel, no less, that it was not going to be this way.  Jesus was supposed to be the king forever, a kingdom without end.  And now, this.  To see her son beaten and whipped, treated like a common criminal.  In fact, treated worse than a common criminal, treated like the worst of the criminals.  To see him taken to the cross, taken to die.  To watch him dying.  In addition to everything else Mary felt, she must have been incredibly confused.  She also must have felt like she'd been betrayed.  She must have been so angry, and so sad, and so confused.  Can any of us imagine how she must have felt?
            Well, yes, some of you probably can.  Because I know there are people in each of the congregations of this parish who have lost a child.  And you know exactly how Mary felt, because you’ve felt it yourself.  To one extent or another, you probably still do.
            And it’s tempting to just end the message there.  Because, to be honest, there’s nothing I can say to you about this.  I’ve never gone through what you’ve been through.  I’ve never felt what you’ve felt and still feel.  I could give you all the pat answers, and I could tell you what the experts say.  And some of it may even be true.  But none of it can change things.  None of it can give you your son or daughter back.  And nothing could give Mary her son back, either.
            But here’s what I want to say about it.  Jesus, on the cross, saw Mary there.  Standing next to her is someone who is identified as “the disciple whom he loved”.  That’s usually considered to be John himself, although the Bible does not make that clear and there are other theories.  But the two of them are standing there together.  And Jesus sees them.  And Jesus says to Mary, “Woman, here is your son.”  And he says to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”  And then, we’re told “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
            Jesus knew how Mary was feeling.  And he knew there was nothing he could do about it.  Except.  Except, there was this one thing Jesus could do.  He could make sure Mary was not left alone.  He could make sure that Mary did not have to go through her grief and her pain and her sadness by herself.  He could make sure someone was there for her.  The disciple could not make Mary stop feeling what she was feeling.  It would’ve been foolish to try.  But the disciple could be there for her.  The disciple could support her.  The disciple could encourage her.  The disciple could love her.  The disciple could make sure Mary knew that she did not have to face things by herself.
            See, when these things happen, our instinct is to always ask the why question.  Why did this happen?  It’s okay to ask, but we’re not likely to get an answer.  And the fact is, in a situation like this, even if we did know the answer, it would not satisfy us.  It would not have satisfied Mary.  If the angel Gabriel had appeared to her at that time and explained to her that Jesus had to die so that the sins of humanity could be forgiven, that it was all right because it was all part of God’s plan, I suspect Mary would still not have accepted it.  I think she might’ve said, “Do you mean to tell me that the almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing God could not come up with a better plan that that?  A plan that requires my son, my wonderful, innocent, perfect son, to be killed on a cross?  That’s the best plan God could come up with?  What kind of stupid plan is that, anyway?”
            There is no answer to “why” that would satisfy us when someone we love that much dies.  Maybe that’s why, on the cross, Jesus did not try to answer “why”.  Instead, Jesus answered a different question.  Jesus answered “what”.  As in, “What can I do to help?”
            Jesus did the one thing he could do to help.  He made sure that Mary did not have to face this situation alone.  And maybe that’s a lesson you and I need to take out of this.  When we see someone hurting, and it seems like there’s nothing we can do to take away the hurt, we can still make sure that person does not have to face the situation alone.  We can be there for them.  We cannot stop them from feeling what they’re feeling.  It would probably be foolish to try.  But we can still be there for them.  We can still support them.  We can still encourage them.  We can still love them.  We can make sure that they know they do not have to face things by themselves.
            That’s why we have the prayer emphasis for people who feel alone.  Because every one of us knows someone who is going through something really difficult right now.  And in fact, the chances are that there is someone right here today who’s going through something really difficult.  Maybe we know about it, or maybe we don’t.  But they’re still going through it.  And that’s why we need to keep making an effort all the time to be there for each other and support each other and help each other and encourage each other.
            That’s not easy.  I know it’s not.  I certainly don’t always do it.  I miss chances all the time to be there for people.  We all do.  It’s not because we mean to miss chances.  It’s just that we get wrapped up in our own stuff.  And the stuff we get wrapped up in is not bad stuff.  It’s good stuff.  But sometimes, we get so wrapped up in it that we don’t see the hurts of the people around us.  We don’t notice that there are people all around us who need us to be there for them.  And a lot of times, those people won’t come right out and tell us that they need us.  In fact, they may try to hide the fact that they need us.  But they still do.  And we need to be there for them.  And sometimes, we need them to be there for us.
            It’s not easy.  And I think the key to it is prayer.  We need to pray that God will open our hearts as well as opening our eyes.  We need to pray that God will give us the desire and the determination to see the hurting people around us and to do whatever we can to help.  We need to pray that God will put God’s Spirit into our hearts, no matter how much we try to resist it.  And we need to keep praying this over and over and over again.  Because even if we start doing this, we’ll always be tempted to start sliding back.
            It’s not easy.  But we can do it.  Jesus did it, even while he was hanging on a cross.  You and I can do it, too.  None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something.  And we can all be there for each other.  If each of us does what we can do, there will be no one who has to face the hardships of life alone.  And then, we’ll be the loving, caring people God wants us to be.


Friday, August 14, 2015

I Believe In You

            Pretty soon, our church school programs will be starting again.  In Gettysburg, that means Faith Builders, our Wednesday after-school program.  It starts September 9.  In Onida, that means Sunday School, which is held during the worship service.  It starts September 13.

            Both of those programs experienced substantial growth last year.  While I can’t prove it, I think one of the reasons why is that we have been praying about it.  In the spring of 2014, we started a prayer emphasis on reaching the children of our parish, especially those children who are not currently going to church or church school anywhere.  I believe that God answered our prayers.

            I also believe that God blessed our efforts.  God did not simply wave a magic wand and bring those children to our churches.  The people of our churches worked at it.  They invited people.  They encouraged people.  They showed love to people.  They were there to teach.  They were there to help.  God saw the effort that so many people were putting forth to reach the children of our parish, and God blessed that effort.

            Will we see more growth this year?  It’s certainly possible.  We know there are plenty more kids out there who are still not going to church or church school anywhere.  And we know God wants us to reach those children.

            And when I say “us”, I don’t necessarily mean us as United Methodists.  I mean us as Christians.  I assume we’re not the only church trying to reach those children.  I certainly hope we’re not.  I hope, and assume, that all the Christian churches of our parish are trying to reach those children.  And I hope they’re all successful.  After all, we’re not in competition with those churches.  We’re all on the same team.  Our goal is not to make United Methodists.  Our goal is make Christians.  Our goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

            I don’t know whether we’ll see more growth this year.  But I believe that we will.  I believe it for two reasons.

            One, I believe in God.  As I said, I believe God wants us to reach those children.  God could do it without us, of course—God can do anything—but God chooses to work in and through us.

            And that brings me to the second reason I believe we’ll see growth this year.  I believe in you.  I believe in the people of this parish.

            I believe that you want us to reach those children.  I believe that you’re praying for us to reach them.  I also believe you’re praying for chances to do something about it.  I believe that you have the desire to reach those children and that you are determined to reach them.  I believe we are all willing to be open to go where God’s Spirit is leading us to go and to do what God’s Spirit is leading us to do.  If we do that, I don’t see any reason we shouldn’t continue to see growth in our children’s programs.

            Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not putting God to the test here.  God does things in God’s way and in God’s time.  If we don’t see growth in our children’s programs this year, it won’t mean God let us down.  It may mean that God knows we’re not ready for that growth just yet.  It may meant that God knows the children, and their parents, aren’t quite ready yet.  It may mean that God has a different plan in mind for us to reach those children.  It may mean a lot of things.

            But here’s what I know.  Whenever I have prayed that I would get more chances to serve God, God has always answered that prayer and given me those chances.  If we all pray for chances to reach the children of our parish, I am convinced that God will answer that prayer and give us those chances.  The answer may not come in the way we expected.  But it will certainly come.

            So let’s pray that God will give us chances to serve by reaching the children of our parish for God.  If we all do that, I am confident that it will happen.  I’m confident because I believe in God.  And I believe in you.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Forgiving Jesus

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 2, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Mark 3:20-35.

            When we left the story of Mary last week, Jesus had just performed his first miracle.  This was a pretty unmistakable sign that it was time for Jesus to leave Nazareth and start his ministry on earth.
            That must have been hard on Mary.  She knew it had to be this way, of course.  She remembered what the angel Gabriel had told her.  She knew who Jesus was.  Still, it was hard.  Jesus had been a part of her life for thirty years, more or less.  And now, he was not there any more.
            There probably was not a day that went by that she did not think of him.  She wondered where he was.  She wondered what he was doing.  She wondered if he was all right, if he was eating properly, if he was getting enough rest.  She wondered all the things that a mother wonders when her son is away from home, out on his own.
            Once in a while, of course, Jesus would come back to Nazareth.  And I’m sure he looked in on Mary, to see how she was doing.  Wouldn’t you like to know how those conversations went?  Did Jesus tell Mary about all the things he’d done?  Did he tell her about being tempted in the desert?  Did he tell her about healing people?  Did he tell her about taking on demons?  If so, how would Mary react to that?  Would she be proud of Jesus?  Would she be worried about him?  Did she ever try to get him to come back home, to come back to the carpenter shop?
            Well, we don’t know any of that, of course.  But if she ever did try to get him to come back home, it did not work.  Jesus was never there very long.  He’d be there for a little while, and then he’d be gone again, back to his ministry.  And Mary would be alone again, left to wonder and worry about him.
Obviously, communication back then was not what it is now.  It’s not like Jesus had a cell phone Mary could call.  She could not send him a text or an email.  She could not even contact him on facebook.  Still, though, I’m sure she heard things.  Probably lots of things.  Maybe she heard about the time he fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Maybe she heard about the huge crowds he was drawing to hear him preach.  Maybe she even heard about him walking on the water and calming the storm.
            If she did, she must have been really proud of him.  I mean, think about it.  Think about if your son or your daughter could do stuff like that.  Most parents are proud of their children anyway, but this would be something really incredible right.  To think that your child was doing that.  It’d be incredible.
            But she probably heard some other things, too.  She probably heard about the times Jesus broke the Sabbath law.  She probably heard about the times he argued with the Pharisees.  She probably heard about the times he got into trouble with the authorities.  And you just know that there were some people eager to tell her about stuff like that, right?  After all, it’s not like gossip is a recent invention.  People did it back then, too.  There were probably people who just could not wait to tell Mary when they heard something critical of Jesus.
            So we come to our Bible reading for today.  We’re told that Jesus and his disciples go to a house, and there’s a huge crowd there, so big that Jesus could not even eat.  Then we’re told, “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”
            Now, we don’t know who this “family” was that thought Jesus was out of his mind.  Some people think it was not actually his family at all, at least not in the sense of blood relatives.  And that does kind of make sense, because people sometimes gave “family” a broader meaning back then.  People who were family friends were sometimes referred to as uncles or cousins, even though they were not actually related.  Whoever it was, though, it must not have been Mary, and it must not have been Jesus’ brothers, because we’re told later in the passage, “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived.”
            And that’s the part I want to focus on.  Jesus is talking to the people, and he’s telling them things about God and about their faith.  And the things he’s telling them, the way he’s interpreting scripture and telling them who God is, are things they’ve never heard before.  They’ve certainly never heard them from the Pharisees.  And Jesus is saying it like he’s someone in authority, like he knows this stuff and has no doubt that it’s true.
            And because of that, some people think Jesus has gone nuts.  And other people think he’s possessed by demons.  And in the middle of all this chaos and confusion, Mary and Jesus’ brothers show up.  They cannot even get in the door because of the crowd.  So they send a message to Jesus to tell him that they’re there and want to talk to him.
            And here’s Jesus’ response.  He says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  Then he looks at the people around him, the people who believe in him and trust him, and he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
            Can you imagine Mary’s reaction, when she heard that response?  She was worried about Jesus.  She’d heard he might be in trouble.  She came down to check on him, to see if he could help.  And Jesus sends a response that basically is a rejection of both Mary and of his brothers.
            Now, I don’t think Jesus really intended it that way.  It’s hard for me to believe that Jesus would’ve deliberately hurt his mother.  I think he was more making a point about how we are all brothers and sisters if we follow God.  Or, he may have been afraid that Mary and his brothers were going to try to make him stop his ministry.  Or there may have been other reasons Jesus aid what he said.  But this is a sermon series about Mary.  And Mary has come all this way because she loves Jesus and is worried about him, and Jesus refuses to even see her.  Can you imagine how she must have felt?
            We don’t know what happened after that.  Mark drops the story at that point and moves on to something else.  So do Matthew and Luke in their versions of the story.  We’d like to think, of course, that maybe after the meal was over and the people had left, Jesus went to see Mary and explained things to her.  But for all we know, that may not have happened until much later or it may not have happened at all.  For all we know, Mary and her sons may have simply turned around and gone home, feeling like Jesus did not even care about them any more.
            Have you ever had someone you love hurt you like that?  Have you ever felt rejected by someone you were really close to?  Someone you were just trying to help?  If so, then maybe you have some idea how Mary felt here.  To have her own son, a son whom she’d been through a lot to have and to raise, and who, after all, was supposed to be the Son of God, reject her, and in a really public way.  It had to hurt.
            But here’s the thing.  Somehow, Mary got over it.  Somehow, Mary got past the hurt.  I don’t suppose it was easy.  It probably took some time.  It probably took some prayer.  Maybe it took talking to Jesus at some point, we don’t know.  But somehow, Mary got over it.  We know she got over it because we see her with Jesus later in the gospels.  In fact, we see her at the cross when Jesus is dying, and we see her going to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. 
            In other words, Mary forgave Jesus.  Does that sound odd to you?  That Mary would forgive Jesus?  After all, Jesus is the divine Son.  Jesus is without sin.  And yet Mary forgave Jesus.  Did Jesus sin, that Mary had to forgive him?
            No, I don’t think so.  I believe that Jesus did not sin while he was on earth.  He was tempted to, but he did not.  But I still think that Mary forgave him.
            You see, I don’t think we have to sin, necessarily, to hurt people.  We can hurt people by accident.  We can hurt people with the best of intentions.  We can hurt people by things we say or do when we don’t even realize how they’re going to take what we say.
            And that can happen to us, too.  We can be hurt by people who have no intention of hurting us.  But despite their intentions, we’re still hurt.  And we have to find a way to get past it.  And that way past it is to forgive them.  We need to forgive them for hurting us even if they don’t know they hurt us.  We don’t forgive them to help them.  We forgive them to help us.
            I don’t think Jesus intended to hurt Mary.  But I suspect Mary was hurt.  And I suspect Mary needed to forgive Jesus.  Not because Jesus needed to receive forgiveness.  But because Mary needed to give it.  She needed to forgive Jesus so she could get past the hurt and have a relationship with her son again.
            Who do you need to forgive?  I suspect there’s someone.  I suspect we all have someone we need to forgive.  I’d encourage you to think about who it is.  I’d encourage you to pray about it.  And I’d encourage you to find a way to forgive them.  It won’t be easy.  It may take some time.  It may take lots of time and lots of prayer. 
            But keep trying.  Even if they don’t think they need forgiveness, keep trying.  Even if they’re not interested in receiving your forgiveness, keep trying.  Keep trying until you can do it.  Because you’re not forgiving them because they need to receive forgiveness.  You’re forgiving them because you need to give forgiveness.  You’re forgiving them so you can get past the hurt.  Because that’s the only way we can ever be free of it.  And it’s only when we’re free of that hurt that we can truly be the people God wants us to be.