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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Getting to Easter

            Last Sunday, of course, was Easter.  Almost everyone looks forward to Easter Sunday.  We had a week of special church services, following Jesus to the cross.  But then comes the celebration!  He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

            But of course, on the morning of the first Easter, the disciples were not anticipating a celebration.  They were not anticipating anything, really.  Jesus was dead.  Some of them, at least, had seen him die.  They were in hiding.  They thought the authorities might be coming for them, too.

            Even when they heard the story from the women who’d been at the tomb, they did not understand it.  Even when a couple of them went to the tomb themselves and saw it empty, they did not understand it.

            Finally, Peter says, “I’m going fishing”.  That, of course, was what Peter had done all his life.  He’d caught fish and sold them for a living.  Maybe he thought he’d have to get back into the business again, now that Jesus was gone.  Anyway, he went, and the other disciples went with him.  None of them knew anything was going to happen.  None of them knew that they were about to have the biggest celebration of their lives.

            Today, we sometimes take Easter for granted.  To many times, we make it about bunnies and colored eggs and candy.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things.  But if that’s all we make Easter about, we miss the point.

            We also miss the point if we get to Easter without going through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  I hope you did not do that.  I hope you thought about the events that led up to Easter.  Jesus’ betrayal.  Jesus’ arrest.  Jesus’ trial.  Jesus’ torture.  And Jesus’ death.  Without those things, there would be no Easter.

            And without those things there would be no forgiveness of our sins.  That’s why Jesus went to the cross, after all.  He could’ve avoided it in any number of ways.  But he went through with it, willingly, out of love.  He took the punishment we deserve on himself, so that our sins are forgiven if we only believe in him.

             I hope you had a wonderful Easter.  But I hope you had some meaningful days before it, too.  And if you did not, it’s not too late.  You can still think about those events.  And you can still thank God for them.  And you can still repent of your sins, ask forgiveness, and believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Love One Another

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 27, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Mark 15:42--16:8.

            Throughout the period of Lent, we did a sermon series called “Let’s Give It Up!”  We looked at various feelings and attitudes that we need to give up, not just for Lent, but for all of our lives if we’re going to be the people God wants us to be.
            But of course, this is Easter!  Lent is over!  And of course, it is.  But there’s still one more thing I want to talk about in terms of giving things up.  One thing we need to give up is loneliness.
            And you say, but what does that have to do with Easter?  Easter is a day of celebration! Easter is the tomb is empty!  Easter is He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Easter is a day of joy!  What does Easter have to do with loneliness?
            That’s why I love the resurrection story from the gospel of Mark.  All the other gospels tell us about Jesus appearing to the disciples and about some of the things he did and said to them.  And we’re going to talk about that stuff in our next sermon series, “The After Party”, which starts next week. 
But Mark does not have any of that.  Mark leaves the story just where we left it in our Bible reading today.  Let me read the last verse again.  “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  Mark does not tell us what happens next.  And that’s a reminder to us that the disciples did not know what was going to happen next.  In fact, the disciples did not know that anything was going to happen next.
Imagine how the disciples felt when Jesus died.  Sad.  Disappointed.  Confused.  Scared.  All of those things.  But I think they must have also felt very lonely.  Jesus had been their leader.  Jesus was the one who they’d been counting on.  Jesus had decided where they were going to go and what they were going to do.  Yes, they still had each other, but remember, who the disciples were.  They were a really diverse group of people.  They came from all walks of life.  Most of them really had nothing in common with each other, other than their love for Jesus.  And now he was gone. 
If Jesus had not come back, I suspect they would’ve simply scattered.  They’d have had nowhere to go, really.  They could’ve tried to go back to their home towns, back to their old ways of life, but they’d been gone for years.  You ever try to go back to someplace or something after you’ve been gone a while?  It’s never the same.  Everything’s changed.  The buildings, the people, all of it.  There’s a reason we have the saying “You can’t go home again.”  They’d have been at loose ends.  Who could they have talked to about all this?  Who would’ve understood all the things they’d been through with Jesus?  There’d have been no one, no one who understood and probably no one who cared anyway.  I think the disciples would’ve felt very lost and very alone.  And I think that’s what they were already feeling after Jesus died, when they did not know what, if anything, was going to happen next.
Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever felt lost and alone?  Have you ever felt like no one understood and no one cared anyway?  Have you ever felt like you had nowhere to go and no one to turn to?
Now, understand, I’m not talking about people who are alone by choice.  There are people who like spending time by themselves, and that’s fine.  Nothing wrong with it.  In fact, when I’m talking about feeling alone, I’m not necessarily talking about whether we have people around us.  We can be in the middle of a huge crowd of people and still feel alone.  In fact, we can be surrounded by family and still feel alone.  Feeling alone sometimes has nothing to do with whether there are people around us.  Feeling alone means that we have no one we can really be honest with.  It means we have no one we can really reveal ourselves to.  It means we feel like we have no one in our lives who will be there when we need them.  When we’re talking about loneliness, we’re talking about feeling that no one understands us and that no one wants to understand us.  It’s a feeling that no one knows what we’re going through and no one would care if they did know.  And it’s about as bad a feeling as there is.
So how do we go about giving that feeling up?  How do we give up loneliness, not just for Lent, but for our lives?
Well, it’s not easy.  If it was easy, we’d do it.  The temptation, when you’re preaching a sermon, is to say “Pray about it.  Ask Jesus to come into your heart.”  And I do think that’s a good thing to do.  But a lot of times it’s just not that simple.  We can believe in God and pray for the Lord’s guidance and all that and still feel really alone.
The thing is that when we feel alone, it’s really hard to open ourselves up to anyone.  We feel, again, like nobody would really care anyway.  And besides, we feel like everyone else has their life pretty much together, and that we’re the only ones who are struggling.  When we feel alone, it feels like a huge risk to open up to anyone and ask for help.
That’s why we have a prayer emphasis on people who feel alone.  That’s why I’ve asked you to not just pray for people who feel alone, but to pray that God will help us help them.  That’s why I’ve asked you to pray that God will give us eyes that will see people who feel alone and hearts that want to help.  Because the only way people can give up loneliness is if they find people who love them and care about them.  And the people who are supposed to do that are the people in the church.  That’s one of the things Jesus was talking about when he told us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
And I think that’s one of the reasons Jesus appeared to the disciples.  So that they would know that they were not alone, that he was still with them.  I’m not saying that’s the only reason.  The resurrected Jesus needed to appear so people would know he had risen from the dead, that it was not a case of his body being stolen or something.  And it made sense that he would appear to his followers.  But I also think part of it was so his disciples would know that they were not alone.  The resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples so they would know he was still with them and he always would be.  Even if he could no longer be with them physically, he would still be with them in spirit.  The last words of Matthew’s gospel are, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  The disciples could give up their loneliness.  They did not have to feel alone.
And that’s our job, too—to help people give up their loneliness.  To let people know they don’t have to feel alone.  It’s not an easy thing to do.  For one thing, no one is likely to come up to us and say, “I feel alone”.  If anything, people try to hide their feelings of loneliness.  We have to really pay attention.  A lot of times, we have to be looking for people who feel alone in order to see them.
And that requires something of us.  To help people give up loneliness, we have to give up some things, too.  We have to give up our time.  We have to give up our focus on doing the things we want to do.  That’s not to say the things we want to do are bad things, but we’ll have to give some of them up if we’re going to help people give up loneliness.  We have to give up our focus on ourselves and turn our focus toward others.  It is so easy to fail at that.  I do it all the time.
But if we do it, we’ll gain more than we give up.  We’ll gain all kinds of things.  We’ll gain friends.  We’ll gain the satisfaction of knowing we’ve helped someone.  We’ll gain the joy of knowing we’re serving God and doing God’s will.  We’ll gain love in our hearts.  Sometimes, we even gain the knowledge that we’ve brought someone to God.  And if you’ve ever had any of those feelings, you know they are about as good a feelings as there are.
Mark’s gospel leaves the disciples feeling sad, disappointed, confused, scared, and lonely.  But Jesus did not leave them that way.  Jesus came back.  He rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples.  And they knew they would never have to be lonely again.
And neither do we.  If we all love each other and care for each other the way God wants us to, if we all pray for God’s love to come into our hearts, and if we are all willing to open our eyes and open our hearts to see each other’s needs and to be there for each other, no one in our parish will ever have to be lonely again.  We can all give up loneliness, not just for Lent, but for all our lives.  If we do that, we will be loving our neighbors the way Jesus told us to.  I don’t think there’s a better way we could honor the risen, living Jesus than that.

More to Come

This is the Good Friday message given in the Gettysburg United Methodist church on March 25, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Luke 23:26-49.

            In all of our midweek Lent services, and in last night’s Maundy Thursday service, we’ve been looking at all the times Jesus could have avoided dying on the cross, but chose not to.  Now, it’s his last chance.  Pilate has pronounced sentence.  Jesus is to be crucified.
            It was not a done deal at that point, though.  I mean, it was as far as the law was concerned, but this is Jesus we’re talking about.  And Jesus could work miracles.  Everyone knew that.  Jesus had healed people who had all sorts of diseases.  Jesus had fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus had raised someone from the dead.  Would Jesus work one more miracle now, and save himself?
            It was an open question.  He looked like he was weak—so weak that another guy, Simon of Cyrene, had to carry the cross for him.  But maybe that was just an act.  Maybe that was all part of the plan.  Maybe it was to catch the authorities off guard.  Maybe it was for dramatic effect.  Maybe Jesus was going to spring forth, refreshed and strong.  Maybe he was going to call angels down from heaven and wipe out the people who were trying to kill him.  Maybe he would simply disappear, vanish, without a trace.  After all, this is Jesus we’re talking about.  Anything was possible.
            But, nothing happened.  They come to the place for the crucifixion.  They hang him on the cross.  Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Was that a sign?  Was that a clue?  Did that mean Jesus was about to come down off the cross, take control, and he was asking God to forgive these people and not send them to hell?
            But, again, nothing happened.  People start mocking him, making fun of him.  They say, come on, Jesus.  You’re supposed to be the Savior.  You’re supposed to have all this power.  Come off that cross.  Save yourself.
            We’re told that the people who said that were mocking Jesus, and I’m sure many of them were.  I wonder, though, if there might not have been at least a few who were serious.  I wonder if there might have been a few people there, people who had not given up hope, people who really wanted Jesus to do it.  People who really wanted Jesus to come down off the cross, to save himself, to be the king they wanted him to be.  People who still thought, even now, that Jesus might have one more miracle left.
            But still, nothing happened.  Jesus had a conversation with the two criminals who were being crucified with him, the one who wanted Jesus to save himself and them, the other who knew Jesus did not deserve to die and asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom.
            And still, nothing happened.  Jesus got weaker and weaker.  The pain got stronger and stronger.  Hours passed.  Each minute probably seemed like an hour, eventually.  Jesus cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  And he stopped breathing.  There would be no miracle.  Jesus was, in fact, dead.
            The crowd really did not know what to do.  Some of them mourned.  Some of them were disappointed.  Some of them were probably relieved.  And after a while, they all left.
            The temptation is to continue the story.  And we will, on Easter Sunday.  But we won’t tonight.  Because on this night, the people involved had no idea how the story was going to continue.  In fact, they had no idea that the story was going to continue at all.  They thought this was all there was.
            Some of them probably thought Jesus was just another false Messiah.  Because Jesus was not the first, you know, to claim to be the Messiah.  There had been others before him.  There’d be others after him, too.  People who’d made fancy speeches and gotten people all excited.  Some of them attracted quite a following, in fact.  But in the end, they’d all failed.  And, they thought, so had Jesus.  Another disappointment.  It had been fun and exciting while it lasted, but now it was over.  It was a nice dream, but that’s all it was.  Time to give up.  Back to real life.
            I think we can understand why they felt that way.  We can understand the disappointment, even the despair.  Some of us may feel that way now.  Not about Jesus, necessarily, but about our world.  We look around at the world, and we see all kinds of things that don’t seem to be going right.  There was another terrorist attack in Belgium just this week.  It seems like every day I see an article about Christians being persecuted around the world.  And it seems like every day I see an article about Christians being mocked and ridiculed for their faith here in the United States, too.  We see the number of people who claim to be Christians declining.  We see church attendance declining, not specifically in our church but all across the country. 
These are just a few examples—we could go on and on, talking about all the things that are going wrong in the world.  And when we do, maybe we start to think that it’s time to give up.  Maybe we start to think the world’s going downhill and nothing’s going to happen to change it.  Maybe we start to hope that Jesus will come again and save us, but some of us have given up on that, too.  After all, it’s been two thousand years, more or less.  And nothing’s happened.  There have been all kinds of times when people thought he might be coming.  But still, nothing’s happened.  So maybe it’s time to realize that our dreams are just that, dreams.  Maybe it’s time to give up.  Back to real life.
But it’s interesting to note that, on the day Jesus died, not everybody gave up.  Not entirely.  There was this centurion there.  A centurion was a Roman officer who was in charge of a platoon of a hundred people.  And he saw what happened, and he praised God for the life of Jesus.  He said, “Surely, this was a righteous man.”
Now, I’m not suggesting this centurion understood who Jesus was.  I don’t think he knew that Jesus was going to rise from the dead.  But still, think about what this verse says.  In fact, let me read it to you.  “The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’”
The centurion praised God.  A man who the centurion knew, and called, a “righteous man”, had been killed, and yet this centurion praised God.
What that tells me is that the centurion knew the story was not over.  I mean, why else would you praise God for the killing of a righteous man.  That would be something to mourn.  That would be something to about which you’d feel angry, or guilty, or something.  You would not praise God for it.  Unless.  Unless you knew something else was going to happen.
Again, I don’t think the centurion knew what was going to happen.  I don’t think he knew Jesus would rise from the dead.  But he knew something more was going to happen.  He knew the death of Jesus was not the end of the story.  He knew there was more to come.  He knew that somehow, in some way, God was not going to let the story end like this.
And if you get discouraged about our world, if you get discouraged about the state of Christianity, either worldwide or in the United States or even here locally, remember that.  The story is not over.  There is more to come.  Something else is going to happen.  Somehow, in some way, God is not going to let the story end like this.
We are promised that Jesus is going to come again.  I don’t know when that’s going to happen.  It might be tomorrow or it might be a hundred thousand years from now.  I have no idea.  I just know Jesus is going to come again.
But Jesus coming again is not the only way for something more to happen.  God is still active in the world.  God did not just create the world and then stop.  God did not just send Jesus here to die for our sins and then stop.  God is still doing things.  God is doing all kinds of things.  Once in a while, we can see them.  A lot of times, we cannot.  But God is still active.
It’s like when we plant seeds.  We plant the seeds and we fertilize them.  Maybe we water them as well.  And we wait.  And days go by, and we cannot see anything happening.  Sometimes weeks go by and we cannot see anything happening.  But something is happening.  It’s just happening below the ground, where we cannot see it.  Eventually, what’s happening is going to break through the ground and burst forth and be something spectacular.
God is doing all kinds of things in the world right now.  God is doing all kinds of things right here in the Wheatland Parish right now.  A lot of them are happening where we cannot see them.  But eventually they are going to break through and burst forth.  And they are going to be something spectacular.
It looks like everyone else thought the story was over.  They all gave up.  But the centurion did not.  He knew something else was going to happen.  And of course, he was right.
On this Good Friday, I urge us all to be like the centurion.  Don’t give up.  The story is not over.  Something is going to happen.  And it’s going to be spectacular.

Friday, March 25, 2016

All Out of Love

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 27:11-26.

            In our Wednesday Lent services, we looked all the times Jesus made a conscious decision to allow himself to be killed.  There were all kinds of things he could’ve done to avoid it.  There were any number of ways he could’ve done things differently.
            He could’ve just simply used his divine power, of course.  But there were lots of other ways.  He could’ve given in to the devil when he was being tempted in the wilderness.  He could’ve not done some of the things that made the authorities mad at him, like healing on the Sabbath.  He could’ve gone along with the way things were, made compromises, not argued so much with the people who were opposed to him.  Jesus could’ve stopped Judas from betraying him.  He could’ve raised an army to fight the soldiers who came to arrest him.  When he was on trial by the religious authorities, he could’ve denied being the Messiah at all. 
Jesus could’ve done any one of these things to avoid being hung on a cross to die.  But he did not.  At each step along the way, Jesus made the conscious choice to do what God the Father wanted him to do.  Every time, really every day of his life once he started his ministry, Jesus made the conscious decision that he was going to go through with it.  He was going to go to the cross to die, taking the punishment for our sins so that we would not have to suffer it for ourselves.
Tonight we look at one more chance Jesus had.  This is after the Lord’s Supper that we read earlier.  This is after Jesus was arrested.  This is after his trial in front of the religious leaders.  He’s now been taken to Pilate.
Pilate was the head of the Roman government in Jerusalem.  He was not Jewish.  From what I’ve read, he really had no interest in what the Jews did.  He did not care, and he had no real reason to care.  He was there to represent Rome, not to get involved in religion.  As the Roman governor, he basically had two concerns.  One was to make sure the taxes got paid to Rome, and the other was to keep order.  And that was true for everybody, Jews and non-Jews.  As far as Pilate was concerned, people could do anything they wanted as long as they paid their taxes and did not cause any trouble.
And then, the Jewish authorities bring Jesus to him.  We don’t know how much Pilate knew about Jesus.  Chances are he’d have heard something—after all, this is after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and after overturning the tables in the temple and all that.  Most likely Pilate heard a little bit about that.  But again, he really did not care.  What was it to him if the people of Jerusalem wanted to have a parade for some Jewish guy?  What was it to him if someone overturned some tables in the temple?  Were they still paying their taxes?  Yes.  We’re they threatening the Roman authorities?  No.  So Pilate figured this was no business of his.  Let the Jews sort it out for themselves.
But then the Jewish leaders come along and tell him it is his business.  They accuse Jesus of blasphemy, but Pilate has no interest in that.  He does not believe in the Jewish God anyway.  But then they tell Pilate that Jesus is calling himself a king.  Pilate has to take notice of that.  He does not need someone to start a revolution on his watch.  Even if it fails, it’ll cause him all kinds of trouble.
But when we read the story, it’s pretty clear that Pilate does not see Jesus as any kind of a threat.  We’re not told why not, but Pilate has no interest in sentencing Jesus to death.  He knows Jesus is not going to overthrow the Roman government.  He’s looking for a reason, he’s looking for an excuse, he’s looking for anything he can find that will lead to letting Jesus go.
But Jesus won’t give him anything.  The chief priests and the elders make all sorts of accusations against him, and Jesus says nothing.  Not a word.  Now, remember, this is in the ancient Roman legal system.  There was no “you have the right to remain silent”.  There was no “innocent until proven guilty”.  The presumption was that they would not have arrested you if you were not guilty, so it was up to you to prove that you were innocent.
And Jesus would not do it.  He would not say a word in his defense.  You get the impression that if Jesus had given Pilate anything—anything at all, any kind of reason why he was not guilty—Pilate would’ve let Jesus go.  But Jesus would not do it.  He stayed silent.
This was not like when Jesus was brought before the religious leaders.  There, Jesus would’ve had to lie, would’ve had to deny being the Messiah, for them to let him go, and even then we don’t know whether they’d have done it.  Here, all Jesus would’ve had to do was explain things to Pilate.  All he’d have had to do is explain that he was not going to try to overthrow the Roman government, that he was not interested in an earthly kingdom at all.  All he’d have had to do is explain that he was no more interested in Roman politics that Pilate was in Jewish matters.
And the thing is, it appears that would all have been true.  As far as we know, Jesus never did anything to try to overthrow the Roman government or start an earthly kingdom.  In fact, it appears that a lot of people wanted him to do that and he refused.  As far as we know, Jesus never showed any interested in Roman politics whatsoever.  In fact, he pretty much said that people should pay taxes to Rome.  “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and all that.
Jesus would not have had to lie.  All he’d have had to do is tell the truth.  And he refused.  Why?
The answer is the same as it was every time Jesus had a chance to avoid the cross.  Jesus knew that going to the cross was what he had been sent here to do.  One of the reasons he had come to earth—the most important reason he had come to earth—was to be killed, to take the punishment for our sins, so that we would not have to.  The Jewish authorities did not have the right, under Roman law, to sentence someone to death.  Only the Roman governor could do that.  So, Jesus knew that meant Pilate had to sentence him to die.
Jesus did this because he knew it was what he was supposed to do.  But he did not have to.  Being fully human as well as fully divine, I have to think Jesus could’ve chosen not to go through with this.  And at least a part of him did not want to—that’s why he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for God to do this some other way if that was possible.  And yet, Jesus did go through with it.  Why?
Well, think of times you’ve had to make hard decisions.  You know what you should do.  You know what you’re supposed to do.  But you don’t have to.  And a part of you really does not want to.  But you do it anyway.  Why?
You do it out of love.  You do it out of love for God and you do it out of love for whoever the people are who are involved.  And that’s why Jesus did it, too.  It’s that whole “love God and love your neighbor” thing that Jesus talked about.  But Jesus did more than talk about it.  Jesus lived it.  And he died it.  Jesus chose to die out of love for God the Father and out of love for us.  It’s an amazing, incredible, awesome love.
But that’s what love is, right?  It’s part of what love is, anyway.  Doing things that we really wish we did not have to do, but doing them anyway, because we love the people involved.  Love is putting other people’s wants and other people’s needs and other people’s desires above our own.
That’s what we do when we love someone.  It’s what we do when we love God, too.  We put God’s desires above our own.  We do what God wants us to do, even when sometimes we really wish we did not have to.  But we don’t do it because we’re forced to.  We don’t do it grudgingly.  We do it willingly, out of love.
            That’s why Jesus did it, too.  Out of love.  He may have wished he did not have to.  But he was not forced to do it.  And he did not do it grudgingly.  Jesus gave up his life on earth for us willingly.  He gave up his life on earth for us out of love.  It was all out of love.
            On this Maundy Thursday, may the love Jesus showed to God the Father and to us inspire us to love God and love others the way Jesus told us to.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

To Tell the Truth

This is the message given at the Wednesday Lent service in the Gettysburg United Methodist church on March 23, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Luke 22:66-71.

            In these Wednesday services, we’ve been following Jesus in his trip to the cross.  And we’ve been noting all the times he could’ve done things differently, all the times he could’ve compromised or used his power or rallied people around him or in any number of ways to avoid going to the cross, to avoid being killed.
            Tonight, we see Jesus on trial.  He’s in front of the council of the elders.  There are the chief priests and the teachers of the law.  And they say to Jesus, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.”
            Now understand, this was not a request for information.  The chief priests and the teachers of the law were not really interested in whether he was the Messiah or not.  They thought they knew the answer.  There was no way this wanderer, this carpenter from Nazareth, this nobody who had this rag-tag group of followers, some of whom were among the lowest of the low, there was no way he could be the Messiah.
            They “knew” Jesus was not the Messiah.  What they wanted was to see if Jesus would claim to be the Messiah.  Because if he did, in their minds that proved he was lying, it proved he was blaspheming against God, and it justified any punishment they could give Jesus.
            Do you ever wonder what would’ve happened if Jesus had denied it?  Think about it.  He could have, after all.  He could’ve said, “Who, me?  No, of course not.  I’m not a Messiah.  Never claimed to be.  Sure, I’ve done some things, but you know how these stories get exaggerated.  I mean, me, the Messiah?  Come on.”
            It might’ve gotten Jesus off the hook.  The council might’ve said, okay, put out a statement to that effect.  Make sure everybody knows you’re not the Messiah.  And for crying out loud, keep a lower profile.  No more of this overturning tables in the temple and stuff.  Just cool it, stay out of trouble and we’ll be fine.
            That’s not the only way Jesus could’ve avoided death on a cross, of course.  As we’ve talked before, Jesus could’ve just used his divine power and gotten away.  But this would’ve been an easy way to do it.  All Jesus would’ve had to do is tell a few lies.  That’s all it would’ve taken.  It would’ve been simple.  No one hurt.  No one killed, including Jesus.  It would’ve been easy.  All he’d have had to do is deny who he was.
            Jesus, being Jesus, would not do that.  But it had to be tempting for him.  And it’s tempting for us, too.
            Have you ever been in a tough situation?  Of course you have, everyone has.  But have you ever been in a tough situation, and known that there was a way out of it?  All you had to do was tell a few lies.  Just a few.  That’s all it would take.  It’d be simple.  No one hurt, including you.  It’d be easy.
            I think a lot of us have probably been there.  And maybe sometimes we’ve given in to the temptation.  Maybe sometimes we’ve told the lies and gotten out of trouble.  And maybe, as we think about it, we think, well, it maybe was not the right thing to do, but it was not really that bad, either.  After all, again, no one was hurt.  No problem.
            No one was hurt except, of course, us.  Ourselves.  And not just because we’ll get into trouble if people find out about our lies.  The thing about lying is that every time we tell a lie, it gets a little easier to tell another one.  And pretty soon, we don’t even think about it any more.
            The problem with that is not just that lying is bad.  It is, but there’s more to it than that.  The problem with telling lie after lie is that after a while, we forget who we really are.  And then, we start lying to ourselves, which makes it even worse.  In fact, sometimes the lies we tell ourselves are the biggest lies of all.  And after a while, we no longer are who we are.  We become the lies we tell.  Telling all those lies leads us to deny who we are, just as for Jesus, telling a lie would have been to deny who he was.
             Remember what Jesus says in John fourteen, verse six?  You may not know the reference, but a lot of you will know the verse once I read it.  Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
            When we read that, we always focus on Jesus saying “I am the way”.  When we discuss it, we always focus on faith in Jesus as the way to heaven.  And that’s true, faith in Jesus is the way to heaven.  But if that’s all we get out of this verse, we’re missing out.  Jesus did not just say that he’s the way.  He also said that he’s the truth.
            Jesus is the truth.  That’s truth with a capital T, the ultimate truth, the truth that God exists and that God loves us and that Jesus came here and died to save us from the consequences of our sins.  But it’s also truth with a small t.  Jesus is the truth.  And every time we fail to be truthful, we become something other than what we are.  That means we deny Jesus.  And we deny who we are.
            We were created to be who we are.  We were created to be the best we can be, but we were still created to be who we are.  “Who we are” includes all our interests, all our passions, all the things that get us fired up.  But “who we are” includes our faults and our failings, too, because we were created to be human beings, and human beings have faults and failings. 
Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not supposed to use that as an excuse.  It does not work to be mean to people, to cheat, to lie, and then say, “Well, hey, I’m just being who I am.”  Again, we were created to be the best we can be.  But what it does mean is that when our faults and our failings get in our way, when they lead us into trouble, we need to face up to them.  We need to be honest about them.  If we’re not, we deny who we really are.
But of course, Jesus did not get into trouble because of his faults and failings.  Jesus got into trouble precisely because of who he was.  And that can happen to us, too.  When we truthfully and honestly live out our faith, when we are really honest about who we are and what we value as Christians, there are going to be people who don’t like that.  There are going to be people who won’t want much to do with us because of it.  And when that happens, it can be really tempting to compromise our faith so we can get along better.  It can be tempting, in other words, to deny Jesus and to deny who we are.
And let’s not forget that Jesus also said “I am the life.”  Again, we tend to look at that in terms of eternal life.  And that’s true, faith in Jesus does get us eternal life.  But I think there’s a reason Jesus put all these things together.  Because while the way leads to life, the truth leads to life, too.  Both the way and the truth lead to life.  And not just eternal life in heaven, as important as that is.  The way and the truth lead to life on earth, too.  They lead to real life, the life we’re meant to have.  They lead to us being who we were created to be.
When we’re first born, when we’re little babies, we are who we were created to be.  But then, sin comes into the picture.  That’s some of what people mean when they talk about original sin—that we are all born with the capacity for love and goodness, but we’re also all born with the capacity for sin.  And as we grow, that capacity for sin grows, too.  We won’t always give in to it, but the capacity for it is there.  And every time we do give in to it, we are, in some sense, not being truthful.  Because every time we give in to sin, we are not being who we were created to be.  We start living a lie instead of living the life we were meant to have.
So, we have to make a choice.  And we have to keep making it.  Every time we’re tempted to lie, every time we’re tempted to give in to sin, we have to make a choice.  We may or may not be aware that we’re making it, but we still are.  The choice is this:  am I going to deny who I am?  Am I going to deny Jesus?  Or am I going to be who I was created by God to be?  Am I going to accept that the way to life, real life, both in this world and in the next one, is through the truth and through Jesus?
It would have been easy for Jesus to avoid trouble with the council of elders.  All he’d have had to do was deny who he was.  He could have avoided death on the cross.  But he would not have been who he was.  And so, instead of saving his life, he would in a very real sense have given up his life.  He might have still been physically alive, but he would not have had real life.  It was only by being who he was that he could have real life, both on earth and in heaven.
And that’s the only way you and I can do it, too.  There may be times when the truth gets us into trouble.  But when we lie, there’s a very real sense in which we give up our lives.
Jesus is the way.  Jesus is the truth.  And that way and that truth are the only things that can lead us to the life we’re meant to have.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Success in God's Eyes

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 20, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Luke 19:28-44.

            Well today, of course, is Palm Sunday.  It’s the day we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, with people wave palm branches and putting them in front of Jesus, sort of like making a red carpet for him to come in on.  And according to Luke, their shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
            But of course, we’ve been doing this sermon series during Lent called “Let’s Give It Up!”  We’ve been looking at various feelings and attitudes that we need to give up, not just for Lent, but for all of our lives.  And so you may be wondering, how do those two things tie together?  How does Palm Sunday have anything to do with giving things up for Lent?
            Well, imagine that you were Jesus.  All these people are lining the streets.  Their waving things at you.  Their shouting praise to you.  They’re putting down this carpet of palm branches for you.  They’re telling you that you’re the greatest thing they’ve ever seen and the greatest thing they ever expect to see.
            How would that make you feel?  Well, it’d make you feel good, obviously.  We all like to have compliments.  But too much of anything, even compliments, can be a bad thing.  Think about it.  What happens when we constantly have people telling us how great we are?  We start to believe it, don’t we?  What happens when it seems like everything is going right for us?  We start thinking we’re the ones who made them go right.  In other words, we become arrogant.  And that’s what we’re going to talk about giving up today.  We’re going to talk about giving up arrogance.
            Now, I want to make clear that Jesus himself was not arrogant.  Jesus did not need people to tell him how great he was.  Jesus knew who he was.  In fact, it looks like Jesus was the only one on earth who really did know who he was.  And Jesus also knew that a lot of these people who were telling him how great he was were not really serious about it.  In fact, some of them would turn on him less than a week later and demand that Jesus be killed.  So I don’t think any of this praise and hoopla and hullaballoo affected Jesus at all.
            But it had to be tempting.  It had to be tempting for it to affect him.  And after all, this triumphant entry into Jerusalem was not the first time something like this happened to Jesus.  It happened lots of times.  Every time Jesus healed someone, people marveled at him.  Every time Jesus spoke, people were amazed at his words.  There were all kinds of times when people told Jesus how great he was.  It had to be tempting for him to start thinking he really was pretty great.
            And it can be tempting for us, too.  Now, maybe you think, well, nobody’s ever thrown a parade for me.  I don’t have people around me telling me how great I am all the time.  And, probably you don’t.  But still, have you ever had a period where it seemed like everything was going right for you?  Maybe it was at your work, or maybe it was with your family, or maybe it was in a relationship, or whatever.  Have you ever had a time when things were going right?  What happens?
            Well, I don’t know what happens for you, but for me, when I have a hot streak like that, it’s really easy for me to start thinking I’m responsible for it.  It’s really easy for me to think this is happening because I did this or I did that.  Or, even worse, it’s really easy for me think that things are going well because I’m such a wonderful guy that, well, of course things should go right for me.
            It’s the sin of arrogance.  When we were doing our sermon series on the minor prophets last fall, one of the themes that kept coming up over and over again was that the people had become arrogant.  And what happens when we become arrogant?  We forget about God.  We think we’ve got things covered by ourselves.  We think we don’t need God any more.  That’s what arrogance comes down to really—thinking that we don’t need God.
            Jesus was not arrogant.  And I think, as we look at Jesus, we can see a good example of what arrogance is and what it’s not.
            Jesus was well aware of who he was.  He was well aware of the power he had.  He was well aware of the ability he had.  Jesus knew he could do things that no human being could do.  He knew had knowledge that no human being had.  And yet, Jesus was not arrogant.
            What that shows us is that we can have confidence in ourselves without being arrogant.  It shows us that we can be proud of our abilities and talents without being arrogant.  We can know that we’re better than most people are at something—and believe me, everyone here is better than most people are at something—but we can know that we’re better than most people are at something and not be arrogant.
            When it becomes arrogance is when we start thinking that we can do it all ourselves.  It becomes arrogance when we start thinking that we have the abilities and talents we have because of how great we are.  When it becomes arrogance is when we think we don’t need anybody else to help us, and we certainly don’t need God to help us.  When it becomes arrogance is when we forget that every ability we have, every talent we have, every bit of knowledge that we have, comes from God and is a gift from God.
            Arrogance is a trap.  It’s an easy one for us to fall into.  And it’s also a curse.  Because you know what?  Nobody has everything go right all their lives.  No matter how great we think we are, no matter how much we accomplish, we all have times when things start going wrong.  And sometimes they go really wrong.  Sometimes things fall apart completely.  And if we think that we were the only ones responsible when things went right, then we have no one to turn to when things go wrong.  Our arrogance, and even our self-confidence, can be destroyed.  We thought we knew it all, and it turned out that we did not know anything.
            What if Jesus had become arrogant?  What if Jesus had decided that all the things he did on earth, the teaching and the healing and the miracles and all that, were because of how great he was?  What would he have been when Judas betrayed him?  He’d have been confused.  He’d have been a mess, really.  His entire view of himself would’ve been shattered.  Here he’d been doing so well, and now it’s all falling apart.  Who would he have had to turn to?
            That was not a problem for Jesus.  When the crowds welcomed him on that first Palm Sunday, he never started thinking about how great he was.  He knew that anything he achieved was because he had followed God and had done God’s will.  And he knew that anything he ever would achieve would be because he had followed God and done God’s will. 
And he also knew that following God’s will does not always lead us to what humans would consider success.  In our services on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, we’ll be following Jesus to the cross and to his death.  That was God’s will for Jesus—to die on the cross in punishment for our sins and then to rise again, conquering death for all of us who believe. 
But the thing is, an arrogant Jesus would never have done that.  An arrogant Jesus would never have been able to go through with it.  He’d have though he deserved better.  He’d have thought he was too good to be killed on a cross like the worst of the criminals.  An arrogant Jesus would’ve done things his own way.  And in fact, an arrogant Jesus might have had what humans think of as success.  He might have taken control, overthrown the Roman government, seized power.  Humans would have thought he was a huge success.  But that arrogance would’ve led to failure in God’s eyes.  An arrogant Jesus would never have gone to the cross.  But the Savior Jesus did.
Following God will not always lead us to what humans consider success, either.  Sometimes following God’s will leads us into some tough situations.  And if we’re arrogant, we won’t be able to go through them.  We’ll think we deserve better.  We’ll think we’re too good to have to go what God wants us to go through.  Our arrogance will lead us to do things our own way.  And in fact, our arrogance might lead us to what humans think of as success.  But it will only lead to failure in God’s eyes.  An arrogant person won’t follow God into the dark valleys.  But sometimes, that’s where God wants us to go.
Jesus had the whole crowd telling him how great he was.  Yet, he did not become arrogant, because he knew who he was.  He knew he was the divine Son of God.  He knew that he could only succeed if he stayed faithful to God and did what God the Father wanted him to do.  And he knew if he did that, he would succeed, whether he looked like a success in human eyes or not.
That will work for you and me, too.  We will not become arrogant if we know who we are.  We will not become arrogant if we know we are children of God.  And we will not become arrogant if we know that we can only succeed if we stay faithful to God and do what God wants us to do.  And we won’t become arrogant if we remember that if we do that, we will succeed, whether we look like a success in human eyes or not.
Let’s remember that we are children of God.  Let’s do what God wants us to do.  And let’s give up arrogance, not just for Lent, but for all our lives.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Based in Love

This is the message from the Wednesday Lent service in the Gettysburg United Methodist church on March 16, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Luke 22:35-44.

            In these Wednesday services, we’ve been looking at the events that led up to Jesus dying on the cross.  And we’ve been talking about how Jesus had any number of chances to stop these events, to take a different course.  He did not have to die on the cross.  He did so willingly, and he did it out of love, love for you and me.  He did it because that was the way he could gain salvation for us and for everyone who believes in Jesus as their Savior.
            We talked last week about how Jesus could have stopped Judas, but instead let him go and almost gave him his blessing, telling him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”  Now, knowing that Judas has gone to get the authorities to arrest Jesus, Jesus and the disciples go to the Mount of Olives.
            And here’s something that I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought about before.  Luke tells us that “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives.  In other words, this was an established pattern for Jesus, to go out to the Mount of Olives.  Going there was something he usually did.  What that means is that Judas knew where Jesus was going to go. 
And Jesus knew Judas would know that.  In other words, Jesus deliberately went to a place that would make it easy for Judas and the authorities to find him and arrest him.  He did not have to do that.  He could’ve gone somewhere else.  He could’ve gone into hiding.  He could’ve left town completely.  But Jesus did not do any of those things.  Instead, he went right where Judas would expect him to go, right where Judas and the authorities could find him.
Jesus goes out there to pray.  And sure enough, here comes Judas, bringing what’s described as “a crowd” with him.  And people who are described as “Jesus’ followers” see what’s going on.
Now, in picturing this, we have no idea how many people there were on either side.  But it sounds like both sides are ready to rumble.  Jesus’ followers are.  They say, “Lord, should we attack with our swords?”  In fact, one of them does just that, attacking the servant of the high priest and cutting off his right ear.
This sounds like a situation where all kinds of stuff is about to break lose.  It sounds like it could be complete chaos.  It could be a riot.  And of course, in that kind of a riot, Jesus could easily have gotten away.  There would’ve been all kinds of mayhem left behind, and some people probably would’ve been killed, but Jesus could’ve saved himself quite easily.
But Jesus won’t allow it.  He says, “No more of this!”  And he heals the servant.  Then he says to the authorities, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?”  And he goes off with them quietly.
I try to imagine how Jesus would’ve felt at this point.  Scared, of course.  We heard how he had prayed that God the Father spare him from this if there was some other way.  We heard that he was praying so hard that the sweat was pouring from him like drops of blood.  Jesus knew how hard this was going to be.  Even though he was doing it willingly, he was not looking forward to it at all.
But more than that, I think Jesus probably felt sad.  For a few reasons, I suppose.  He was sad to be leaving the disciples.  He was sad that he had so little time left on the earth.  But I don’t think either of those reasons was the main reason he was sad.  I think Jesus was sad mostly because, after all this time, nobody really seemed to understand why he was on earth and what he was doing.  He had spent years trying to explain it to people, and it seemed like nobody got it at all.
Certainly the authorities did not.  They came, as we’re told, “with swords and clubs”.  They were expecting a fight.  Maybe Jesus’ behavior at the temple, where he overturned tables and went after people with a whip, had them scared.  We don’t know.
But what must have saddened and disappointed Jesus most of all is the way his followers reacted.  They pulled out their swords.  They seemed to want a fight.  Before the authorities even do anything, they ask, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?”  It sounds like they’re almost eager to have a chance to attack, to go on offense, to wipe out these Jewish and Roman authorities and take over.
When Jesus said those words, “Am I leading a rebellion”, I wonder if he might have been speaking as much to his own followers as he was the authorities.  It’s understandable why the authorities might think he was leading a rebellion.  Jesus had said and done a lot of things that upset the applecart.  If you took his statements and actions out of context, and did not understand the meaning behind them, it would be easy to understand why the authorities would think Jesus might, in fact, be leading a rebellion.
But Jesus’ followers.  The disciples and the other people around him.  They should’ve understood that this was not about an attack.  Jesus was the one who had told them to love their enemies.  He was the one who had told them to pray for people who were persecuting them.  He was the one who had told them that if someone hits you on the cheek, turn the other cheek toward him.  Love your neighbor as yourself, the Good Samaritan, a new command I give you:  love one another—did none of this mean anything to them?  Did none of it sink in?  Had Jesus just been wasting his breath for three years?  Did none of his followers understand that he was not about fighting and violence, that he was about love?
But then, how much do we understand it now?  How many of us really love our enemies?  How many of us pray for people who persecute us?  How many of us would really turn the other cheek?  How many of us really love our neighbors as ourselves?
These are not rhetorical questions.  And I’m not asking them in a judgmental way, because it’s not for me to judge you.  Maybe you do all those things, I don’t know.  But I know that I don’t always do all those things.  I might do some of them, sometimes.  I might, on occasion, pray for people who persecute me.  I might, on a good day, love my neighbor as myself.  But I certainly don’t do any of them all the time.  They’re things I struggle with.  I know I should do them, but a lot of times I don’t.
Imagine yourself there with Jesus at the Mount of Olives.  What would you have done?  What would I have done?  Would I have just allowed Judas to come up, to lead the authorities to Jesus?  Would I have just stood there and watched them grab Jesus and take him away?  Would I have meekly submitted to the authorities?  Or would I have pulled out my sword and taken the fight to them, and urged the rest of Jesus’ followers to do the same?
Now, put this into our current context.  There are a lot of people these days who say Christianity is under attack.  There are some places where the attack is real and physical.  There are Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere who are being brutally killed for no more reason than that they state that they are Christians and refuse to deny Jesus.  That’s just reality, and we need to keep those Christians in our prayers always.
But there are people who say Christianity is under attack here in the United States, too.  Not in the same way.  But it’s not hard to find people who will criticize us just for being Christians.  It’s not hard to find people who will make fun of us and ridicule us for our faith in Jesus.  And it’s not hard to find people who want to get rid of any mention of God and Jesus in public, other than as swear words.  There are people who will tolerate our Christian faith, so far, but only if we keep it to ourselves.  And there are some who say that, as Christians, we need to fight back.  In fact, some say that if we don’t, Christianity itself may no longer exist.
So, we think about that.  And we think about what Jesus told us to do, not just the statements I’ve mentioned here, but all of Jesus’ teachings.  And we’re left with the question:  what would Jesus do?  And what would Jesus tell us to do?
Well, as you may have noticed, I’m not Jesus.  So I’m not going to tell you the answer.  I don’t think it would serve any purpose anyway, because I really cannot give you “the answer”.  The most I could do is give you my opinion.  And my opinion is no more valid than yours.
But I do ask you to think about it.  And as you do, I ask you to remember two quotes from Jesus, two quotes you probably already know.  Number one is from Matthew twenty-two, thirty-seven through thirty-nine.  Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is.  He answers, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  That’s the first quote.  Here’s the second, from John thirteen, thirty-four and thirty-five:  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
As I said, I don’t claim to have the answer to what Jesus would say.  But I do know what the basis of Jesus’ answer would be.  Jesus’ answer would be based in love.
And so, as we form our opinions and decide how to live our lives, not just in the situations we’ve discussed tonight but in all aspects of our lives, let’s make sure our opinions and decisions are based in love.  Because at the end of the day, what the Apostle Paul told us is still true.  In the end, three things remain:  faith, hope, and love.  And the greatest of these is love.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Of Life, Death, and Cadbury Creme Eggs

In keeping with my annual tradition, I again publish this blog entry from 2012.

           I saw an article the other day that had good news.  Cadbury crème egg season will be here soon!  Of course, this is a season that is also known as “Easter”.  I realize that, as a Christian pastor, I should value Easter for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and all that signifies, and I do, but I also value it for Cadbury crème eggs.  They are close to being nature’s perfect food, just above Double Stuf Oreos and just behind mom’s chocolate chip cookies (hi, mom!).

            I saw another article the other day, too.  This one was about health.  Here’s a question for you.  Do you know what the number one risk factor associated with cancer and heart disease is?

            Unless you saw the story, I’ll bet you got it wrong.  It’s not weight or diet or lack of exercise or stress or any of the things we normally think about.  It’s age.  That’s right, age.  The older we are, the more likely we are to get cancer or heart disease.  In other words, the number one risk factor associated with these diseases is one that we can do absolutely nothing about.

            Last time, I wrote about our need to take care of ourselves.  I still believe that, of course.  We should do all we can to stay healthy for as long as we can, so that we can better serve God.  Still, this article was a reminder that no matter what we do, none of us is going to live forever.  No matter how much we eat right and exercise and get our rest and do all the things we’re supposed to do, at some point we’re all going to get old, and at some point we’re all going to die.

            Which brings me back to Cadbury crème eggs.  Each one has six grams of fat and twenty-one grams of sugar.  Each has 24 grams of carbohydrate and 150 calories. There’s a reason these things are not sold in the health food section of the store.  No one would reasonably make the argument that Cadbury crème eggs are good for you.

            But you know what?  We can deny ourselves all the pleasures of life, we can eat nothing but oats and nuts and berries, and we’re still going to die sometime.  I’m not suggesting that we make Cadbury crème eggs the chief staple of our diet.  On the other hand, eating one once in a while is not going to particularly hurt us, either.

            We should do all we reasonably can to stay healthy.  On the other hand, life is not meant to just be endured.  It’s also supposed to be enjoyed.  So use your head, get your rest, and keep yourself in shape.  But eat a Cadbury crème egg once in a while, too.

Monday, March 14, 2016


This message was not written by me.  It is the message given on UMW Sunday in the Wheatland Parish, March 13, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 5:1-12.  The message was presented by Lillian Campbell in Onida and by Betty Holzwarth in Gettysburg.

            Do you ever feel that, in pursuit of success and happiness, you can’t catch a break?  Sometimes setbacks and obstacles are the hand of God as God tries to get your attention.  As we strive to earn more possessions, money, responsibility, or prestige, don’t be fooled into thinking that these are the things that will bring you happiness.  No one wants to spend his or her life running down a path and realize they missed the real road!
            One of the studies at MissionU in July was a study on happiness.  The book is titled, “Created for Happiness:  Understanding Your Life in God.”  Going into the study, we all thought that we were going to be taught how to be happy.  The subject matter was much more than that.
            Did you know that an internet search using Google revealed that, in 2008 alone, more than $11 billion was spent on self-improvement books, cds, seminars, coaching, and stress management programs?  In addition, if you do an internet search of the word “happiness”, you get everything from how and what to do to live happily, to definitions, to happiness quotes and lessons, to how to deliver happiness.
   turned up this phrase:  “Americans are free to pursue happiness, but there’s no guarantee they will achieve it.  The secret is knowing how and where to look.”
            If you scour the internet, you may come across these ten rules for happier living.
1.       Give something away, no strings attached
2.      Do a kindness and forget it
3.      Spend a few minutes with the aged; their experience is a priceless guidance.
4.      Look intently into the face of a baby; a marvel
5.      Laugh often.  It’s life’s lubricant
6.      Give thanks.  A thousand times a day is not enough
7.      Pray, or you will lose the way
8.      Work, with vim and vigor
9.      Plan as though you’ll live forever, because you will
10.  Live as though you’ll die tomorrow, because you will, on some tomorrow.
Happiness is hard to define.  If you were to ask ten people around you this morning: without using the word happy, what does happiness mean—you would probably get ten different responses.
   describes happiness as “the quality or state of being happy”.  A second definition says, “good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.”  It also includes things like “exhilaration, bliss, contentedness, delight, enjoyment, and satisfaction.”
   says happiness is “a feeling…a state of mind when you feel very special and calm.”  It’s been said that this imprecise and abstract definition immediately paints a picture of a hammock strung between two shady oak trees, a great novel to read between dozes, some chilled lemonade, and a gentle breeze.  Yep, they say, that seems to be happiness, but is that all there is?  And how do we get to this happy place?
            John Wesley connected happiness with his understanding of the image of God.  As he wrote in his journal about his experience at Aldersgate, he mentioned “the enemy” was trying to make him question his faith.  However, Wesley understood that not everyone experiences conversion in the same way.  Some are just there and some will feel a calmness and peacefulness come over them.
            Think back to a time when you felt that peacefulness.  Where were you?  Who was around you?  Or were you alone?  Did you feel the presence of God around you?  Maybe you were in a church or maybe you were by a lake or in the middle of the mountains.  But as you sat there, you felt a calm and peacefulness that was God.  For some of us, we have never known not being in church.  For others, this might be something relatively new.  For some, we can’t understand not ever having that feeling, but we need to realize that there are those who are looking to us to share that “God” feeling.  Some have experienced an explosion and a hit over the head that said, “God is here.  Pay attention!”  Again, some just feel the presence in their lives and they know that all is good.
            John Wesley believed that human beings were made to be happy…happy in God.  However, we allow our desire for other things to cloud that happiness.  Wesley used that to build his theology of salvation around.  Wesley understood the Bible to say that to be happy, we need to holy, so that is what he preached—holiness and happiness—the fundamentals of life.  That kind of happiness can only come from a deep commitment to God and to living for God.
            Ann Gilbert, an early Methodist who dared to preach, wrote, “I have always found that the more diligent I was in using the means of grace, the more happiness I have enjoyed in my soul.”
            Our actions reflect our happiness in God.  God wants our happiness and we need to be joyful of what we receive, even in the hard times.  When things get tough it is sometimes hard to remember what God has for us.  We tend to look down instead of up and sometimes it’s hard to be cheerful because of other people’s negative attitudes.
            Christians are not perfect, but we know someone who is.  And that someone, God, is where our attentions need to be placed.  Wesley tells us that we won’t find happiness in simply getting what we want.  True happiness can only be found when we put God above all else.  We have to want the right things, and the right thing is our desire for God to be in our lives.
            Happiness is not external or circumstantial.  It’s a choice.  We need to reach out for it as soon as it appears, like a balloon drifting seaward in a bright blue sky.
            In closing, we share, “Wind Beneath My Wings”, written by Roger A. Hopson.  It is given to you as a challenge as you look for happiness in your life.
            I have been given this day to savor or waste.
            I can scurry with the driven or set my own pace.
            I can dance with the children, before they learn to fly,
            Or live in isolation, never asking why.
            I can live for others and claim my place in the sun,
            Or I can whither alone, seeking and loving none.
            The choices I make today will echo through my soul.
            Will I be a shadow, or will I be whole?
            Let us pray:  Our God and Creator, we belong to you, heart, mind, body, and spirit.  You shower us with patience and mercy and for that we are grateful.  Remind us, Lord, that your plan is for us to be happy and whole and we seek your will in being so.  We will go now in peace.  Amen.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Decisions, Decisions

This is the message given in the Gettysburg United Methodist church Wednesday, March 9, 2016.  The Bible verses are John 13:21-30.

            In these Wednesday services, we’ve been looking at how Jesus’ death on a cross was a deliberate choice Jesus made.  Not that he caused it to happen—human beings made choices, too, and they were responsible for the choices they made.  But Jesus could have put a stop to it at any time.  He did not.  He chose to allow the events that led to his death.  He chose to let things play out as they did.
            And tonight we look at a major example of that.  Jesus had predicted his death before.  But now, it’s about to actually happen.  And now, Jesus tells the disciples who’s going to make it happen.  And it turns out that it’s one of them.
            The disciples must have been really confused.  Look at this scene.  It’s right before the Passover festival.  Jesus and the disciples are having supper.  Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet.  He’s told them that this is an example for them, that they’re supposed to serve each other.  And then he says, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”
            We’re told that the disciples stared at each other.  Eleven of them are trying to figure out which one of them it is.  Judas, of course, already knows.  But think of how the other eleven must have felt.  It’s one thing to hear Jesus say he’s going to be killed.  They had a hard enough time dealing with that.  But to hear him say that it was going to be due to one of them—that one of the twelve, the inner circle, this group that had been together for years and had done so much together, was actually a traitor—well, they must’ve had a hard time believing it.
            They look around it each other.  The start to think to themselves, “Who is it?  Not Peter, certainly.  James or John?  Not likely.  Thomas, maybe?  After all, he’s always questioning, always doubting.  But would he really betray Jesus?  That’s hard to believe.”
            And as they looked at each other and thought about it, they really could not believe any of them would betray Jesus.  So, finally, Peter whispers to John, “Ask him which one he means.”
            And you can just picture John going, I don’t want to ask him.  And Peter says, go ahead. Just go on and ask him.  And John says why don’t you ask him?  And Peter says, you’re right next to him.  You’re the disciple Jesus loves.  You ask him.
            So finally John says, okay, I’ll ask him.  And he leans over to Jesus, and he says, Lord which one is it?  And Jesus does not come out and say it in so many words, but he lets John know that it’s Judas.  Judas is the one who’s going to betray Jesus.  And Jesus says to Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
            Jesus knew who was going to betray him.  And he apparently knew it was going to happen that night.  And yet, Jesus did nothing to stop it.  Nothing.  He could have.  It would not have been hard.  He could, of course, have stopped Judas by use of divine, supernatural power, but he would not have had to do it that way.  Really, all Jesus would’ve had to do is get the disciples together, like they were, and say, “Hey guys, you know what?  Judas here is planning to betray me.  He’s planning to bring the Roman soldiers and some of the chief priests and some of the Pharisees around tonight to arrest me.  Now what do you think we ought to do about that?”
That’s all it would’ve taken.  Jesus would not have had to do anything.  All he’d have needed to do is bring the situation to the attention of the disciples, and they’d have taken care of Judas.  He probably would not have made it out of that room alive.
            Jesus did not do that.  In fact, it looks like the only one of the disciples who knew Judas was going to be the one to betray Jesus was John.  None of the others responded to the news.  In fact, we’re told they did not have any idea where Judas was going.  Some thought he was going to get supplies, some thought he was going to give something to the poor.  As you may know, Judas was the one in charge of the group’s finances, so he would naturally have been the one to be given a job like that.  Jesus and John were the only ones who knew the truth, and all John knew was that Judas was going to betray Jesus.  He did not know when or how.  He certainly did not know it was going to happen that night.
            Jesus let it happen.  Jesus knew exactly what Judas was going to do, when he was going to do it, how he was going to do it, where he was going to do it.  And Jesus let it happen.  Not only that, he almost gave it his blessings.  All he said to Judas was, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
            It shows the incredible love Jesus has for us.  Knowing exactly what was going to happen, and knowing how easily he could stop it, he allowed it to happen.  Jesus knew he had to be betrayed, be arrested, be tortured, and be killed.  It was what Jesus had been sent here to do.  It was the only way we could have our sins forgiven.
            And maybe that’s enough of lesson for tonight.  Maybe just knowing Jesus loves us so much that he would come here and die for us, taking our sins on himself so our sins could be forgiven, is all we really need to know.  It certainly is an important thing for us to know.  But throughout this sermon series, we’ve been trying to think of what we can learn from what Jesus did.  So what can we learn from the story of Jesus telling his disciples that someone was going to betray him and going on to tell John that Judas was that someone?
            There are probably more, but I can think of at least three things.  One of them is this:  we, you and I are referred to as God’s children.  Those of you who are parents, have you ever had a time when you knew your son or daughter was making a bad decision, a decision you knew they were going to regret later, and yet there was nothing you could do but stand there and watch?  Maybe you tried talking to them, maybe you tried reasoning with them, maybe you even tried punishing them.  But they were determined to do things their own way, no matter what you thought.  They were determined to make this bad decision.  And there was nothing you could do but sit back and watch it happen and try to be ready to pick up the pieces when everything fell apart as you knew it would.
            Jesus could not have talked Judas out of this.  He could’ve stopped it in other ways, as we talked about, but there was nothing Jesus could’ve said that would’ve changed Judas’ mind.  Judas was determined to make this bad decision.
            It’s got to be one of the hardest thing a parent ever does, to watch their child make that kind of mistake.  It had to be really hard for Jesus to watch Judas make this mistake.  But he knew he had to let it happen.  Because God allows us all to make decisions.  God allows us to make choices.  And then, God often makes us deal with the consequences.
            And there will be consequences.  That’s the second thing we can learn from this.  When make decisions, for better or for worse, those decisions don’t just affect us.  They affect everyone around us.  And sometimes, they affect even more people than that.  Sometimes, our decisions have a much greater effect than we ever know or realize.
            When Judas decided to betray Jesus, he knew it would affect Jesus.  If he thought about it, he knew it would affect the disciples.  But of course, Judas’ decision to betray Jesus affected a lot more people than that.  It affected the entire history of the world.
            Our decisions, for better or worse, are not likely to affect the entire history of the world.  But they’ll affect our part of the world.  The decisions we make affect lots of people.  They affect our families.  They affect our friends.  Sometimes they affect our entire community.  Sometimes they even go beyond that.  We said that God makes us deal with the consequences of our choices, but we’re not the only ones who have to deal with those consequences.  Lots and lots of people can be affected by the decisions we make, just as so many people were affected and continue to be affected by the decision Judas made.
            That brings me to the third thing we can learn from this.  Sometimes, when we make a decisions to do something, that decision cannot be undone.
            Some of you know the further story of Judas, at least as told by Matthew.  Judas realized how wrong it was for him to betray Jesus.  He tried to give back the money he’d gotten for doing it.  He wanted to undo what he had done, but he could not.  It was not possible.  What Judas had set in motion could not be changed, no matter how sorry he was or how much he wished he could go back in time and change it.
            You and I make a lot of decisions every day.  Some of them are big.  Some of them are small.  Some of them seem small at the time and it’s only later that we realize they were big.  But each day, you and I make tens or hundreds or even thousands of decisions.
            God allows us to make them.  God does not always agree with our decisions, but God allows us to make them.  And then, God allows us to deal with the consequences, both of our own decisions and the decisions of others.  And we do have to deal with them, because the things we do affect lots of people and, once they’re done, we cannot undo them.
            Jesus did not tell Judas to betray him, but he refused to stop him.  God does not tell us to make bad decisions, but God allows us to make them.  God tries talking to us, God tries reasoning with us, but when we’re determined to make bad decisions, God allows us to do it.
            But God is there to pick up the pieces.  If Judas had asked for forgiveness, Jesus would’ve given it to him.  If we’ll ask for forgiveness, God will give it to us, too.  So in this period of Lent, let’s go to God and ask for forgiveness.  And let’s listen when God is talking to us, so we can make fewer bad decisions in the first place.