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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dare to Be Different

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 23, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 22:15-46.


            The period from Palm Sunday to Easter is known as Holy Week.  And every year, when Holy Week comes around, we have special services.  We have a Maundy Thursday service and we have a Good Friday service.  If you add in the Wednesday night Lent service we have in Gettysburg, that’s five services that we have in an eight-day period.
            But even though we have all those special services, there’s still a lot that happened during Holy Week that we never seem to quite get to.  We tend to jump right from Palm Sunday to Jesus meeting with the disciples for the last supper in the upper room on Thursday night.  Those are both important things, of course, but Jesus did and said a lot of things on Monday, Tuesday, ad Wednesday, too.  So, as we do this sermon series on the earthly life of Jesus, we’re going to try to cover some of those things.
            Jesus is in the temple courts.  He’s talking to a crowd, teaching them.  The two biggest Jewish religious groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, were there, too.  They were watching Jesus.  They were listening to what he was saying.  And they were not happy about it.  
            The Pharisees and the Sadducees and the other Jewish leaders thought they needed to do something about Jesus.  He was a threat to them.  He was a threat to their whole way of life.  In fact, they looked at Jesus as a threat to their whole society.  And yet, they did not dare just walk up to Jesus and arrest him in broad daylight, because they were afraid of what the crowd around Jesus might do.  So, they came up with a plan.  They would trap Jesus with his own words.  Then, everyone would know that Jesus was a fraud and they’d be able to get rid of him.
            Four times they tried.  First the Pharisees tried with a question about paying taxes.  Then the Sadducees tried with a question about marriage at the resurrection.  Then another Pharisee, this one an expert in the law, had a go, asking about the greatest commandment in the law.  And finally, the Pharisees talked to Jesus about whose son the Messiah must be.
            Four times they tried.  Four times they failed.  At first, Jesus seems a little annoyed at this, calling them hypocrites for asking the question.  But by the end, Jesus seems to almost be toying with them.  He knows they cannot trap him.  They cannot trick him.  The Pharisees and Sadducees were trying to make Jesus look bad with their “clever” questions, and instead all they did was give Jesus the chance to make them look foolish.  Which Jesus did.
            So what’s the lesson from all this?  What are we supposed to learn from it?
            Well, last week we talked about how, as Christians, we need to stop being lukewarm about our faith.  We need to stop trying to just have the minimum amount of faith necessary to get to heaven.  We need to have full and complete faith.  We need to go from being lukewarm to being hot.  We talked about how the only way Christianity is going to grow, whether we’re talking about growth in the United States or growth right here in our own community, is by the actions of Christians who are willing to go beyond just being “good people” and do whatever it takes to love our neighbors, make disciples, and follow Jesus wherever the road may lead us.
            If we take that seriously, if we actually try to do that, if we actually go from being lukewarm to being hot, we’re going to run into some resistance.  If you and I actually try to put our faith in Jesus Christ into practice in every aspect of our lives, there are going to be some people who look at us kind of funny.  If we truly allow our faith in Jesus Christ to change our lives, there are people who are not going to like that very much.
            And it’s not necessarily because they’re opposed to God or opposed to Jesus or anything like that.  We may run into some people who are, but I don’t think it’s most.  But the thing is, if we really take our faith seriously, if our faith really is involved in each and every part of our lives, there are people who are going to look at us as a threat.  Because we’ll be different.  We’ll be both different from them and different from who we used to be.
            And that can be hard for people to deal with.  There are some who’ll feel like we’re judging them because we’re different.  We may not be actually judging them, and in fact we should not be, but they may still feel that way just because we’re living differently now.  And sometimes, people feel threatened by people who are different.
And then too, if our faith in Jesus Christ changes our lives, we won’t be that same person they thought they knew any more.  Some people probably won’t be happy about that.  And they’ll try to get us to go back to the way we were.
            And it can be hard to resist that.  It takes a lot of courage to be different.  You know, we talk about peer pressure in regard to young people a lot, but young people are not the only ones who face peer pressure.  Most of us do.  Most of us have a desire to fit in.  Most of us have a desire to go along.  There are very few people who really enjoy being the outsider, who enjoy being the oddball, who like having people think of them as different.  The desire to be liked, to be accepted, is very strong.  Most of us feel it.  I know I do.  And most of us, to one degree or another, are tempted to compromise so we can be liked and accepted.  I know I am.  And sometimes I give in to that temptation.  Maybe you do, too.  It takes courage to be different.
            Jesus had that courage.  He was able to resist the temptation to compromise.  Jesus knew the things he was saying were not going to make the Jewish religious authorities happy.  In fact, he knew this was just one more step on the road that led to him dying on a cross.  If Jesus had just tried to fit in better, if he’d just gone along, if he’d just compromised with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, things would’ve been so much easier for him.  He probably could even have avoided his death.
            I don’t know whether Jesus felt the temptation to go along, to fit in.  But if he did, he had the courage to resist it.  He had that courage because he knew it was coming, just as we know it could be coming.  And because Jesus knew it was coming, Jesus was ready for it.
            So let’s look at the specific examples.  In the question about taxes, he knew it was not an honest question.  So he did not treat it as one.  He knew the person asking did not want his opinion, but was just trying to start an argument.  No matter what he said they were going to disagree.  So he did not fall into the trap.
            There’s a lesson for us right there.  If we really live our faith out, if we really are different, people are going to have questions.  And that’s okay.  We should welcome honest questions.  But we need to know when someone is asking an honest question, and when someone is just trying to start an argument.  Jesus would answer honest questions as long as people wanted to ask them.  We should, too.  But you and I should not fall into a trap when someone just wants to start an argument.  It’s not going to help.
            In the question about marriage at the resurrection, the Sadducees tried to set up a false premise.  And Jesus refused to accept it.  There’s a lesson for us, too.  People will try to do that, too.  “If God loves you, why did you get sick?”  “If God loves you, why did you lose your job?”  If God loves us, why does God not make it rain?”  The false premise is that if God loves us nothing bad should never happen to us.  That’s never been true.  The greatest heroes of the Bible had all kinds of bad things happen to them.  But they kept the faith and were ultimately rewarded for it.  So will we be.  So when someone sets up a false premise, you and I should not accept it.  We should challenge it.
            That’s two principles we can learn from Jesus.  Here’s a third:  don’t get bogged down in insignificant details.  Stick with the basic principles.  Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment in the law.  There were any number of commandments he could’ve chosen from.  Some of them were pretty detailed, and some of them were considered pretty important.  But Jesus went to the basics, to the first principles.  Love God and love your neighbor.  That’s what you and I need to do, too.  Don’t get hung up on every last detail.  Stick to the basic principles.
            And there’s one more principle we can learn from Jesus, and that is not to be defensive about our faith.  After they’d asked Jesus all these questions, Jesus turned around and asked them a question.  And when they gave the answer he expected, he turned things around on them.
            Too often, as Christians, we start to feel like we need to be defensive about our faith.  We don’t.  I’m not saying we should be obnoxious about it.  We should not go around pointing fingers in people’s faces or anything.  But we don’t need to be defensive about our faith, either.  We don’t need to try to hide it or keep it a secret.  We can and should be upfront, open, and honest about what we believe and why we believe it.  Our Christian faith is not something to be ashamed of.  It’s something to be proud of.  If we’re proud of our faith, we should act like we are.
            Following Jesus, having the kind of full and complete faith that we’ve been talking about, is not always going to make us popular.  It’s going to make us different.  And again, it takes courage to be different.  There will always be people who tempt us to go along, to fit in, to go back to the way we used to be.  There will always be people who want us to compromise our faith.  And sometimes it’s very tempting to do that.
Jesus was able to resist the temptation to compromise.  He had the courage to be different.  He had that courage knowing full well where it would lead him--to the cross.  You and I can resist the temptation to compromise, too.  We can dare to be different for Jesus.  We can be open, honest, and proud of our faith.  We may not always know where it will lead us.  But we know that, if we follow Jesus, we’ll always be going in the right direction.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Trusting God in the Drought

Some of us got some rain this week.  Some of us did not.  Those who did not get any rain still need it.  Those who did get some rain still need more.  A lot of people have been hoping for rain.  A lot of people have been praying for rain.  Yet, we either have not gotten rain or have not gotten enough rain.

I’m sure some people are starting to wonder about this.  We know that God is good.  We know that God knows we need rain.  We’re told that God answers prayers.  We’re told that God knows how to give good gifts to God’s children.  So why is God not giving us the rain that God knows we need?

Well, I started thinking about that.  I’m not saying I have the answer, but this might be part of the answer.  See if it makes sense to you.

This is not, of course, the first hot and dry year we’ve had.  Some of you have seen lots of them.  Some of you are even old enough to remember the 1930s, often referred to as the “Dirty Thirties”, when for year after year there was heat and very little rain.  I’m sure people were praying for rain then, too.  And God was not giving them rain, either.  And I’m sure some people wondered why, just as we wonder why now.

But think about what those years did for the people who survived them.  It made them tougher.  It made them stronger.  It made them more determined.  And they needed to be, because what happened as soon as the 1930s ended?  World War II, of course.  A fight for the right of people and nations to be free.  The generation that survived the Dirty Thirties won that war for freedom.  They then came home, determined that the next generation would have things better than they had.  And so they came home and worked hard and brought prosperity to this country such as has seldom been seen.

There’s a reason that generation has been called The Greatest Generation.  And one of the things that formed that generation was surviving the 1930s, when it was hot and dry and people’s prayers for rain did not seem to be answered.  I can’t prove it, but I think it’s possible that God was using that time to form and shape a generation of people so they could meet the challenges of the coming years.

Is that what’s going on now, too?  I don’t know.  It’s certainly possible that this hot and dry year is just that, a hot and dry year, and that next year things will be cooler and wetter again.  It’s even possible that we’ll still get rain and things will work out all right.  But it’s undeniable that we do have challenges today.  The fight for freedom is never completely won.  And there are certainly plenty of economic challenges, too.  So, as always, there is much that remains to be seen.

The point, though, is that God will always have plans and purposes that we know nothing about.  God can see farther into the future than we can ever imagine.  When we think about “long-term planning”, we think, maybe, of five years or so.  Many of us think of a much shorter time than that.  But God can see five hundred years down the road.  God can see five thousand years down the road.  If the world is still going to be around five million years from now, God can see that, too.

So whether it rains or not, let’s trust God.  Let’s trust that God is great and God is good.  Let’s trust that God is doing what’s right even if, at the moment, it does not seem right to us.  And let’s remember that, even if it does not rain, God has not abandoned us.  Because God’s promise is much greater than a promise of a good crop.  God’s promise is of eternal life for all those who accept Jesus as their Savior.  It’s worth going through some things to get that.



Thursday, July 20, 2017

What Do I Care?

The days are still long and full of sunshine.  For a baseball fan, though, last week was the darkest period of the summer.  That’s right.  The All-star break was last week.

You’d think, as a baseball fan, that I’d love the all-star game.  And I don’t dislike the game itself, although I’m not all that fired up about it either.  It is, after all, just an exhibition game.  Yes, it’s an exhibition game with lots of great players in it, but still, it’s an exhibition game.  It doesn’t matter who wins.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure most of the players are trying.  But the point of the game is not to win.  The point of the game is just to allow all these great players to play and to allow people to see them play.  How well they do is not really relevant.  So it can be fun and all, but that’s all it is.

But what I really don’t like about the all-star break is not the game itself.  It’s the day before and the two days after.  There are no ball games!  That is, after all, what the term “break” means.  But what that means is that last week, from Monday through Thursday, there was only one major league baseball game, and that game did not mean anything.  It was a sad time for a baseball fan.

The question you may be asking, especially if you’re not a sports fan, is “Why do you care?”  I’m not sure I can give you a good answer to that question.  Why should I care about professional sports at all?  Local sports are understandable.  It’s not that hard to understand why I should root for the Potter County Battlers or the Sully Buttes Chargers.  I’ve gotten to know some of those kids.  I know some of the coaches, too.  I know their families.  It’s understandable why I should want them to do well.  But pro sports?  Why should I care if a bunch of athletes, who come from all over the world and have been hired to play for a team based in Minneapolis, are better than a bunch of athletes, who also come from all over the world and have been hired to play for a team based in New York or Chicago?  What difference does that make to me?

I don’t know.  But it does make a difference.  And I suppose, in a way, it’s no different from having a favorite TV program and caring about the characters in that program.  Movies can be the same way.  So can books, for that matter.  We know the characters are not real, and yet we come to care about what happens to them.  We get involved in their fictional lives.  Sports is somewhat the same way.  The athletes are real, but I don’t know them.  Yet, I come to care about what happens to them and how they do.  I don’t know that it makes any sense, but these are things we do as human beings.

Caring is a good thing, of course.  Where it can start to get away from us, though, is when we start caring about these fictional characters and these athletes we don’t know more than we care about the people around us.  Because the fact is that no professional athlete cares about me.  Why should they?  No professional athlete needs me.  Why would they?  

But there are people around me who do care about me and who do need me.  And I need them, too.  These are people whose lives I can actually have a positive effect on.  They can have a positive effect on my life, too.  Those are the people I really need to care about.  Those are the people I really need to get involved with.  Those are the people God has given me to love.

So enjoy a ball game.  Enjoy your TV show.  Enjoy your movie and your book.  But keep it in perspective.  The people who need us most are the people right around us.  Those are the people we need to focus our caring on.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Independence Day

As you may know there were no fireworks displays in Gettysburg this year.  There were no fireworks displays in several other towns in the area, too.  The reason, of course, is the drought.  Things are very dry, and there is too much risk of fire if the traditional fireworks displays go forward.

That’s too bad.  I understand why it was necessary.  I’m not disagreeing with the decision.  But still, it’s too bad.  I think fireworks are beautiful.  It’s really nice to see them.  So even though not having the displays this year is the right thing to do, I still missed seeing them.

But you know, there are a lot of ways to show our love for our country other than shooting off fireworks.  Some of them are even better ways.

One of the things we can do is simply to remember the sacrifices people have made to allow us to have the independence and freedom that we have.  There are a lot of people who gave their lives for this country.  I’m sure many of you have one or more of those people in your family.  There are others who are risking their lives now for this country.  I’m sure many of you have one or more of those people in your family, too.  We should never take that for granted.  We should be grateful every day that there are people who are willing to risk their lives in that way.  Jesus said that there is no greater love than to be willing to lay down your life for your friends.  These are people who are not just willing to lay down their lives for their friends, they’re also willing to lay down their lives for people they don’t know and never will know.  That’s a pretty awesome thing.  It should never be taken for granted.

Another thing we can do is respect the freedom of others.  As I’m sure you know, this is a pretty contentious time in our country.  No matter what the issue is, there are a lot of differing opinions about it.  That’s okay.  But we need to continue to respect people, even when we disagree with them.  The fact that I disagree with you doesn’t make you a bad person.  The fact that you disagree with me doesn’t make me a bad person, either.  We can both want what’s best for people, and what’s best for the country as a whole, and still disagree about what actually would be best.  The fact that we disagree does not make either of us stupid or hateful or evil.  It just means we have a different way of looking at things.  We need to respect that.

Another thing we can do is be grateful to God for allowing us to live in this wonderful country.  Yes, our country has flaws, but it’s still a wonderful country.  There’s a reason people from all over the world want to come here.  We should thank God every day that we are allowed to live in this country.

As Christians, of course, our first allegiance is not to the United States.  Our first allegiance is to God.  If we feel the two are in conflict, we need to follow God, not the United States.  But there are many times where they are not in conflict, because this is a wonderful country.  One of the things that makes it wonderful is that we’re allowed to follow God instead of the government.  May that always be the case, and may that freedom spread to other countries.

“God Bless America” is not an arrogant statement.  It is a humble request.  God has blessed America in many ways.  May God continue to do so.  And may we, as both Christians and Americans, always be grateful for the blessings God has given us.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Are You Hot?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Mark 11:1-11.

            Our reading today is not one you normally hear in the middle of July.  This is one of the traditional Palm Sunday readings.  But we’ve been doing a sermon series looking at the life of Jesus, in as near to chronological order as we can, and this is where we are.  Palm Sunday.  The last Sunday before Jesus was killed.
            Have you ever thought about what it would be like to know the future?  Probably all of us have.  In fact, I’m sure all of us have had times when we wished we did know the future.  Countless books and TV shows and movies have been made on that subject, and they always seem to go the same way.  At first it seems wonderful to be able to see the future, but eventually it seems more like a curse, and the person who can see the future wishes he could not.
I wonder if, on that Palm Sunday, Jesus wished he did not know the future.  Because here he is, riding into town in triumph, to the cheering of the crowds.  People are going nuts over him.  They’re spreading cloaks and palm branches in front of him, laying out the red carpet.  And yet, Jesus really cannot enjoy any of it.  Because Jesus knows none of it means anything.  He knows that some of these same people who are in the crowd shouting “Hosanna” today, will be in another crowd a few days later, shouting “crucify”.
            So how do you think Jesus felt as he came into Jerusalem?  We’re not told.  As often happens in the Bible, all we’re told is what happened.  We’re not told how people felt about it.
            My guess is that Jesus did not feel much of anything, really.  For one thing, Jesus knew that this was how things had to happen.  He had told people this was how things had to happen.  The fact is that, really, everyone was just doing what Jesus expected them to do.
            But I think there’s another reason that Jesus might not have felt much of anything.  Because he knew that it was not just the shouts of “hosanna” that did not mean anything.  The shouts of “crucify” a few days later would not mean anything, either.
            Jesus knew that most of the people in the crowd were not really in favor of him or opposed to him.  Most of the people in the crowd did not particularly care about Jesus one way or another.  Some of them did, certainly.  His disciples and other close friends were there.  And of course, the Pharisees and the other Jewish authorities cared.  They were not on Jesus’ side, but at least they cared.  But most people probably did not.  They were just going along with the crowd.
            But think about what that says.  After all the things Jesus had said, after all the things Jesus had done, after all the miracles and everything else, the majority of people still did not care much about him one way or the other.  I would think that would have been the most frustrating thing of all for Jesus.  Here he’d been doing all this stuff for human beings, and most human beings really could not have cared less.  They did not even care enough to actively oppose him.  Again, they were just going along with the crowd.
            It reminds me of the words in Revelation that the Apostle John was told to write to the church at Laodicea.  “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  That pretty much sums up most of the people in Jerusalem.  They were not fired up in favor of Jesus, and they were not fired up against him.  They were lukewarm.  Neither cold nor hot.
            And it seems to me that that’s still the situation a lot of us have in our faith.  We’re lukewarm.  We’re neither cold nor hot.  We’re not actively opposed to Jesus.  In fact, we kind of like him.  We say we believe in him as our Savior.  But how many of us have let Jesus change our life?  How many of us are really fired up to follow Jesus, no matter where the road leads?
            The comedian George Carlin used to have a line about work.  He said, “Most of us work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough not to quit.”  Now that’s a good line, but think about what it says.  It says that most of us really are not interested enough in our work to really do our jobs well.  We’re going to do what we think is the bare minimum of work necessary to get by.  We’ll do what we think is enough, but we’re not going to do any more.
            I wonder if, without really thinking about it this way, we sometimes look at our faith that way.  We’ll have just enough faith to get to heaven and repent just enough not to go to hell.  We’re not really interested enough in our faith to really follow Jesus wherever he leads us.  We’re going to have what we think is the bare minimum of faith necessary to get by.  We’ll have what we think is enough faith, but we’re not going to have any more.  Not enough to really change our lives in a significant way.
            And please, do not think that I’m pointing a finger at anyone here.  If I’m pointing a finger at anyone, it’s at me.  I’m guilty of this all the time.  And I try to justify it to myself all the time, too.  I say, “But look at all the stuff I’m doing.”  And Jesus says, “I did not tell you to do a bunch of stuff.  I told you to go and make disciples.”  I say, “But look at all the things I’m involved in.”  And Jesus says, “I did not tell you to be involved in things.  I told you to love your neighbor.”  I say, “But I’m a good person, really.”  And Jesus says, “I did not tell you to be a good person.  I told you to follow me.”
            That’s where I am, a lot of the time.  Maybe it’s where you are, too.  Maybe not--again, it’s not my purpose to point fingers here.  It’s not my job to judge you.  It’s for you to decide whether you think any of this describes you.  I just know that, quite often, it describes me.
            So for those of us who think it does describe us, at least part of the time, that brings up the question:  What do we do about it?  How do we go from being lukewarm to being hot?  How do we go from “being a good person” to actually following Jesus wherever he leads us?
            Well, I don’t have a nice, simple, easy answer.  If I did I’d be doing it.  I think it includes some of the things we’ve talked about in previous weeks.  Trusting God.  Opening our hearts to God.  Asking God to lead us and asking God for the courage to follow where God leads us.  It’s easy to say all that.  It’s not so easy to do it.  But we need to try.  We also need to ask for God’s help, because we cannot do this by ourselves.  But we need to do our part.
            But here’s something that might help.  A lot of us have talked about how concerned we are about some of the things that are happening in our country.  We’ve talked about how Christianity seems to be declining.  We’ve talked about how attendance at churches--not just ours, but a lot of churches all over the country--is going down.  We’ve talked about how the number of people who list their religion as “none” is going up.  And we wonder if anything can be done to change this, or if Christianity in the United States is on a permanent downward course and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
            I don’t know the answer to that.  But here’s what I do know.  If these things are going to change, if we’re going to see Christianity grow in the United States again, it’s not going to be caused by people who are lukewarm.  It’s not going to happen because of Christians who have the bare minimum faith necessary to get by.  It’s not going to happen because of people who are neither cold nor hot.  
If Christianity is going to grow in the United States, and in fact, if it’s going to grow in the Wheatland Parish, it’s going to grow because of people who trust in the Lord.  It’s going to grow because of people who have complete faith.  It’s going to grow because of people who are not willing to settle for just “doing stuff and being involved in things”, but who are willing to do whatever it takes to love their neighbor and to go and make disciples.  It’s going to grow because of people who are not willing to settle for just “being a good person”, but who are willing to follow Jesus Christ wherever he leads us.  Who are willing to follow Jesus Christ even when he takes us out of our comfort zone.  Who are willing to follow Jesus Christ even when he calls us to do things we don’t want to do.  Who are willing to follow Jesus Christ even when he leads us to places that scare us, places that we don’t want to go.
            If Christianity is going to grow again in the United States, and if it’s going to grow again in the Wheatland Parish, those are the people who are going to make it happen.  May God help all of us be those people.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Being There For Each Other

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 9, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 12:1-8.

            We’ve been doing a sermon series looking at the earthly life of Jesus in more-or-less chronological order.  We’ve skipped over many of the events of Jesus’ life, of course.  This sermon series has gone on a long time as it is.  If we did each and every event of Jesus’ life that’s recorded in the gospels, we’d still be in this sermon series next year.  And, of course, the Bible tells us that there are many things Jesus said and did that are not recorded in the gospels, and of course there’s no way we can cover those things.
            But now, we are very close to the end of Jesus’ life.  We’re told that what we read today takes place six days before the Passover, the last Passover that Jesus would celebrate on earth.  It’s the day before he would ride into Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey, what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday.  That’s a little foreshadowing of what we might talk about next week.
            But on this day, Jesus is with his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  We don’t know how long this is after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but it looks like it was probably not very long.  We’re told that a dinner is being given in Jesus’ honor.  We don’t know if the dinner is a thank you for raising Lazarus or is just being given in recognition of what they know to be a fact:  that Jesus is the divine Son of God.  And after dinner comes the event that makes this story memorable.  Mary takes a pint of pure nard, pours it on Jesus’ feet, and wipes his feet with her hair.
            In case you’re wondering, nard is an oil.  What I read is that it comes from a plant that’s variously known as spikenard or nardin.  You can still buy it, and it’s still expensive.  On amazon, thirty milliliters, which is about six tablespoons, sells for forty-six dollars and fifteen cents.  It’s said to have a musky and woody aroma and is supposed to soothe the nerves, quiet the mind, and lead to an overall tranquil feeling.
            So with that in mind, it’s pretty clear that Jesus’ friends could see that Jesus had something on his mind, something that was really bothering him.  We don’t know whether they really understood what it was--maybe they did, maybe they did not--but they knew there was something.  And so they did what they could for him.  Lazarus sat and talked to him.  Martha prepared a meal for him.  And Mary washed his feet with nard, something that she hoped would help Jesus relax and would take his mind off his problems, even if only for a little while.
            When you think about it, that’s pretty much what we do for people today, right?  If we know someone we care about is going through a hard time, what do we do?  We go and visit them.  We take a meal over for them.  If we can, we try to do something that will help them relax and take their mind off their problems, even if it’s just for a little while.
            When we do stuff like that, of course, there are always the nay-sayers.  It’s human nature, I guess.  Whenever you try to do something nice for someone, it seems like there’s always someone who’ll say you did not do the right thing, or you did not do it the right way, or you did not do it at the right time, or something.  In this case, it was Judas.  He says, in effect, why are you wasting this expensive perfume?  Why did you not sell it and give the money to the poor?
            Now, we’re told that Judas did not really care about the poor, that he wanted the money put into the treasury so he could take it for himself.  But you know there had to be other people around who were thinking the same thing.  Maybe even some of the disciples were thinking the same thing.  As I said, everybody’s a critic.
            That’s when Jesus reveals what was on his mind.  He says it was intended that Mary should save this perfume to prepare him for his burial.
            As we think about the earthly life of Jesus, this had to be one of the hardest nights he ever had.  Jesus knows what’s going to happen.  He knows that tomorrow, he’s going to ride into Jerusalem to the cheering of the crowds.  And he knows how the Jewish authorities are going to react to that.
            Now, Jesus has known all along what’s going to happen to him.  In fact, he’s told people about it.  But now, the time is here.  Jesus knows that, tomorrow, he’s going to set in motion a series of events from which there is no turning back.  This is the road that leads inevitably to the cross.
            It does not appear that Jesus is faltering in this.  He’s determined that he’s going to go through with it.  But still, this is hard.  This is probably about as hard a thing as there is to do.  To deliberately, willfully go down a path that you know--you know--is going to lead to your death.  And not just that, but a death that is going to be very painful and very humiliating.  A death that is going to be caused, in part, by your betrayal by one of your best friends.  It simply does not come much harder than that.
            Can you think of a time when you’ve been facing a really hard thing?  I’m sure some of us can.  A time when you there was something you knew you had to do, but it was about the last thing in the world that you really wanted to do.  You were dreading it, you were wishing somehow that you could get out of it, but you knew that there really was no choice.  It was necessary, you had to go ahead and do it, there really was no alternative, but still, you sure did not want to.
            It’s a pretty lonely feeling, right?  Because you know this is something you have to do yourself.  Nobody can do it for you.  Nobody can even do it with you.  You have to do it yourself.  And there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about it.
            This is why we ask you to pray for people who feel alone.  Feeling alone is not necessarily about being by yourself.  It’s not even necessarily about not having friends.  It can be about those things, but sometimes, this is what feeling alone is.  Knowing you have to go through with something that’s really hard, something you don’t want to do, and knowing that you have to do it yourself.
            And that’s why we need to be there for each other.  Because even when you have to do something yourself, you don’t necessarily have to do it by yourself.  There may be no one who can do it for you.  There may not even be anyone who can do it with you.  But there are people who can be alongside you.  There are people who can support you, people who can encourage you.  There are people who can show you that they love you and care about you and will be there for you, no matter what happens.
            But here’s the thing, too.  Lazarus and Martha and Mary did what they could for Jesus.  They were there for him as well as they could be.  But for that to happen, Jesus had to put himself in a place where they could be there for him.  He had to agree to go to their house and have a meal with them.  He had to agree to let them help him.
            So many times, when we’re in a situation like this, we’re tempted to just close up.  We think, well, there’s nothing anybody can do to help me, anyway.  Besides, they’ve all got their own problems.  They don’t have time to help me.  And anyway, I’m an adult.  I should be able to handle these things by myself.  It’d be too embarrassing to admit I cannot handle things by myself.  I should not need anyone else.  I don’t need anyone else.  I should just grit my teeth and deal with it on my own.
            That’s not what God wants for us.  I’ve said this before, but God puts us into groups, into communities, into churches, so that we can be there for each other.  So that we can help each other.  If you’re going through a tough time, if you’re facing something you don’t want to face, there are people who want to be there for you.  But for them to do that, you have to let them know.
            Even Jesus could not face the hard things of life alone.  If Jesus could not do it, why do you and I expect to be able to?  We cannot do it.  We’re not supposed to try.  We need each other.  That’s why God put us in each other’s lives.  We are all in each other’s lives because we need each other.  You are all in my life because I need you.  Wanda and I are in your lives because sometimes you need us.  I don’t mean that to sound arrogant.  I just mean that we all need each other.  That’s how it works.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.
            When Jesus was facing something hard, he needed other people.  When you and I are facing something hard, we need other people, too.  May we all be there for each other and support each other and encourage each other.  May we all help each other through life.  That’s why God put us together.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

God Is In Control

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 2, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 11:1-44.


            As we look at Jesus’ life on earth, we come today to what we assume must have been a pretty significant event, not just for Jesus but for everyone around him.  Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
            Now, this is not the only time we’re told of Jesus raising someone from the dead.  In Luke Seven, we’re told of Jesus going to a town called Nain and seeing a procession carrying a dead man.  It’s the only son of a widow.  Jesus stops the procession, says “Young man, I say to you, get up!”  And the man did.  And in Matthew Nine, we read about a synagogue leader coming up to Jesus and saying, “My daughter has just died.  But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.”  Jesus goes there, takes the girl by the hand, and she gets up.
            So we know of at least two other times when Jesus raised someone from the dead.  And yet this one, the story of Lazarus, is the one that seems to stick with people.  It’s the one people remember.
            There are a couple of significant differences in the Lazarus story.  For one thing, the others appear to have just passed away when Jesus sees them.  Lazarus was dead for four days by the time Jesus got there.  Another difference is that the others seem to have been just kind of random people that Jesus just happened to run across.  Lazarus was a very good friend of Jesus’ while he was on earth.
            When I read this story, one of the many remarkable things about it is how, no matter what else is happening, Jesus always appears to be in total control of the situation.  People are panicking, people are weeping, people are telling Jesus what to do, people are telling Jesus what he should’ve done.  All this stuff is going on around Jesus, and yet Jesus just stays calm and in control of the situation.  Jesus knows exactly what he’s going to do, he knows exactly when he’s going to do it, and he knows that everything is going to work out the way it’s supposed to when he does it.
            First, Jesus is told that his friend Lazarus is sick.  His response is “This sickness will not end in death.  No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”  And Jesus does nothing for two days.
            How do you suppose Mary and Martha felt at that point?  They’ve sent a messenger to tell Jesus about their brother being sick.  The messenger comes back.  “Did you tell Jesus about Lazarus?”  “Yeah, I told him.”  “Well, where is he?”  “I don’t know.  He said he was going to stay where he was.”  “Well, did he say anything else?”  “Yeah.  He said the sickness is not going to end in death.”
            Well, I’m sure they were glad to hear that.  But still.  There was Lazarus.  He was sick.  And he was not getting better.  He was getting worse.  He was getting weaker.  What must Mary and Martha have thought?  Did they have doubts?  Did they have fears?  Why wasn’t Jesus coming?  What was going on?
            And then Lazarus dies.  But Jesus is still in control of the situation.  After Lazarus dies, he tells the disciples, now it’s time to go to Judea.  The disciples don’t want to go.  They’re afraid the authorities will want to kill them.  But Jesus is not worried.  He knows the authorities won’t act in brought daylight.  So they head out, with the disciples thinking they’re going to their deaths, but with Jesus still in control of the situation.
            Jesus gets to Bethany, where Lazarus was.  Martha goes out to meet him.  Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”  And Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.”
Jesus is still in control of the situation.  And Martha believes that.  She still has faith that Jesus can do something here.  We don’t know whether she expected Jesus to bring Lazarus back to life, but she knew he could do something.  And when Jesus tells her, “Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die”, Martha says yes, I believe that.  She may not have known exactly what it meant, but she says “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
Mary, on the other hand, does not go out to meet Jesus.  Martha eventually sends for her.  And when Mary comes out, she simply says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  And she’s crying.
And Jesus cries, too.  Not because of Lazarus.  Jesus is still in control of the situation.  Jesus still knows what he’s going to do.  But he sees the Mary has lost faith.  Not necessarily lost faith in Jesus, but she’s given up on the situation.  She believes that Jesus could have done something, if he’d gotten there sooner.  But now, she thinks it’s too late.  She’s in despair.  That’s why Jesus starts crying.  Not for Lazarus, but for Mary.  He’s sad that she’s in this condition.  He’s sad that Mary has given up and thinks nothing can be done.
Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb.  And of course, by this time the skeptics are out in full force.  Some of them start saying basically the same thing Mary said.  He opened the eyes of the blind.  Why couldn’t he keep Lazarus from dying?
But Jesus is still in control.  They get to the tomb and he tells them to open it.  And Martha says, hey, wait a minute.  He’s been there four days.  It’s going to smell terrible.  But they open it.  Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!”  And he does.  He’s gotten linen cloths all over him, because he’d been prepared for burial, but he comes out.  And everyone’s amazed.
And don’t you think Jesus just has this smile on his face?  I mean, think about what he’s done.  Everyone’s been crying.  Everyone’s been upset.  Everyone’s been upset with him.  Almost all of them thought Jesus had blown it by not being there.  Most of them had given up.  And yet, Jesus always knew what he was going to do.  He always knew how things were going to go.  Jesus had it all under control the whole time.
So here’s the point.  How many times are you tempted to give up on God?  I’m not necessarily talking about giving up your faith.  I’m talking about feeling like Mary did.  There’s a bad situation, and you call on God.  And God does not come.  You try to keep believing, you try to believe things are going to work out but--God does not come.  God does not do anything.  And the situation gets worse and worse.  And then, finally, it seems hopeless.  It seems like it’s all over, that nothing is ever going to happen to make things all right.  It seems like nothing ever could happen to make things all right.
And you go to God, and you say, “Where were you?  Why did you not come?  If you had been here, this would not have happened.  If you had been here, things would have worked out.  You could have come.  You could have done something.  Why did you not come?  Now, it’s too late.”
Whenever you feel like that, remember this story.  And remember that God is always in control.  With God, it’s never too late.  God is always on time.  God can always make things work out the way they’re supposed to work out, even if it seems like the situation is hopeless.
And that’s true in our country and in our world, too.  You know, the day after tomorrow will be the Fourth of July.  Independence Day.  And as we look at things that are happening in our country, as we look at things that are happening in the world, we get worried.  Sometimes we even get scared.  And a lot of people are calling on God to do something.  And it seems like God is not doing anything.  We try to keep believing, we try to believe that things are going to work out, but--God does not seem to be doing anything.  Things seem to be getting worse and worse.  And sometimes we start to think that things are hopeless.
And we look at things right around us.  We need rain.  Everyone knows we need rain.  Surely God knows we need rain, too.  And yet—it does not rain.  Oh, maybe a little once in a while, but not what we need.  And again, we get worried.  We get scared.  We call on God to do something.  And it seems like God is not doing anything.  Again, we try to keep believing, we try to believe that things are going to work out, but—God does not seem to be doing anything.  And we don’t understand why.  And sometimes we start to think that things are hopeless.
They’re not.  With God, things are never hopeless.  With God, it’s never too late.  All things are possible with God.  
Jesus was not upset with Mary when she gave up hope.  God will not be upset with us when we give up hope.  But God will be sad.  Because we’ve made ourselves miserable, when all we needed to do was keep believing.  All we need to do is keep trusting God.
God is always in control.  God always knows what He’s doing.  Nothing happens that God does not know about, and nothing happens that God does not allow.  And in the end, God will always make things work out the way they’re supposed to.  We can believe that.  We can trust it.  No matter what our situation is, it is never hopeless.  With God, there is always hope.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Summertime Faith

So, we’re kind of in the middle of summer now.  We relax a little bit in the summertime.  It feels like life slows down a little bit.  The life of the church slows down a little bit, too.  We don’t have a lot of our activities.  Sunday school and Faith Builders take a break for the summer.  Youth groups do, too.  So does the church choir.  Things just take on a little slower pace in the summer.

That’s okay.  We all need to have a little bit of a break once in a while.  The thing is, though, that we’re not allowed to take a break from being a Christian.  We’re not allowed to take a break from our faith.  Our lives need to be just as dedicated to Christ in the summer as they are at other times of the year. 

I don’t see anything in the Bible that says we get to take a summer vacation from doing the things Jesus told us to do.  That includes loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind.  It includes loving our neighbor as ourselves.  It includes going and making disciples of Jesus Christ.  None of those things changes just because it’s summer.

So how do we stay dedicated to Christ?  Well, some of the answers are obvious.  Keep praying.  Keep reading the Bible.  Keep attending worship services.  If you’re out of town, attend a worship service where you are.  Do what you can to stay close to God.

But when we pray, I think we need to pray in a specific way.  Pray that God will help you stay alert.  Pray that God will help you keep your eyes open.  Pray that God will help you see the chances God gives you to show love to God and love to others.  Pray that God will help you see the chances God gives you to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

It’s easy enough to miss those chances under the best conditions.  I know--I do it all the time.  But it’s even easier to miss them when we relax.  We can just kind of put our minds on cruise control and not see the people around us.  We can totally miss times when people need us, when they’re reaching out to us for help.  We don’t mean to do it.  We just aren’t paying attention.  And so we miss chances to serve God and to change people’s lives.

So don’t let summer lull you into missing those chances!  Relax, but still pay attention.  God puts all kinds of chances to serve in front of us every day.  Let’s see those chances, and let’s make the most of them.  Let’s be just as dedicated to the Lord in the summer as we are the rest of the year.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Being There

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, June 25, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 17:1-13.

            Through this sermon series, looking at the earthly life of Jesus, we’ve seen Jesus have a lot of ups and downs.  He’s had some very high highs and some very low lows.  He’s had times when everyone loved him and times when everyone was out to get him.  And, of course, he’s had everything in between.
            So now, Jesus is about two and a half years into his ministry.  He’s not at the end yet, but as the saying goes, he can see it from there.  I mean, he knew it from the beginning.  But it’s one thing to know something’s coming when it’s still a long way off, and it’s another thing to know that it’s coming up pretty soon, within a matter of months.  Jesus knows that betrayal and a very painful death are coming, and it’s not all that far away.
It must have been on his mind.  We know that because, right before this, Jesus told the disciples about it.  In the section of the Bible right before this, we read, “From that time on, Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
            Jesus was trying to get the disciples ready for what was going to happen.  But I wonder if maybe he was trying to get himself ready, too.  After all, this was a really hard thing Jesus was going to do.  Can you imagine knowing something like this was going to happen to you, and not being able to tell anyone about it?  That would be a terrible burden to carry.  It would make a hard thing even harder.
            When we have something on our minds and in our hearts, when we’re facing a hard thing, we all need someone to talk to.  Even Jesus needed someone to talk to.  That’s why we emphasize the need for all of us to be there for people who feel alone.  Some things are just too heavy for us to carry by ourselves.  We need to have someone to help us carry the load.  And we need to help other people carry their loads.
            That’s true even if there’s nothing we can do about the situation.  There was nothing the disciples could do about Jesus’ situation.  Jesus did not expect them to do anything.  In fact, he did not want them to do anything.  Jesus knew it had to be this way.  You may remember, when Jesus says this, Peter responds, “Never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!”  And Jesus turns on Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me.”
            Jesus did not want the disciples to do anything.  He just wanted them to listen.  He just needed someone to talk to, someone to help him carry the load for a little while.  We all need someone to talk to, someone to help us carry the load for a little while.  We need to look around us, so we can see people who need our help, people who need help carrying the load, and we need to be there for them. 
And when we’re the ones who need help carrying our loads, we need to open up and let people know that, so they can help us.  Jesus opened up to the disciples.  We need to open up to each other.  Life is too hard for us to go through by ourselves.  Life was even too hard for Jesus to go through by himself.  If life was too hard for Jesus to go through by himself, you and I should not expect to be able to go through life by ourselves, either.
Jesus opened up to the disciples.  And I’m sure they did their best to be there for him.  They did their best to understand.  But of course they did not understand.  And probably, they could not understand.  No matter how hard they may have wanted to understand, they were limited by their perspective as first century human beings.  It’s like the other thing Jesus said to Peter:  “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
That sounds like a criticism, but at the same time, can you really blame Peter?  Sure he had human concerns in mind.  He was human.  Human concerns were going to be what he had in mind.
For that matter, what concerns do you and I have in mind?  Human concerns, right?  We wonder if we’ll get enough rain.  We wonder if we’ll have enough time to get done all the things we want to get done.  We wonder if our money will go far enough.  We wonder about our children, or our grandchildren.  We wonder what the world will be like when they grow up.  We wonder about the world now, for that matter.  These and a hundred other concerns go through our minds every day.
Human concerns.  No matter how hard we try to open ourselves up to God’s Holy Spirit, no matter how hard we try to let the Lord lead us and guide us, we always seem to get dragged back into these human concerns.  It was like that for Peter, and it’s like that for you and me.
So it’s six days later.  Jesus goes up on a high mountain.  He takes Peter, James, and John with him.  And suddenly, Jesus changes.  He is “transfigured”, as the Bible says.  “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then, there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”
At this point, the story shifts to tell us the disciples’ reaction.  They’re stunned, as you and I probably would be.  They’re shocked, they’re startled, they’re surprised.  They’re also terrified.  They fall face down to the ground until the whole thing is over.
In a way, though, it’s kind of disappointing that the story shifts to the disciples like that.  I mean, I’m not second-guessing the Bible.  It tells us everything we need to know.  It’s just that it does not always tell us everything we’d like to know.  I’d love to know what Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about.  Wouldn’t you?  We don’t know if the disciples could hear them or not.  They may have been too out of it to notice at this point.
But whatever it was, I would sure think it had to help Jesus.  Because Moses and Elijah would not have had their minds filled with human concerns.  Maybe they did while they were on earth, but not any more.  They came from heaven.  They’d have had in mind the concerns of God.  That means that Moses and Elijah could be there for Jesus in a way that the disciples could not, no matter how hard they tried.  Moses and Elijah could understand Jesus in a way that the disciples could not, no matter how hard they tried.  
Now, don’t misunderstand.  Moses and Elijah were still not like Jesus.  There’s only one divine Son of God.  Jesus is part of the trinity.  He’s God the Son.  Moses and Elijah, great as they were, are not part of the trinity.  They are not God.  But still, as great prophets who were now in heaven, they could see things from a perspective that Peter and the other disciples could not see.  They could understand things that Peter and the other disciples could not understand.  And that had to be a great help to Jesus, to be able to talk to people who could better understand what was happening and what he was going through.
And then, of course, we have the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  And again, the story shifts to the disciples’ reaction, but that had to be a pretty great thing for Jesus to hear, too.  Even if he believed it before, even if he was confident that he was doing what God the Father wanted him to do, it still had to make Jesus feel better to actually hear those words and know that Peter, James, and John had heard them, too.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said that it was to love God.  He could’ve just stopped there.  If he had, probably everyone would’ve agreed with him.  But Jesus did not stop there.  He went on to say that there’s another commandment that’s just as important.  Just as important as loving God is loving other people.
We all need someone.  We all need each other.  We know that, and yet--so often we don’t see the needs of others.  We don’t mean to not see them.  We just get focused on what we’re doing.  We get focused on our own stuff.  We get so focused that we can walk right past someone who’s hurting and needs us.  I know.  I’ve done it many times.
We all need someone.  We all need each other.  We know that, and yet--so often we’re afraid to reach out to someone when we need them.  We think we should be able to handle it ourselves.  We think it makes us look weak if we admit we cannot.  We think other people have their own problems.  We think no one probably cares anyway.  I know.  I’ve done that, too.
We all need someone.  We all need each other.  Even Jesus needed someone.  Jesus was there for lots of people, but there were times when Jesus needed people to be there for him, too.  That’s how it is for us.  We can be there for lots of people, but there are times we need people to be there for us, too.
It’s best if we can really see things from someone else’s perspective, and really understand.  But even if we cannot do that, we can still be there for someone.  We can listen.  We can try to understand.  And when we cannot understand, we can still be there and show love.  Jesus needed that.  So do you.  And so do I.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dear Parents

            This post is aimed at a specific group of people.  It’s aimed at parents who have children at home, and who believe in God, but who don’t come to church very often.

            First, let me say that I understand.  You lead busy lives.  There are a lot of demands on your time.  A lot of times you’re working five days a week or more.  If you’re not working on Saturday, you’re running around trying to get things done.  Or, you’re taking kids to some sports tournament or other weekend event.  Or, there’s a big concert you want to go to.  When Sunday comes, you want to relax.  You want to go to the river, or play golf, or get some work done around the house, or just sleep in and rest.

            I understand that.  After all, I spent a lot of years as a member of a congregation before I became a pastor.  I’m not upset with you for this.  I don’t think God’s upset with you for it, either.

            But here’s the thing.  Your kids are learning from you all the time.  Sometimes, they learn when you’re actually trying to teach them.  More often, they learn from watching you.  They see what’s important to you.  They see what you value.  They see what you think is worth your time, and they see what you don’t think is worth your time, too.  And the things that are important to you become important to them.  The things you value become the things they value.  The things that you think are worth your time become things they think are worth their time.  The things you don’t think are worth their time become things they don’t think are worth their time, too.

            So if they see you taking the family to the river for the weekend, they understand that going to the river is important.  If they see you taking them to a sports tournament on the weekend, they understand that sports are valuable.  When they see you go to a concert in Sioux Falls, whether you take them or not, they understand that going to concerts is something that’s worth the time it takes.
           
            And when they see you taking them to church only once every six weeks or so, maybe less, they understand that going to church is not something that’s very important.  It’s not something that has much value.  It’s not something that’s really worth the time it takes.  It’s certainly not as important as those other things.  At best, it’s something that we might do once in a while, when it’s convenient, when we can’t find anything better to do.

            If that’s what your kids see, that’s what they’ll come to believe--that church is not very important.  And it’s a very short step from there to believing that faith in God is not very important, either.  It’s certainly not important enough to let it affect our lives in any significant way.

            Maybe you’re okay with having your kids believe that.  But I really don’t think most of you are.  I think you just never really thought about it in this way.  I think you never really thought about what message your children might be getting.

            Again, I’m not upset with you for this.  I don’t think God is upset with you for it, either.  But I do want you to think about it.  In fact, I’d like you to pray about it.  I’d like you to really think about what message your kids are getting about the importance of Christian faith, and whether that’s the message you want them to get.

            If it is, then fine.  But if it’s not, then I’d ask you to do something about that, something that lets your kids know that church is important.  If you’re out of town, or at the river, find a church near where you are and worship there.  If it would help for us to offer a mid-week worship service, let us know that--if there’s interest, we’d be happy to put one together.  And when you are in town on Sunday, take the time to come to church, even if it’s not always convenient.  Your kids will see that church is important to you, and it will become important to them, too.

I know your kids are important to you.  I know your Christian faith is important to you, too.  If kids don’t have faith as an important part of their lives when they’re young, they’re a lot less likely to have faith as an important part of their lives when they’re older.  So please, think about this.  Pray about it.  After all, your kids are not going to stay young forever.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Filling the Hole

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, June 18, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 6:53-69.


            Our reading for today picks up on our reading from two weeks ago, the last time I preached, so we’re going to start with a quick review of what we talked about then.  Jesus said that the way to eternal life is through belief in him. That was not a popular thing for him to say at the time.  It got Jesus into a lot of trouble with the Pharisees to say that he was the divine son and that belief in him was the way to eternal life.
            It still can get us into trouble to say that.  For one thing, it can sound arrogant or judgmental to say that.  It can sound like we think we’re better than everyone else when we say that belief in Jesus is the way to eternal life.  It is, as some of the disciples said, a hard teaching.
            It’s a hard teaching for another reason, too.  A lot of us--probably most of us--know people who don’t believe in Jesus as their Savior.  Some of them are in our families.  Some of them are our friends.  We don’t like to think of them not having eternal life.  That’s especially true if we think of them as good people, people who treat others well, and try to help others and mind their own business otherwise.  We’d like to say that if you’re a good person, that’s good enough.  We don’t want to think of people like that, people we care about, not having eternal life.
            That’s what makes this a hard teaching.  We want to come up with a way around this, but Jesus did not give us one.  We either accept what Jesus said or we don’t.  We either accept that Jesus is the way to eternal life or we don’t.  Those are the only choices we get.
            As you heard, many people in Jesus’ time chose not to accept it.  Verse sixty-six says, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”  Now, understand, when it says “many of his disciples”, we’re not talking about the twelve.  We’re not talking about Peter and James and John and the rest.  They were still there, but by this time Jesus had a lot of other people following him, too.  There was a crowd of people around Jesus a lot of the time by this point.  And when Jesus said this about how he was the way to eternal life, many of them turned away from him.  
            The Twelve were still there.  But they were not saying much.  Finally, Jesus asks them, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?”  And Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”
            “Lord, to whom shall we go?”  Or, Peter could also have said, “To what shall we go?”  And that’s what I want to talk about for the rest of this message.
            Everybody, every human being, is looking for something.  We want something to give our life meaning.  We want something to give our life purpose.  We want something to be passionate about, to be enthusiastic about.  It’s like we’ve got this hole in our lives, in our hearts, in our souls, and we’re looking for something, anything that will fill that hole.
            We look for that in all kinds of things.  Some of them can be destructive or harmful, to ourselves and others.  Things like drugs or alcohol or sexual encounters or material goods or all kinds of other things.  We sometimes look to things like that to fill the hole in our lives.
Sometimes, but not always.  In fact, a lot of times, we look to good things, or at least neutral things, to fill it.  Because again, what we’re looking for is something that will give our lives meaning and purpose.  And so we look to fill that hole in ways we think might do that.
Sometimes we look to our work to fill that hole.  Sometimes we look to caring for our family.  Sometimes we look to a hobby that we really like.  Sometimes we look to volunteering in our community or even at the church.  We’re hoping that, through those things, we can find meaning and purpose in our lives.  We’re hoping that, somehow, if we do enough of those things, that hole in our lives, in our hearts, in our souls, will somehow be filled.
Have you done that?  I have.  I’ve used all kinds of things to try to fill that hole.  Music.  Baseball.  Years ago, when I lived in Pierre, I used the Pierre Players theater group to try to fill that hole in my life.  There are other things, too.  And I suspect that, if you think about it, you can think of things you’ve used to fill that hole, too.
But none of those things ever quite work, do they?  They help.  They make us feel better, for a while.  But they never quite fill that hole.  Because that hole is a God-shaped hole.  And the only thing that can really, finally fill the hole is God, through belief in the divine Son Jesus Christ.
And so, we come back to the question Peter asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”  We come back to that because we’ve tried going other places.  We’ve tried going to other things.  We’ve tried going to other people.  And none of them worked.  Again, that’s not to say that those other places, other things, other people we went to were bad.  They may have been good.  But they were not sufficient.  They were not enough.  They could not fill the hole.  They were the wrong size and the wrong shape.  The only things that can fill the hole are the word of God and the love of God.  The only thing that can truly, adequately, completely fill the hole is faith in Jesus Christ.  Nothing else.
That’s why it’s not enough just to be a good person.  Don’t get me wrong, we should try to be good people.  But it’s not enough.  Jesus calls us to more than that.  Our Christian faith calls us to more than that.
There’s a quote that was floating around facebook for a while.  You still see it sometimes.  It’s often attributed to the rapper Eminem, although it seems to be unclear whether it originated with him.  Anyway, what it says is, “I don't care if you're black, white, straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, short, tall, fat, skinny, rich or poor. If you're nice to me, I'll be nice to you. Simple as that.”
I’ve seen a lot of people post that.  And it sounds good.  It’s something a good person would say, right?  Those are not bad words.  But they’re not enough.  They are not the words of eternal life.
Jesus has the words of eternal life.  Jesus’ words did not say “if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.”  Jesus said we get no credit for that whatsoever.  Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.”
Here’s what Jesus said.  Jesus said love your enemies.  Jesus said do good to those who hate you.  Jesus said bless those who curse you.  Jesus said pray for those who mistreat you.  There’s no “if you’re nice to me I’ll be nice to you” there.  Jesus says if you hate me, I’ll still love you.  Jesus said if you curse me, I’ll still be nice to you.  And Jesus told us to do that same thing.  Those are the words of eternal life.
And when we hear those words, a lot of us say the same thing people said in our Bible reading for today.  “This is a hard teaching.  Who can accept it?”  A lot of Jesus’ teachings are hard teachings.  We feel like we cannot do them.  We feel like we really don’t want to do them.  We don’t want to accept them.  And on hearing them, a lot of us are tempted to turn back and no longer follow Jesus.
But when we’re tempted to turn back, we’re again faced with the same problem Peter was faced with.  We still have that God-shaped hole in our lives.  And there’s nothing else we can fill it with.  We’ve tried and we’ve failed.  And no matter how tempting it is to try again we know, deep down, that we’ll fail again.  And so we say, as Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus gives us a lot of hard teachings.  We struggle with them sometimes.  We struggle with doing what Jesus told us to do.  And sometimes we fail.  And sometimes we’re tempted to give up.  
Don’t give up.  Yes, you’ll struggle sometimes, and yes, you’ll fail sometimes.  I struggle and fail, too.  But don’t give up.  Because, just like Peter, we have come to believe and to know that Jesus is the Holy One of God.  Faith in him is the only thing that will fill that God-shaped hole.  Because he, and no one else, has the words of eternal life.