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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Everything Will Work Out

I’m writing this on September 29th.  That really doesn’t seem possible.  I don’t know where summer went.  But now, not only is it fall, it’s moving on toward winter.  On Saturday it will be October.  We can certainly have some nice days in October, of course.  But we also know that, once we hit October, snow is always one of the possibilities.  

We’ve all seen some terrible snowstorms in October.  One that is particularly memorable for me happened at the end of October in 1989.  It’s memorable for me because Wanda I got married on October 28.  I got up that morning and it was a beautiful morning.  It could almost have been summer.  In the afternoon, it clouded over and started to cool off.  In the evening, it started to rain.  We drove in rain all the way to Rapid City, where we were supposed to get on a plane the next morning.  When we woke up the next morning, there was a snowstorm.

We did, ultimately, manage to fly out of Rapid City, although we left around noon rather than around 9:00 like we were supposed to.  Our connections were all messed up, of course, so instead of getting to Orlando early in the evening we got there around midnight.  Still, we got there, and we had a good time, so I guess everything worked out.

And maybe that’s the point, really.  Everything worked out.  I’m not ready for winter to come, but everything will work out.  I’m not ready for snowstorms, either, but everything will work out.  That’s an optimistic viewpoint, I suppose, but I’m an optimist.  I think a Christian should be an optimist.  If we believe that God is all-powerful, and if we believe that God is in ultimate control, and if we believe that God is good, then it seems logical to believe that, in the end, things are going to happen the way God wants them to happen, and that, in the end, things will happen for the best.  In other words, everything will work out.

In my sermon last week, I looked at Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Paul tells us not to be anxious about anything, but simply to be rejoice in the Lord, to present our requests to God, and to be thankful.  It’s not easy to do that, but there’s a pretty good reward if we do.  The reward is not that we get what we want, necessarily.  We might, but we might not.  That’s up to God, in accordance with God’s will.  The reward is that we get peace of mind.  That peace of mind comes not from getting what we think we want, but from knowing that God is there, that God has heard us, and that God will ultimately make things happen for the best.  In other words, again, everything will work out.

So, if you’ve got something on your mind this week, I hope you’ll do that.  Rejoice in the Lord, make your requests to God, and be thankful.  And have the peace of mind that comes from trusting in God.  That’s my wish for all of us, including myself:  that we have the peace of mind that comes from trusting in God.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

God Takes Requests

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 25, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Philippians 4:4-9.

            We’re doing a sermon series called, “The Bible’s Greatest Hits”, looking at the most popular Bible verses as determined by searches at  Oddly, my two favorite verses, Matthew six, thirty-four and Luke twelve, twelve, did not make the list.  But the one we’re looking at today, number six on their list, might be third for me.  Philippians four, six and seven:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
            I’ve read those verses several times over the last week, getting ready for this sermon.  And really, I could not have been reading it at a better time.  Because the truth is that in recent weeks--really over the last few months--there have been a lot of times when I’ve been anxious about all sorts of things.  Maybe you have, too.  
It can be hard not to be.  After all, all of us have situations in our lives that are not the way we wish they were.  Maybe it has to do with our own personal situation.  Maybe it has to do with something a loved one is going through.  Maybe it has to do with our work.  Maybe it has to do with a relationship with someone.  Maybe it has to do with the situation in our country in in the world right now.  When you think about it, it’s pretty easy for most of us to find things to be anxious about.
Our reading tells us that instead of being anxious, we should pray and present our requests to God.  And it says if we do that, then the peace of God will guard our hearts and our minds.  And that sounds good.  I’d like that.  You probably would, too.  Everyone probably would.
But here’s the thing.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve had plenty of times when I’ve prayed about the things that I’m anxious about, and I did not get that peace.  I was still just as anxious as I was before.  Peace did not come to my heart and my mind.  In fact, it felt like nothing really happened at all.
And that’s why, in our reading, we did not just read those two verses.  We put those verses into context.  Because when we read what comes before and what comes after those verses, we see why we sometimes don’t get that peace, and we see what we need to do to help us get it.
First, in verse four, it says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!”  
Rejoicing in the Lord helps prepare our mind for prayer.  Now, understand, to rejoice in the Lord does not mean we have to be happy about everything that ever happens.  There are plenty of times when things come along that we’re not going to be happy about and that we should not be happy about.
What it means to rejoice in the Lord, I think, is be happy because God exists.  Be happy because God is, and be happy because of who God is.  Be happy, and be thankful, that God loves us, that God wants good for us, that God will help us through whatever it is that we’re tempted to be anxious about.  Be happy, and be thankful, that God has promised to never leave us or abandon us.  Be happy, and be thankful, that nothing happens that God is not aware of.  Be happy that the all-powerful, almighty God is also the all-loving, all-caring, all-compassionate, all-gracious, all-forgiving God.
Now, we know all that.  As Christians, we say we believe it.  But when we get anxious, when we get worried, when we get scared, we forget it.  Or maybe we remember it, but we just don’t quite believe it.  We wonder if maybe, this time, the problem is too big for God to handle.  Or we wonder if maybe, this time, God has decided to abandon us, to leave us to our fate.  Or we wonder if maybe, this time, God does not care about what happens to us.  We don’t put it that way, probably, but when we get anxious what we’re really doing is doubting God.
Now, the point here is not to criticize us for doing that.  Most of us have done it, and God understands it.  The point is for us to be aware of what we’re doing, so we can stop doing it.  When we get anxious, we need to take a step back and think about who God is.  Realize that God really does love us, that God really will be there for us, that God really can handle whatever it is we’re going through.  If it helps, say it out loud.  But know it.  Feel it.  Believe it.  God is there.  And God is love.  And God will help us through whatever we’re anxious about.
The next thing it says is that, when we pray, we should present our requests to God “with thanksgiving”.  It seems to me that, when we read these verses, we tend to skip over that part.  We’re not just supposed to present requests to God.  We’re supposed to do it “with thanksgiving”.
That thanksgiving needs to come in at least two ways.  One of them is just thankfulness that we’re allowed to present requests to God.  I think, too often, we forget that.  We take it for granted.  We forget how lucky we are, how blessed we are, that we are allowed to present requests to God.  After all, why does God need to listen to us?  Why should God even be interested in our requests?  I mean, think about it.  If you were God, if you were the almighty, all-powerful God, would you be interested in the requests of these puny, weak human beings?  Why?
But God is interested.  God is interested in our requests.  God encourages us to make those requests.  You and I are invited to come into God’s presence and make requests of God.  That’s such an amazing thing.  We should never take for granted the honor and privilege of being invited into the presence of God and being allowed to make requests of God.  We should always be thankful for that.
But there’s at least one other thing Paul means when he says we should present our requests to God with thanksgiving.  If we present requests with thanksgiving, what does that show?  It shows that we expect God to listen.  We expect God to hear.  And we expect God to respond.  We should be thankful to God because when we present our requests to God, we know God will respond to them.
And God wants us to know that.  God wants us to know that God will hear our requests and that God will respond.  Now, that does not mean that we’ll get exactly what we want exactly when we want it.  We all know that.  But God will hear, and God will respond.  The response will come in God’s way and in God’s time.  But God will hear, and God will respond.  And that’s something to be thankful for.
When we rejoice in the Lord, knowing that God loves us and God will be there for us, and when we make our requests of God with thankfulness, knowing that God is interested in our requests, wants to hear them, and will respond to them, what does that give us?  Paul spells it out.  He says, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And is that not what we all really want?  To not be anxious about anything, but instead to have the peace of God in our hearts and in our minds?
Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever felt like you had the peace of God in your heart and in your mind?  I know some of us have.  Maybe some of us feel it now.  I hope so.  But if you’ve ever felt it, think about what that felt like.  Think of how good it felt.  And if you’ve never felt it, think about how good it would feel.  To not have to be anxious about anything.  To not have to worry about anything.  To have the peace of God in your heart and in your mind.  I don’t always feel it, but when I do, it’s about as good a feeling as I can have.
Paul tells us how we can have that feeling.  Before we pray, think about who God is.  Think about how faithful God is.  Think about how powerful God is.  Think about how loving God is.  Think about how God is always there for us and always will be, no matter what.  Then, whatever we may be anxious about, give it to God.  Ask God to take care of it.  And be thankful that God wants to hear our requests, that God will hear them, and that God will respond, in God’s way and in God’s time.
You and I don’t have to be anxious about anything.  We have the all-powerful, all-faithful, all-loving God on our side.  And when we have God on our side, we don’t have anything to worry about.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rain On Our Parade

Last Friday was homecoming in Gettysburg.  They had all the usual homecoming festivities including, of course, the homecoming parade.  The parade was supposed to start at 1:30.  So, around 1:00, everyone got ready.  The floats came out, the bands came out, everyone got into position.  The spectators got into position, too.  And then, around 1:10 or 1:15, what happened?

It rained.  And all the floats got wet.  And all the bands got wet.  And all the spectators got wet.  And we all learned the meaning of the phrase “don’t rain on my parade”.  As much as we like to see rain around here, no one wants it to rain during the homecoming parade.

But you know what?  Everyone seemed to enjoy the parade anyway.  It had pretty much stopped raining by the time the parade started, which helped.  People were still wet, and some of the floats looked worse for the rain, and I don’t suppose it did the band instruments (not to mention the band members) any good, either.  But still, I did not hear anyone complain.  As I looked at the crowd, all I saw were smiles.  Everyone was having a good time.

There’s a lesson there for us, I think.  There are a lot of times in life when things don’t go the way we want them to go.  There are a lot of times, in other words, when life rains on our parade.  And when that happens, we have to make a choice.  We can let those times, those circumstances, define and get the better of us.  Or, we can decide that we’re going to be happy and enjoy life regardless of the circumstances.

I think God likes it when we make the second choice.  The Bible tells us we should be thankful in all circumstances.  It seems to me that happiness and thankfulness are related.  It’s hard to be happy if we’re not thankful for what we have, and it’s hard to be thankful when we’re unhappy.  So, being thankful in all circumstances seems like it has to mean being happy in all circumstances.

When I refer to “happiness” in this sense, of course, I’m not talking about a momentary good feeling.  We won’t always have that.  It’s not possible.  What I’m referring to is “happiness” in the sense of overall satisfaction, a sense of peace, a sense that we’re okay with the way things are even if they’re not the way we wish they were.

And I think that sense comes from faith in God.  It comes from trusting that God is there, that God is in control, and that God is going to work things out for the best.  It comes from keeping that faith and that trust even when it seems like things are going wrong.  In fact, it comes from keeping that faith and that trust even when we cannot see how things will ever go right again.

Life is going to rain on our parade.  But rain and snow and wind are all part of God’s plan.  So are sunshine and cool breezes.  Let’s resolve to be thankful and happy for all of it, satisfied with the fact that God is in control and will make everything work out for God’s glory.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Standards and Practices

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 18, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Romans 11:33--12:2.

            Today we get back into our sermon series, “The Bible’s Greatest Hits”, looking at the most popular Bible passages as determined by searches at  Our reading from Romans today is number seven on the list.  “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is--his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
            It sounds really good, right?  And of course it is good.  That’s why the Apostle Paul told us to do it.  But as with a lot of the things we read in the Bible, it’s a lot easier to say it than to do it.  We know that we should look for God’s will and try to do God’s will.  For Christians, that’s the main thing we should do.  And the fact is that, most of the time, it’s really not all that hard to figure out God’s will. It can be, but most of the time it’s not.
            Now understand, there’s a difference between knowing God’s plans and God’s purposes for our lives and looking for and doing God’s will.  God will always have plans and purposes we know nothing about.  That’s part of what makes God, God.  God’s plans and purposes are far deeper and far-reaching than we could ever hope to understand.
            But looking for and doing God’s will is usually not that hard.  Again, it can be.  We can have major decisions to make and have a hard time figuring out what God would want us to do in this or that situation.  But as we go about the day-to-day business of living, it’s usually not that hard.  Jesus gave us a lot of information on the subject.  Doing God’s will in our day-to-day lives means loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.  Doing God’s will in our day-to-day lives means loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Doing God’s will in our day-to-day lives means doing to others what we’d like others to do to us.  Those things are not usually that hard to figure out.
            So, if they’re not that hard to figure out, why don’t we do them?  Now, that’s not really fair.  We do them sometimes.  There are times when we love God.  There are times when we love others.  There are times when treat others the way we’d like to be treated.  There are times when we all do that stuff.
            But there are times we don’t, too.  There are certainly plenty of times when I don’t.  So again, the question is, why not?  If we know God wants us to do these things, why don’t we do them?  Why is that so many times, as our verses say, we choose to conform to the pattern of this world rather than following God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will?  Why is it so much easier to say this stuff than to do it?
            Well, part of the reason is that the world puts a lot of pressure on us to conform to its pattern.  And it’s not hard to understand why.  The world, after all, is the place we live.  It’s hard not to conform to the standards and practices of the place you live.  And those standards and practices make themselves known in all kinds of ways.  They make themselves known through the media.  They make themselves known through rules of society, both the written laws and the unwritten rules.  They make themselves known through the expectations of people we work for and work with.  They make themselves known through the expectations of our friends and our families.  Every day, every hour, almost every minute, the standards and practices of the world make themselves known to us in all kinds of ways.
            The reason it’s so hard not to conform to them is that we know, in the short-term, our lives will be easier if we do.  It’s always easier to follow the crowd.  It’s always easier to live the way everybody else lives.  It’s always easier to do things the way everybody else does them.
            Not following the crowd, not living the way everybody else lives, not doing things the way everybody else does, will make our lives harder.  It can cost us money.  It can cost us our jobs.  Sometimes, it can even result in us going to jail.  And even if it does not do any of those things, it can costs us relationships with our friends or even our families.  People look at us funny when we don’t conform to the pattern of this world.  They think there’s something strange about us.  And because of that, they may not want to be around us very much.
            And none of that is very much fun.  In fact, a lot of it is really hard to deal with.  I suspect some of us can think of times when some of these things have happened to us.  Some of us have had times when we were honest and followed God’s way rather than the way of the world and it cost us money.  We’ve had times when friends dropped us because we would not go along with the way of the world and instead said we were going to follow God’s way.  And that’s not easy.  It’s a natural thing to want to have friends.  It’s a natural thing to want the people around us to like us and think well of us.  
And what makes it harder still is that we’re human.  And that means that some of these standards and practices of the world are pretty appealing to us sometimes.  We’d like to follow them.  We know we should not but, well, it’d sure make things easier.  It’d sure make life more fun.  And besides, what real difference would it make?  Nobody’d be hurt by it.  God would understand.
It is always tempting to take the easy way out.  And it is understandable.  After all, life’s hard enough as it is.  None wants to do something that makes it even harder.  We’re all looking for ways to make our lives easier.  And if going along with the crowd, going alone with the standards and practices of the world, will do that, well, it’s pretty tempting to do it.  Nobody’d blame us.  In fact, a lot of people would be pleased.
            A lot of people would be pleased, but God would not be.  God would understand, I assume—God understands everything—but that’s not the same as saying that God approves or that God’s okay with it.  The goal of a Christian is not to conform to the standards and practices of the world.  The goal of a Christian is not even to conform to the standards and practices of the church.  The goal of a Christian is to conform to the standards and practices of God.  
After all, that’s part of the reason Jesus came here.  Jesus did not come with a message that said, “just keep doing what you’ve been doing.”  Jesus did not come with a message that said, “Hey, you need to be more like the people around you.”  Jesus said, “You need to be more like God.”  Jesus came to remind us that we were created in the image of God, not in the image of other people.  In Ephesians Five, Paul writes that we are supposed to be “imitators of God”.  Not imitators of other people.  Not conformed to the standards and practices of the world.  Imitators of God.  Transformed into people who follow the standards and practices of God.
It’s not easy.  That’s why Paul said that we need to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.  Because the only way we can really do this is if we give up part of ourselves.  We need to give up that part of ourselves that wants to go along to get along.  We need to give up that part of ourselves that tries to win the approval of human beings, no matter how well-respected or highly-placed those human beings may be.  We need to give up that part of ourselves that wants to follow the crowd and get ahead, regardless of whether “get ahead” means getting more money or a better job or more friends or whatever else it might mean to us.  We need to give up that part of ourselves that wants to do what everybody else does because it’ll make our lives easier.  That’s the sacrifice we make if we decide to not conform to the standards and practices of this world, and instead to be transformed into God’s people, following the standards and practices of God.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”  It sounds really good.  And it is good.  But it’s not easy.  Paul never said it would be easy.  It was not easy for Paul—he suffered terribly because of his faith.  It was not easy for lots of other Christians, either.  And of course, it was not easy for Jesus himself.
And it’s still not easy.  Loving God will all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Doing to others as we’d like others to do to us.  None of that conforms to the standards and practices of the world.  Not if we take it seriously, anyway.  Because it’s not enough to do these things once in a while, when the mood strikes us, to make ourselves feel better.  If we’re going to be transformed into God’s people, we need to do them all the time.  Not that we can ever be perfect, but that needs to be our goal.  To do them all the time.  Because if enough of us do this all the time, it’s not just us who’ll be transformed.  The whole world will be transformed.  It’ll be the world it’s supposed to be.  And we’ll be the people we’re supposed to be.  God’s people, living in God’s world.

The official mission statement of the United Methodist church is to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  If we’re going to transform the world, we need to first transform ourselves.  And there’s no better day to start than today.  It won’t be easy.  But it will be worth it.           

Friday, September 16, 2016

Taking It For Granted

Last Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.  In the aftermath of the attacks, there was a tremendous outpouring of patriotism.  The country was united in a way that I don’t remember it ever having been united before.  Maybe it was back during World War II or something--I’m not old enough to remember that.  But in my life, this was the most united the country had ever been.

The unity did not last, of course.  We certainly don’t have it now.  That does not mean that it was phony, though.  Nor does it mean that it was irrelevant.  That unity was real, and I think it happened for reasons.

I think at least one of the reason we felt unified was that people realized, many for the first time, just how important our country is to them.  People also realized, many for the first time, just how precious our freedom is.  And most of all, people realized, many for the first time, that the fact that we’ve always known freedom does not mean that we always will.  Our freedom can be lost, and there are people who would like to take it from us.

There are a lot of things like that in life, things that we take for granted, things that we don’t realize the importance of until we realize we might lose them.  It can be things we can enjoy doing.  It can be good health.  It can be our families or our friends.  It can even be our relationship with God.

A lot of us, including me, have had times when we take our relationship with God for granted.  We know God loves us, we know God will forgive us, and so we just assume that God will be there for us and take care of us no matter what.  Because of that, we stop spending time with God.  We stop spending time in prayer.  We stop reading the Bible.  And when we actually do those things, we do them in kind of a perfunctory way, without really thinking about what we’re doing or allowing it to have an impact on our lives.

God does love us, of course.  And God will forgive us, if we repent and sincerely ask for forgiveness.  And God will always be there for us.  But we cannot just assume that God will take care of us if we take God for granted.  God wants to help us, but God waits to be asked.  If we choose to ignore God and go our own way, God will allow us to do that.  And God will allow us to deal with the consequences.

It’s never good to take things for granted.  It’s especially not good to take God or the blessings God gives us for granted.  Let’s keep our relationship with God strong and let’s take the time, every day, to thank God for all the blessings God gives us.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How Do We Respond?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 11, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Exodus 14:19-31 and Matthew 18:21-35.

            Today, September 11, 2016, is obviously an important day in our country.  It’s the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York.  About three thousand people died on that day, and it still amazes me that the number was not higher.  What happened on this day fifteen years ago is among the most significant events that have happened in my lifetime.  If it’s not the most significant event, it’s certainly on the short list.  After all, this was not just an attack on New York City.  This was an attack on all of America.
            In the aftermath of those attacks, a lot of Christians struggled with what the proper Christian response should be.  I mean, we all knew that we should do whatever we could to help the victims of the attack, but beyond that, what should we do?  Some Christians believed we should immediately launch a counter-attack against the people who did this to us.  Other Christians said we should pray for our attackers and offer them forgiveness.  There were lots of other Christian opinions as well, from viewpoints all along the spectrum.  The proper Christian response to those attacks was the source of a lot of conversation and debate at the time.
            Fifteen years later, it still is.  A lot of Christians still struggle with the proper Christian response to those attacks and to the whole issue of terrorism.  A lot of things have happened in those fifteen years, of course.  We’ve seen acts of terrorism all of the world, including some in this country.  Luckily they so far have not been on the same scale, but there’s no guarantee that they won’t be.  In fact, a lot of people say that not only is another terrorist attack on that scale possible, it’s almost inevitable.  And we now have additional issues regarding immigration and refugees. 
If another large-scale terrorist attack does happen, we’ll probably have the same debates and conversations again.  Inevitably, those debates and conversations get bound up in politics, even when there’s not an election less than two months away.   And of course, that makes it even harder for us to find answers.
           Our scriptures for today give a couple of different responses for us to choose from.  The first one is our reading from Exodus, the story of the people of Israel crossing the Red Sea.  If you remember the story, Israel had been oppressed by the Egyptians for some time, and Moses was chosen to go to Pharaoh and get him to let them go so they could go to the land God had promised them.  Pharaoh refused until he was convinced by a series of plagues.  Then, after agreeing to let Israel go, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent the army to bring them back again.  The people of Israel get to the Red Sea, have no way to cross it, and the Egyptian army is hot on their trail.
            You heard the rest of the story.  God acts through Moses, parts the Red Sea, and allows the people of Israel to cross.  God gives the Egyptian army problems, they decide to run away, and God acts through Moses to wipe them out.
            There’s not a lot of forgiveness for the Egyptians in that story, is there?  Not much tolerance, not much understanding other viewpoints.  The goal is not to try to make peace with Egypt, the goal is to destroy the Egyptian army.  In fact, even after the army has decided to retreat and run away, God does not let up on them.  God does not say, “Okay, you’ve learned your lesson, so I’ll let you go and give you another chance.”  God completely obliterates them.  We’re told “not one of them remained.”
            On the other hand, we have the story from the gospel of Matthew.  Peter asks Jesus how many times he needs to forgive someone who’s wronged him, suggesting what to him was a high number of seven times.  Jesus responds with a much higher, almost limitless number.  He then tells a story about someone who asked for forgiveness and received it, only to refuse to give forgiveness to someone else.  His refusal meant that he was no longer forgiven, either.  This is a pretty common theme in the gospels:  that the forgiveness we receive from God is directly tied to the forgiveness we give to other people.  Jesus does not tell us that when someone attacks us, we should fight back with everything we’ve got.  Jesus tells us to forgive.
            So, where does that leave us?  Are we supposed to try to wipe out our enemies, the way God, acting through Moses, did to the Egyptians?  Or are we supposed to forgive our enemies, the way Jesus told us to?
            It’s interesting that both of these stories give us a way to avoid applying them, if that’s what we’re looking for.  In the story of the parting of the Red Sea, one could make the argument that it was not the people of Israel who attacked the Egyptians, it was God.  All the people of Israel did was run away; God did the fighting, not Israel.  So, one could argue, when we’re attacked, we should let God fight our battles for us, not fight them ourselves.
            On the other hand, in the story of forgiveness from Matthew, the question Peter asked Jesus was “if another member of the church sins against me, how many time should I forgive?”  One could make the argument, then, that in the case of terrorist attacks, we are not sinned against by members of the church.  So, one could argue, what Jesus said about forgiveness does not apply.
            I also don’t think we can just solve the dilemma by saying, “Well, the story of the Red Sea is the Old Testament, and the story of forgiveness is the New Testament, so we have to follow the New Testament and forget the Old.”  It’s not that simple.  As Christians, and as United Methodist Christians, we say that we believe in both testaments, the new and the old.  We say that both of them are the inspired word of God.  It’s not a good answer to say that we’re going to ignore certain parts of God’s word just because we don’t happen to like them or because they complicate things for us.
            Another thing that complicates this is that we can find sincere, committed Christians on all sides of this.  There are sincere, committed Christians who believe in a strong military, so strong that we are not just able to prevent attacks but so strong that no one would dare attack us.  There are sincere, committed Christians who believe that war is never justified, and that we need to make deep cuts in our military.  There are also, of course, sincere, committed Christians at many other points along the line.
            Because of that, I’m not going to stand here and tell you what I think the Christian position is.  I don’t think I have the authority to do that.  If I say, “here’s the Christian position”, I’m implying that anyone who disagrees, is not really a Christian, or at least not a very good one.  Not only don’t I believe that, I don’t think I have the right to decide who’s a Christian and who’s not.  God decides that, not me.
            What I will do is tell you some things we all need to consider as we think about this and similar issues.  This is not a full list, but I think doing these things will help us as we try to sort it all out.
            For one thing, we should not assume that we already know it all.  In the fifteen years since the World Trade Center attacks, and as we’ve seen other acts of terrorism, a lot of us have pretty well decided what we believe.  That’s okay, but we should also not be afraid to re-examine what we believe.  We’re all allowed to change our minds.
            Also, we should never believe something just because someone else believes it.  That’s the case even if that someone else is someone we really respect. We need to make our own decisions, not just trust the opinions of others.
            One thing we should definitely do is pray.  You probably knew that one was coming, but it’s necessary.  We should pray in all circumstances, of course, but we should especially pray when we need guidance, and this is an area in which we need guidance.  God will probably not just pop an answer into our heads, but the more time we spend in prayer, the closer we will be to God, and the closer we are to God, the more likely we are to live our lives the way God wants us to live them
            We should also read and study the Bible.  After all, the Bible is God’s message to us.  There are lots more scriptures that talk about these issues than just the ones we looked at this morning.  We need to read them and study them.
            We need to be willing to struggle with these issues.  It’s okay for us to not have an answer right away.  Sometimes, things take time to work through.  We need to think about this to the point that we know not just what we believe, but why we believe it.  We need to be able to have solid reasoning and scripture behind what we believe, not just a vague feeling that we’re right.
            Finally, we need to accept those who disagree with us.  That’s not to say we need to agree with them, but we need to realize that some of those who disagree with us have struggled with the issues just as much as we have.  They’ve prayed, and they’ve studied, and they’ve come up with different answers.  They may not be right, but they are still sincere Christians who love the Lord just as much as we do.  The fact that we may disagree with someone, even if we have a pretty strong disagreement, does not change that.
            Jesus never promised that being a Christian would be easy.  When Jesus was on the earth, his disciples struggled with a lot of issues.  Today, two thousand years later, we continue to struggle.  That’s okay.  It’s not our job to have all the answers.  It’s our job to be faithful, to love others, and to leave the answers to God.
            The one thing we know is that, no matter what happens, God is always in control, and God will win in the end.  If we trust that and do our best, God will take care of the rest.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Whose Will Be Done?

How many times have you prayed the Lord’s Prayer?  Many of us have prayed it hundreds of times, even thousands of times.  There are a lot of good things in the Lord’s Prayer, obviously—Jesus would not have given it to us if there were not a lot of good things in it!  But it strikes me that four extremely important words in that prayer are “Thy will be done.”

We may have prayed that thousands of times, but how many of those times have we really meant it?  I mean, it’s something we agree with.  It’s something we nod our heads about when we think about it.  Yes, of course, we want God’s will to be done.  But do we really?  Many times, instead of “Thy will be done”, what we really want is “My will be done.”

We do it without even thinking about it sometimes.  In fact, at times we may be convinced that our will is the same as God’s will.  We convince ourselves that what we want is, in fact, what God wants, and so we convince ourselves that it is going to happen.  We don’t do this with bad intent, necessarily.  We simply believe that what we want is what’s best for everybody, so we cannot imagine why God would not want it, too.

I had an experience along those lines recently.  The details don’t matter, but I was convinced, or more accurately I had convinced myself, that something I wanted to happen was, in fact, going to happen.  Then, I found out that there was a good chance it would not.

I was disappointed, of course.  That’s all right, in and of itself.  We’re allowed to be disappointed when things don’t happen the way we want them to.  But then I realized that my disappointment was really not all that justified.  I had known all along that things might not happen the way I wanted them to.  I just convinced myself that they would simply because I wanted them to so much.  I was thinking about my will, rather than God’s will. 

The fact that things might not happen the way I want them to does not mean they won’t go the way God wants them to.  For one thing, everything that happens is not necessarily God’s will.  God allows things to happen, because God allows us to make choices, but that does not mean we always make the choices God wants us to make.  For another thing, there are other people involved, and they have ways they want things to go, too.  There’s no reason God should consider my desires more important than theirs.

Most importantly, though, it may well be best for me that things don’t go the way I want them to go.  After all, God can see a lot farther down the road than I can.  I can think of several times in my life already where I can see that I am extremely lucky that I did not get what I wanted.  This may be another one of those times.  It’s entirely possible that what God has planned for me is much better than what I had hoped for myself.

Whatever the reason is, it really does not matter.  The point is that I am reminded again to put God’s will ahead of my own.  I am reminded again to pray “Thy will be done” and not “my will be done”.  If we focus on doing God’s will and accepting God’s will, we’ll be a lot better off.  We may not get what we want, but we will get what God wants.  And in the long run, that will be the best for everyone.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Let's Not Make a Deal

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 4, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Proverbs 3:3-12.

             We’re in the second week of our sermon series “The Bible’s Greatest Hits”, looking at the favorite Bible verses as determined by the people at  Today we look at number eight on the list, our reading from Proverbs Chapter Three.
            The book of Proverbs is one of my favorite books of the Bible.  So some of you may be thinking, “Then how come you never preach on it?”  And the fact is that I don’t.  In fact, this might be the first time I’ve ever preached a Sunday sermon on the book of Proverbs.  I’ve preached from it at funerals, especially the closing verses about the woman of noble character.  That one gets used a lot.  But the rest of the book, not so much.
            There is a reason for that.  A proverb, by definition, is “a short, and expressive saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.”  And that’s what most of the book of Proverbs is:  short sayings that contain truth.  Many of them are just one verse long.  And a lot of them are really good.  The trouble is that, quite often, the verse you’re reading has nothing to do with the next verse, and that verse has nothing to do with the verse after that.  So it can be very hard to find a group of verses with a common theme that you can actually preach on.
            To an extent, that’s true of our verses today, too.  But I think there is a common theme, at least to an extent, and I think it can be summed up this way:  when we are faithful to God, God will be faithful to us.
            Verses five and six tell us to “Trust in the Lord with all your all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”  Verses seven and eight tell us that if we “fear the Lord and shun evil”, God will “bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones”.  Verses nine and ten say that if we “honor the Lord with your wealth...then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.”
            Well, that all sounds good.  But you know, it kind of starts to sound like a quid pro quo, does it not?  It sounds like we’re making a deal with God.  “Okay, God, I’ll submit to you and I’ll shun evil and I’ll honor you with my wealth.  And now, in return, you have to make things easy for me, to give me good health, and to give me lots or material goods.  That’s our contract.  You live up to your side of the bargain, and I’ll live up to mine.”
            And we know that’s not the way life works, don’t we?  We’ve all known people who were wonderful people, who were faithful Christians, who at least as far as we can tell had submitted their lives to God and shunned evil and gave generously.  And they did not have things made easy for them.  They did not get good health and prosperity.  And that does not seem fair.  It does not seem right.  It looks to us like God did not follow through on God’s end of the deal.
            And sometimes, when that happens, our faith can be shaken.  Because we’re thinking, “Wait a minute.  This is not the way it’s supposed to work.  I’ve been trying to serve God all my life.  I’ve been trying to do what God wants, I’ve given up all kinds of things I could’ve done, I’ve given to the church, I’ve done all the things I’m supposed to do.  And for what?  What did it get me?  How has following God made me any better off?”
            We know, in our heads, that we cannot make deals with God like this.  But in our hearts, sometimes we think we can.  It’s easy to do.  Even though we know better, there’s a part of us that feels like if we’ve done things for God, then God owes it to us to do things for us.  And it can be really easy to read a section like the one we read today as backing up that feeling.
            But let’s look at this a little closer.  We talked last week about what the Apostle Paul said about love.  He said that it does not matter how great our spiritual gifts are if we don’t act out of love.  In other words, it’s not just what we do that matters.  Our feelings and motivations and attitudes, the reasons why we do the things we do, matter, too.
            So let’s look at these verses with that in mind.  Our verses told us to submit to the Lord and not to lean on our own understanding.  Well, if we act in a certain way because we want God to do things for us, we’re not really submitting to the Lord, are we?  We’re not trying to follow God’s will.  We’re not being faithful to God.  We’re trying to manipulate God, to make God follow our will.  Submitting to God means living the way God wants us to live just because it’s the way God wants us to live, with no expectation of anything in return.
            Now, there is a certain level of trust in God that’s involved in that.  But it’s not trusting God to do what we want God to do.  It’s trust that if we submit ourselves to God’s will, then God will do what’s right and things will go the way God wants them to go, the way they’re supposed to go.  In other words, our trust in God is not that if we follow God, God will do things our way.  Our trust in God is that if we follow God, God will do things God’s way, and God’s way will be better than our way ever could be.
            In fact, if we’re doing things because we want God to do things for us, we’re doing the exact opposite of what those verses say, right?  We’re leaning on our own understanding.  We’re trying to be wise in our own eyes.  We’re saying, in effect, “I know what God should do here.  So, I’ll do this and this and this, and God’ll see that and God’ll do what I want God to do in return.  I’ll get God to do it my way.”  And in fact, I suspect there are some of us who have tried that a time or two in our lives.  We probably did not spell it out that way, we did not put it quite that bluntly, but that really is what we were doing.  We were trying to manipulate God into doing things our way.  And it probably worked about as well as you’d expect it to, because God does not just know what we’re doing, God knows why we’re doing it.  And our feelings and motivations and attitudes matter to God.
            It works the same way with the other verses we read.  We cannot truly be said to “fear the Lord” if we’re trying to manipulate the Lord.  In fact, the whole idea of trying to manipulate God is very disrespectful of God.  It’s incredibly arrogant of us to think we could trick God or fool God in that way.  And yet, we still try.
            And how about honoring the Lord with our wealth?  Are we really doing that if we give with the idea that God will give us something in return?  That’s not honoring God.  That’s trying to bribe God.  Again, it’s very disrespectful.  And I’m pretty sure God can tell the difference.  
            When we spell these things out in this way, none of them make a whole lot of sense.  And yet, a lot of us have had times when we’ve tried to do them.  And I have, too.  We try to make it look like we’re trusting God, but we’re really just trying to make a deal with God.
            So why do the verses put it this way?  Why do they make it sound like we’re bargaining with God, and that if we do the right thing God will respond in the right way?
            Well, remember what a proverb is.  It’s a short statement that express a general truth or piece of advice.  It’s not something that is true each and every time, no exceptions.  It’s something that’s good advice for us because it’s generally true most of the time.
            And the fact is that, if we follow God’s rules, if we live the way God wants us to live, if we rely on God rather than relying on ourselves, if we shun evil and give generously to God, and if we do those things with willing hearts, out of love, rather than doing them because we want something in return, the chances are that things will go better for us.  Our paths will be straighter.  We will tend to be healthier.  We will tend to be more successful.  Not because God owes it to us to make things turn out that way, but because God knows more about how we should live than we do.  God gave us certain rules for living, but not to set up a reason for punishing us when we don’t follow them.  God gave us rules for living because God loves us, and God knows that if we follow God’s rules, things will tend to go better for us.  Not always.  There will be exceptions.  But it’s the percentage play.  It’s the best way to go.
            And remember, too, that God’s idea of success is not always the same as ours.  Humans tend to look at success in terms of numbers.  We look at the size of someone’s bank account, or the number of square feet in their house, or the number of friends they have, or things like that.  Those things may define success on earth, but they do not define success the way God sees it.
            And we get back to where we started:  to faith.  God sees success in terms of our hearts.  God sees success in terms of the trusting God, being faithful, and showing love.  When we do those things, God sees us as being successful, regardless of what the numbers show.
            So let’s stop trying to make deals with God.  Instead, let’s trust the Lord, and not ourselves.  Let’s shun evil and honor the Lord, with our wealth and with everything else in our lives.  We may or may not be successful in terms of numbers, but we will be successful to God.  Let’s be faithful to God, because God will always be faithful to us.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Valuing What We Have

I mentioned last week that one of the things I like about summer is riding my bike around town.  I really do enjoy that.  I ride at a speed of about ten to eleven miles an hour, on average.  That’s not setting any speed records, obviously, but it’s an old fashioned one-speed bike.  Besides, if I ride for an hour, which I often do, I get about eleven miles in, and that’s not so bad for a fifty-seven-year old.

There are, of course, a lot of days during the year when I can’t ride my bike.  All winter, for example.  And the first part of spring.  During those times, I have a machine that I use indoors.  It’s called a “Gazelle Glider”, so if you’ve noticed that I’m as graceful as a gazelle, you now know why.  Anyway, the way the climate is around here, there are more months of the year that I cannot ride the bike outside than there are months that I can.  This means that, after a while, I start to get really tired of using the Gazelle Glider.  As the winter turns into spring, and the weather starts to get warmer, I get really anxious for it to get warm enough for me to start riding the bike outside again.

As we get to this time of year, though, and I’ve ridden my bicycle around quite a bit, an odd thing happens.  I start to get kind of anxious to get back on the old Gazelle Glider again.  There’s a part of me that kind of welcomes the coming of cold weather so that I can.  That wears off fairly quickly—within a few weeks I’m wishing I could be on the bike again—but for a while, just the idea of doing something different kind of appeals to me.

It seems like it’s a part of human nature that we tend to over-value the things we don’t have and under-value the things we do have.  When I can’t ride the bicycle, it’s the main thing I want to do.  But after a while, when I can ride the bicycle, I start wanting to do something else.

It’s something that goes back to the story of Adam and Eve, really.  God gave Adam and Eve everything a person could possibly want.  There was just one thing that was not allowed to them.  So what was the one thing they wanted?  The one thing they couldn’t have.  All those things they could have just could not match up, in their minds, with the one thing they could not have.

Wanting what we don’t have is not all bad, of course.  Sometimes that’s what keeps us striving to do better.  Some of the greatest advancements in the history of the world have come because people wanted something they did not have, and because they wanted it they invented it.  There are ways in which the world would be a poorer place if we just settled for things as they are rather than wanting things to be better.

Still, we should take the time to realize how wonderful the things are that we already have, and to be grateful for them.  And of course, some of those “things” are not things at all.  The beauty all around us, the friends we have, the love that we share with others.  And, of course, the love that God gives to each of us.  Let’s make sure we don’t take those things for granted.  Let’s make sure we appreciate those things and are grateful for them.  Because, as the Bible tells us, “things” will all wither away.  But love does not.  Love is eternal.  Love never fails.  It’s okay to want things.  But the main thing we need is love.