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Saturday, April 30, 2016

You Have One Job

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 1, 2016.  The Bible verses used are 28:16-20.

            We’re getting near the end of our sermon series, “The After Party”, looking at what Jesus said and did after he was resurrected and before he went back to heaven.  In fact, the verses we’re looking at today are the last words that Matthew records Jesus as having said while he was on earth.  Now Luke has some more stuff, including Jesus’ actual ascension into heaven, and we’ll talk about that next week.  But here we have, according to Matthew, Jesus giving the disciples their final instruction before he left them.
            Remember how we said that, when the disciples first heard Jesus was resurrected, they were happy about it but they did not know what they were supposed to do next?  Well, here they find out.  Jesus gives the disciples their mission statement.  He tells them “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
            He tells the disciples to go and make disciples.  Do you know what a disciples is?  Maybe you do, but you know that’s one of those words we throw around all the time in church and we never really stop to say what it means.  A disciple is simply someone who learns from another, as a pupil or a student.  The original disciples were Jesus’ students.  And they were told to go and teach other students.
            Do you consider yourself a disciple of Jesus?  I think we should.  I mean, as Christians, we’re all trying to learn from Jesus, right?  We’re trying to learn from his words.  We’re trying to learn from his actions.  We’re trying to learn from his example.  It seems to me that anyone who claims to be a Christian would have to be, just by definition, a disciple of Jesus.
            So then, if you and I are disciples of Jesus, then what Jesus said to the original disciples should apply to us, too.  You and I are supposed to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything”.  Jesus has commanded us, just like the original disciples were supposed to do.
            So how are we doing on that score?  How are you doing?  And how am I doing?
            Now, the point here is not to be critical.  I’m not assuming a negative answer.  I’m asking an honest question.  And it’s a question we need to ask frequently.  We need to ask it of ourselves as individuals, and we need to ask it of ourselves as a church.  After all, this is the one job Jesus gave us before he left.  It seems like it’s pretty important that we do everything we can to do it to the best of our ability.  So how are we doing?  How are we doing, as individuals and as a church, at making disciples of Jesus Christ?
            There’s obviously not one simple, easy answer.  We do better at some times than we do at other times.  But the point is that we need to keep this as our main focus, because again, this is the one job Jesus gave us.  Everything we do as a church should be focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ in some way.  When the church council meets, its focus should be on making disciples of Jesus Christ.  When the Staff-Parish Relations Committee meets, its focus should be on making disciples of Jesus Christ.  When we have coffee time after [before] church, our focus should be on making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Now, in some cases, that focus will be direct and obvious, and in other cases it will be indirect and less obvious.  But still, everything we do as a church should be focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ in some way.  That is our one job as Christians.
            That’s not easy to do.  It’s very easy for us to get distracted.  It’s very easy for us to lose that focus.  Not because we’re doing anything bad or wrong, but just because we let other things get in the way.  Sometimes life gets hectic and busy.  Sometimes we get tired.  Sometimes we don’t see anything happening, and we get discouraged.  Sometimes we get bogged down in details, and forget about the bigger picture.  There can be all kinds of reasons why we lose our focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ.
            So how can we keep from losing that focus?  I think the answer gets back to what we talked about last week.  The answer gets back to the question Peter asked Jesus.  We can keep from losing our focus if we can honestly answer yes when Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”
            If we love Jesus, if we truly love Jesus, we’ll open our hearts and our minds to where Jesus is leading us.  And if we do that, we’ll be able to overcome the distractions.  Not perfectly, and not all the time, because we’re still human.  But if we keep working to open our hearts and open our minds to God’s Spirit, God will keep working with us and keep working in us.  God will help us conquer our human failings and overcome the distractions.  We won’t let the hectic pace and the busy-ness of life get in our way.  God’s Spirit will keep us energized and fired up about making disciples.  We won’t get discouraged, because we’ll know that things will happen in God’s way and in God’s time.  God will help us see the bigger picture.  If we truly love Jesus and open our hearts and minds to God’s Spirit, we will keep our focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ.
            But there’s something else that gets in our way, too.  You know what it is?  It’s fear.  Fear mixed with a feeling of incompetence and helplessness.
            What happens is we hear Jesus’ words—go and make disciples—and we know we should do exactly that.  But we think, “How?  How do I do that?  I don’t know how to make someone a disciple of Jesus Christ?  I don’t even feel like I’m a very good disciple myself.  How am I supposed to make someone else a disciple?  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what to say.  What if they have questions and I’m not able to answer them?  What if they get mad at me?  What if I come off as sounding like I think I’m some holier-than-thou goody-two-shoes?  And besides, there’s no reason anyone should listen to me.  If I try to make disciples of Jesus Christ, all I’ll make is a fool out of myself.  I better leave that for somebody else, somebody who’ll do a better job than I can.”
            You ever have those thoughts?  A lot of us probably have.  I have.  It’s understandable.  But it’s not an excuse.  Jesus did not say that making disciples is something only certain special, holy, important, well-prepared people should do.  Jesus said making disciples is something all of us are supposed to do.  Each one of you.  And me.
            After all, who were the original disciples?  They were nobody special.  Some fishermen.  A tax collector.  Some people who we don’t even know what they did.  They were not chosen because they were the smartest, the most holy, the most important, or the most well-prepared people around.  And I suspect, when Jesus told them to go and make disciples, some of them may have had some of those same thoughts and some of those same questions.  They knew they had been far from perfect in following Jesus.  They felt like they did not know what to do or say.  They were probably afraid they’d look foolish, too.
            But they did it anyway.  They did it imperfectly, sometimes, but they did it.  They did it because that’s what Jesus told them to do.  They did it because they loved Jesus enough and trusted Jesus enough to do what Jesus told them to do. 
And there may have been something else, too.  They may have remembered what Jesus had told them before, before his arrest or death or any of that.  It’s in Luke Twelve.  Jesus told the disciples, “Do not worry about…what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”
            You and I don’t need to worry about whether we’re good enough to make disciples.  We don’t need to worry about whether we’re good enough or whether we know enough.  We don’t need to worry about how people are going to react to us.  All we need to do is trust the Holy Spirit.  If we’ll just take that first step, if we’ll just go out and try, if we’ll just do our best to do what Jesus told us to do and go make disciples of Jesus Christ.  If we do that, the Holy Spirit will guide us.  God’s Spirit will tell us what to say.  God’s Spirit will tell us what to do.  And things will go the way they’re supposed to go.
            We won’t always have success, because everyone is allowed to make their own choices.  But if we do our best and trust God, God will bless our efforts.  We may not make disciples of everyone, but we’ll make disciples of some.  And remember, God does not tell us to succeed the way the world defines success.  God tells us to follow and to trust and to be faithful.  If we do that, we’ll have succeeded in God’s eyes, no matter what the world may think about it.
            Jesus told us to go and make disciples.  That’s the one job Jesus gave us.  Jesus believed in us, in you and me, enough to trust us to do it.  So let’s trust him, and do it.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Somewhere Over the Fogbow

            I had something really cool happen last week.  I was on my way back from a Lions club meeting in Onida.  It was about ten after eight in the morning.  I looked over to my left, and for the very first time in my life, I saw a fogbow.

            Have you ever seen one?  Have you ever even heard of one?  I hadn’t.  It’s the same size and shape as a rainbow, but instead of being multicolored, it’s uniformly greyish-white.  And in its own way, it’s beautiful.

            I looked it up after I got back to the office, and it’s a real thing.  A fogbow sometimes comes after fog, just as a rainbow sometimes comes after rain.  The reason it’s all greyish-white, rather than multicolored, is that the water droplets that form fog are smaller than raindrops.  Therefore, they don’t act as a prism and separate the colors the way raindrops do.  The fogbow is also sometimes called a white rainbow.

            Isn’t that cool?  I’m fifty-seven years old, and I saw something in nature I’ve never seen before.  And I did not have to go half-way around the world to see it.  All I had to do was look to my left.

            I think that shows a couple of things.  One is that it shows, once again, the incredible glory and variety of God’s creation.  God has created so many different kinds of beauty in the world.  It may literally be an infinite variety of beauty, because God is infinite.  God would not have had to do that.  God could’ve created a perfectly functional world without all the beauty as it has.  God created this beauty, I think, for two reasons:  because God enjoyed creating it and because God wants us to enjoy seeing it.

            But the second thing it shows is that, to see the beauty of God’s creation, we have to pay attention.  We have to keep our eyes open.  I’ve mentioned this fogbow to several people, and none of them saw it.  It was just coincidence that I saw it.  If I hadn’t been driving in the country at that particular time, and if I hadn’t looked to my left at just the right moment, I never would’ve seen it, either.

            It makes me wonder.  How many beautiful things in God’s creation have I missed, simply because I was not paying attention?  And how much beauty is all around me every day that I don’t see, simply because I was not looking for it?

            It’s a lesson for us, I think.  We all have stuff to do every day, and we need to pay attention to it to do it.  But we also need to look around once in a while.  We need to stop what we’re doing and just take a look at what’s around us.  God just might have something really beautiful for us to see.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Love Is A Promise

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 24, 2016.  The Bible verses used are John 21:15-25.

            As we continue our sermon series “The After Party”, looking at the things Jesus said and did after his resurrection but before he went back to heaven, we pick up the story right where we left it last week.  If you remember, last week we told the story of the disciples going out fishing and Jesus helping them catch more fish than they ever expected.  Then, Jesus had breakfast with them on the shore.
            We’re told this was the third time Jesus had appeared to the disciples.  As we said last week, they knew Jesus was alive, and they were happy about that, but that was as far as it went.  Today, though, we look at what happened right after that, when Peter talked to Jesus by himself.
            As you heard, Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him.  It’s commonly thought that the reason Jesus asked three times is because, when Jesus was arrested, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.  And that could be true—I’m not saying that it’s not—but the Bible does not tell us that.  The Bible does not give any explanation at all for Jesus asking the question three times.  It just tells us that he does.
            As far as we know, this is the first time since Jesus was resurrected that Peter got to have a private conversation with Jesus.  In the other appearances of Jesus given in the Bible, there were always other disciples around when Peter saw Jesus.  Here, it looks like it’s just the two of them.  Just Peter and Jesus.
            I wonder what Peter was feeling at that moment.  I mean, again, he’s happy Jesus is alive and all that.  But Peter must have remembered that he’d denied Jesus.  And he knew Jesus must remembered it, too.  He had to be wondering if Jesus was going to bring it up and what he’d have to say about it if he did.  And it seems like Peter would’ve been a little nervous about that.  Even though, as we said last week, Peter wanted to be in Jesus’ presence, there had to be a part of him that knew he really did not deserve to be.  I’m sure he was hoping Jesus would forgive him, but he also knew he had no right to expect that.  So it seems like there had to be a part of Peter that was a little scared about this.
             I think that’s something you and I can relate to.  Even though we know we need to be in God’s presence, and even if we really want to be in God’s presence, there are times when it’s a little scary for us.  We know the things we’ve done that we should not have done, and we know the things we have not done that we should’ve done.  And we know God knows about them, too.  And it makes us nervous.  We wonder if God’s going to have something to say to us about those things.  And we know we don’t really deserve to be in God’s presence, anyway.  We hope God will forgive us, but we know we have no real right to expect that.  So there sometimes is a part of us that’s a little scared to go to God, too.
            That’s too bad.  We really don’t need to be scared of God.  And Peter did not need to be scared of Jesus, either.  Jesus did not criticize Peter for what he’d done.  He did not even bring it up.  After all, Jesus had known Peter was going to deny knowing him.  We’re told in Luke Twenty-two that Jesus told Peter that Peter was going to deny knowing him.  Jesus did not explicitly tell Peter “I forgive you” because Jesus did not see that there was anything to forgive.  Peter had done what Jesus knew Peter was going to do and Jesus knew why Peter did it.  Things had gone the way they were supposed to go.
            So why did Jesus ask Peter three times whether Peter loved him?  Well, again, the Bible does not say.  But think about this.  Jesus knew he was not going to be around much longer.  He knew he would soon be going back to heaven.  And Peter was the one Jesus had chosen to take over after he was gone.  Remember in Matthew Eighteen, Jesus tells Peter, “You are the rock on which I will build my church.”  Jesus needs Peter to be ready to step up.  And Jesus needs Peter to know that he needs to be ready to step up.
            I hear this conversation going something like this.  Jesus says, “Do you love me?”  And Peter just kind of casually says, “Yeah, sure, you know I love you.”  Then Jesus says, “No, but do you really love me?”  And Peter says, a little more insistently but still kind of casually, “Yeah, really, I just told you.  I love you.”  And then Jesus says, “Yeah, I know what you said, but do you really love me?”  And finally, it sinks in to Peter what Jesus is asking him.  And so this time, Peter really opens up his heart.  Peter says, “Yes!  Yes, Lord!  I really love you!”
            That’s what Jesus needed to hear.  And it’s what Peter needed to say.  You see, Peter had said he loved Jesus before.  And I don’t think he was lying.  I think Peter believed he loved Jesus when he said it.  But I think it was at this moment that Peter fully realized what it means when we say we love Jesus.  I think at this moment, the full impact of loving Jesus, and what it meant for Peter’s life to love Jesus, actually hit Peter full force.
            You see, love, real love, is not just an emotion, although our emotions are obviously involved.  Love is not even just a decision, although we do need to make the decision to love every day.  But love is more than that.  Love is also a promise.
            That’s true in all cases, not just in the case of Jesus.  When we tell someone we love them, we’re not just saying we love them now, in this moment.  We’re also saying we’re going to love them in the future.  Saying “I love you” is saying that I always will love you, no matter what may happen.
            That’s the kind of love God has for us.  That’s the kind of love Jesus had for Peter.  And I think that at this moment, maybe for the first time, Peter realized that this was the kind of love he had for Jesus.  I think that when Peter said, for the third time, “Lord, you know that I love you”, Peter realized that he was making the promise to Jesus that he would always love Jesus, no matter what.  And he was also making the promise that, because of that love, he would do anything Jesus wanted him to do.
            And that was what Jesus needed from Peter.  Jesus was counting on Peter to carry his work forward.  So I think one of the things Jesus was doing when he asked Peter “do you love me” three times is saying to Peter, “Are you ready to take over?  Are you really ready?  I need you to be ready.  And the only way you’re going to be ready is if you really love me.  What I’m asking you to do is not going to be easy.  If you do what I ask you to do, you’re going to go through some really tough stuff.  So I need you to not just kind of love me.  I need you to not just feel a nice emotion toward me.  I need you to be totally committed to me.  I need you to love me enough that you’ll do whatever it takes to build my church after I’m gone.  I need you to promise me that you’ll always love me, no matter what, because it’s not going to be easy.”
            And I think that’s what Jesus does with us, too.  Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?”  And we say, “Yeah, sure, Jesus, I love you.  I come to church, fairly regularly.  I pray, sometimes.  I read the Bible, once in a while.  Sure, Jesus you know I love you.”
            But that’s not good enough.  So Jesus asks us again.  “Do you love me?”  And we say, yes, of course.  I just told you that.  I’m on church committees.  I contribute regularly.  I’ve even invited people to come to church a few times.  You know all that Jesus.  You know I love you.”
            And it’s still not good enough.  So Jesus asks us one more time.  “Do you love me?”
            What’s your answer?  What’s my answer?
            I don’t mean this to be a criticism of anybody.  I know a lot of us do come to church regularly.  We do pray.  We do read the Bible.  Many of us are on church committees and contribute regularly.  Some of us have invited people to church.  And that’s all great.  It’s wonderful stuff.
            But it’s not Jesus’ question.  Jesus does not ask “Do you go to church” or “Do you pray”.  Jesus does not ask, “How often do you read the Bible” or “What committees are you on”.  Jesus does not even ask “How much do you give” or “How many people have you invited to church”.  What Jesus asks us is “Do you love me?”  He asks that to each of you.  And he asks that to me.
            Jesus knows that following him is going to be hard sometimes.  He knows that life is going to throw some tough stuff at us.  Jesus wants us to feel the emotion of love.  And Jesus wants us to make the decision to love.  But most of all, Jesus wants us to make the promise to love.  Jesus wants us to not just say, “I love you now, in this moment.”  Jesus wants us to say we’re going to love Jesus in the future.  Jesus wants us to say, “Jesus, I always will love you, no matter what may happen.  No matter what you may ask me to do, no matter what happens to me.  Even when it seems like everything is going wrong and nothing makes any sense, I will always love you, I will do my best to serve you, and I will always open my heart to you.  Jesus, I really love you.”
            It took three tries, but eventually Peter came to realize that he had that kind of love for Jesus.  Jesus is asking us that question now.  Jesus is asking it of you, and he’s asking it of me.  Jesus is saying to each one of us, “Do you love me?”

            So, what’s our answer?  Do we?

Friday, April 22, 2016


Recently, my dad allowed us to get him a lift chair.  This is a much more momentous occasion than you may realize.  Dad is ninety-three and has needed a lift chair for years, but he has refused to allow us to get one for him.  Instead, Mom would have to help lift him out of his chair.  Since Dad weighs about two hundred pounds and Mom is maybe one twenty at most, this was not working very well.  I suspect Mom, who’s ninety, may have finally told Dad that, much as she would like to, she simply cannot continue to lift him out of his chair any more and that he had no alternative but to get a lift chair.

At any rate, we got him one a couple of weeks ago, and he’s using it.  I doubt if he’ll ever admit that he likes it, but I think he does.  He has to like the fact that he can get out of his chair by himself now.  He also is able to walk around the house much better than he could before.  Without the lift chair, he was expending a lot of energy just trying to stand up, and so Mom would have to help him walk to wherever he was going.  Now, with the lift chair, he can stand up easily, grab his walker, and go wherever he wants in the house without help.

I was thinking the other day about the irony involved in this.  One of the main reasons Dad resisted getting a lift chair was because he did not want to be dependent on one.  Dad’s a proud man, he cherishes his independence, and he did not want to concede any of it.  But the thing is that, without the lift chair, he was dependent on Mom for getting up and moving around.  Now, with the lift chair, he can get up and move around by himself.  In other words, his desire to be “independent” got in his way and caused him to be more dependent.  Once he gave up some of what he thought was his independence, he became more independent than he had been before.

It strikes me that faith can be like that.  You and I are often reluctant to truly depend on God.  We want to do things by ourselves.  We have our pride, we cherish our independence, and we don’t want to concede any of it.  But in fact, what we see as our “independence” gets in our way.  It causes us to be more dependent—on money, on possessions, on impressing others, etc.  And it causes us to worry about all those things and others besides.

But when we give up what we think of as our independence and depend on God, we actually become more independent.  We no longer worry about whether we have enough possessions or whether we’re impressing others or anything like that.  We’re freed from all our worries.  We know that God is there, that God will help us, and that things will go the way they’re supposed to go.  Things may not always go the way we’d have chosen them to, but whether they do or not, we know God will see us through.  Our desire for “independence” gets in our way.  When we give up some of that independence and depend on God, we let go of those worries and can live the way God wants us to live.

Pride and a desire for independence are good things, up to a point.  But beyond that point, they get in our way.  And that’s especially true when it comes to faith.  We should never desire to be independent of God, and we should never be too proud to turn to God.  God wants to help us.  All we need to do is let God do that.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

What Now?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 17, 2016.  The Bible verses used are John 21:1-14.

            As we continue our sermon series, “The After Party”, looking at what Jesus did on earth between his resurrection and the time he went back to heaven, we look at another time Jesus appeared to the disciples.  It’s kind of a simple story, really, but I think that as we look at it, there’s a lot more going on than we might notice at first glance. 
Now this happened sometime after Jesus appeared to Thomas, but we don’t know how long.  So the disciples know, at this point, that Jesus has been raised from the dead and is alive.  And they’re happy about that, of course.  But they’re really not sure just what it means for them.  They don’t really know what they’re supposed to do now that they know Jesus is alive.
            Peter is with most of the other disciples, and he says, “I’m going fishing tonight.”  Now, understand, this was not going out to fish for fun with a rod and reel or something.  Peter had been in the profession of catching and selling fish before Jesus called him.  And apparently, he still had his boat and nets and stuff.  So when he goes out to fish, and the other disciples go with him, they’re planning to make a big haul and be able to sell it.
            In other words, what it looks like to me is that Peter has decided he’s going back to his old way of life.  Now again, he knew Jesus had been raised from the dead.  And he was happy about that.  But he did not know what he was supposed to do next, or even if he was supposed to do anything next.
We may look at that from our perspective and say, well, surely they should’ve know what they were supposed to do.  But again, we need to try to put ourselves in the story.  Jesus has appeared to them and proven that he’s alive.  But, then he left again.  Did the disciples know he was going to come back?  We’re not told that they did.  In fact, it looks like they were not really expecting him back.
So, in their place, what do you do?  Yes, you know Jesus is alive.  But you also know that things were not going to go back to the way they used to be.  Jesus is not going to lead you and the others around Galilee and preach and teach and heal people and all that.  Maybe you do what Peter did.  With his new way of life gone, and no idea what to do next, Peter decides to go back to the only other way of life he’d known.
            I wonder how Jesus felt about that.  I mean, yes, they did not know if he was coming back, but on the other hand, he’d been with these disciples for three years.  He’d told them all kinds of things to do—love God, love your neighbor, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, on and on and on.  And now, it’s looking like nothing he did or said to them made any difference.  None of it seems to have sunk in.  Even though they know he’s alive, they’re not doing anything with that knowledge.  They’ve just gone back to being who they’d been before
            I think you and I can relate to that.  I think you and I are quite often in the same position that the disciples were.  Jesus comes into our lives.  We read about the things he said and did.  We say we believe in Jesus as our Savior.  We say we believe he was raised from the dead and is alive even today.  And we’re happy about that.  But we’re really not sure just what that means for us.  Sometimes we might even feel like we should know what we’re supposed to do, but we don’t.  We really don’t know what we’re supposed to do now that we know Jesus is alive.
            And too often, we do exactly what Peter and the disciples did.  We just continue with our old way of life.  It’s like none of the things we read in the Bible about Jesus really make any difference.  It’s like none of it really sinks in.  We know Jesus is alive, but we’re not doing anything with that knowledge.  We just remain who we were before.
            I wonder how Jesus feels about that.  He still loves us—he still loved the disciples after all—but after all, we’ve had these gospel accounts all our lives.  We’ve read all those things Jesus told us to do.  We know them just as well as the disciples did.  In fact, we may know them better, because instead of just hearing them once we can read them over and over again.  We know about loving God, loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, and all that.  But it’s like none of it makes any difference to us.  We know it, we believe it, but too many times, it does not make any real impact on our lives.
            But even if Jesus might be disappointed in us, Jesus does not get mad at us.  Jesus keeps working with us and, in fact, Jesus helps us do what we’re doing.  At least, that’s what he did with the disciples.  Jesus did not get mad at Peter and the rest.  He did not yell at them.  He did not say, “Hey, what do you guys think you’re doing?  Do you think I rose from the dead so you could go fishing?  What’s the matter with you?”
            No, Jesus called them his friends.  And then he told them how they could do what they were doing better.  And when they listened to him, they caught so many fish—one hundred fifty-three, to be precise—that it was almost more than they could handle.
            And when you think about it, that’s one of the things that so amazing about how God treats us.  If we believe in Jesus as our Savior, even if sometimes we don’t particularly do anything with that belief, even if we have not yet allowed that belief to affect our lives in any significant way, God will still bless us.  God will still help us out.  I think that’s really incredible.  I think that shows the amazing love God has for us.
            And then, look at what Peter’s reaction is.  At first, he does not know how this happened.  Then, he finds out that it’s Jesus who did it.  And once Peter knows it’s Jesus, what does he do?  He dives into the water.  He’s going to get to Jesus as fast as he possibly can.  He’ll swim, he’ll run, he’ll do whatever he can to get close to Jesus again.  He wants nothing more than to worship Jesus and feel Jesus’ love again.  And when he does that, and when the other disciples come, too, Jesus is happy to spend some time with them.  In fact, it looks like that’s what Jesus really wanted to do.
            When we receive God’s help, when we feel God’s love, that’s the reaction you and I need to have.  At first, when it seems like something went right and we don’t know why, we may not know how it happened.  But then, if we think about it, if we open our hearts, we’ll realize it was God who did it.  And then, we need to get to God as fast as we possibly can.  We need to do whatever it takes to get close to God.  We should want nothing more than to worship God and feel God’s love again.  And when we do that, God will be happy to spend some time with us.  In fact, that’s what God really wants to do.
            Now notice, at this point in the story, Peter still does not know what he’s supposed to do.  Neither do any of the other disciples.  They’ll find out later, and we’ll talk about that next week, but right now they don’t know.  But at this stage, they really don’t care.  They know they’re in the presence of Jesus, and at this moment, that’s really all they need to know.
            And I think you and I can relate to that, too.  It’s okay if sometimes we don’t know what we’re supposed to do.  We’ll find out later, at the right time.  It’s okay if, right now, we don’t know.  If we’re in the presence of God, if we know God is with us, that’s all we really need to know, too.
            So as we look at this simple story, we find, again, that there are a lot more lessons here for us than we might have thought.  One is that the knowledge that Jesus is alive needs to change us in some way.  But at first, we may not know what that change is supposed to be.  And sometimes, that’s okay.  God won’t get mad at us for that.  In fact, God will help us do what we’re doing.  God will help us do it better.
            But when God does that, we need to be aware of it.  We still may not know what we’re supposed to, but that’s okay.  We just need to stay close to God until we do know.  Eventually, when the time is right, God will tell us what we’re supposed to do.  Until then, we just need to stay in God’s presence and know that God is with us.  God wants to spend time with you.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Blowin' In the Wind

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been windy lately.  For a few days, it blew from the north.  As I write this, it’s blowing from the south.  I guess all the stuff that blew to Nebraska earlier is on its way back now.

Wind is a part of nature, of course.  It can be a dangerous one, though.  If it was snowing, we’d have a tremendous storm.  If there’s a fire, it’s has the potential to really be serious.  Even without anything like that, it can do damage, knocking down tree limbs, tearing shingles off roofs, and so forth.  And of course, when those winds become things like tornadoes and hurricanes, they can be even more dangerous.

The Bible sometimes describes God’s Spirit as being the wind.  When we hear that, we usually think of a soft breeze.  I usually do, anyway.  I tend to think of God’s Spirit as gently guiding us, nudging us along, moving us slowly along the right path.

God’s Spirit can be like that.  But I think God’s Spirit can also be a strong force.  It can be an awesome thing to behold.  One of my favorite psalms, Psalm 29, tells us that God’s voice breaks the cedars.  God’s Spirit is not always a soft, gentle breeze.  Sometimes God’s Spirit is powerful and even destructive.

I don’t believe that God uses God’s Spirit to destroy God’s people.  But I believe God’s Spirit sometimes acts powerfully against sin and wrong.  And sometimes we need that.  Sometimes, God’s Spirit tries to gently guide us and nudge us along, and we ignore God’s Spirit and do what we want to do anyway.  Sometimes God’s Spirit needs to figuratively (and sometimes maybe literally) smack us upside the head to get our attention.  Sometimes God’s Spirit needs to blow powerfully, like a strong and even potentially destructive wind, in order to get us to change our ways.

The wind will eventually go down.  It always does.  And it will eventually pick up again, because it always does that, too.  And there will be times when God’s Spirit acts gently and nudges us, and there will be other times when God’s Spirit acts powerfully to get our attention.  Both are needed, and both are part of how God’s Spirit works.

God gives us God’s Spirit in the way we need it, not the way we want it.  I much prefer God’s Spirit to come gently.  But I can think of times in my life when God needed to act more powerfully, to get my attention.  I suspect you can, too.  Let’s be grateful to God for both, because both are gifts from God.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Saint of Doubt

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 10, 2016.  The Bible verses used are John 20:19-29.

            After Jesus was raised from the dead, he remained on the earth for forty days before going up to heaven.  In this sermon series, “The After Party”, we’re looking at what the Bible tells us about those forty days.  Last week, we looked at Jesus appearing to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus.  Today, we look at Jesus appearing to the disciples.
            When we hear that word “disciples”, we tend to think of the twelve, down to eleven now with Judas gone, and in fact down to ten in this instance because, as we find out later, Thomas was not with them.  But in fact, that term “the disciples” is not necessarily limited.  There are times when the gospels specifically refer to the twelve, but “the disciples” can mean more than that.  So we really don’t know how many people Jesus appeared to here.
            It was the first day of the week.  What we’d call now the first Easter Sunday, which means it was the same day he appeared to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus.  That appearance apparently came first, because we’re told it’s evening when Jesus appears here.
            When we read this story, Thomas is always made out to be kind of the bad guy.  After all, we call him “Doubting Thomas”.  He’s the one who said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  It’s not that we think of him as evil or anything like that, but we kind of imply that Thomas must not have had much faith, certainly not as much as the other disciples did.
But look at what John says happened.  Jesus appeared to the disciples and said “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  It was only after that, that we’re told the disciples were overjoyed at the sight of Jesus.
In other words, the other disciples got what Thomas wanted.  They got to see for themselves, and it was not until then that they believed.  So here we are, so hard on poor old Thomas, when all he wanted was what the other disciples already got and apparently needed before they could believe.  If it had been one of the other disciples who was absent, we might well talk about a “Doubting Philip” or a “Doubting Andrew”.
We don’t know why Thomas was not there when Jesus appeared.  I wonder if it was coincidence or if Jesus did it that way deliberately.  Jesus did use it to make a point, after all.  Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Where do you see yourself in this story?  Where do I see myself?  Do you and I require proof?  Or are we able to believe without seeing?
There are lots of articles and books that you can find that set out to either prove or disprove the gospels.  We link to some of them on our facebook page once in a while.  They can be interesting to read.  But ultimately, there’s no way we can prove, beyond any doubt, that Jesus was the Son of God and that he was raised from the dead.  We can find evidence to support it, but all the evidence we produce can be explained away somehow if that’s what someone wants to do.
As always, it comes down to faith.  But you know, faith does not mean the absence of doubt.  As the theologian Paul Tillich once said, “Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”  What faith really means is believing in spite of our doubts. 
Quite often, where you and I are is where the man was who spoke to Jesus in Mark Chapter Nine.  Remember that story?  A man brings his son to Jesus for healing.  He says to Jesus, “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  Jesus says to the man, “‘If you can’?  Everything is possible for one who believes.”  And the man responds, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.”  A lot of times that where you and I are as Christians.  We believe and we doubt at the same time.  But you know, I don’t know if there have been very many Christians who have not had doubts at some point.  Mother Teresa, Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Calvin, Pope Francis—they all had to deal with doubts at various points in their lives.  The chances are, you and I either have or will have to deal with it, too.  And we may have to deal with it more than once.
And I think God understands that.  After all, we’re asked to believe a lot.  We’re asked to believe that a child was born to a virgin.  We’re asked to believe that child was the divine Son of God.  We’re asked to believe that child grew into a man who could work miracles.  We’re asked to believe that man could raise people from the dead.  We’re asked to believe that he, himself, was raised from the dead.  We’re asked to believe that his death can lead to the forgiveness of all of our sins if we only believe in him.  That’s a lot to believe.
And that’s not all.  We’re also asked to believe that God is still active in the world.  We’re asked to believe that God not only will hear our prayers, but God will listen to our prayers and God will help us.  We’re asked to believe that God loves us and God has good plans for our lives and God will guide us to live in accordance with those plans. 
There’s an awful lot that we’re asked to believe if we’re Christians.  And again, we cannot prove any of it.  We can provide evidence, but that’s all.  Ultimately, we have to take it on faith.
And that’s hard.  Because a lot of times we don’t see God at work.  A lot of times, we don’t feel worthy of God’s love.  A lot of times, we don’t feel God’s love and God’s guidance in our lives.  A lot of times, it feels like God is not paying the least bit of attention to our prayers.  And we really cannot see any reason why God should.
But I want you to notice something about Jesus’ statement.  Let me read it again.  Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
It is an awesome thing when we can believe without seeing.  But there’s something Jesus did not say.  Jesus did not say that people who cannot believe without seeing are condemned.  Jesus did not condemn Thomas.  He did not send Thomas away.  He did not tell Thomas he was not good enough to be a disciple any more.  There is no indication that Jesus loved Thomas any less or that he considered him any less worthy of being a disciple.
I wonder if maybe one reason Jesus was not harder on Thomas is that Jesus remembered his time on the cross.  Maybe Jesus remembered the time when even he struggled with his faith.  Maybe he remembered when he was on the cross and asked, “God, why have you forsaken me?” 
Jesus continued to love Thomas, and Thomas continued to love and serve Jesus.  In fact, Thomas is considered a saint.  And you know, maybe he’s the sort of saint you and I need sometimes.  A saint who struggled with his faith.  A saint who wanted to believe, but who still wanted to see for himself.  A saint who was able to serve God and love God even if he wished he could have proof.  A saint who understood how we struggle with our faith sometimes, because he struggled with it, too.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  But there’s a blessing for the Thomases of the world, too.  There’s a blessing for those of us who sometimes have trouble believing when we have not seen.  There’s a blessing for those of us who feel both faith and doubt and at the same time and sometimes struggle with which one is going to come out on top.  The blessing is that God will keep working with us, just like Jesus kept working with Thomas.  The blessing is that God will keep encouraging us, just like Jesus encouraged Thomas.  The blessing is that, as long as we don’t give up on God, God will show us what we need to see, just like Jesus showed Thomas what he needed to see.  And God will say to us, just as Jesus said to Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.”
God understands our struggle.  But God will never give up on us.  As long as we don’t give up on God, God will keep working with us.  And with God’s grace, we can do what Jesus said to Thomas.  We can stop doubting, and believe.  And then we can respond to Jesus the way Thomas did.  You and I can say to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Change of Life

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 3, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Luke 24:13-35.

            Welcome to a new sermon series, “The After-Party”.
            We know, from the book of Acts, that Jesus was on earth forty days after he rose from the dead and before he went back up to heaven.  We don’t talk a whole lot about those forty days.  We might talk about one or two of the events in isolation, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon series about it.
            That seems like a mistake to me.  I mean, think about this.  Jesus has been resurrected.  He has forty days to make one last impression on the disciples, to give them one last set of final instructions before he’s going back to heaven, not to come back until, well, the second coming.
            It seems to me that Jesus would’ve seen those forty days as pretty important.  This is his last shot with the disciples.  This is his last chance to get them going, spreading his message throughout the world.  So it seems like Jesus would’ve done everything he could to make sure the disciples understood what the message was and how they were supposed to go about spreading it.
            Now, in approaching this as a sermon series, we need to point out that we don’t know exactly what Jesus did when in that forty day period.  We don’t have Jesus’ day planner or anything.  The four gospels give us some information, but they are not totally consistent in telling us about it.  That’s not to say they contradict each other, because they don’t.  It’s just that they each give us different parts of the story. 
As we mentioned last week, Mark does not going into this forty day period at all.  The road to Emmaus, which we read today and will talk about in a minute, only appears in Luke.  The scenes with Thomas doubting Jesus’ resurrection and with Jesus telling Peter “feed my sheep” are only in John.  And of course, they are certainly some things Jesus said and did that do not appear in any of the gospels.  For example, the Apostle Paul, First Corinthians Fifteen, references Jesus appearing to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time.  He just mentions it, as if he assumes everyone will know what he’s referring to, but the actual event does not appear in the gospels and has been lost to history.
Because of all that, we do not have a complete history of what Jesus did in those forty days.  What we know comes to us in fragments.  We have a few stories, a few examples of what Jesus did.  We have the things the gospel writers, inspired by God, decided we needed to know.  And we’re going to look at some of those, not necessarily in chronological order, but in an order that I hope will make some sense as we do it.
In our Bible reading today, it’s that first Easter Sunday.  In Luke’s version of the events, the women have gone to Jesus’ tomb, and so has Peter, and they find out that it’s empty.  At that point, Peter still does not know what that means.
Then, in Luke’s gospel, the scene shifts.  There are two people are walking from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus, which we’re told is seven miles away.  One of them is named Cleopas.  We don’t know the name of the other one.  They’re talking about all the stuff that’s happened, Jesus being arrested and dying and then the tomb being empty.
And suddenly, Jesus shows up.  We don’t know if he approached them from behind or if he just sort of magically appeared or what, but there he was.  They don’t recognize him, of course.  Jesus asks these two guys what they’re talking about.  And one of them, Cleopas, says, “Where have you been?  Have you been hiding behind a rock or something?”  And Jesus says, “Well, yeah, kind of, you know.”
No, that’s not quite how the conversation went.  But you know, Jesus had to have kind of been smiling to himself at this point, don’t you think?  I mean, here are Cleopas and his friend explaining, to Jesus, what happened to Jesus.  And of course, Jesus knows he’s going to reveal who he is to them.  I’d think he has to be anticipating the looks on these guys’ faces when they find out they’ve actually been talking to Jesus.
But Jesus lets them tell him what happened.  And then Jesus explains what all this meant according to the scriptures.  And then, after they’re stopped for the night, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, and gives it to them.  They recognize Jesus, and then Jesus immediately disappears.
There are a couple of things I want to talk about in regard to this story.  For one thing, there’s the fact that at first, these guys “were kept from recognizing” Jesus.  We don’t know how that worked, if Jesus somehow looked different or if there was some other way they could not recognizing him.  But whatever the reason was, Cleopas and his friend could not recognize Jesus when he was standing right there with them.
How does that apply to us?  Well, if Jesus was to walk in here right now, would we recognize him?  We’d notice there was somebody new here, probably.  I hope at least a few of us would go and talk to him and make him feel welcome here.  But would we recognize him as Jesus Christ?  Probably not.  How would we?  I don’t think it’s very likely that he’d look like the pictures of him we see.  He probably would not look any different from the rest of us, just as Jesus probably did not look any different from the people he lived around.  He would not act particularly different, just as Jesus probably did not act any different.  There’d be no way we’d know that was Jesus.  And then, suppose he started asking us questions about what we were doing and what we were talking about, the way he did with Cleopas and his friend.  Would we be able to answer him?
In talking to Cleopas and his friend, Jesus started going through the Hebrew Bible with them, explaining why things had to happen the way they did.  They still did not know who he was.  It was only after Jesus took some bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them.  Then, they were able to recognize who Jesus was.
We don’t know whether Cleopas and his friend were there with Jesus at the Last Supper.  The famous painting shows Jesus with just the twelve disciples, and so we tend to assume that, but we don’t know.  After all, the painting shows them all sitting on chairs around a long table, and we know that’s probably not what happened.  Luke and John do not specify who was there.  Matthew and Mark refer to Jesus reclining at the table with the twelve, but they do not specifically say that no one else was in the room.
I tend to think Cleopas and his friend might have been there.  We’re told that, after Jesus disappeared, they immediately went back to Jerusalem and found the eleven.  They must’ve known, then, where the disciples would be, which means they must’ve known them pretty well.  I think Cleopas and his friend might have been there.  They might even have eaten with Jesus.  If so, that would explain why Jesus giving thanks, breaking bread, and giving it to them was the key to recognizing him.  It was the exact same thing they’d seen him do on the night before he died.
And sharing in Holy Communion is a key for us to recognize Jesus, too.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying taking Communion is the golden ticket to heaven or anything like that.  But one of the things we say as United Methodists—and there are other denominations who believe it, too, of course—is that sharing in Holy Communion is one of God’s means of grace.  It’s one of the ways God’s grace comes into our hearts and into our lives.  And this is one of the reasons we say that.  When we share in Holy Communion, we invite God to come into our hearts and into our souls.  And when that invitation is given sincerely and honestly, God will always accept it.  God will come into our hearts and into our souls.  And when that happens, we will recognize Jesus for who he is, just like Cleopas and his friend did.
And when that happens, our lives will be changed forever.  I think the lives of Cleopas and his friend were.  Now, we don’t know that for sure.  This is the only time Cleopas is ever mentioned in the Bible, and again, we have no idea who his friend even was.  So, we don’t really know what may have happened to them after the events described here.
But how could they not have been changed?  Here they were, walking to Emmaus.  They were depressed.  They had hoped Jesus would restore Israel to its glory, and instead he’d been killed.  They’d gotten this report from the women that Jesus was still alive, but they could not find him.  And now, all of a sudden, they knew.  They knew.  Jesus was alive.  They had no doubt about it.  Jesus was not dead.  He had risen.
In a minute here, we’re going to share in Holy Communion.  May we all sincerely and honestly invite God to come into our hearts and into our souls.  If we do, God will accept the invitation.  Then we can recognize Jesus for who he is, too.  And our lives will be changed forever, just like the lives of Cleopas and his friend were.