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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Too Good to Be True

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 31, 2016.  The Bible verses used are 2 Kings 5:1-16.

             How many of you just really love telemarketers? 
            Yeah, that’s what I thought.  Nobody likes telemarketers.  I mean, for all the strange or unusual holidays we’ve celebrated, we’ve never celebrated National Telemarketers Day.  I don’t think there is one.  If there is, it must be something organized by the telemarketing companies.  I mean, nobody wants to get a call from a telemarketer.
            And yet, we do.  Even with the do not call list, we do.  Wanda and I could’ve been on so many cruises if we’d just said yes when the telemarketers called.  As long as we answered a bunch of survey questions.  And agree to pay some fees and other chargers.
            Now, I’m not telling you that it’s okay to be rude to telemarketers.  After all, they’re God’s children, too, just like you and I are.  And for the most part, they’re just ordinary people trying to make a living.  In fact, a lot of them are working at that job because they’ve not been able to find a better job.  I mean, would you want a job where you cold-call people and they yell at you, chew you out, and hang up on you?  No one would want that.  And as soon as the people doing that can find a better job, they take it.
            So, when you get a call from a telemarketer, remember that there’s a human being on the other end of the line and treat them like one.  If, in fact, there is a human being on the other end of the line.  A lot of times, we get automated calls.  We don’t speak to a human at all.  You can go ahead and be rude to a computer because a computer does not have feelings.  At least, not yet.
            But I bring this up because, while not every telemarketing call is a scam, there are a lot of scams out there.  And what they have in common is they play on our greed.  Part of the American Dream is, as P. G. Wodehouse once said, to be able to turn a minimum amount of effort into a maximum amount of money.  And a lot of these telemarketing schemes play on that.  The people who fight these scams have a phrase to warn people.  You’ve probably heard it a hundred times.  The phrase is “If it sounds too good to be true, then it is.”
            When we’re talking about human things, that’s almost always a true statement.  But when we’re talking about Godly things, it’s not.  God does all kinds of things that sound too good to be true, but that are true.  And that brings us to our Bible reading for today.
             There’s this guy named Naaman.  He commands the army of the country of Aram, and it’s a really good army.  Naaman is widely respected and praised.  But Naaman has leprosy.  Now, back then the term “leprosy” was used to cover a wide variety of skin diseases, so we don’t know that he had leprosy as we’d define the term today.  But still, he had some kind of skin disease, and he finds out that there’s this prophet in Israel who might be able to cure him.  So, Naaman asks the king for permission to go to Israel.  The king says yes, and Naaman eventually is led to see the prophet Elisha.
            Except he does not.  He never gets to actually see Elisha.  All Elisha does is send his servant out to tell Naaman to go wash seven times in the Jordan River.
            And Naaman is outraged.  He’s outraged that Elisha never came out to see him—after all, does Elisha not know who Naaman is?  Does Elisha not understand that this is an Important Person who has come to see him?  But most of all, he’s outraged at the advice Elisha gave him.  He says, what?  Go wash in the Jordan River?  That’s all I have to do?  That’s not going to work. I’ve already tried that.  I’ve tried washing myself before.  There’s got to be more to it than that.  There has to be something major involved here.  Either Elisha needs to come out here and do something big thing, or he’s got to send me somewhere and tell me to do some big thing, or something.  Washing myself in the Jordan River cannot be all there is to it.  That’s too simple.  It’s too good to be true.
            Naaman would not believe it.  He was ready to pack up and go home.  It was only after his servants argued with him that Naaman agreed to go wash in the Jordan.  And sure enough, it worked.  Naaman’s skin disease was gone.  He did not have to do some big, great thing.  All he had to do was this little thing.  It sounded too good to be true.  But it was, in fact, true.
            And you know, as I thought about it this week, it seems to me that our Christian faith is based on a lot of things that sound too good to be true.  Maybe that’s why we struggle with our faith sometimes.  After all, our society has a lot cynicism and a lot of skepticism.  And there are reasons why.  We’ve all experienced broken promises.  We’ve all known people who’ll say one thing and do another.  We’ve all had times when people were just out to take advantage of us, or were out to get us somehow.  And so we hear all these things that sound good, and we think, “That’s just too good to be true.”  And so we have a hard time believing it.
            What are a couple of the basic foundations of our faith?  Well, one of them is that God loves us.  That, in and of itself, is too good to be true.  Why should God love us?  God is perfect.  God is holy.  God is all-powerful.  God does not need us for anything.  Why should God love us?  What do we do for God?  What could we do for God, even if we wanted to?  God could get a lot more accomplished if we were not around.  In fact, when you look at the world, you wonder sometimes if God regrets creating human beings and now considers it a bad move.  Why would the holy, righteous, perfect God love me?  Why would He love you?  It sounds too good to be true.
            That’s also true about Jesus.  Why would the divine son of God come to earth?  Why would he die for us?  Why would he want to save us from our sins?  I mean, think of it.  Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, comes out of heaven and is born as a human being.  He lives his life on earth, fully human as well as fully divine.  He teaches people.  He feeds people.  He heals people.  And we kill him.  I mean, not you and me personally, but I have no reason to think I’d have been any different from the people who were around at that time.  And knowing that we’re going to kill him, Jesus willingly allows himself to be killed.  He allows himself to be killed so that all of our sins can be forgiven, and so that we can have eternal life in heaven if we simply believe in him as our Savior.
            Why would Jesus do that?  What did Jesus get out of it?  It sounds too good to be true.
            And then there’s the Holy Spirit.  When we open our hearts to God, the Holy Spirit comes and leads us and guides us and helps us.  The Holy Spirit helps us follow God.  The Holy Spirit helps us get through the hard times of life.  The Holy Spirit let us know that we’re never alone, that we can always rely on God.  Why?  Why would the Holy Spirit help us like that?  Why would the holy, righteous, perfect God bother to send the Holy Spirit to come into my heart.  Why would the Holy Spirit want to help me when times get hard?  Again, it just sounds too good to be true.
            I think, sometimes, we feel a lot like Naaman.  We come to God with all of our hurts, all of our sinfulness, all of the damage that’s been done to us in our lives, sometimes damage we’ve done to ourselves.  And we ask God to heal us.  And God says, “Okay.  Just believe in Jesus as your Savior, and you’ll be healed.”
            And we say, what?  Believe in Jesus as my Savior?  That’s all I have to do?  That’s not going to work.  I’ve already tried that.  I’ve tried going to church before.  There’s got to be more to it than that.  There has to be something major here.  God has to perform some miracle, or I have to do some major thing, or something.  Just believing in Jesus Christ as my Savior cannot be all there is to it.  It’s just too good to be true.
            But it is true.  We don’t have to do some big, great thing.  All we have to do is this little thing.  It sounds too good to be true.  But it is true.
            All we need to do is believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  All we need to do is have faith.  And we don’t even have to do that perfectly.  If we waver, if we fall away, all we need to do is ask God for forgiveness and another chance.  And when we do, God will give it to us.  Every time.
            When humans make us an offer that sounds too good to be true, the chances are it is too good to be true.  But when God makes us an offer that sounds too good to be true, it is true.  God loves us.  God offers us forgiveness and salvation through the death and life of Jesus Christ.  God offers to help us through life through the Holy Spirit.  All we need to do in exchange is believe in Jesus Christ.  It sounds too good to be true.  But it is true.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

When Faith Gets Tested

This is adapted from an article I wrote several years ago.  It seems to me that the sentiments expressed fit the current situation.

            As many of you know, the community of Gettysburg suffered a terrible tragedy this week.  One of our police officers passed away in a motor vehicle accident.

            A lot of people in Gettysburg are just kind of numb.  It just doesn’t seem possible.  One moment, he’s alive, healthy, active, a productive and important member of the community.  Then, all of a sudden, he’s not.  He’s gone.  There’s nothing we can do about it, no second chance, no nothing.  He’s just gone.

            It’s hard to come to terms with it.  Any death is sad, of course, but when someone who has reached a ripe old age passes away, it’s easier to deal with.  We can console ourselves with the thought that they lived a full life and got as much out of life as anyone could reasonably expect.  In this case, we cannot do that.  It feels so unfair.  It feels like he got cheated. 

We know, of course, that these things happen, but they’re supposed to happen to other people.  They’re not supposed to happen to people who are in the inner circle of our lives.  Not only does it feel like he got cheated, it feels like we got cheated, too.  This person was not supposed to be taken out of our lives so soon.  The whole thing just seems fundamentally wrong.

For those of us who have faith, this is a time that really tests that faith.  The natural thing is to wonder where God was at a time like this.  We wonder why God allows things like this to happen.  We may not believe that God actually caused it, but if we believe in an all-powerful God, then we have to believe that God could have prevented it.  For some reason, God chose not to.  We’d like to know why.

It’s not just this incident where this question comes up, of course.  People die in auto accidents every day.  People die in hurricanes and tornadoes and all sorts of things.  Every day, somewhere in the world, someone dies unexpectedly and inexplicably.  And everyone who’s close to them would like to know why.

Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer, at least not one that satisfies us.  We can say “accidents happen”, and they do, but why does God allow them to happen?  We can say, “it was God’s will”; I don’t really believe that, but even if it is, it begs the question:  why was it God’s will?  We know this is the way life is, but we don’t know why.  And we’d like to.

That’s why this is such a test for our faith.  We will never get an answer to the question of why, at least not while we’re on earth.  So, when something like this happens, we find out if we truly believe the things we say we believe.  Do we really believe that God loves us?  Do we really believe that God is good?  Do we really believe that God is always there?  Are we really willing to trust God at all times and in all circumstances, no matter what?

Each of us has to answer those questions for ourselves.  There’s no nice, pat, easy answer I or anyone else can give you.  I will, though, be willing to discuss it with you.  We can have that discussion in person, on the phone, by email, or any other way you want to have it.

The one thing we know is that, when things like this happen, we need to be there for each other.  The wonderful thing about small towns is that we all know each other.  We all, in a way, consider ourselves part of the same family.  When one of us hurts, we all hurt.  When a tragedy strikes one person, it strikes all of us.

So let’s resolve to be there for each other.  Let’s love each other, and care for each other, and pray for each other.  Even if you don’t know what to say, just show up.  Be there.  Not just today, but in the days and weeks and months to come.  Let’s love each other every chance we get.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Credit Check

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 24, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Exodus 7:14--8:15.

            What we heard in our Bible reading this morning was just a small part of a much larger story.  Last week, we talked about the story of Moses’ birth and what happened to him as a baby.  Well, now Moses is all grown up.  Lots of stuff has happened to him along the way, and we’ll talk about some of it in a little while.
            The result of all the things that have happened to Moses is that he is now the leader of the people of Israel.  The people of Israel are still living in Egypt, just as they were when Moses was a baby.  Basically, they’re slaves there.  And Moses is going to confront the mighty and powerful Pharaoh and convince him to let the people of Israel go.
            Moses was pretty scared about doing this.  He had thrown every excuse he could think of at God to convince God to have someone else do it.  But God did not accept Moses’ excuses, and now here Moses is.  And with God’s help, Moses makes all kinds of things happen to try to convince Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go.
            We did not cover all of them in our reading for today.  We just covered a couple that happened at the Nile River, in keeping with our “Let’s Go to the River” sermon series theme.  So I just want to go through all these things quickly so we realize everything Moses did, again with God’s help of course.  He threw down his staff and it became a snake.  He changed the water of the Nile into blood.  He made a plague of frogs come out of the Nile.  He brought about a plague of gnats.  He brought about a plague of flies.  He caused the death of the livestock of the Egyptians.  He caused huge boils to appear on all the people.  He brought about a huge hailstorm.  He caused a plague of locusts.  He caused darkness to cover the land for three days.  Finally, he caused every first born son of Egypt to die. 
That last one is what caused Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go.  But if you know the story, you know there’s still more to it.  After letting the people of Israel go, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent the army after them.  At that point Moses, again with God’s help, parted the Red Sea so Israel could cross it safely, and then had it come back together again to wipe out Pharaoh’s army and finally set Israel free.
Now, again, it was only with the help of God that Moses could do these things.  The power belonged to God, not to Moses.  We know that, and of course Moses knew it, too.  But I want to look at this from Moses’ perspective.
If you’ve never read the first several chapters of Exodus, or if it’s been a while and you don’t remember them very well, you really should read them, because Moses really had a roller-coaster life.  He had all kinds of ups and downs.  He started out, as you heard last week, under a threat of death when he was still a baby.  But he grew up in the court of the Pharaoh, surrounded by all kinds of wealth and privilege.  But then he had to go on the run to avoid a charge of murder.  He went to live in another country, got married, had kids, and was working as a shepherd for his father-in-law.  That’s where he was when God called him to be the leader of the people of Israel.
So imagine you’re Moses.  You started with nothing.  Then you had everything.  Then you had nothing again.  And now, finally, your life seems to be in order.  You have a family.  You have stability.  You’re an ordinary guy, living an ordinary life, and you’re pretty much okay with that.  And then God tells you to go back to Egypt, back to the place you ran away from, and confront the most powerful man in the world, the Pharaoh.
You’d be scared to death, right?  And Moses was.  Again, he came up with every excuse there was to tell God why he should not have to go do this.  But now, here he is, standing in front of the Pharaoh.  And all of a sudden, he’s able to do all kinds of things.  He’s able to change things into other things.  He’s able to create things out of nothing.  He has power over light and darkness.  He even has the power to cause death.  Here he is, this ordinary guy who not long ago just wanted to be left alone to raise his family and live his life in peace, and now he’s defeating the mighty and powerful Pharaoh.  And we’re told that, at the end of all this, “the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant”.
How would that feel, do you think?  How would that feel, to have that kind of power?  How would that feel, to be able to do things that no other person could do?  How would that feel, to literally have the power of God coursing through you?  How would that feel, to have started out as a nobody and now have all the people of the nation putting their trust in you?
Maybe your answer is different from mine.  But it seems to me that it would be really easy, in that position, to let all this stuff go to your head.  I mean, yes, you know God is the one behind it all, but hey, I’m still the one out there actually doing it.  I must be pretty awesome.  And besides, even granting that God is the one really doing it, God chose to do it all the through me.  God is using me to do all this.  God has given me the power to do all this.  I must be a pretty big deal.  I mean, out of all the people in the world God could’ve chosen to do this, God chose me.  I must be pretty darn special, to be the one God chose to get this power.  I must be the most incredible person that ever lived.
Now, we don’t have any indication that Moses actually felt that way.  In fact, in Numbers, Moses is described as being the most humble man on earth.  And maybe that’s one of the reasons God chose him, because it had to be tempting.  It had to be tempting for Moses start giving himself the credit for freeing the people of Israel, rather than giving that credit to God.
I know it’s sure tempting for me.  Is it for you?  Whenever something goes right, it’s really easy for me to think “I did that” instead of thinking “God did that”.  And it seems like the harder it is to do something, and the longer the odds are, the more I want to take credit if things go right.
It seems like it should be the other way around, right?  I mean, logically, the more unlikely it is that things should’ve gone right, the more likely it is that God must’ve done something to make them go right.  But too often, we don’t seem to see it that way.
Now, when it comes to things going wrong, that’s a whole different subject.  I’m more than willing to blame God when things go wrong.  I’m ready to ask why God did this or that when things go wrong.  But when they go right, then we want to take the credit.  And again, the more unlikely it is that things would go right, the more credit we want to take.
Now, two things here.  One, there’s nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself when you accomplish something.  We all need to take a certain amount of pride in what we do.  We need to have a certain level of self-esteem.  As long as we don’t carry it too far, that’s fine.
And the second thing is, what I’m talking about here is how we feel inside.  It’s easy to say humble words.  We can all do that.  We can all put on this false humility and pretend we don’t think we deserve credit.  But if inside we still think it was us who did it, rather than God, we have a problem.
And it is a problem.  One of the themes that comes up in the Bible over and over again is the sin of arrogance.  It’s one of the things that got Pharaoh in trouble.  Think about what would’ve happened if Pharaoh had let the people of Israel go when Moses first asked.  Think of all the trouble he’d have saved himself and the entire nation.  Think of all the lives he’d have saved.  But instead, Pharaoh’s arrogance kept him from letting the people of Israel go.  And it led to all these terrible things happening.
Arrogance can lead to terrible things happening for us, too.  We probably won’t have a plague of frogs.  But arrogance, thinking we can do things on our own instead of relying on God, can lead us to make all kinds of mistakes and get into all kinds of trouble.
So what can we do about it?  As it so often does, it comes down to prayer.  It comes down to staying as close to God as possible.  It comes down to trusting God and having faith.  It comes down to asking the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts and into our lives.  It comes down to putting our lives in God’s hands, rather than taking control for ourselves.
I don’t know how often you pray, and I don’t know what you pray for.  But I know that I need to pray every day, and one of the things I pray for every day is for God to forgive me for my arrogance.  I know I need that forgiveness.  And I don’t think I’m the only one.
Moses accomplished amazing things, but he could only do them because God was with him.  You and I can accomplish amazing things, but we can only do them because God is with us.  Let’s pray, and keep praying.  Pray that God will keep us humble, the way Moses was humble.  Pray that we won’t just say humble words, but that we actually will have humble hearts.  Pray that God’s Spirit will come into us, so that we will know, feel, and believe that God deserves the credit for every good thing that happens.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Listen to Faith

This is the message given on Sunday, July 17, 2016 in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Exodus 1:6-10, 22; Exodus 2:1-10.

            What would you do if the government ordered you to kill your child?  For most of us, that’s too horrible to even think about.  How could you ever do that?  I mean, it’s a terrible thing when a child dies in an accident or from a disease or something.  To be ordered by the government to deliberately and intentionally kill your own child?  I don’t know that any of us can even imagine it.
            But that was the situation in our Bible reading for today.  And it was a woman who listened to faith, rather than to reason, who changed the course of history.
            Our sermon series “Let’s Go to the River” returns to the Nile River this week.  You may remember that last week we talked about the Pharaoh of Egypt, who had a dream about the Nile River, and we talked about Joseph, a Hebrew man.  God directed a series of events that led to Joseph being put in charge of all the affairs of Egypt, which allowed him to save not only his family but the nation of Israel from a famine.
            But now, as you heard in our Bible reading, Joseph is dead.  And the Egyptians are getting pretty worried about all these Israelites who are in their country.  And as a side note, it kind of goes to show, as we read in Ecclesiastes, that there’s nothing new under the sun.  We’re talking about immigration as a problem now, and they were talking about it back in Old Testament times, too.  As the saying goes, everything old is new again.
            The thing is, though, that the king of Egypt takes a pretty drastic step.  He declares that all Hebrew boys should be thrown into the Nile River.  The girls can live, but not the boys.  The thinking behind that was that the boys might grow up to be warriors and be a threat, where the girls would not.  I don’t know if that was real smart thinking there, but that’s what the thinking was.
            Think about that.  You’re a young person living in Egypt.  You decide to get married.  You want to have children.  But—what if the child is a boy?  What do you do?  Do you throw the child—your own son—into the river?  Do you disobey the king, risking the life of your spouse, of your son, and risking your own life as well?  What an incredible, horrible choice that would be.
            That’s the choice Moses’ mother had to make.  Her name, by the way, was Jochebed.  That’s not given here, but it shows up in other places in the Bible.  Jochebed and her husband, Amram, have a son.  He’s described as “a fine child”.  And so, Jochebed decides to defy the government.  She hides the child for three months.
            But of course, you can’t hide a child forever.  Children get bigger.  Babies grow up.  And after three months, Jochebed decides that what she’s doing is no longer feasible.  But she’s not about to just give up.  She makes a waterproof basket and has her daughter, named Miriam, watch to see what would happen.
            As you heard, something did happen, and we’ll talk about that in a minute.  But let’s just stop here and think about what Jochebed did.  She hid Moses for three months.  She knew that at any time the government might find him.  They might come and take him and kill him.  They might kill her, too.  It took a lot of courage to defy the government like that.
And then there’s the faith Jochebed showed.  To take Moses and put him in this basket, not knowing what will happen, but confident that something would happen, and that it would be something good.  I mean, why else leave Miriam there to keep watch?  If Jochebed had thought that nobody would find Moses, or that the Egyptians would find him and kill him, she certainly would not have left Moses’ sister there to see it.  Leaving her daughter Miriam there to watch showed that Jochebed had faith that somehow, in some way, something good was going to happen, and she wanted to know what it would be.
That took tremendous faith.  There was no reason to think something good was going to happen.  Jochebed was not given any message from God that this was what she would do.  She was not told that her child was going to be someone special.  There was no real reason to think Moses would be found.  And if Moses was found, there was no reason to think he’d be saved.  Obviously, no Hebrew could take him in safely, even if they wanted to.  And there was no reason to think any Egyptian would care about some Hebrew baby.  There was no reason to think what Jochebed did was going to make the slightest difference.  And yet, she did it anyway.  She did it, and she trusted that somehow, in some way, God was going to make something good happen.  She had faith that somehow, in some way, God was going to save her son.
And God did.  Pharaoh’s daughter goes down to the river and finds Moses.  She feels sorry for this little three-month-old baby.  And that’s pretty remarkable too, when you think about it.  After all, it was her father, the Pharaoh, who had ordered the Hebrew baby boys to be killed.  And yet God used the Pharaoh’s daughter, of all people, to save Moses.  That’s a pretty incredible thing.
But again, it’s Jochebed’s faith that made the difference.  Because when Pharaoh’s daughter finds this baby and feels sorry for it, there’s Miriam, Jochebed’s daughter, who Jochebed had planted there.  And Miriam says, hey, I have an idea!  Why don’t I get one of the Hebrew women to nurse this baby for you?  Pharaoh’s daughter agrees, and of course Miriam takes Moses right back to his mom, Jochebed, to take care of him.
We’ll talk more next week about what Moses did after he grew up.  For today, though, I want to keep the focus on Jochebed.  The more I think about it, the more incredible her faith seems to me.
She was in a completely hopeless situation.  There was no way she could win.  No matter what she did, no matter which way she turned, there was no way things could turn out well.  She obviously did not consider killing her child to be an option.  But keeping him was not an option, either.  There was no one she could give him to.  What other option was there?  Abandon him?  Just hope someone would find him and raise him?  What were the odds of that? 
Jochebed had absolutely no good options whatsoever.  She did not even have any mediocre options.  Every one of her options led to her son dying, one way or another.  And I don’t doubt that everyone around her told her that.  As she was hiding Moses, as she was making this basket for him, as she was taking the basket to the river, I don’t doubt that everyone who knew what was going on was telling her, come on Jochebed.  Be reasonable.  This is never going to work.  You’ve got to face facts.  You cannot keep denying reality.  Sure, reality stinks, but you still have to accept it.  You’ve got to listen to reason.  You’re a Hebrew woman who’s given birth to a baby boy.  One way or another, your son is going to die.  That’s just the way it is.
Jochebed refused to accept it.  She refused to face facts.  She refused to listen to reason.  Instead, Jochebed listened to faith.  And faith, her faith in God, was stronger than reason.  Against all odds, Jochebed’s plan worked.  Not only was Moses saved, but Jochebed was able to raise him during his early years of life.
I don’t suppose any of us have been in the same position Jochebed was.  But I’m sure some of us have been in a position where there were no good options.  We’ve been in situations where it seemed like, no matter what we did, things were not going to turn out well.  Maybe you’re in one now.  And when we are in those situations, it seems like there are always people right there to tell us, look, you don’t have a chance.  Be reasonable.  Face the facts.  Don’t deny reality.  Accept the situation.  Listen to reason.  You might as well give up.  That’s just the way it is.
Now, I’m not telling you that every time we’re in a tough spot, God’s going to give a golden ticket to get out of it.  You know better than that.  What I am telling you, though, is not to put limits on what God can do.  God is all-powerful.  God can do anything God chooses to do.  God has plans and purposes that we know nothing about and that we never will know anything about, at least while we’re on earth.
And sometimes, things happen that do defy the odds.  Things happen that no one saw coming.  Things happen that no one can even explain.  Diseases go into spontaneous remission.  Buildings collapse and no one is killed.  A tornado is headed right for a town and then it goes back up into the clouds.  These things don’t happen all the time.  They don’t even happen a majority of the time.  But they do happen.
So the next time you’re in a situation where it looks like no matter what you do you cannot win, think of Jochebed.  And consider whether, this time, it might be better not to listen to reason.  Consider whether, this time, it might better to do what Jochebed did.  Consider whether, this time, instead of listening to reason, you should listen to faith.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Love One Another

If you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that much of it has not been good.  People killed by police in Minnesota and Louisiana, allegedly because of race.  Police killed in Dallas, allegedly in retaliation.  Lots of other killings, too.

As you know, I usually don’t comment about things like this.  I did think about it.  Lots of other pastors I know commented on it.  But I am choosing not to, for two reasons.

First, I don’t know what I could say that has not already been said by others.  Many people have said everything I would know to say and then some, and have said it much better than I ever could.  Many people have said things I would not say, too, of course.  There seems to be no shortage of people who are willing to say things about this.  I see nothing to be gained by adding my voice to the discordant chorus of voices.

Second, while I could state my opinion, I really have no idea what to do about any of this.  Neither does anybody else, really.  I mean, some people will put forward some suggestions, but the fact is that there’s no simple, easy solution.  If there was, we’d have put it in place by now.  And the suggestions I’ve heard don’t really seem like they’d solve the problem, either.

The fact is that what we’re dealing with here has to do with human nature, and human nature does not change a lot.  That’s one of the things we can learn by reading the Bible.  All of the same emotions, all of the same problems, all of the same sins that we deal with now were present thousands of years ago.  They may take somewhat different forms, but they’re still there.

The solution, if there is one, comes from following Jesus’ “new commandment” to love one another.  I say that, of course, and it sounds nice.  A lot of people would probably agree with that.  But how do we get everyone to do it?  I don’t know.  I don’t know how we get there from here.

And in fact, I don’t think we can.  Not by ourselves.  Again, we’re dealing with human nature, and there’s only one way that can change.  That’s by the moving of the Holy Spirit.  The only solution I can see is for the Holy Spirit to work in the human heart to change our nature.

Now, that does not mean we should just sit around and do nothing.  The Holy Spirit generally works through people.  Through you and through me.  And while the Holy Spirit can affect lots of people at once, quite often, things happen one person at a time.

So, if we want to do something about these killings, here’s what I think we should do:  love one another.  To paraphrase John Wesley, show all the love you can.  In every way you can.  In all the places you can.  At all the times you can.  To all the people you can.  For as long as you ever can.

If we all do that, we will have an effect.  It won’t happen overnight.  It could happen sooner than you think, though.  Each one of us affects far more people than we ever realize, just by living our lives.  And those people will affect other people.  And it will go on and on.  We can affect people we don’t even know.  We can affect people who will never know us.  We could start a movement here that could spread around the world.

Does that seem far-fetched?  Maybe it does.  But God can do anything.  If we all do what Jesus commanded, if we all love one another, who knows how far that could spread?  Who knows what might happen?

Let’s love one another.  And let’s not wait.  Let’s start right now, today.  This minute.  Let’s love one another.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Part of the Plan

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 10, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Genesis 41:1-14, 25-40.

             When you go to sleep at night, do you dream?  I suppose you do—pretty much everybody dreams, at least some of the time.  Sometimes our dreams are really happy—we have good times with friends, we go to far away places, lots of things go right.  Other times our dreams are bad—people are upset with us, we lose someone close to us, that sort of thing.  And other times our dreams are really scary—we dream of falling from great heights, or people chasing us, attacking us, whatever.
            But if I’m honest, the most common thing for me, when I dream, is to have the dream not really make a whole lot of sense.  Do you have those?  I’m in one place, doing one thing, and then all at once the scene suddenly changes, and there’s something entirely different going on, sometimes in an entirely different place with entirely different people.  And while I’m dreaming it, this all somehow makes sense, but then I wake up and try to reconstruct it, and I go, “Huh?  What was that all about?”
            It can be really strange.  Maybe that’s why so many people are interested in the interpretation of dreams.  If you go online you can find all kinds of stuff about the interpretation of dreams.  There’s even a “dream dictionary” where you can find out what different things in your dream symbolize.  But the thing is, they make these things so vague that you can believe they mean whatever you want them to mean.  For instance, if you dream about a cat, that’s supposed to symbolize an independent spirit, creativity, and power.  But it can also symbolize misfortune and bad luck.  Or, the cat could be a symbol of someone who’s being deceitful or treacherous toward you.  And depending on the type of cat and what it looks like, there are all sorts of other things it could mean, too.
            It’s hard for us to know what our dreams mean, or even if they mean anything.  Yet a lot of us would really like to believe they mean something and would like to know what.  In our Bible reading for today, Pharaoh wanted to know what his dreams meant.  And in case you were wondering how this ties into our sermon series “Let’s Go to the River”, Pharaoh dreamed about something that happened at the Nile River.
            Pharaoh had two dreams.  First, there were seven sleek, fat cows that came out of the river, and they got swallowed up by seven thin, gaunt cows.  Then, seven good healthy heads of grain were growing, and they go swallowed up by seven thin, scorched heads of grain.
            Pharaoh had no idea what those dreams meant, and you and I probably would not, either.  But the thing is that you and I would probably just shake our heads, say “Boy, that was a strange dream”, and get up and go about our business.  Pharaoh, though, was convinced that these dreams meant something.  So he called all his magicians and wise men to tell him what it was these dreams meant.  And none of them could tell him.
            And then the king’s cupbearer remembers something.  And you know, this job of being a cupbearer is something we don’t usually think about, but it was a really important position back in the day.  We think of “cupbearer” and we think, “What’s he do all day?  Stand around holding a cup?  How hard could that be?”  But the thing is that the cupbearer was the one in charge of making sure that anything the king drank was not poisoned.  And back then, poisoning the king was a real danger—it was not all that uncommon.  So the cupbearer had to do a good job of guarding that cup.  And if there was any question about the king’s drink being poisoned, the cupbearer had to drink some of it first, to make sure that it was not.  So “cupbearer” was actually a very important, responsible position.
            So the cupbearer tells the king, remember that time a couple of years ago when you had me thrown in jail?  While I was there, me and another guy had these really strange dreams, and there was a guy named Joseph there, a Hebrew guy.  He interpreted our dreams, and he was right both times.  So, Pharaoh sends for Joseph.
            Now, we need to remember who Joseph was and all he’d been through.  Some of you know this, some of you don’t, but Joseph was one of the sons of Jacob.  He had eleven brothers, and they got mad at him.  They were going to kill him, but then they realized they could make some money, and not have to have murder on their consciences, if they just sold him to slavery in Egypt.  They did, and he got sold to a man called Potiphar, who was rich.  He did a good job for Potiphar and eventually got put in charge of all of Potiphar’s property.  But then he Potiphar’s wife got mad at him and Joseph got thrown in jail on a trumped-up charge.  That’s where he was when he met the king’s cupbearer in jail.
            Now that’s about a half-dozen sentences to tell a story that takes up four chapters of Genesis, but you can see that Joseph had a lot of bad stuff happen to him, and not much of it was his fault.  What got Joseph’s brothers mad at him is that he told them about some dreams God had given him.  Potiphar’s wife got mad at Joseph because he turned down her advances, which of course was what he should’ve done.
            So here’s Joseph.  He’s in a foreign country.  He’s in jail.  He really has no reason to think he’ll ever get out.  In fact, when Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, the cupbearer promised to be sure to tell Pharaoh about him, and of course when the cupbearer got out he completely forgot about Joseph.  Until now.  Now Joseph gets his big chance.  God tells Joseph the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph tells Pharaoh what he should do because of what the dreams mean, and ultimately Joseph gets put in charge of everything in Egypt.
            And at this point you’re saying, “Okay, this is all kind of interesting, I guess, but what’s the point?  What am I supposed to get out of all this?”
            Well, we could probably get a lot of things out of it, but here’s what I want to focus on today.  Joseph had a lot of ups and downs in his life.  He had times where it looked like everything was going right and it always would.  He had times when it looked like everything was going wrong and it always would.
And yet, through all of it, God was there.  God was there, and God had a plan.  God used Joseph’s brothers, who hated him, to get him to Egypt, where God wanted him to be.  God used Potiphar’s wife, who was spurned by him, to get Joseph in jail, where he could meet the king’s cupbearer.  God used the cupbearer to get Joseph into a position where he could win Pharaoh’s favor.  God used Pharaoh to put Joseph into a position where he was in charge of the affairs of Egypt.  And if you know the rest of the story, you know that Joseph used that position to save his family and the nation of Israel from a famine.
            God was with Joseph through all of that.  God had a plan through all of it.  All of the things that happened to Joseph were God’s way of getting him where he needed to be to save his family and to save his people.  It took years, but God’s plan eventually worked out, not just for Joseph but for everyone.
            So think of your own life.  You’ve had times when it looked like everything was going right and it always would.  And you’ve had times when it looked like everything was going wrong and it always would.  Maybe you’re going through one of those times now.
            In all of those times, God is there with you.  And God has a plan.  That plan may involve a lot of ups and downs.  It may involve a lot of twists and turns.  It may involve a lot of times when you don’t really understand what’s going on or why.  But God is still there through all of it.  And God has a plan through all of it.  And it may be that all these things that happen are God’s way of getting you to where you need to be, when you need to be there, to do what God wants you to do.  And that’s true even if it takes years for it all to happen.
            We’re not told how Joseph felt through all of this.  We’re not told if he got upset with God, if he questioned God, if he had doubts, or if he stayed faithful and trusted God through all of it.  I would think that, even if he did keep trusting God, there had to be times when he at least wondered what the plan was, why God had allowed all these things to happen, and why years were going by with nothing changing.  He’d hardly be human if he hadn’t.
            Maybe you’ve had times when you got upset with God, when you questioned God, when you’ve had doubts.  Even if you’ve not had those times, there were probably times when you wondered what the plan was, why God has allowed all these things to happen, and why so much time is going by with nothing changing.  It’s a natural, human thing to do.
            If you’re going through that now, or when you do in the future, remember this:  God is with you.  God has a plan.  The plan may not make sense now.  The plan probably did not make sense to Joseph when he was sitting in jail, either.  But God has a plan.  That plan will get you where you need to be, when you need to be there, to do what God wants you to do.
            That’s what I hope you’ll get out of all this.  No matter how bad things look, hang in there.  Stay faithful.  Trust God.  God is there with you.  And God has a plan.  And eventually, when the time is right, you just may see that God was getting you where you needed to be, when you needed to be there, to do what God wants you to do.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Spirit Happens

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 3, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Mark 1:1-11.

            A couple of weeks ago we had the first day of summer.  Summer is my favorite time of year.  I love the warm weather.  I love the long days, how the sun does not go down until 9:30 or so and it does not get completely dark for some time after that.  I even like the thunderstorms, as long as I’m inside a nice, secure building when one comes along.
            And of course, around here, what do most people do in the summer?  We go to the river, right?  We go camping, we go boating, we go swimming, we go fishing, we go water skiing or tubing or whatever.  This time of year, there are lots of people spending lots of time at the river.  I’m sure there are a lot of people out there right now.
            In Bible times, people went to the river a lot, too.  Not to go swimming or camping, of course.  People need water to live, and there were not really efficient ways to get water from where it was to somewhere you might wanted to be, so people tended to live near bodies of water.  Rivers, lakes, seas, whatever body of water they could.
            That, of course, means that a lot of significant events in the Bible happened at the river.  So today, we start a new sermon series, “Let’s Go to the River!”  We’re going to look at some of the important events in the Bible that happened at rivers.  We’re starting today with John the Baptist baptizing Jesus at the Jordan River.
            Now, John had baptized lots of people before Jesus came to the river.  Obviously:  that’s why he was called John the Baptist.  John had attracted quite a following with his baptisms.  He was pretty well-known in the area at the time.  People from all over were coming to see him.
            And as you heard, he was kind of a sight to see.  This dude living out in the wilderness, wearing clothes made of camel’s hair, eating locusts.  Saying things like, “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”  Telling people they needed to repent and be baptized so their sins could be forgiven.
            He was a sight to see, but people clearly did not just come to see the show.  Somehow, this strange dude with the funny clothes and weird diet was really effective.  We’re told that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” went out to him, confessed their sins, and were baptized by John.  Even allowing for the possibility that this is a generalization, that’s still a whole lot of people baptized by John.
            And then Jesus comes out to be baptized by John.  And the immediate question that comes to mind is:  why?  Why would Jesus feel that he needed to go out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John?
            Remember, the point of John’s baptism was repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  What sins did Jesus have to repent of?  What sins did Jesus need to be forgiven for?  Jesus was the divine Son of God.  Why would Jesus need to be baptized?
            It cannot have been that he was being baptized for the forgiveness of our sins.  That was the point of Jesus’ death on the cross.  If being baptized could’ve gotten forgiveness or our sins, Jesus would not have had to be crucified.  There may have been times Jesus wished it could’ve been done that way, but apparently it could not be.  It appears that Jesus could die so that our sins could be forgiven, but he could not be baptized so that our sins could be forgiven.  There had to be something else going on here.
            It was not simply to follow Jewish ritual and tradition, either.  Baptism was not a particularly important or necessary ritual in Jewish culture.  You can find some roots of it there, in the cleansing rituals that Jewish people had, but there was no thought that people had to be baptized so there sins could be forgiven and they could get right with God.  So that’s no answer, either.
            Some have suggested that Jesus was baptized by John to demonstrate that he and John were allies, that Jesus’ ministry was aligned with and was in fact the fulfillment of John’s ministry.  And of course, it does demonstrate that.  The thing is, though, that’s only something that really becomes clear when we look at it from a future perspective. 
As we read the story now, we can see it showing that Jesus’ ministry was the fulfillment of John’s statement that “after me comes the one more powerful than I” and “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”.  We can see that now, but there’s no reason to think people saw it then.  Remember, at this time, Jesus had not yet started his ministry.  He was nobody special.  There was no big deal made of it when Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John.  Nobody said, “Wow, Jesus is here!”  He was just one of the crowd, another guy standing in line, one of the many people coming to John to be baptized.
I looked at several explanations for Jesus’ baptism as I was preparing this message, and quite honestly I did not find any of them convincing.  I’m not saying they were a bunch of baloney or anything.  Many of the explanations people suggest may have been a factor in it.  But none of them seem to really answer the question.
The fact is that we really don’t know why Jesus decided to be baptized by John.  I think it’s possible that even Jesus did not fully understand it.  Did Jesus know what was going to happen when he was baptized?  Did he know that, as Mark tells us, he was going to see “heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove”?  Did Jesus know that a voice was going to come from heaven saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”?
He may very well have known all that, of course.  He was Jesus, the divine Son of God.  He may have known exactly how all this was going to play out.
But I think it’s at least possible that he did not know.  I think it’s possible that Jesus, himself, did not really know why he needed to go to John and be baptized.  It’s possible that he did not know what was going to happen when he was baptized.  He just knew, somehow, that it was something he needed to do.  It’s possible that he just knew he needed to do this and he knew that something was going to happen when he did it, even if he did not know exactly what.
And after all, a lot of times that’s how we approach baptism today, too.  We bring children to be baptized.  Sometimes we wait until they’re teenagers for them to be baptized.  Sometimes we wait until we’re adults to be baptized.  Sometimes we baptized by sprinkling, sometimes by pouring, sometimes by immersion.  We baptize at all kinds of ages and in all kinds of ways.
And yet, we cannot explain exactly what happens and how it happens when we do that.  I’m the one standing up here doing it, and I cannot explain it.  People take some vows, I pour some water into a basin, I say some words, I put some of the water on someone’s head.  Think about this:  suppose you had no knowledge of what baptism was, and you walked in here and saw me doing that stuff I just described.  You’d probably wonder what kind of weird people were in this place, right?  You’d think this was a really strange ritual of some sort.
But still, we do it.  We do it, and we expect something to happen as a result of it.  And something does happen as a result.  We cannot explain how, exactly, but it does.
As United Methodists, we believe, as do many other denominations, that baptism is one of God’s “means of grace”.  What does that mean?  It means baptism is one of the ways God gives us grace, and it’s one of the ways we receive grace from God.
In other words, when we are baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on us, just like it descended on Jesus at his baptism.  None of us is the divine Son of God, obviously.  We do not have the same divine power and knowledge that Jesus had.  But each of us is a child of God.  Each of us is loved by God.  And each of us has God’s Spirit in our hearts and in our souls.  And one of the ways that happens for us is through baptism.
We may not fully understand that.  But that’s okay.  Nowhere in the Bible does God tell us that we have to understand everything.  The Bible tells us to trust.  The Bible tells us to have faith.  The Bible tells us to love.  The Bible tells us to follow.  It does not tell us we always have to understand.
We may not understand everything, but we understand enough.  We understand, as Jesus did, that we need to be baptized.  We may not fully understand why.  We may not fully understand what happens when we’re baptized.  But we understand that we need to be.  And we understand that when we are, somehow, in some way, the Holy Spirit is going to descend on us.  And then, even if we don’t hear a voice, we will know.  Somewhere inside us, we’ll know that we are children of God, that we are loved, and that God’s Spirit is in our hearts and in our souls.  And as long as we do our best to listen to God’s Spirit and to follow God’s Spirit, God will be well-pleased with us.