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Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Dream Checklist

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 31, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Jeremiah 23:25-32.

            We’re nearing the end of our sermon series, “Dream On”, looking at dreams and dreamers in the Bible.  We’ve talked a lot about finding God’s dream for us as individuals and finding God’s dream for us as a church.  And I think we’d all agree that’s an important thing to do.  We all want to follow God’s dream for us and for our church.  But here’s the thing:  how do that the dream we’ve found and that we’re ready to follow really comes from God?
            In our reading for today, God is speaking through Jeremiah, and God talks about false prophets, people who prophesy lies in God’s name.  God says, “They say, ‘I had a dream!  I had a dream!...I am against those who prophesy false dreams.”
Now, there are people who deliberately lie in God’s name.  There always have been.  There probably always will be.  There are people who will deliberately try to mislead us and try to get us to go the wrong way and follow them rather than following God.  And it’s important not to be fooled by people like that.
            But there are other people who honestly and sincerely believe they are following God.  They truly believe they’re saying what God wants them to say and doing what God wants them to do.  They’re honest and they’re sincere and they’re truthful, but they’re wrong.
            You know, one of the most interesting things about the church history courses I took in seminary was learning about the heretics in the early church.  We think, or at least I thought, of a heretic as someone who’s just way out there, who’s actively opposed to the church and opposed to God and who’s just advocating wild and crazy stuff.
            But the thing is, for the most part, that’s not true.  Most of the early church heretics were people who were trying really hard to get it right.  They wanted to follow God.  In fact, a lot of them believed in Jesus.  They just had a different understanding of who Jesus was.  They had a different understanding of who the Holy Spirit is and of how the trinity works.  Most of these early church heretics were not bad people at all.  They were good people who were trying to get it right and just came to a different conclusion than the rest of the church did.
            So bringing that back to God’s dreams, there are a couple of things we need to look out for.  We need to look out for the liars, for the frauds, for the people who try to get us to follow false dreams rather than God’s dream.  But we also need to look out for the people who come across as honest and sincere, and who in fact are honest and sincere, but who with the best of intentions are still trying to get us to follow false dreams rather than God’s dream.
            And you know who else we need to look out for?  We need to look out for that person we see in the mirror every day.  We need to look out for ourselves.  Because we all have a great capacity to fool ourselves, don’t we?  I know I do.  I can be really good at convincing myself that the thing I want is what God wants.  I can be really good at telling myself that my dream is God’s dream, even when it may be obvious to other people that it’s not.
            So, how do we tell when we’re being fooled, either by someone else or by ourselves?  How do we tell the difference between a false dream and God’s dream?
            Well, let’s look at some of the things we’ve already talked about in regard to God’s dreams.  We started out by looking at Jacob’s dream and we said that quite often God’s dreams for us are beyond anything we’d have ever dreamed for ourselves.  Then we looked at Joseph’s dream, and we said that God often takes us on a long and winding road along the way to making our dreams come about.  Then we looked at Gideon’s dream, and we said that we’ll only accomplish God’s dream if God is with us, and that God often accomplishes God’s dreams in a way that makes it obvious to everyone, including ourselves, that it was God who did it, not us.  Then we looked at Solomon’s dream, and we said that God’s dream usually involves serving God and serving others.
            It seems to me that what we have there is a pretty good checklist of what God’s dreams are and are not.  And if a dream does not fit into that checklist, then there’s a pretty good chance it’s not God’s dream for us.  That does not necessarily mean that what we dreamed of would be a bad thing.  It might even seem like a really good thing.  But still, it would not be what God wants.  It would not be God’s dream.
            So, as we dream our dreams, and we try to figure out whether they’re God’s dreams for us, here are at least some of the questions I think we should ask:
1)      Is this a common, mundane, ordinary dream?  Or is it a dream that’s beyond what we would’ve dreamed for ourselves?
2)      Is this a dream that’s going to be easy to accomplish?  Is it going to take us on a nice, smooth, straight road?  Or is it going to be hard, and take us the long way around sometimes, and are we probably going to have some setbacks along the way?
3)      Is this a dream that we can accomplish on our own?  Or is it a dream that we can only accomplish if God is with us and we get God’s help?
4)      Is this a dream that’s just going to benefit us?  Or is this a dream that will involve serving God and serving other people?
Now, that does not mean we should never do anything that does not fit this checklist.  There are times when we have to do the common, mundane, ordinary things.  We need to pay the bills.  We need to do the laundry.  There are times when we need to do a few things that are easy, if for no other reason, then just to give ourselves a little breathing room and a little confidence once in a while.  And, while there’s a sense in which we can do nothing without God because of course God created us and all of our abilities come from God, it’s also okay to do some simple things without specifically asking for God’s help.  And while we generally should not do things that benefit us and no one else, there are times when we take great satisfaction out of helping others and so it does benefit us.  And then, too, sometimes taking a little time to ourselves refreshes us and makes us better able to serve others.
But while it’s sometimes necessary to do all those things, none of those things is God’s dream for us.  God’s dream for us is probably going to be something that’s beyond what our own dream is.  It’s probably not going to be something that’s easy and quick.  It’s probably not going to be something we can accomplish on our own.  And it’s probably not something that’s just going to benefit us.
Now, I should also say that just because God’s dream is beyond our own dream does not mean that God is necessarily asking us to go and do something great or heroic.  For example, I believe God’s dream for me is that I be a pastor.  That’s not something particularly great or heroic.  But it is something that was beyond what my own dream was ten years ago.
We need to keep this checklist in mind, because there are a lot of people who are going to tell us different.  There are plenty of people out there who’ll tell us that we should not dream big dreams.  There are plenty of people who’ll tell us that God’s dreams are going to simple and easy.  There are a lot of people who take the vending machine approach to God, who say that if we just pay a certain price by being good and praying to God, God will automatically take care of everything and we won’t have to do anything ourselves.  It’s very easy for us to believe we can do things ourselves, rather than knowing we need God to do them.  And of course, it can be easiest of all to convince ourselves that the things we want are God’s dreams for us just because we want them so much.
So as we talk together, and as we dream together, and as we try to figure out God’s dreams for us, let’s remember this checklist.  Let’s avoid the false prophets who try to fool us and the false prophets who are fooling themselves.  And let’s not fool ourselves, either.  Let’s do everything we can to make sure our dreams are God’s dreams, and let’s be willing to change our dreams if they’re not God’s dreams.  God always comes through.  God came through for Jacob.  God came through for Joseph.  God came through for Gideon.  God came through for Solomon.  And God will come through for you and me and for our church, too.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Cause and Effect

We’ve had a lot of fog lately.  A lot of people say that means in ninety days, we’re going to have moisture.  Well, maybe.  Ninety days from now would be mid-to-late April, and it would not be unusual to have rain in mid-to-late April whether we had fog ninety days before that or not.  So it’s kind of hard to tell whether the fog had anything to do with it.

That sort of thing happens a lot in life.  We know that one thing followed another, so we say that the first thing caused the second thing.  But all we really know is the one thing happened, and then another thing happened.  We don’t know whether the second thing would’ve happened anyway, even if the first had not.

Let me give you a couple of examples to explain.  If I flip a switch and a light comes on, did flipping the switch make the light come on?  Well, yes, because my turning that switch made some electrical connections and when those connection were sent through the system, an electrical impulse went through and the light came on.  On the other hand, if the rooster crows and the sun rises, did the rooster’s crow make the sun rise?  Well, no, because the sun was going to rise whether the rooster had crowed or not.  Sometimes when one thing follows another it was caused by it, but sometimes it’s not.

When it comes to sharing the gospel, that can make things tricky.  We know we’re supposed to make disciples for Jesus.  But we really have no way to know whether sharing the gospel with someone brought them to Christ.  In fact, we may never know whether what we did had any influence on them at all.  No matter what happened, we have no way to know it would not have happened anyway, regardless of what we did.

So, what we need to do is keep ourselves focused on doing God’s will, rather than worrying about the results.  If we share the gospel with someone, if we show love to someone, we’re doing God’s will.  Whether it makes any impact on that person’s faith is not up to us.  It’s up to God.  God is in the charge of results, not us.  All we’re in charge of is doing our best to serve God.

If we do our best to serve God, God will bless our efforts.  Another way of saying that is that whenever we do our part, God always does God’s part.  We don’t know, and will never know, what would’ve happened if we’d done things differently.  We may never know whether our efforts brought even one person to Christ.  But God will know.  And God will know that, regardless of the results, we did our best.  And God will bless what we’ve done.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What Do You Want?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses are 1 Kings 3:1-15.

            If you could have anything you want, what would it be?
            Would you want to win the Powerball and have more money than you knew what to do with?  That was the dream of a lot of people here a couple of weeks ago.  I’m sure there were a lot of people praying that they’d be the big winner.
            Would you want power?  Some people would say that’s better than money.  After all, if you have enough power, you don’t need money.  There are a lot of politicians right now who want power.  Now, I’m sure they’re convinced they’d do good things with that power, and maybe they would, but still, you don’t run for a major political office if you don’t like to have power.
            Would you want fame?  There are a lot of people who do.  We have all these shows, American Idol, the Voice, America’s Got Talent, all these shows with people who want to get noticed so they can become famous.
            There are a lot of other things we might want, of course, and a lot of them are more serious.  We might want healing for ourselves or our loves ones.  We might want to find a loving relationship or to have one restored.  We might want work that’s fulfilling and rewarding to us.  Some people would simply want to have enough to eat and a warm place to sleep.
            But as we continue our sermon series “Dream On”, looking at dreams and dreamers in the Bible, that’s the exact question Solomon faced.  God comes to Solomon in a dream, and God says to Solomon, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”
            That’d be a pretty awesome thing, right?  I mean, it’s one thing to talk, as we just did, about what we might want when we don’t really have any prospect of getting it anyway.  But here, Solomon gets asked this question by God.  And God, by definition, has the power to give anything God decides to give.  When God tells you, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you”, it’s not an empty promise.  God can actually deliver on it.  Now, true, God does not explicitly say “I’m going to give you whatever you want.”  But God does encourage Solomon to ask.
            And what impresses me is that Solomon answers immediately.  I think I’d want some time to think about it.  Wouldn’t you?  I mean, basically, Solomon has one chance to get this right.  There’s nothing that says God’s going to let Solomon have something else he wants after this.  I’d want to think about this for a while.  I’d want some time to weigh all my options, to make sure I’d considered everything, to make sure I really had my response correct if God asked what I want God to give me.
            But Solomon does not stop to think.  Solomon knows.  And I think when we look at his answer, we can see part of the reason he knows.
            He starts out by thanking God for everything God has done, not just for him, but for his father before him.  Remember what we talked about last week, about how most of us have gotten a lot of good breaks from God, but we either just take them for granted or think we deserve them?  Solomon does not think that way.  Solomon knows God did all kinds of good things for his father, David, and God has already done all kinds of things for him, too.  Solomon does not take the good breaks he got from God for granted.  Solomon recognizes them and Solomon acknowledges them.
            So what does Solomon ask for?  None of the things we’ve talked about.  Solomon does not ask for money or power or fame.  He does not ask for good health or a rewarding relationship.  He simply asks for a discerning heart, so he would know right from wrong and be able to be a good leader for the people of Israel.
            Now, maybe you think, well, sure, it was easy for Solomon.  He already had wealth and power and fame.  He had no need to ask God for those things.  Well, maybe, but think of it this way.  Think of the richest and most powerful people in the world.  Think of the most famous people.  How many of them are ever satisfied with their wealth and power and fame?  How many of them ever say, “I’ve got enough money, I don’t need any more” or “I’ve got enough power, I don’t need any more” or “I’ve got enough fame, I don’t need any more”.  I’m sure it’s happened, but it does not happen very often.  The very rich always seem to want more.  The very powerful always seem to want more.  The very famous always seem to want more.
            And this is not intended as a criticism of the rich or the powerful or the famous.  What this is, is human nature.  When we really value something, when something is very important to us, no matter what that something is, there never seems to be an amount of it that’s enough.  We always want more.
            But it’s what we want more of that shows what we really value.  And what we really value, in turn, shows who we are.  That’s why God was so pleased with Solomon when he asked for a discerning heart.  It showed that what Solomon valued most was not money or power or fame.  What Solomon valued most had nothing to do with himself.  What Solomon valued most was wisdom and justice.  And he valued it because he wanted to serve God better and because he wanted to serve the people of Israel better.  And when he asked for that, God was pleased, because that showed how much Solomon loved God and loved people.  And God gave him what he asked for.  In fact, God gave him a lot more than what he asked for.
            And so, we ask the questions we’ve been asking throughout this sermon series.  How does Solomon’s dream help us as we try to follow God’s dreams for us?  And how does Solomon’s dream help us as we try to follow God’s dreams for the church?
            I think part of the answer comes from the question we asked at the start of this message.  What do you really want?  What do you want for your life?  And what do we, together, want for the life of the church?  And why do we want that?  Because what we want and why we want it will show what we really value.
            Now, I want to make clear that it’s not necessarily wrong to pray for God’s help in lots of situations.  If you or a loved one is sick or has a serious medical condition or something, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking God to heal them.  We do it every week.  If you’re without a job, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking God to help you find one.  If you’re having problems in a relationship, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking God to heal the relationship.  And there are all kinds of other things we could add to that list.
            But ultimately, in the end, we come back to what Jesus told us the two greatest commandments are:  that we love God and that we love others.  And even though Jesus said that hundreds of years after Solomon lived, Solomon still followed it.  He asked for a discerning heart so he could serve God better and so he could serve the people of Israel better.  And that’s about the best way we can show love to someone—by serving them.
            As we try to find God’s dream for us and for the church, I’m pretty sure it has something to do with that—loving God and loving others, and showing that love by serving God and serving others.  If our dreams focus on ourselves, they’re probably not God’s dreams.  God’s dream for us has nothing to do with things that are just for us.  God’s dream for us, and God’s dream for the church, is that we value things that that help us serve God better and help us serve others better.
            One thing I’ve noticed, and I’ve noticed it for a long time now, is that every time I pray for God to give me chances to serve God and to serve others, God always answers that prayer.  In fact, quite often God has answered that prayer very quickly.  In fact, I sometimes get a little scared when I pray that prayer to God, because I know that if I sincerely ask God for chances to serve, God may take me in directions I did not want to go.  God may ask me to do things that scare me.  When we sincerely ask God for chances to serve, we never know what kind of chances God will give us.  We just can be confident that the chances will come.  And if we truly value God, and if we truly value others, we’ll be able to handle things even if we’re scared, because we’ll know that God is with us.
            Solomon did not know what would happen when he asked God for a discerning heart.  He just knew that, if he had one, he’d be able to serve God better and serve people better.  That was what he valued.  And so, even though he was scared—after all, he said he was like a little child and did not know what to do—he asked for a discerning heart, knowing that then he would have God with him and would be able to handle whatever he might get into.
            God’s dream for Solomon was that he serve God and serve others.  And whatever the specifics may be, I’m pretty sure God’s dream for us, both as individuals and as a church, is that we serve God and serve others.  If that’s what we value, God will give us what we ask for.  In fact, God will give us a lot more than what we ask for.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Think Small

Do you make new year’s resolutions?  I don’t always, but this year I did.  I made a few of them, actually.  I’m not going to share all of them with you, but one of the resolutions I made was to get back on a low-carb diet and lose some weight.

About five years ago, the winter before I came to this parish, I weighed about 195 pounds.  I went on a low-carb diet and, by the time I came here, I was at 168.  Recently, however, I weighed myself and discovered I now weigh 188 pounds.  In other words, I’ve gained back about two-thirds of the weight I lost.

This is not a decision I made just because of who much I weighed on a given day, though.  I’ve known for some time, obviously, that I was gaining weight.  I simply chose, for a while, not to do anything about it.  About a six weeks ago, I knew I was going to have to get serious about losing weight again.  I also knew, though, that trying to do that over the holidays was not going to work very well. So, I decided that January 3, the day after we came back from visiting my parents, would be the day I would start getting serious about losing weight again.

Why I am I telling you this?  Because I want your help.  If I come to visit you, please don’t offer me cookies or cake or pie or any of your other wonderful deserts.  They are wonderful, and I’m sure I would enjoy them, and I really want them.  But right now, I can’t eat them.  The same goes for when we have a church luncheon or a funeral or something.  Please don’t encourage me to eat more.  Again, the stuff at these kinds of events is wonderful, and I enjoy it, and I really want to eat it.  But right now, I can’t.

The same thing goes for potatoes or pasta or bread or similar things.  It’s not that I don’t like them.  It’s not that I don’t want to eat them.  But right now, I can’t.  I’m not saying I’ll never eat stuff like that ever again.  But right now, I’m not going to.

There’s something else you can do, too.  You can encourage me.  If you notice that I’ve lost a little weight, say something to me.  I’m not telling you to lie—if you can’t see it, don’t say it.  I don’t want to fool myself into thinking I’ve lost weight when I haven’t.  But if you do notice that I’m looking a little thinner, say something.  If you have some suggestions for low-carb foods that I might like, let me know about that, too.  I’ll take all the help I can get.

This is not going to be easy for me, because I really like eating a lot of high-carb foods.  But I know the low-carb diet works for me, because it worked before.  And I know I can do it, because I’ve done it before.  So if you’ll help me, I know I can lose this weight.  And when I do, I’ll be in better shape, have more energy, have more stamina, and be able to serve God better.  And in the final analysis, that’s what we all want to do, isn’t it?

So thanks in advance for your help.  And may you see “less of me” in 2016!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

God's Credit Rating

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 17, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Judges 7:1-21.

            We’re in the third week of our sermon series “Dream On”, looking at dreams and dreamers in the Bible.  Our goal in doing this is to see how that can help us pursue dreams for ourselves and for the church.  Today, we take a look at the story of Gideon.
            At this time, Israel was under the control of a nation called Midian.  God chose Gideon to be the one who’d lead Israel to fight the people of Midian, who were known as the Midianites, and drive them out of Israel.
            Now, Gideon was kind of skeptical about this, as a lot of people God calls are.  He put God to a couple of tests to make sure he had the story right.  Then he’s finally convinced, and he gets an army together to fight the Midianites.  That’s where our reading for today picked up the story.
            Gideon and his army are ready to go and fight, but God says, wait a minute.  This is not going to work.  I don’t want you to do it this way.  You’ve got too many people.  If you win this way, you’ll think you did it yourselves instead of realizing that I did it.  And God tells Gideon to send some of them home.  Specifically, God says that Gideon should tell his army that anyone who’s scared should leave.
            And they do.  Over two-thirds of them leave.  Gideon’s army, which started with thirty-two thousand men, is down to ten thousand.
            So once again, Gideon and what’s left of his army are ready to go.  And God again says, wait a minute.  This is still not going to work.  You’ve still got too many people.  You’ll still think you won this battle yourselves if I let you keep this big an army.  And God tells Gideon to take the army down to the water to drink.  Anyone who scooped up the water in their hands would stay back, and only those who lapped the water with their tongues would go to fight.
            Now, I don’t know, but as I think about that, I think that if I was to try to get a drink of water from a river or a creek or a lake or something, I don’t think it would even occur to me to lap the water up with my tongue.  And it did not occur to very many of Gideon’s army, either.  Out of the ten thousand men in Gideon’s army, only about three hundred, about three percent, lapped up the water with their tongues.  And God told Gideon to take those three hundred and go beat the Midianites with them.
            Imagine how Gideon felt here.  He’d started out with this huge army, and now he was down to this little band of warriors.  He was scared.  So God sent Gideon and his servant down to the Midianite camp.  And just as Gideon gets there, he overhears one Midianite telling another a dream he’s had.  And the dream is one that says God is going to give Gideon victory over the Midianites.  And of course, that’s exactly what happens.
            So what do we learn from this dream?  For that matter, what do we learn from this whole scenario?
            We’ve talked in previous weeks about how what we’re looking for here is not our own personal dream for ourselves or for our church.  What we’re looking for is God’s dream for ourselves and for our church.  But when we find God’s dream, we need to let that dream be fulfilled in God’s way.  We’ll have a role to play, certainly.  But we need to play that role in God’s way and at God’s time.  And a lot of times, God’s way and God’s time are quite a bit different from what we think the way and the time should be.
            Gideon thought the way to do follow God’s dream, the way to defeat the Midianites, was to build the biggest army he could get.  And to you and me, that would make perfect sense, right?  I mean, I’m not promoting going to war, but if we decide to do it, I think we’d all want to have the biggest and best military force we could get.  We’d want to go in with overwhelming force if we could.  We’d want to go in with shock and awe.
            That’s what Gideon wanted.  But that’s not what God wanted.  Because God wanted Gideon and all the people to know who was going to be responsible for this dream coming true.  It was not Gideon.  It was not the people of Israel.  It was God.  They would defeat the Midianites because of what God did, not because of what they, themselves, did.
            That’s an important lesson for us.  Have you ever noticed how quick we are to blame God when things go wrong and how quick we are to either take it for granted or credit ourselves when things go right?  When there’s a tragedy, when there’s a disaster, when things go wrong that don’t seem to be our fault, what do we always hear?  “Why would God let something like that happen?”  But when things go well, when we get a good break that we did not deserve, how often do we say, “Why would God do that for me?”  Not very often.
            I’m guessing that for every person here, God has given us all kinds of good breaks that we did not deserve.  For one thing, I was born in the United States of America.  You probably were, too.  That’s a huge break right there.  I was born in rural South Dakota.  A lot of you probably were, too.  I think that’s a huge break.  I was born into a family that was not rich, but was certainly not impoverished, either.  I’ve never had a day where I worried about having enough to eat that day or having a warm place to sleep that night.  I suspect that’s true of most of us.  I was born into a loving family.  Some of you may not have been, but I suspect many of you were.  I was not born with any physical or mental impairment.  Again, that may not be true of all of us, but it’s true for the majority of us.
            That’s just the very beginning of the list of good breaks God has given me.  I had nothing to do with any of them.  I did not cause them.  I did nothing to deserve them.  Most of us here probably had most of those same good breaks from God, things we did nothing to earn or deserve.  And of course, we’ve had a lot more throughout or lives.
            Everything positive we’ve ever accomplished, really, is the result of good breaks we’ve gotten from God.  And yet, most of the time, we don’t even think about that.  We may pay lip service to it, once in a while, but most of the time, we give ourselves credit, right?  I do, a lot of times.  When someone gives me a compliment, I don’t usually respond by giving God the credit.  I don’t know a lot of people who do.  We’ll give God the blame when things go wrong, but we want the credit when things go right.
            It’s a rare thing, and in fact it’s probably an impossible thing, for us to make God’s dreams come true by our own efforts.  Now again, we have a role to play.  Gideon did, eventually, go attack the Midianite camp at the time God told him to and with his three hundred men that God left for him.  But everyone knew there was no way those three hundred guys, on their own, could’ve defeated the entire Midianite army.  They knew Gideon had won because God was with him.
            And that’s how we’ll achieve God’s dreams for ourselves and for our church.  We’ll achieve them because God is with us.  Or we won’t achieve them, because we’ll try to do it all ourselves.  Again, we have a role to play.  But we’re not going to accomplish God’s dreams for ourselves or for our church by our own greatness, any more than Gideon could’ve overwhelmed the Midianite army with three hundred men.  We’ll only accomplish them at God’s time and in God’s way.
            There’s one other thing to note about this story.  We talked last week, in the story of Joseph, about not being afraid of a big dream if it comes from God.  The thing is, though, that a certain amount of fear in a situation like this is normal.  It’s how we respond to that fear that makes the difference.
Who were the first people who left Gideon’s army?  The ones who were scared.  The ones who were afraid.  They were afraid that things would go wrong, that they could not do it.  And notice, God does not criticize those people.  Neither does Gideon.  Nobody says that they’ve disobeyed God or that they lacked faith or anything.  What they felt seems to be accepted as a normal and natural thing to feel in that situation.
            But while Gideon did not criticize those people, he did go ahead without them.  See, Gideon was scared, too.  He was especially scared when God cut the army down to three hundred.  That’s why God sent him to the Midianite camp and gave the Midianite the dream that Gideon was going to win.
Gideon was afraid, but he still trusted God.  Gideon did not let his fear keep him from following God and doing what he was supposed to do to make God’s dream come true.  And he did not let the other people who were afraid prevent him from following God and doing what he was supposed to do to make God’s dream come true.  And neither should we.
            God has a dream for you.  God has a dream for me.  God has a dream for this church.  It will come true in God’s way and at God’s time.  It will come true because God made it come true.  We’ll have a role to play, but if we try to force it, if we try to do it in our way and at our time, it won’t work.  If we simply trust God, do our best, and let God handle the rest of it, we’ll see incredible things happen.  And when they do, we and everyone else will know that all the credit goes to God.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Faith in God's Dreams

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 10, 2016.  The Bible verses are Genesis 37:2-11.
            We’re in the second week of our sermon series, “Dream On”.  We’re looking at dreams and dreamers in the Bible and how their stories can inform the dreams we have for ourselves and for our church.  And no sermon series on dreams and dreamers would be complete without looking at Joseph.
            Now, understand, this is the Joseph of the Old Testament.  The Joseph of the New Testament, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father, had some dreams, too, and we may look at those later.  But today, we’re talking about the Joseph of the Old Testament.  He was the son of Jacob, who we talked about last week.
            This Joseph is probably the most famous dreamer of the Bible.  We could probably do an entire sermon series on Joseph and dreams, both his own and the dreams of others around him.  But today, we’re focusing on the dreams Joseph had.
            At this point, when he had these dreams, Joseph was nobody in particular.  Yes, he was Jacob’s son, and that probably gave him a certain amount of respect.  But Joseph had eleven brothers, and ten of them were older than he was.  As the eleventh one in line, Joseph was not considered all that special.
            And then, too, Joseph was only seventeen years old when he had these dreams.  Now, granted, when you were seventeen back then you probably were considered a lot more of an adult than seventeen-year-olds are today.  But still, he was not a full-grown man yet, and he had a bunch of older brothers who were.  The chances are those older brothers had gotten pretty used to bossing Joseph around.  They’d have thought they had the right to tell Joseph what to do, and probably Joseph would’ve thought so, too.  That was just the way things were back then.
             And Jacob probably did not make things any easier by appearing to favor Joseph over his brothers.  Joseph’s brothers resented that, as we might expect.  And so, when Jacob was not around to protect him, his brothers would’ve been even harder on Joseph than they would’ve been otherwise.
            So here’s Joseph, still a kid in a lot of ways, out tending the flocks with his brothers.  And he has this dream.  It’s actually two dreams that are pretty similar.  In each one, all of his brothers are symbolically bowing down to him.  And in the second dream, Joseph’s mother and father are bowing down to him, too.
            Now of course, Joseph’s brothers don’t like hearing that.  They get even more upset with Joseph.  And if you know the story, you know that Joseph’s brothers come to hate him so much that they sell him into slavery in Egypt.        
But the point of this sermon series is to have the dreams and dreamers we’re talking about inform our own process of dreaming, for ourselves and for the church.  So what do we learn from the story of Joseph and his dreams?
            Well, I think there are a few things we can learn.  One of them reiterates a point we talked about last week.  This was not Joseph’s dream for himself.  This was God’s dream for Joseph.  Joseph would’ve had no reason whatsoever to think he was going to grow up and have his brothers and even his parents bowing down to him.  That was probably not something that even would’ve occurred to him.  Just like we talked about last week, God’s dreams for us are often way beyond anything that we would ever dream for ourselves.  Joseph’s dream certainly was.
            Another thing we can learn is that, when God gives us a big dream, we should not be scared of it.  Joseph was not.  Joseph went ahead and told people what his dream was, regardless of the consequences.  Joseph had to know his brothers were not going to like it when he told them his dream.  He may not have known they’d go so far as to sell him in to slavery, but he must have known they’d be upset with him.  But it did not matter.  He was not going to be scared of telling people God’s dream for him.  He had faith that, since it was God’s dream, he did not have to worry no matter what might happen.  He had faith that God’s dreams always come true.
            And Joseph continued to have that faith even when things went against him.  And maybe that’s the most important lesson of all, because you know, we tend to want things to happen right away.  I do.  When I want something to happen, I want it to happen right now.  Most of us are like that.  And when we get a dream from God, when God tells us that something is going to happen, well, it’s just natural to expect it to happen right away.  But sometimes it does not.  In fact, sometimes it looks like things are going in the exact opposite direction and we cannot see how that dream we got from God can possibly come true the way things are going now.
            That’s pretty much what happened to Joseph.  He had a lot of times in his life when it looked like everything had gone wrong.  First, he got sold into slavery.  Then, later on, he was put in jail on a trumped-up charge and left there for years.
            When Joseph was sold into slavery, he must have wondered what was going on.  He must have wondered how this dream he’d been given from God could possibly come true.  Then he got knocked down again, even lower than he’d been before.  He was in jail with no real reason to think he’d ever get out.  How in the world would anyone, let alone his brothers, ever bow down to him when he was in prison?
            And yet, Joseph stayed faithful.  Joseph remembered the dream God had given him and Joseph continued to believe that dream would come true.  No matter how bad things got for Joseph, he never lost faith.  He just kept doing his best, he kept trusting in God, and he never gave up.
            When Joseph was sold into slavery, he stayed faithful to God and was the best slave he could be.  People saw that, and he was put in charge of the affairs of a wealthy man.  When he was in jail, he stayed faithful to God and was the best prisoner he could be.  People saw that, and he was put in charge of the affairs of all the prisoners.  Finally, when he got a chance, he proved his worth to Pharaoh himself, and was put in charge of all the affairs of Egypt, with only the Pharaoh himself above him.  And ultimately, when a drought forced his brothers to come to Egypt to try to get food, his brothers did bow down to him, just like God had said.
            When God gives us a dream, God does not promise that it will happen in a nice, straight, smooth, easy way.  God certainly sent Joseph the long way around.  God sends us the long way around sometimes, too.  Why?  There could be a lot of reasons, but the thing is that, while we’re going the long way around, it can be easy to get discouraged.  It can be easy to doubt.  It can be easy to think, well, maybe I misunderstood what God was telling me.  Maybe this dream did not come from God at all.  Maybe I was just fooling myself, thinking this was God’s dream for me.  Maybe it’s not actually going to happen, because I sure don’t see anything happening right now.
            It’s interesting, I think, that after Joseph had those two initial dreams, we’re not told of him ever having another one.  We’re not told that God ever gave Joseph another dream to confirm those first two.  While Joseph was a slave, while he was in prison, God did not give Joseph any special divine message to say, “Hang in there.  Remember what I told you.  It’s still going to happen.  Don’t give up.”  It was up to Joseph to remember, and to trust, and to not doubt.
            I think that’s a lesson for us, too.  Because that seems to be the way it always is in the Bible when someone gets a dream from God.  Once God gives us a dream, it’s up to us to stay faithful.  God’s not likely to keep reassuring us.  God’s not likely to come back to us and say, “Remember what I said?  I really meant that.  It’s really going to happen.”  God gives us the message, God gives us the dream, once.  And then God leaves it up to us to stay faithful to God and to the dream God has given us.
            So as we think about our individual futures, and as we think about the future of the church, let’s remember the example of Joseph.  We need to do what we can to follow God’s dream for us.  We need to not be scared of it, even if it’s a big dream.  We need to not worry about what other people may think of our dream.  We need to continue to do our best and have faith in God’s dream for us even when things seem to be going against us.  We need to keep trusting God and never give up no matter what happens.  And we need to not demand that God confirm the dream, because God tends not to do that.  God gives us the dream and then leaves it up to us to stay faithful.
            God has a big dream for each of us and God has a big dream for this church.  Let’s follow God’s dream without fear, even if it’s a big dream.  Because we know that God’s dreams always come true, and no word from God will ever fail.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Think Big

Well, Christmas Day has come and gone.  So has New Year’s Day, for that matter.  Epiphany is even over.  It’s time to get serious about moving into 2016.

So how do you feel about that?  Are you excited about it?  I hope so.  I can understand, though, if you’re not.  You may have financial problems that you’re dealing with.  You may have family problems that you’re dealing with.  You may have health problems that you’re dealing with.  You may not even be sure if you’re going to make it all the way through 2016.  And in fact, none of us can be sure about that.  We’re not even guaranteed tomorrow, much less a whole year.

Still, I hope you’re excited about 2016, because it is a New Year.  And when we head into a New Year, there are all kinds of things that could happen.  Yes, some of them are bad, but there are a lot of good things that could happen this year, too.  This could be the year everything comes together.  This could be the year when all kinds of things go right.  This could be the year we make a lot of new friends, do a lot of new things, and have all kinds of fun. 

Even if we have problems, this could be the year we make progress toward solving them.  This could be the year we get a lot more money.  This could be the year our family gets closer to each other.  This could be the year that a breakthrough is made and our health suddenly improves.  All kinds of things can happen in a new year, and all of them could happen in 2016.

So let’s think about some of those things.  And as we do, let’s think about what God might want for us in 2016.  Let’s think about what God might want for the churches of our parish in 2016, too.  We know that God wants us to make disciples of Jesus Christ—Jesus himself told us that.  So let’s think about how God wants us to do that.

And as we think about that, let’s not be afraid to think big.  After all, we know God thinks big.  A God who would create the entire universe out of nothing, a God who would send the divine Son to die for the sins of everyone, a God who would tell us to make disciples of all nations, is a God who is not afraid to think big.  So we should not be afraid to think big, too.  After all, there’s no idea that’s too big for God.

 There’s also something I wish for each of you in 2016.  My wish is that this is the year you get closer to God.  That’s my wish for me, too.  Maybe 2016 will be the year that we really believe in Jesus as our Savior in a way we never have before.  Maybe 2016 will be the year we finally learn to surrender everything to God, trusting that God will take care of us.  Maybe 2016 will be the year we truly do love our neighbors as ourselves.  Maybe 2016 will be the year when the Holy Spirit really comes into our hearts, our souls, and our minds.  Maybe 2016 will be the year we make the Holy Spirit a part of everything we do, no matter how routine or trivial the things we do seem to be.

May 2016 be the year we truly understand what it means to be children of God, and may it be the year we truly feel the joy that comes from that.  Now that’s a big thought. 

            Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Dreams of God

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 3, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Genesis 28:10-22.
            In some ways, this is my favorite Sunday.  It’s the first Sunday of the new year.
            I’ve always loved the new year.  Partly that’s because of all the football games, of course, but it’s more than that.  The new year represents a clean slate.  It represents a fresh start.  We have three hundred sixty-five days—well, three hundred sixty-six, because it’s a leap year—well, but it’s three hundred sixty-four because it’s already the third of January—anyway, we have a whole bunch of days ahead of us in which anything could happen. 
Literally, anything.  We could meet all kinds of new people in 2016.  We could go to all kinds of places we’ve never been before.  Some of us will have additions to our families, some of us will change jobs, all kinds of things are going to happen in 2016.  Things that we cannot even imagine happening right now are, in fact, going to happen in 2016.  For all we know, the rapture might happen in 2016.  I’m not predicting that it will, because that’s something only God knows, but there’s no reason I’m aware of that the rapture could not happen in 2016.  We don’t know.
            What would you like to have happen in 2016?  What are your dreams for the coming year?  Money?  Love?  A better job?  Better health?  More satisfaction out of life?  Stronger faith?  A better relationship with God?  None of those are mutually exclusive, of course.  But think about it.  What are your dreams for 2016?
            And what are your dreams for this church in 2016?  What ministries should we be doing that we’re not doing?  What ministries that we are doing should we expand?  How can we better reach people?  What can we do to make disciples of Jesus Christ, which is what Jesus told us the church is supposed to do?  What are your dreams for this church in the coming year?
            And with a new year, we start a new sermon series called “Dream On”.  We’re going to look at some of the dreams and dreamers who are important in the Bible.  We’re going to look at what their dream was, what the circumstances of that dream were, and what that can tell us about our own dreams.  And we’re starting today with the dream of Jacob.
            Jacob was on a trip.  It was a trip he was taking for a couple of reasons.  Partly it was to find a wife, but mostly it was to get away from his brother, Esau.  Some of you may remember the story of Jacob and Esau, how Jacob first tricked Esau out of his inheritance and then tricked him out of receiving his father’s blessing.  Esau, as you might guess, was really mad at Jacob and threatened to kill him.  So, Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, sent him on a trip.
            Night came, Jacob went to sleep, and he had a dream.  He saw a stairway reaching to heaven, with angels going up and down it.  That was not the big thing about that dream, though.  The big thing about that dream was what God told Jacob.  In that dream, God promised to give Jacob and his descendants the land he was in.  God promised that Jacob’s descendants would be like the dust of the earth and would spread everywhere.  And God promised that God would watch over him and never leave him until all this was done.
            Now, Jacob was pretty clearly an ambitious man.  That’s why he tricked his brother the way he did.  But I suspect this was a dream far beyond anything Jacob had ever thought of.  God was going to give Jacob a land that he did not live in and his descendants were going to spread all over and be a blessing to everyone.  And no matter where he went, God would watch over Jacob and keep him safe and eventually bring him back to this land.
            I think what’s really interesting, though, is Jacob’s reaction to this.  I suspect he was happy about it, but that’s not his first reaction.  His first reaction was “Wow!”  His first reaction was amazement.  His first reaction was to be in awe at what had just happened here.
            He said, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I was not aware of it.  How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  And he worshipped God—that’s what that bit about setting the pillar and pouring oil on top of it was about.  It was Jacob’s way of worshipping God and thanking God for this dream God gave him.
            I think that as we think about our dreams, both for ourselves and for the church, there are some important lessons we can get here.  The first one is that, while it’s fine for us to have dreams, our first question should not be “What is my dream?”  Our first question should be “What is God’s dream for me?”  And “What is God’s dream for our church?”
            The Bible does not tells us what Jacob’s dreams for himself might have been.  But we’re given no indication that it was anything like this.  It seems more likely that Jacob’s dream was simply to take over for his father Isaac, to take ownership of Isaac’s land and flocks and so forth.  To be given a completely different land, and to have God’s blessing in this way, probably is not something that even occurred to him.  This was not Jacob’s dream for himself.  This was God’s dream for Jacob.
            You know, I’ve had lots of dreams in my life.  I suspect you have, too.  When I was a little kid, I dreamed I’d be a ballplayer.  For a while, I dreamed I’d be a musician.  Later I dreamed that I might be a judge, or that I might hold a political office.  There are all kinds of dreams I’ve had in my life.
            But the thing is that none of those dreams were God’s dream for me.  And in fact it seemed like, any time I tried to make one of my dreams come true, not only did I not make any progress toward that dream, but God would deliberately take me in a different direction, farther away from my dream.  It was only when I put my own dreams aside, and started listening to what God’s dream for me was, that my life turned around and I actually made progress and started getting somewhere.
            Now that’s not to say we should not have dreams for ourselves or for our church.  But it means we need to constantly ask ourselves some questions.  We need to ask, “Why do I have this dream?  Where does this dream come from?  Is this a selfish dream, something that I want and that I think will make me happy?  Or is this a dream that will help other people, that will allow me to serve God better?  Is this my dream because it’s what I want?  Or is this my dream because I believe it’s what God wants?”
            And we should ask those same questions in regard to our dreams for the church.  Again, “Why do I have this dream?  Where does this dream come from?  Is this a selfish dream, something that I want and that I think will make me happy?  Or is this a dream that will help the church fulfill the great commission, to make disciples for Jesus Christ the way Jesus told us to?”
            And I certainly don’t exclude myself from asking those questions.  Pastors can get caught up in having selfish dreams, too, just like everybody else does.  Selfish dreams personally, and selfish dreams about the church.  As we have dreams about the future of the church, we all need to do what we can to make sure they’re God’s dreams for the church, not just our dreams.
            And in finding God’s dreams for our church, there’s something else we need to do.  We need to be thankful to God for that dream.  And I’m not just talking about thanking God after the dream has come about.  That’s important, of course, but we need thank God before that.  We need to thank God as soon as the dream comes to us.
            That’s what Jacob did.  When Jacob got that dream from God, he did not wake up and go, “Huh.  That was interesting.  It’d be kind of cool if that actually happened.”  We’re told that the next morning, Jacob set up a pillar and poured oil on it in thanks to God for the dream he’d been given.
            In other words, Jacob did not wait around to see if this dream from God was going to come true.  He knew it was going to come true.  He had no doubt about it.  This was God’s dream for him, and if the dream came from God, then it had to come true.  Jacob did not need to wait and see if this was going to happen.  For Jacob, it had already happened.  And so, he gave thanks.  He gave thanks not for what God had done, but for what he knew God was going to do.
            That’s what we need to do:  Thank God for what God’s going to do.  The Bible tells us several times that no word from God will ever fail.  When God gives us a dream for ourselves, when God gives us a dream for the church, we know that God’s dream is going to happen.  It may not happen right away.  It may not happen as soon as we want it to happen.  It may not happen in the way we expected it to happen or wanted it to happen or thought it would happen.  But it will happen.  We can know it will happen.  And we should thank God that it will happen.
            God had a dream for Jacob that was beyond any dream Jacob had for himself.  God has a dream for you that’s beyond any dream you have for yourself.  And God has a dream for this church that’s beyond any dreams we have for it.  At the right time, God will give us that dream.  And when God does, we can and should thank God, because we know that dream will happen.