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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Closing the Complaints Department

One of the things most of us human beings tend to be pretty good at is complaining.  We do it all the time.  We can complain about almost anything.  It’s too hot.  It’s too cold.  I have too much to do.  I don’t have enough to do.  Too many people call and interrupt me.  Nobody ever calls me.  No matter what happens, we manage to find a way to complain about it.

Now, I’m not pointing fingers here.  I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  I try not to do it too often in public, although I’m not always successful at that.  But even when I am successful at it, that just means Wanda has to hear more of it.  That’s not very fair to her.  It’s probably not very pleasant for her, either.

So, I’ve made a New Year’s resolution.  Yes, I know it’s September 21st, but I don’t see any reason to wait three months for this.  My new year’s resolution, which I’m starting today, is to stop complaining.  

Now, let me explain that a little bit more.  I’m not saying we have to like everything that happens.  Some things happen that we should not like.  But even so, sitting around and complaining about those things does no one, including ourselves, any good.  If we don’t like something that’s happened, rather than sitting around complaining about it, we should see what we can do about it.

And I can already hear some people saying, “But what if there’s nothing I can do?”  That’s true sometimes.  But I suspect it’s not true as often as we think.  There’s usually something we can do.  We may not be able to stop hurricanes or fires, but we can donate to organizations who can help the victims of them.  We may not be able to keep a loved one from getting sick or even dying, but we can be there for them and show our love to them.  There is almost always something we can do.  Even if the only thing we can do is pray for someone, that’s still something.  In fact, it may be the most important thing for us to do.

But what if there truly is nothing we can do?  Then it’s time to accept the situation and move forward.  Sitting around and complaining won’t help.  It won’t change anything.  It’ll just keep us stuck where we are, and obviously we’re not happy where we are or we wouldn’t be complaining!  So if there’s nothing we can do, it’s still time to stop complaining and get on with things.  As the old saying goes, if you can’t get over it, get on with it.  It’s about the only productive thing we can do.

Complaining can be an easy habit to get into and a hard habit to break.  I’m sure I’ll probably slip sometimes.  Feel free to call me on it, in a nice way please, when I do.  But I invite you to make this resolution with me.  Let’s stop complaining.  It’ll help us get more enjoyment out of this amazing gift called life that God has given us.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Numbe One Principle

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish Sunday, September 17, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 26:47-56.

            All of us have principles that we live our lives by.  Whether we could put them into words or not, whether we’re even aware of all of them or not, we all have these principles.  Ideally, at least, they’re good principles.  Things like honesty.  Integrity.  Love.  Kindness.  But whatever they are, whether they’re good or bad, we all have these principles, and they guide the way we live our lives.
            The thing is, though, that it’s easy to have principles in the abstract.  It’s easy to have principles when following those principles does not cost us anything.  It’s when there’s a cost to following our principles that we find out how much those principles really mean to us.
            Take honesty as an example.  Most of us would probably agree, in the abstract, that being honest is a good thing.  But have you ever been in a situation where telling the truth was really not a very convenient thing?  Have you ever been in a situation where being honest could get you into trouble, and where telling a lie or even a half-truth or even just avoiding telling the whole truth would make things a whole lot easier for you?
            I would think a lot of us have been in that position at one time or another.  And when we are, that’s when we find out how important that principle of honesty is to us.  That’s when we have the chance to prove that we really believe in honesty, as opposed to only believing in honesty when it’s convenient for us.
            When Jesus was on earth, he had principles that he lived by.  And one of those was non-violence.  Jesus talked about it several times.  He said, “Love your enemies.”  He said, “Pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus said, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also.”  Jesus said, “If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt.”  Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
            Jesus said all those things.  And I have no doubt that he meant them and that he lived by them.  But it’s easy to believe in non-violence in the abstract.  In today’s Bible reading, Jesus is in a situation where sticking to that principle of non-violence is going to cause him a lot of problems.  He’s in a situation where he had the chance to prove he really believes in non-violence, as opposed to only believing in non-violence when it’s convenient for him.
            Judas comes up to Jesus in Gethsemane.  The disciples are there too, of course.  But so are what’s described as “a large crowd armed with swords and clubs”, which the chief priests and elders had sent to come and arrest Jesus.
            Jesus knew they were coming.  We talked last week about how Jesus knew he was about to be arrested, tortured, and killed.  He prayed to be allowed to avoid it, but he prayed in the end for God’s will to be done.  And now, here it is.  The guys with swords and clubs are there.  And the disciples are there.  And some of them have swords, too.
            If you or I were there as onlookers, we’d have expected a fight.  The chief priests and elders expected a fight.  The disciples expected a fight.  That’s why there were all those people with swords and clubs.  Everyone there expected the arrest of Jesus to be a really violent thing.
            And it had to be tempting to Jesus to let it happen that way.  For one thing, it’s a natural human tendency to fight back when we’re attacked.  And again, Jesus was fully human as well as being fully divine.  He felt that desire to fight back just as much as you or I would feel it if we were in that situation.
            For another thing, the disciples wanted a fight.  Remember a couple of weeks ago, when we talked about how all the disciples said they would die rather than disown Jesus?  This is the kind of thing they were thinking about.  They were willing to die in a fight, in a battle.  They would defend Jesus to the death.  In fact, it sounds like it was one of the disciples who actually struck the first blow.  Matthew says, “One of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out, and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.”
            We don’t know what would’ve happened if there had been a fight.  Maybe Jesus’ disciples would’ve won.  Maybe, even if they’d lost, Jesus could’ve gotten away in the confusion.  Even if Jesus had been killed, at least he would’ve avoided the torture and died an easier death.
            It had to be very tempting for Jesus to allow the fight to happen.  But he did not.  And the reason why is what we talked about last week.  Jesus’ heart was aligned with God’s heart.  Yes, Jesus had a principle of non-violence, but there was something going on here that was more important than that.  Jesus’ number one principle was to do God’s will.  And Jesus knew that God’s will was not for there to be a fight.  Here’s how Jesus put it:
Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?
Jesus knew that the things that were happening were only happening because God was allowing them to happen.  In fact, they were happening exactly in accordance with what the Scriptures had said were going to happen.  If God the Father wanted to stop these things from happening, they would have been stopped.  Jesus knew things were supposed to happen this way.  If Jesus had allowed there to be a fight, it would have been a fight against God’s will.  And Jesus had determined that he was not going to fight against God’s will.  Again, Jesus had a principle of non-violence, but more importantly, his number one principle was following God’s will.  And he was going to uphold that principle, no matter what the consequences were.  He was going to uphold that principle even if it meant his own death on earth.
So here are the questions you and I have to answer.  Regardless of what our principles are, is our number one principle to follow God’s will?  And are we willing to uphold that principle, no matter what the consequences are for us?
It gets back to what we said at the beginning of this message.  It’s easy to say yes in the abstract.  It’s easy to say that our number one principle is following God’s will when following God’s will does not cost us anything.  It’s only when there’s a cost to following God’s will that we find out just how important following God’s will is to us.
Jesus tried to tell the disciples about that cost.  He did it many times over the course of his ministry.  He told them that anyone who followed him had to be willing to give up everything else.  He told them that anyone who followed him needed to be ready to take up a cross to follow him.  And the disciples all said, yes, of course, we’ll do that.  We’ll follow you.  But here, when the crunch came, they could not do it.  The last sentence of our reading for today says “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled”, just as Jesus had told them that they would.
            There was a cost for the disciples to follow Jesus.  There’s a cost for you and I to follow Jesus, too.  We may not be asked to give up our physical lives for Jesus.  We may be, though.  There are people who are, all the time.  There are places in the world where you can be killed just for saying that you are a follower of Jesus.
            Most of us probably won’t face that.  But I think there’s another sense in which we’re asked to give up our lives for Jesus.  It gets back, again, to what we talked about last week--following God’s heart rather than following our own heart.  Any time we do what we know God wants us to do, rather than what we would like to do, we’re giving up a bit of our lives for Jesus.  Any time we go where we know God wants us to go, rather than going where we’d like to go, or even just staying where we are, we’re giving up a bit of our lives for Jesus.  Any time we say what we know God wants us to say, rather than saying something else or just staying silent, we’re giving up a bit of our lives for Jesus.  And if we do those things constantly, consistently, over a long period of time, pretty soon we’ll discover that we have, in a sense, given up our lives, or a large part of them, anyway, to follow Jesus Christ.
            So again, we come back to those questions.  Regardless of what our principles are, is our number one principle to follow God’s will?  And are we willing to uphold that principle, no matter what the consequences are for us?  Are we willing to give up our lives, whether all at once or a bit at a time, for Jesus Christ?
            It’s not something to just answer now.  We need to answer that question every day.  Sometimes we need to answer it several times a day.  Because these chances to prove whether we believe in our principles come up lots of times.  Sometimes they come when we don’t expect it.  Sometimes they come when we’re not even thinking about it.  But we know those chances will come.  
Jesus showed us the way.  If our heart is aligned with God’s heart, our number one principle will be to follow God’s will.  And then, we will be able to give up our lives for Jesus, whether all at once or a bit at a time.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Don't Give Up and Quit!

I had a conversation with someone recently about the future of the church.  That person essentially said that it doesn’t have one.  That was not what this person wanted, but it was what they foresaw.  It was this person’s opinion that young people won’t come to church and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  We’ve tried, lots of churches have tried, and nothing we try works.  Yes, there may be a few churches who’ve succeeded, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.  Young people just won’t go to church, so when the old ones die off, that’ll be it for the church.

Do you agree with that?  Maybe you do.  There is some truth in it, after all.  We have tried, ever since I got here and probably long before that, to get more young people in church.  And we’re certainly not the only ones who are trying.  And yes, nationwide, statistics indicate that younger people don’t go to church as often as older people do.

But while there may be some truth in it, I hope you don’t agree with that person’s solution, because that person’s solution is that there’s nothing we can do about it, so we should just give up and quit.  Now there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if I’ve ever heard one.  Because if we give up and quit, the church certainly will have no future.

But you know, I’ve read through the Bible, and I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where it tells us to give up and quit.  In the Old Testament, God never tells the people of Israel to give up and quit.  In the Gospels, Jesus never tells his disciples to give up and quit.  In Paul’s letters, Paul never advises the early church to give up and quit.  You can read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and not once in there will you find God saying that God’s people should give up and quit.  It’s not there.  In fact, Jesus said the exact opposite.  Jesus did not say give up and quit.  Jesus said go and make disciples.

Now, Jesus did not say this would always be an easy thing to do.  And in fact, sometimes it’s not.  It takes time.  It takes patience.  It takes persistence.  And we won’t always succeed.  Those statistics I mentioned earlier are real.  It’s not an easy thing to make disciples of anyone, and when we’re talking about younger people, sometimes it’s even harder.

But it’s worth it.  If we keep at it, if we keep trying, we will succeed.  Not all the time, but sometimes.  And the times we do succeed will more than make up for all the times we don’t.  Jesus said there will be rejoicing in heaven over just one sinner who repents.  And if we can help somehow, in some way, to make that happen, you and I can share in that rejoicing.

Don’t think you cannot do this.  You know young people who aren’t part of a church.  Maybe they’re even part of your family.  You can talk to them.  You can invite them.  You can pray for them.  You can pray for others who are trying to reach younger people.  You can pray that God will show us how to do this.  You and I may not know how to reach younger people, but we know who does.  God does.  Pray for God to lead us, and pray for us to accept God’s leading.

Jesus never promised that anything he told us to do would be easy.  Life on earth was not always easy for Jesus, either.  But if we truly accept Jesus as our Savior, we need to do what Jesus told us to do.  That does not mean giving up and quitting.  It means going and making disciples, whenever and wherever we can.  It will be hard sometimes.  Sometimes, it may even seem impossible.  But it’s not.  Remember, with God all things are possible!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Follow God's Heart

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 10, 2017.

            One of the things you’ll hear people say, one of the pieces of advice people give, is that you should always “follow your heart”.  Have you ever heard that?  “Follow your heart.”  Listen to that inner voice inside you.  It’ll tell you what you need to do.
            Now, there are times when that’s good advice.  But there are times when it’s not, too.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but there are times when my heart is not very reliable.  There are times when my heart tells me to watch the ball game when I know I really should be going to visit someone.  There are times when my heart tells me to go have a big bowl of ice cream when I know I need to watch my weight.  There are times when my heart tells me to go buy something I cannot afford when I know my checkbook is telling me not to.  In other words, there are plenty of times when following my heart could get me into a lot of trouble.
            It’s not always bad to follow your heart.  But if we’re going to follow our hearts, we’d better make sure our heart is in line with God’s heart.  Because it’s God’s heart that we really need to follow, not our own.  I think that’s one of the many things our Bible reading for today shows us.
            Jesus and the disciples have just had what we now call the Last Supper.  They’ve left the Upper Room.  They go to Gethsemane.  It’s interesting, to me at least, that we always refer to this as “the Garden of Gethsemane”, but the Bible never uses that phrase.  Mark and Matthew just say that they went to “a place called Gethsemane”.  John says they went to a garden, but does not give the garden a name.  Luke says they went to the Mount of Olives--from what I read, Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
            Anyway, they go there.  Jesus tells most of the disciples to sit and wait.  He takes Peter, James, and John with him, and they go a ways farther.  Then he tells them to stay and keep watch.  Jesus goes on a little farther and prays.
            Listen to what Jesus prays.  We’re told that he “fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him.”  He says, “Abba, father, everything is possible for you.  Take this cup from me.”
            Jesus knew what was coming.  He knew that the authorities were coming to arrest him and kill him.  He had told the disciples many times this was going to happen.  In fact, he’d just told them that again, in the Upper Room at the Last Supper.
            But now, the moment had actually come.  It was time for Jesus to face it.  And when he did--he looked for a way to get out of it.  He wanted desperately to avoid what was coming.  He was praying with all his might for God to somehow, some way, take him out of this situation.  Luke tells us that Jesus prayed so hard that he was sweating, and that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
            This is why I say that “follow your heart” is not always good advice.  Because if Jesus had followed his heart at that moment, he’d have run away, right?  He’d have gotten out of Dodge as fast as he could.  His heart was saying, “I don’t want to do this.  There’s got to be some other way.  God the Father can do something else to save human beings.  After all, he’s God the Father.  Everything is possible for Him.  There has to be some other way this can work.  I don’t want to suffer and die.  I want to get out of here.”
            It’s pretty understandable, right?  I mean, yes, Jesus was the divine Son of God, but he was also fully human.  And as such, he had all the same feelings and fears that you and I have.  Jesus did not want to die.  He especially did not want to die in an incredibly cruel, painful way.  Who would?
            When I think about that part of Jesus’ prayer, it sounds a lot like prayers I’ve prayed at times.  Not that I’ve ever thought I was going to die, I don’t mean that.  But there are times where I was faced with a situation, and I knew I was supposed to go through with it, but going through with it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do.  Have you ever had a time like that?  I would think some of you must have.  A time where you knew what you should do, knew what you were supposed to do, but it was the last thing you wanted to do.
            When that happens to us, our heart tells us to avoid the situation.  Either run away, or quit, or give in, or do something different, or something.  Find a way to get out of it.  Never mind what we may be “supposed” to do.  Follow your heart and get out of there.
            And so we pray.  We pray for God to show us the way out.  We pray for God to do something that somehow, in some way, will allow us to follow our heart and avoid doing what we know we should do.
            When you’ve done that, what’s happened?  Did it work?  It never has for me.  In fact, the times I’ve prayed that way have really been the times when I felt farthest away from God.  I would pray and pray, and it felt like my prayers were just hitting the ceiling and bouncing back from me.  It felt like God was not there at all, or if God was there God was ignoring me.
            That was not true, of course.  God was there.  God was not ignoring me.  God was answering my prayer.  I just did not want to hear the answer, because the answer was no.  God was telling me that God was not going to take me out of the situation.  God did not want me to follow my heart.  God wanted me to follow God’s heart.  And God’s heart was for me to face up to the situation and do what I knew I should do, what God wanted me to do.
            That’s pretty much how it worked for Jesus, too.  Jesus was praying for God to show him a way out.  Jesus wanted God to allow him to follow his heart.  Three times, Jesus prayed that way.  And God gave him an answer.  But the answer was no.  This was what Jesus had been sent to earth for in the first place--to die, to take the punishment for our sins that should go to us.  God the Father was not going to take him out of that situation.  God the Father wanted Jesus to follow God’s heart.
            And of course, Jesus did.  Some of you are ahead of me on that.  You know the last line of Jesus’ prayer, the line I left out earlier.  The last line of Jesus’ prayer is “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
            Jesus knew what his heart was telling him.  But he knew that what his heart was telling him was not the most important thing.  The most important thing was for Jesus to follow God’s heart.  And he did.  Even when it was not what Jesus wanted to do--even when it may have been the last thing in the world Jesus wanted to do--he still did it.  Even when he knew it would cost him his life on earth, he still did it.  Jesus followed God’s heart all the way, all the way to death on a cross.
            The Bible does not tell us this next part.  But I suspect, when Jesus said that last line--”Yet not what I will, but what you will”--he felt as close to God the Father as he ever had while he was on earth.  The reason I think that is because that’s how it works for me.  Any time I stop praying for God to do what I want God to do, and instead pray that God’s will be done, that’s when I feel God’s presence with me the most.  
That, more than any other time, is when I feel God with me.  When I stop trying to tell God what to do, when I stop telling God to take me out of hard situations, and instead just ask God to help me do God’s will.  When I stop listening to my own heart, and start following God’s heart.  It does not mean things always go smooth and easy.  For Jesus, doing God’s will meant things went about as hard for him as they could possibly go.  But even though things are very hard, he knew that God the Father was with him.  And when you and I do God’s will, we will know that God the Father is with us, too.
            God asks us to do some hard things sometimes.  We don’t want to do them.  Our heart tells us there must be some other way.  We pray, as Jesus did, God, everything is possible for you.  Take this away from me.
            But God never promised to keep hard things away from us.  But God does promise to be with us through the hard things.  If we do what Jesus did, if we follow the heart of God the Father, we will feel God keeping God’s promise.  We will know that God is with us.  And with God’s help, we’ll be able to face anything we need to face.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What Are We Waiting For?

There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world right now.  We’re sending more troops to Afghanistan.  There’s the threat of war with North Korea.  There are protests in Charlottesville and other places.  There was just a hurricane in Texas and now there may be one headed for Florida.  So, for some, this raises a question:  are we in the end times?

Well, I’ll tell you--I don’t know.  Jesus described the signs of the coming of the end times:  “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.  But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name.”  (Luke 21:10-12).  You could make the argument that this description fits where we are now.  On the other hand, there have been many times over the last two thousand years when you could make the argument that what was going on fit Jesus’ description, and the end times haven’t happened yet.  So again, I don’t know.

If we are in the end times, of course, we’ll know for sure soon enough.  But here’s what I think is a more relevant question.  If you were firmly convinced that we are in the end times, what would you do?  Would you live your life differently if you believed that the end times are here now, and if so, how?

Would you spend more time in prayer?  Would you spend more time in church?  Would you read the Bible more?  Would you make more of an effort to love your neighbor, the way Jesus told us to?  Would you make more of an effort to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ, the way Jesus told us to?  Think about it.  In what would you live your life differently if you believed we are in the end times?

And here’s an even more relevant question:  Why are you not doing that now?  For that matter, why am I not doing that now?  Because, if you believe in the end times at all, you know that the end times could happen at any time.  Jesus did not give the disciples an exact time--in fact, he told the disciples that only God in heaven knows the exact time--but he told them to always be ready.  “Always be on the watch” is how Jesus put it (Luke 21:36).  And even if you don’t believe in the end times, each of us is going to have our own personal end time at some point.  That’s true even if you’re young--you hear about young people dying every day.  So why are we not getting ready now?  What are we waiting for?

I’m not suggesting that we live each day as if it was our last.  That’s not practical.  What I am suggesting, though, is that most of us--most definitely including me--need to take our faith a lot more seriously.  We need to stop making faith in God just another one of the many things that compete for our time and our attention.  Faith in God, faith in Jesus Christ, doing the things Jesus told us to do, needs to be the pre-eminent thing in our lives.  

Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says of God’s commandments “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”  I’m not telling you that you have to take that literally, although it certainly would not be wrong if we did.  We do need to take that idea to heart, though.  We need to do whatever we have to do to make sure we’re living with an awareness of God and of doing God’s will all the time, not just when we think we have the time.

The time to start doing that is now.  Because we never know when our time might run out.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Promise of Communion

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 3, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 22:7-23.

            As many of you know, the events described in our Bible reading are what we now refer to as The Last Supper.  It’s what we commemorate whenever we celebrate Holy Communion, which we’ll do in a little while.  None of the disciples knew it was The Last Supper, of course.  They thought they were simply celebrating the Passover meal, in accordance with the Jewish faith.  But of course, Jesus knew.
            Jesus sends Peter and John on ahead to get things ready.  He sends them to a certain place and a certain man.  Now, some people think Jesus must have made arrangements with this man ahead of time, others think it was a use of divine power.  However, it happened, though, the arrangements were made.  Jesus and the disciples go to what Luke describes as “a large room upstairs”, what we now refer to as The Upper Room, to share their Passover meal.
            Now if this truly was the Passover Seder, as many believe, there would’ve been a lot more to it than just bread and wine.  According to Wikipedia, there’d be two types of herbs, charoset, which is a paste of fruits and nuts, a vegetable (usually parsley), a roasted lamb, and a hardboiled egg.  The bread, which of course would’ve been unleavened, would be on a separate plate.  There were four cups of wine, which were drunk at specific points during the meal, each of which had a special significance.
            So Jesus and the disciples are ready to start the meal.  Jesus says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”  Then he takes the cup of wine, and he says, “Take this and divide it among you.  For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
            And the disciples go, “Huh?”
            Well, Luke does not say that, but don’t you think that’s the likely response?  I mean, is that not how the disciples usually react when Jesus says something like this?  Maybe not, maybe they understood what Jesus was talking about.  But I doubt it.  I mean, they did not say anything.  They did not want to appear stupid.  But I doubt they had a clue what was going on.
            Then Jesus takes the bread.  He gives thanks, he breaks the bread, he gives it to the disciples, and he says, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
After supper, he takes the cup, and he says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
            And the disciples go “Huh?” again.
            Luke goes on after that.  He talks about the betrayal of Jesus, which we talked about last week.  Then he talks about a dispute arising among the disciples about which of them was considered to be the greatest.  By the way, I would think that would’ve really frustrated Jesus, don’t you?  I mean, after all he’s tried to teach them, and after he’s just said he’s going to be betrayed and die, here they are, arguing about which one of them is the greatest.  I would think Jesus would’ve just buried his head in his hands at that one.
            But it’s strange, don’t you think, that for all the emphasis we as Christians place on our commemoration of the Last Supper, what we call Holy Communion, what we’re going to celebrate here in a little while, the gospels really don’t make a big deal out of it.  They mention it, but really it’s just one of the many things we’re told about Jesus in the last week of his life.
            The thing is, though, that it was not long after Jesus’ death that the celebration which we now call Holy Communion became a big deal.  There are mentions of it in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters.  What may have happened is that, at the time it happened, the disciples really did not understand what Jesus was doing, but that later, they came to understand it.
            I’m no Jewish scholar, but what I read is that the bread at a Passover Seder is meant to symbolize the three great patriarchs of the Jewish faith--Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Each of the cups of wine has a meaning, too.  In the Last Supper, Jesus took the last one to symbolize his blood.  The last cup of wine, according to what I read, symbolizes the world to come and the redemption of the Jewish people at the end of the world.
            So it would seem that, by calling the bread “his body” and the wine “his blood”, Jesus was telling the disciples that he truly is the divine Son of God.  He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.  He is greater than the great heroes of faith at the beginning of history, and he is the one who will redeem his people at the end of history.  His body was given as a promise of God’s blessing.  And his blood is poured out as a new covenant, that his death is the promise of our redemption by God.  And while the disciples did not understand all that at first, they did later on, after they thought about all that had happened.
            So what does all this mean for us today?  After all, we’re going to take Holy Communion in just a few minutes.  We do it every month on the first Sunday.  How does it change anything about it to know all this stuff about the symbolism of bread and wine two thousand years ago?
            Well, I hope just knowing some of the history behind it will help give it some meaning.  But it’s more than that.  Because Jesus is still truly the divine Son of God.  He is still the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.  He is still greater than the greatest heroes of faith at the beginning of history.  He is still the one who will redeem his people at the end of history.  He still died as a promise of God’s blessing and the promise of our redemption by God.
            We refer to Holy Communion as one of God’s “means of grace”.  In other words, Holy Communion one of the ways in which God’s Holy Spirit comes into us.  This is part of the reason why we refer to it that way.  By sharing in Holy Communion, by doing this in remembrance of him, we acknowledge the promises made in the Last Supper.  In fact, we more than acknowledge them, we claim them.  We say, yes, I accept that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise of God’s blessing.  Yes, I do believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God.  He is the Savior.  I believe that his life, death, and resurrection are the promise of our redemption and salvation by God.
            And it’s okay if we believe that without understanding all of it.  The disciples did not understand it all at first, either.  Maybe some of them never did, we don’t know.  But Jesus gave the disciples the bread and wine even though they did not understand.  Jesus gave them the blessing and the promise of redemption by God even though they did not understand.
            It’s okay if we don’t understand everything.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to try.  It’s good to understand as much as we can about Holy Communion and about all the other rituals we perform as Christians.  It’s good to study the Bible and to read commentaries and to do all the things we can to understand God and God’s word.
            But the thing is, that’s a process that takes a lifetime.  And even after we take a lifetime, we still don’t come close to understanding all there is to understand about God.  It’s impossible for us to understand all there is to understand about God.  The only way we could do that is if we were on God’s level, and we’re obviously not.  We’re obviously nowhere close.  And we never will be.
            But it’s okay.  When we take communion, and when we do it with the desire to know God, God’s Holy Spirit comes into our hearts.  And then, we don’t have to understand.  All we need to do is follow.  All we need to do is follow where God’s Holy Spirit leads us to go.  Do what God’s Holy Spirit leads us to do.  Say what God’s Holy Spirit leads us to say.
            How do we know when we’re following God’s Holy Spirit?  When we’re doing what Jesus told us to do.  When we love our neighbors as ourselves.  When we love our enemies.  When we pray for those who persecute us.  When we go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Left to ourselves, a lot of times, we don’t want to do those things.  But when we follow God’s Holy Spirit, we will do them.  And we’ll do them willingly, because we know we are pleasing God when we do.
            As we come to take Holy Communion today, please think about these things.  Claim Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s blessing for your life.  Claim Jesus as the Divine Son of God and as the Savior.  Claim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the promise of your salvation by God.  Feel God’s Holy Spirit entering your heart.  Then, let’s re-dedicate ourselves to following God’s Holy Spirit and doing those things Jesus told us to do.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why Harvey?

As I write this, Hurricane Harvey is hitting Texas.  No one knows exactly how bad things are going to get, but there’s no question things are going to get bad for a lot of people.  And whenever something like this happens, a question arises.  If God is so good, and if God loves us so much, why does God allow things like destructive hurricanes?

A variation of that question that comes up in a lot of contexts, of course.  The question basically comes down to, why does God let bad things happen?  Sometimes we can explain it away by the fact that God gives us free will.  That doesn’t really work in the case of a natural disaster like a hurricane, though.  Whether you believe in climate change or not, we know hurricanes and other natural disasters have been happening for a long time, and will continue to happen for as far into the future as we can understand.

You can try to get free will involved by saying, well, people chose to live in an area where they know hurricanes can happen.  And that’s true, to an extent, but it doesn’t really explain things.  I mean, every area has something.  Whether it’s hurricanes or blizzards or tornadoes or earthquakes or droughts or floods or anything else, almost every place humans can live is subject to something.  Eden doesn’t exist any more.  So the question remains.  Why does God allow these things to happen?

We say these things are natural phenomena.  We say they are something that is inevitably going to occur because of the laws of nature.  But as Christians, we believe that God set up those laws.  Was that the only way God could’ve set things up?  Was it impossible for God to set up the world differently?  Is the only way the world can work if we have natural disasters?  That would seem to be putting an artificial limit on God.

In theology we sometimes talk about how the fall of Man, in the case of Adam and Eve, affected all of nature, not just humanity.  Eden was perfect, with no natural disasters.  But when sin entered the world, it affected nature just as much as it affected human beings, and storms and other natural phenomena that we consider bad are the result of that.  If that explanation helps you, that’s great.  But I have to admit, it really does not satisfy me.

But of course, that’s the thing.  God does not have to give an explanation that satisfies me.  God does not have to give an explanation at all.  God does not have to justify God’s actions or God’s decisions to me.  In fact, it’s pretty arrogant of me to ask God to do that.  God is God.  God is bigger and greater than anything I can ever imagine.  God does not owe me explanations for anything.  God does not owe me anything at all.  I owe God everything, including my own life.

This is where faith comes into it.  If we believe in God, then we believe that God must have had good reasons for setting up the world the way God did, even if we don’t always understand them.  And so, we continue to believe, we continue to trust, and we continue to have faith, no matter what happens.

And we do one other thing, a very important thing.  We help each other.  When a tragedy strikes, we help each other.  When something bad happens, we help each other.  When we see someone who needs someone, we help each other.  Instead of spending a lot of time asking “why”--a question we’ll never get a satisfying answer to--we should be spending our time asking “what”.  What can I do to help?  And then, we need to go out and actually do it.

That’s what I encourage you to do.  Because no matter what your situation is, there is always something you can do.  If nothing else, you can always pray.  And that may well be the most important thing we can ever do.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Undeserved Love

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 27, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 26:20-25, 31-35.

            Have you ever been betrayed?
            I suspect most of us would say yes.  It might have been a big thing, or it might have been a small thing.  It might be something that happened recently, or it might be something that happened a long time ago.  But I suspect most of us, at one time or another, have felt like we were betrayed.
            And I also suspect that, no matter how long ago it might have been, we still remember it.  We remember what happened.  We remember when it happened.  We remember all the circumstances.  We remember everything about the time or times when we’ve been betrayed.  And that’s not all we remember.  We also remember how the betrayal made us feel.  Because a betrayal is probably the hardest thing there is in life to really get over and get past.  
            You see, a betrayal is different from just someone treating us badly.  A betrayal comes from someone close to us.  A betrayal comes from someone we trust.  A betrayal comes when someone we thought cared about us turns out not to care about us at all, or at least turns out to care about something or someone else more.  A betrayal comes when someone we thought was on our side turns out to have a completely different agenda and turns out to be on a completely different side.
            It hurts.  A betrayal hurts.  Jesus told us that we should always forgive, and we try, but a betrayal is probably the hardest thing there ever is to forgive.  To forgive someone who you trusted, and who then turned on you, has to be about the hardest thing we’re ever asked to do.
            Now think about this.  Suppose you knew, ahead of time, that someone was about to betray you.  Suppose you were right there in the same room with them, knowing they were about to betray you.  What would you do?
            That’s the position Jesus was in.  One of the people he was closest to, one of the people he trusted, one of the people he thought cared about him, was about to betray him.  One of the people Jesus thought was on his side turned out to have a completely different agenda.  And Jesus knew that.  Jesus knew, ahead of time, that Judas was about to betray him.  Jesus was in the same room with Judas, knowing he was about to betray him.
            But of course, Judas was not the only person in the room who was going to betray Jesus.  As Jesus said, “This very night all of you will fall away on account of me.”  Jesus knew that, to one extent or another, they were all going to betray him.  They all denied it, of course.  Peter says, loudly and proudly, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you”, and all the other disciples say the same.  But Jesus knows the truth.
            That had to hurt Jesus.  There’s no way it could not.  So again, I ask you.  Suppose you were Jesus at that moment, knowing everyone there, all these people he trusted, were about to betray you.  What would you do?
            Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d have done what Jesus did.  He continued to treat them like friends, or even more than friends.  He shared a meal with them.  As we saw last week, Jesus washed their feet, humbly acting like their servant.  Think about that.  Here he is, the sinless, perfect, divine Son of God, acting like a servant to people who are all going to abandon him and betray him.
            Jesus knew what was going to happen to him, and he did nothing to stop it.  He could have.  It would’ve been easy for him to stop Judas.  He would not have had to use any divine power or anything.  All he’d have had to do is tell Peter or James or any of the disciples, hey, Judas is about to turn me in to the authorities and have me arrested.  He would not have had to say any more than that, really.  The disciples would’ve taken care of Judas all right.  They’d have made sure he never turned in Jesus or anyone else.
            But Jesus did not do that.  Jesus did not stop Judas or anyone else from betraying him.  And not only that, he continued to treat them with just as much love as he had before, if not more.  Jesus continued to show love to all the people who were about to betray him.  In fact, even after the betrayal, he continued to show that love.  Jesus loved the disciples, and us, so much that he died in an incredibly painful way, crucified on a cross, taking the punishment that should go to us, so that our sins can be forgiven.
            I’ve talked to people who’ve told me they have a hard time believing God loves them.  And a lot of times, the reason they have a hard time believing it is because they don’t think they deserve God’s love.  They think, if God knows everything, then God knows what kind of person I am.  God knows all the bad things I’ve done.  God knows all the times I’ve treated people badly.  God knows all the times I’ve lied, or I’ve cheated, or done all kinds of things I should not have done.  If God knows all that stuff, then there’s no way God could love me.  I don’t deserve it.
            And in one sense, that’s right.  None of us deserves God’s love.  I don’t, you don’t, none of us does.  But that’s the point.  God does not love us because we deserve it.  God loves us because that’s who God is.  God loves us because God is love.  And there is nothing we can ever do that will keep God from loving us.
            The way God loves us, the way Jesus loves us, the way Jesus loved Judas and Peter and all the other disciples even though they were going to betray him, shows us what love is.  Love, by definition, is not something you deserve.  If we say that we’ll only love someone if they deserve it, what we’re saying is that our love is a reward for proper behavior.  We’re saying we’ll only love them if they say or do the right things, the things we want them to say or do.  We’ll only love them if there’s something in it for us.  That’s not love.  That’s a contract.
            If God only loved us when we said or did the right things, we’d never know that God loved us.  Because how would we know?  Even if we were doing our best, even if we were trying really hard, even if we were doing all kinds of wonderful things, how would we know we’d done it right?  How would we know we’d done enough?  How would we know there was not something else we should say, something else we should do, some other good thing we should work on in order to earn God’s love?  We never would.  There’d never be a time when we could be confident that we’d done enough.  And so we’d never know God’s love.
            God does not love us because we deserve it.  God loves us because that’s who God is.  And God wants us to know how much God loves us.  And the proof of God’s love for us is in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
            If God did not love us, Jesus would never have been sent to earth in the first place.  If Jesus did not love us, he would not have lived the life he did--preaching, teaching, healing, working miracles, all the other things he did through his life.  If Jesus did not love us, he would never have treated the disciples, the people who were going to betray him, with kindness and love.  If Jesus did not love us, he would not have died so that our sins could be forgiven.  And if God did not love us, Jesus would not have been raised from the dead, proving that he had conquered death, not just for himself, but for all of us.
            None of us deserves God’s love.  But that’s okay.  God does not love us because we deserve it.  God has done all kinds of things to show us that.  Over and over again, all throughout the Bible, whether we’re talking about the Old Testament or the New Testament, people show that they don’t deserve God’s love.  And yet, God keeps loving them anyway.  Nothing they did could ever stop God from loving them.  Sometimes God makes them accept the consequences of their actions, but God kept loving them.  Sometimes we have to accept the consequences of our actions, too.  But God keeps loving us, too.  And nothing we do could ever stop God from loving us, either.
            If you ever feel like you don’t deserve God’s love, think about how Jesus treated the disciples.  Think about how Jesus loved even the people who he knew were going to betray him.  Think about how Jesus loved them so much that he would even die for them.  And know that Jesus loves you so much that he died for you, too.  God never loved anyone because they deserved it.  God loves us because God is love.  And there is nothing you can ever do that will make God stop loving you.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Lesson in Humility

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 20, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 13:1-17.

            We’ve been doing a sermon series going through the events of Jesus’ life in chronological order.  And so, we’re up to the events of the last couple of days of Jesus’ life.  Jesus has gathered the disciples to celebrate the Passover meal with him.  This is the night of what we now know as the Last Supper.
            It seems odd that John’s gospel is the only one that mentions Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  The others all have the Last Supper, but they don’t have this part.  But it’s no less important for that, and the lessons it teaches us are no less important, either.
            At various times, I’ve asked you to try to imagine yourself present at various Bible events.  I’d like you to do that today.  You’re in the room with Jesus.  All the disciples are there with you.  You’re eating a meal.  Probably, given the timing of it, the meal you’re eating is the Seder, the ritual meal eaten in celebration of the Passover.  It’s a very important meal in Jewish tradition.
            You’re all eating this meal, and suddenly Jesus gets up.  You probably notice that, but don’t think much of it at first.  Then, Jesus starts taking his clothes off!  He walks over to where there’s a towel and wraps that around his waist.  He goes over to where there’s some water--maybe a pitcher, maybe a bucket, we’re not told where the water came from.  Jesus pours some water into a basin.  Then he goes around to each of the disciples, one by one, starts washing their feet, and dries them with the towel that’s around his waist.
            Are you picturing this?  Because to me, one of the most amazing things about this whole deal is that at this point, none of the disciples has reacted at all.  None of them has said, “What are you doing?”  None of them has said, “Why are you doing that?”  None of them has said, “Here, let me help you.”  None of them has said, “Jesus, wait a minute, you should not have to do that.  We’ll find someone else.”  They all just sit there.  Maybe they were so taken by surprise they did not know what to say.  Maybe they were scared to say anything.  Maybe they were afraid they’d look stupid if they said or did anything.  We don’t know why.  But they all just sit there.  Nobody saying anything.  Nobody doing anything.  They just sit there and let Jesus wash their feet.
            Until he gets to Peter.  We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me remind you what foot washing was back then.  We’ve talked about this before, but think of the condition feet were in back then.  People did not wear socks and shoes.  Some people had sandals, but a lot of people went barefoot.  And they did not walk on paved roads, either.  They walked on dirt.  Or sand.  Or fields with plants on them.  And there were animals around, so there were plenty of things to step in, if you know what I mean.
            So feet were, for the most part, just plain ugly and disgusting.  They were filthy.  They were calloused.  They had sores and blisters sometimes.  Nobody wanted to have to handle feet like that.  It was the one of the lowest, dirtiest jobs around.  If you were the foot washer, you were about as far down on the list as you could be.
            So Jesus is doing this lousy, dirty job.  And the disciples just sit there and watch him do it.  Until he gets to Peter.  Jesus looks at Peter.  Peter looks at Jesus.  Peter cannot believe what’s going on.  He says, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  
            Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
            Peter still cannot believe it.  He thinks, I might not know everything, but I know Jesus--Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God--Jesus is not supposed to be washing people’s feet.  So he refuses.  He says Jesus will never wash his feet.
            Jesus, of course, responds by saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”  And Peter, on hearing that, responds in the most Peter-ish way possible.  He says, “Well, then, not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well.”
            John does not say so, but I have to think Jesus would’ve laughed at that.  Maybe some of the other disciples laughed, too.  It’s classic Peter being Peter.  It also shows, though, that Peter still does not understand what Jesus is doing or why.  And no one else there does, either.
            Jesus goes around, washing everyone’s feet.  Then he puts his clothes back on and sits back down.  And he says, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”
            Jesus was telling them, and us, think about what I just did.  You know who I am, and yet I did not try to hold myself out as any better than you.  In fact, I held myself out as worse than you, because I acted like your servant.  So none of you has any business acting like you think you’re better than anyone else, either.  None of you should think you’re too good to serve others.
            Do you remember when we did the sermon series on the Minor Prophets a couple of years ago?  What was the thing God was always criticizing the people of Israel for?  Arrogance.  Thinking they were better than other people.  Thinking they were better than God.  Thinking they were so good they did not need God any more.  They were arrogant, and their arrogance brought them down.
            Now, hundreds of years later, it’s still a problem.  Jesus is still trying to fight arrogance.  He’s telling the disciples that they are not any better than anyone else, and they should not act like they are.  They should be willing to serve others, just as Jesus has served them.  They should act humbly, just as Jesus has acted humbly.  They should show humility, just as Jesus has shown humility.
It is really easy for us human beings to become arrogant.  We slide into it without even thinking about it.  We slide into it without even realizing it.  We slide into it with the best of intentions, sometimes.  But we still have it.  Any time we think we’re better than someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance.  Any time we think we’re more valuable than someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance.  Any time we think we’re more important than someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance.  Any time we think our feelings, our opinions, our wants, needs, or desires are better or more important than those of someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance.
            Now, that’s not to say that we should not recognize our own talents and abilities.  It’s okay for us to realize that we’re better at some things than other people are.  God has given each of us certain talents and abilities, and God wants us to use them.  But the fact that I might be better than you at something does not mean I’m better than you as a person.  You’re better than I am at a lot of things, too.
            The point is that, in God’s eyes, we’re all equal.  God does not have a rating system for our sins, and decide that some of us are lesser sinners than others.  In God’s eyes, we’re all sinners in need of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation.  And one of our goals should be to see people as God sees them, to the extent we can.  That means we need to try to see all people as equal as well.  Of equal value, of equal worth, and equally deserving of our love.
            And of course, that includes people we disagree with.  It includes people who don’t like us.  It includes people who treat us like dirt.  After all, this same Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet said that we are supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  He said that if someone takes our coat, we should give them our shirt, too.  All of those people are equal to us in God’s eyes.  And we need to see them as equal to us, too.  Any time we don’t, we failing to do what Jesus told us to do.
            Is it easy to do those things?  Of course not.  But look at the people whose feet Jesus was washing.  They included Judas, who was going to betray Jesus.  They included Peter, who was going to deny three times that he even knew who Jesus was.  They included all the other disciples, who were all going to run away and abandon Jesus.  And Jesus knew all that.  Jesus knew exactly who the disciples were and what they were going to do.  And yet, even though Jesus truly was better than any of them, he did not behave that way.  He acted as their servant, and washed their feet.
            Jesus told the disciples, “I have set an example for you.”  He said, if I can do this for you, then you can do this for others.  If I don’t consider myself any better than you, then you have no right to consider yourself better than anyone else.
            When we’re tempted to think of ourselves as better than someone else--and we all are; when we’re tempted to think of ourselves as too good to do certain things--and we all are; when we’re tempted to feel arrogant and superior--and we all are; let’s remember the example of Jesus.  Let’s remember that Jesus, the divine Son of God, gave us the ultimate example of humility.
            The Apostle Paul told us that we are supposed to imitators of Christ.  This is one of the best ways we can do that.  Let’s do everything we can to practice humility.  Let’s do everything we can to serve others.  Let’s follow the example of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

What Can I Say?

So you all know about what happened in Charlottesville last weekend.  Lots of people have weighed in on it.  I’ve been wondering what, if anything, I should say.  I thought about not saying anything, for a few reasons.  

For one thing, as you know, I try not to get involved in political issues.  This may not be a purely political issue, but it certainly has political aspects to it, and those aspects seem to be becoming more and more prominent as the days go by.  

For another thing, as I said before, lots of people have weighed in on this issue.  I don’t know what I can say that hasn’t already been said many times.  I can’t really see how adding one more voice to the cacophony that was already going on will do any good.  

For a third thing, some (not all) of what I’ve heard and read came off as telling others what they have to think and how they have to feel.  As a result, it sounded rather self-righteous and holier-than-thou.  That’s not to say it was insincere, but arrogance is a sin, too, and it’s one that God seems to have a lot to say about.

So, since I’m not sure that I have anything useful to say, I just want to remind everyone, including myself, of Jesus’ words.  This is from the gospel of Luke.  It’s Luke 6:27-31.

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

As you think about the events of last weekend, as you hear all the commentary about it, as you see it turned into a political football, as you decide what your reaction to all of this should be, remember the words of Jesus.  Make your decision accordingly.  I’ll try to do that, too.  If we follow Jesus’ words, we won’t have to worry about the sin of arrogance or any other sins.  When we follow Jesus, we’re always going in the right direction.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Beauty of Creation

I’ve told you before that summer is my favorite time of year.  Well, this just may be my favorite time of summer.  Why?  Because the sunflowers are in bloom!

Maybe, to those of you who’ve lived around here all your lives, seeing the sunflowers is no big deal.  But nobody grew sunflowers where I grew up.  I mean, there were a few scraggly wild sunflowers, but nothing like what we have around here.  I think the first time I ever saw an actual field of sunflowers was when we took a band trip to North Dakota when I was in college.  That was in October, though, so the time of their true beauty had long since passed.

If you get a chance, take a look at a field of sunflowers in bloom.  The bright gold contrasted with the dark green is just incredibly beautiful.  And the uniformity of it--all the sunflowers the same height, in perfect rows--is incredibly beautiful, too.

When I see something in nature that beautiful, it convinces me all the more, not just that God exists, but that God loves us.  Because, if you think about it, God would not have had to make sunflowers look that beautiful.  God could’ve made sunflowers grey.  God could’ve made then a dull, ugly sort of brown.  God could’ve made sunflowers look any way God chose.  But God chose to make them look beautiful.  

The beauty of a field of sunflowers--the beauty of anything in nature--is a gift from God.  It’s a gift to us.  It tells us that God enjoys the act of creating, that God likes to create things that are beautiful, and that God likes it when we enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the things God has created.

And by the way, that includes you and me, too.  God enjoyed creating you.  God created you to be beautiful, and God likes it when you enjoy and appreciate the fact that you are beautiful, too.  Even if others don’t think so, God thinks so.  And God wants you to think so, too.

There is beauty all around us, if we stop and look for it.  Try to see the beauty of everything around you.  And try to see your own beauty, too.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

God Sent Us

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 6, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 19:41-44.

            God is big.  God is really big.  God is bigger than anything you or I can ever imagine.  I mean, think of the biggest thing you can possibly think of, take that times two, and then take it times ten, then take the square of that, and you’re still nowhere near how big God is.
            Because God is so big, there are a lot of different ways in which we can view God.  It’s like the old story about blind men trying to describe an elephant.  One feels his trunk and describes him as being like a snake, one feels his ear and describes him as being like a fan, one feels his side and describes him as being like a wall, and so forth.  Each one describes the elephant differently, depending on what part of the elephant he feels.
             That’s how it can be with us and God.  There are so many different aspects of God that we can never understand them all.  God is holy.  God is righteous.  God is perfect.  God is all-seeing.  God is all-knowing.  God is powerful.  God is mighty.  God is just.  God is fair.  God is gracious.  God is merciful.  God is love.  On and on and on.  These are just a few of the words we could use to describe God.  And the way we’ve experienced God influences which of those words we choose to describe God.
            Some people believe in a vengeful, wrathful God.  Some people believe in a God who is eager to punish us for our sins.  They see God, in effect, as sitting in heaven with a big red pen, ready to pounce on us and send us to hell if we step out of line.
            I hope you don’t see God that way, because I don’t think that’s how God is.  I don’t think it’s how Jesus portrayed God, either.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do believe that heaven and hell are both real.  I do believe that people go to both places.  But I don’t think God is eager to send us to hell.  And one of the things that shows that is our reading from Luke today.
            Jesus is looking at the city of Jerusalem.  This is a few days before he’s going to be arrested and crucified.  Jesus knows what’s going to happen.  He knows what’s going to happen to him.  He also knows what’s going to happen to Jerusalem--that it’s eventually going to be overthrown and its temple destroyed.  He knows that disaster is about to overtake the entire nation of Israel.
            But Jesus takes no delight in that.  In fact, he’s sad about it.  He’s so sad that he cries over the city of Jerusalem.  He says of Jerusalem “if you had only known on this day what would bring you peace.”  He knows all this disaster could have been prevented, if only the people had believed.  God wanted to help them.  God wanted to take care of them.  God wanted to bring them salvation.  And they refused it.  Jesus says, “You did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
            If God was a vengeful God, if God was a wrathful God, if God was a God who is eager to punish us, God would never have sent Jesus to earth in the first place.  The whole point of Jesus’ coming is to give us a way to avoid punishment.  The whole point of Jesus’ coming is to give us a way to escape the consequences of our sin.  God is not sitting in heaven waiting to pounce on us and punish us if we step out of line.  God is eagerly waiting, hoping that we’ll accept Jesus and avoid punishment.  As John Three-Seventeen says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  And God is sad when we don’t accept that salvation.  God cries when we don’t accept that salvation.
            But God has given us free will.  And that means that God gives us the ability to make choices.  And that includes making the choice to reject the salvation offered through faith in Jesus.  That’s not the choice God wants anyone to make.  And so, while it makes God sad when we make that choice, it also makes God determined.  It makes God do everything God can do, short of forcing us, to convince us not to make that choice.  God has done a lot of things to convince us not to make that choice.  Including, again, sending the divine Son, Jesus Christ, to from heaven to earth.
            But God did not stop there.  Because God still does not want anyone to reject the salvation that God offered us through faith in Jesus Christ.  So God continues to send people to earth to encourage people to accept that salvation.  God sent you.  And God sent me.
            I hope that everyone here has made the choice to accept the salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ.  But we should not stop there.  Because we know that there are people, right here in our community, who have not made that choice.  That should make us sad, just like it makes God sad.  But it should also make us determined, just like it makes God determined.  It should make us do everything we can do to convince people not to make that choice.
            Now, as I’ve said before, God does not want us to be obnoxious about this.  We should not badger people or point fingers in their faces or anything like that.  And there are a few people in the world who do that, and sometimes they get on television and stuff.  But that’s not who most of us are.
            In fact, I think most of us go the other way.  I think, too many times, we’re scared of talking about our faith.  We’re scared of talking about God.  We’re afraid someone might be offended if we bring up the name of Jesus.  Or we’re afraid that we’ll be rejected.  Quite honestly, I’m not sure what we’re afraid of, but we sure seem to be afraid of it.  And I feel that, too.  Even when people know I’m a pastor, I sometimes hesitate to bring up my faith in public.  I can do it here, from the pulpit, when everyone expects it.  I can do it if someone comes to my office and wants some advice or help.  But in regular conversation with people?  Not so much.
            Now, if that does not apply to you, that’s great.  If you’re out there talking to people about your faith, and doing it in a loving, caring way, that’s wonderful.  I hope you’ll keep doing it.  But too many of us don’t.  We seem to have bought into this idea--and it’s an idea that seems to be taking hold more and more in our society--that religion should be a private matter.  Yes, we can have faith, but we should keep it to ourselves.  We should not bring it up in public.  You can have your beliefs, but don’t talk about them with anyone else.
            That’s not what Jesus said.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what Jesus said.  Jesus said for us to go and make disciples.  Can you think of a way to make disciples of Jesus Christ without talking about our faith in him?  I cannot.
            And no, it’s not enough for us to just show our faith by our actions.  Don’t get me wrong, our actions certainly should show our faith.  Our faith in Jesus Christ should make us live differently.  It should make us act differently.  It should make us speak differently.  Our faith in Jesus Christ should influence every aspect of our lives.
            But that’s not enough.  We need to tell people why our lives are different.  We still need to tell people why our actions are different.  We need to tell people why our words are different.  We should not be silent about our faith in Jesus Christ as our savior and just expect people to figure it out by looking at us.  We need to tell them.
            Look at it this way.  If there was ever a person on earth whose actions were Godly, it would be Jesus Christ, right?  If there was ever a person whose faith made him live differently, whose faith made him act differently, whose faith made him speak differently, it would be Jesus.  So, did Jesus stay silent about his faith and expect people to just figure it out by watching him?  No!  Of course not!  He talked about God.  He talked about God all the time.  So if Jesus, who lived a perfect, sinless life, did not just rely on the way he lived, if even Jesus needed to talk to people about faith, why would we think that we, as imperfect and sinful as we are, could just rely on the way we live and not need to talk to people about faith?  That’s not how it works.
            Now, is this easy?  No.  I’m not standing here telling you it’s easy.  It can be hard.  If you’re kind of a shy person anyway, it can be even harder.  But you know what?  There’s only one way it’s going to start getting easier, and that’s if we start doing it.  It’s if we start trying.  The only way to get over our fears, to get over our silence, the only way to start talking about our faith to people is to actually do it.  Look for openings in conversations.  Be aware of the chances that come up in everyday life to talk about faith.  We don’t have to force it—God will provide those chances to us, if we look for them and take advantage of them when they come up.
            Now, it’s okay if we want to practice for a while.  It’s okay if we want to start by talking with somebody safe, somebody we know won’t get mad at us.  It’s okay if we do role playing exercises.  Whatever it takes is fine.  But the point is that we need to do it.  We need to do whatever we can to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior.
            And don’t forget to pray about this.  There are times in the gospels when Jesus tells the disciples, don’t worry about what you’ll say when situations come up, because the Holy Spirit will tell you what to say.  You and I can rely on the Holy Spirit, too.  If we open ourselves up to God and let God lead us, God’s Holy Spirit will teach us how to talk about our faith.  And the more we do it, the easier it will get.
            God is sad when people don’t accept Jesus as their Savior.  But while God won’t force us, God is determined to do everything God can to encourage us to accept Jesus.  That’s why God sent you and God sent me.  It should make us sad, too, when people around us don’t accept Jesus as their Savior.  But it should also make us determined.  Let’s be determined to do everything we can to encourage everyone in our community to accept Jesus as their Savior.  It truly is a matter of eternal life and death.