Search This Blog

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Of Life, Death, and Cadbury Creme Eggs

In keeping with my annual tradition, I again publish this blog entry from 2012.

           I saw an article the other day that had good news.  Cadbury crème egg season will be here soon!  Of course, this is a season that is also known as “Easter”.  I realize that, as a Christian pastor, I should value Easter for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and all that signifies, and I do, but I also value it for Cadbury crème eggs.  They are close to being nature’s perfect food, just above Double Stuf Oreos and just behind mom’s chocolate chip cookies (hi, mom!).

            I saw another article the other day, too.  This one was about health.  Here’s a question for you.  Do you know what the number one risk factor associated with cancer and heart disease is?

            Unless you saw the story, I’ll bet you got it wrong.  It’s not weight or diet or lack of exercise or stress or any of the things we normally think about.  It’s age.  That’s right, age.  The older we are, the more likely we are to get cancer or heart disease.  In other words, the number one risk factor associated with these diseases is one that we can do absolutely nothing about.

            Last time, I wrote about our need to take care of ourselves.  I still believe that, of course.  We should do all we can to stay healthy for as long as we can, so that we can better serve God.  Still, this article was a reminder that no matter what we do, none of us is going to live forever.  No matter how much we eat right and exercise and get our rest and do all the things we’re supposed to do, at some point we’re all going to get old, and at some point we’re all going to die.

            Which brings me back to Cadbury crème eggs.  Each one has six grams of fat and twenty-one grams of sugar.  Each has 24 grams of carbohydrate and 150 calories. There’s a reason these things are not sold in the health food section of the store.  No one would reasonably make the argument that Cadbury crème eggs are good for you.

            But you know what?  We can deny ourselves all the pleasures of life, we can eat nothing but oats and nuts and berries, and we’re still going to die sometime.  I’m not suggesting that we make Cadbury crème eggs the chief staple of our diet.  On the other hand, eating one once in a while is not going to particularly hurt us, either.

            We should do all we reasonably can to stay healthy.  On the other hand, life is not meant to just be endured.  It’s also supposed to be enjoyed.  So use your head, get your rest, and keep yourself in shape.  But eat a Cadbury crème egg once in a while, too.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Friend, Your Sins Are Forgiven

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Luke 5:17-26.

            We’ve been doing a sermon series about the life of Jesus, and we’ve reached the point now in Jesus’ life where the sequence of events is not very clear.  Even when the gospels tell us the same things about Jesus’ life, they are not always consistent about the order in which those things took place.  And that’s okay.  It’s interesting to try to place the events of Jesus’ life in chronological order, but it’s not essential to understanding who Jesus is.  A lot of the time, what’s important is simply the fact that these events happened.  The order in which they happened really does not matter a whole lot.
            But most people, even many non-Christians, know that one of the things Jesus did while he was on earth is heal people.  Today, we’re looking at one of these stories, a story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man.
            As we just read, Jesus is in a house, teaching.  We’re not told anything about what he said.  I’d sure like to know that, wouldn’t you?  There’s a huge crowd around.  People had come from “every village of Galilee”, and also from Judea and Jerusalem, just to hear Jesus.  Either the paralyzed man or his friends knew about Jesus and his ability to heal people.  So, the paralyzed man’s friends want to take him in to be healed by Jesus.  But they cannot get in.  The crowd’s too big.  So, they carry the man up to the roof, make a hole in the roof, and lower the man down so he’s right there, right in front of Jesus.
            As I was thinking about this story and what I might say about it today, something remarkable about it popped out at me.  It’s something I’d never really thought about before.  I’d noticed it.  I’m sure that, if you’ve heard this story before and thought about it, you’ve noticed it, too.  But I don’t think I’d ever really thought about the significance of it before.
            Jesus sees what’s happened.  He sees that this paralyzed man’s friends have lowered him from the roof so he’d be right in front of Jesus.
            He has to know what the man and his friends want, right?  He has to know they want him to heal this man.  Jesus was the divine Son of God, of course, but he did not need to use any of his divine powers to figure this one out.  I would think every person in the place knew what was going on when this paralyzed man was lowered from the roof.  They knew this was a plea for Jesus to heal this man.
            And here’s the remarkable thing.  What does Jesus say?  He does not say “Pick up your mat and walk.”  He does eventually, but not at first.  He does not reach out to touch the man and heal him.  He does not even address the man’s physical problem.  What does Jesus say?  He says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
            We’re not told how the man or his friend reacted to that.  We’re told how the Pharisees and the teachers of the law reacted, and we’ll get to that, but what do you suppose the paralyzed man thought?  This was not what he wanted.  He did not come to Jesus to have his sins forgiven.  He came to have Jesus cure his paralysis.  He came to be able to walk again.  And all Jesus has to say to him is “Friend, your sins are forgiven”?  What’s up with that?
            That’s probably how you and I would react anyway.  Think about this:  every Sunday in worship, we have our time for praises and concerns.  We just had it a little while ago.  When we raise concerns, what do we talk about?  Almost all of them are for physical healing, right?  We pray for people who are in the hospital.  We pray for people who are dealing with serious injuries.  We pray for people who are recovering from illnesses.  We do, sometimes, pray for emotional healing, especially for God’s comfort and peace for people who’ve lost loved ones recently.  There are exceptions, but those are the things that make up the vast majority of the concerns we pray for.
            Now, that’s not wrong.  It’s fine to pray for those things.  In fact, it’s more than fine, it’s a good thing to do.  It’s the right thing to do.  God wants us to pray for those things.  Physical health is very important to us as human beings.  My point here is not to criticize anyone.  We should pray this way.  I want us to keep praying this way.
            But as important as physical healing is--and again, it is very important--it is not the most important thing.  It was not the most important thing to Jesus.  If it was, he would’ve given physical healing to the paralyzed man as soon as he was lowered down in front of Jesus.  Physical healing is important, but it is not the most important thing to Jesus.  It was not the thing this man needed most.  Jesus started with the most important thing, the thing the man needed most.  Jesus started by saying, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
            We don’t pray that way during our praises and concerns time.  We do it in the Lord’s Prayer:  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  And maybe you do it at home during your private prayers.  But we don’t do it during our praises and concerns, and we don’t do it much at other times during church, either.  We don’t pray for the forgiveness of sins.
            Now, that’s obviously partly my fault.  After all, I’m the one who’s up here and who’s leading the prayer time.  But at the same time, I don’t remember anyone ever coming up to me and saying, “How come we never pray for our sins to be forgiven during the praises and concerns?  How come we only focus on physical healing and never on spiritual healing?  How come we don’t pray more for the forgiveness of sins?”
            This physical body is very important to us.  And it should be.  But it’s not as important as our soul.  Physical healing is important to us.  And it should be.  But it’s not as important as having our sins forgiven and being able to lead a new life in Christ.
            Letting people know their sins were forgiven was much more important to Jesus than healing them physically.  The physical healing is the part we tend to remember.  In fact, we tend to think of this as the story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man.  But as we actually read the story, the physical healing looks like it was kind of an afterthought for Jesus.
            The story tells us that Jesus said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”  Then, we’re told that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were upset.  They apparently did not say anything, but they were thinking, who does this guy think he is, anyway?  “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
            Jesus, being Jesus, knew what they were thinking.  And he says this:  “Which is easier to say?  ‘Your sins are forgiven’?  Or ‘Get up and walk’?  But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”  It was only then that he told the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.”  Which, of course, the man did.
The physical healing was secondary to Jesus.  The way this reads, Jesus only healed the guy physically so people would understand who Jesus is.  He only healed the guy physically so people would understand that Jesus does, in fact, have the power to forgive sins.  
I know that some of us are dealing with physical problems and that they’re serious.  Others of us have family or members or friends who are dealing with serious physical problems.  I’m not trying to minimize the importance of them.  Again, I want you to keep praying for physical healing.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it’s a very good and important thing for us to do.
But spiritual health is even more important than physical health.  Our physical bodies, as important as they are to us, are only temporary.  They only last for a little while.  As the psalm says, our days are like grass.  Even if we live to be a hundred or more, it’s still a very short time compared to eternity.
Our spiritual healing, which comes through God’s forgiveness, is eternal.  It comes because of God’s love and grace and mercy, but it also comes through our faith in Jesus as our Savior.  Listen again to what Jesus says in verse twenty.  “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’”
It’s important to pray for physical healing.  But as important as that is, let’s make sure we also pray for something even more important.  Let’s make sure we pray for spiritual healing.  Let’s make sure we pray for God’s forgiveness of our sins.  And when we pray for others, let’s make sure we pray for them to have faith and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.  Let’s make sure we pray for the forgiveness of their sins.
For all of us, the time will come when our physical bodies will no longer be healed.  But if we’ve been healed spiritually, that’s okay.  If we’ve accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior, it’s okay.  Because Jesus will see our faith.  And he will say, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”  And when the time comes for us to leave our physical bodies, we’ll be ready for our spiritual bodies with the Lord in heaven.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Snuggies and God

I read an article the other day about a court case involving the Snuggie.  You remember the Snuggie, right?  The “blanket with sleeves”?  Maybe you even have one.  They’ve sold twenty million of them, so somebody must be buying them.  Anyway, the court case was about whether a Snuggie truly is a blanket, as it’s advertised, or whether it’s actually a piece of clothing.  

That may seem to you like a silly thing to go to court about, but it’s actually pretty important, at least if you own the Snuggie company.  See, Snuggies are made in another country and then brought over to the United States for sale, and there are import taxes that take effect when you do that.  If Snuggies are blankets, they pay one tax rate.  If they’re clothing they pay another, higher tax rate.  So if you own the Snuggie company, you want them to be classified as blankets so you can pay the lower rate.  If you’re the United States government, you want them to be classified as clothing, so you can collect the higher rate.

So why am I telling you about this?  I mean, apart from the fact that “Snuggie” is a fun word to say and even to type.  Well, think about this.  Think about being the guy who invented the Snuggie.  Think about the first time you took it to some corporation and tried to get them interested in it.  They look at it and say, “It’s a bathrobe.”  You say, no, no, it’s a Snuggie.  “It’s a blanket with sleeves.”  They say, “It’s a bathrobe that you’re wearing the wrong way around.”

The point is that I’m sure there were a lot of people who thought this guy was a fool for thinking he could make money marketing a “blanket with sleeves”.  But he proved them wrong.

Think about that got me thinking about all the times in the Bible God asked people to risk looking like fools.  “Moses, go to the mighty Pharaoh and tell him to let the people of Israel go.”  “David, take your slingshot and go against the giant Goliath.”  “Naaman, go and wash in the Jordan River and you’ll be cured of your leprosy.”  “Joshua, have your troops march around Jericho seven times and blow trumpets.”  On and on and on.  God asks people to do things that sound stupid.  And yet, it works out for the best.

I’ve written before about how the best way to grow our church is to personally invite people to church.  One of the reasons we don’t do that is because we’re afraid of what people will think of us if we do.  We’re afraid people will look down on us.  We’re afraid people will not like us.  We’re afraid that we’ll sound stupid.

And yet, God is asking us to do that.  This is part of what that whole “Go and make disciples” thing is about.  God is asking us to stop caring what people might think.  Instead, reach out to people and invite them to church.  Yes, there’s a chance we might sound stupid.  But there’s also a chance they might say yes.  There’s also a chance that we’ll make a disciple of Jesus Christ.  If we don’t do it, we won’t risk sounding stupid.  But we won’t make any disciples, either.

So take a chance.  Risk sounding stupid, even foolish.  It might not work.  But then again, it might.  And if we all pray for God’s help, I think we’ll find that sometimes, it will.  

Saturday, March 18, 2017

An Extraordinary Ordinary Day

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 19, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 4:1-26, 39-42.

            As we continue looking at Jesus’ life, we again pick up the story right where we left off last week.  Last week we talked about how Jesus was gaining more and more followers, that he now had more people following him than even John the Baptist.  Well, the Pharisees heard about that, and they started to get concerned.  So, Jesus left Judea and went back to Galilee.
            Now, understand that Jesus was not afraid of the Pharisees.  There are lots of places in the Bible where we see Jesus taking on the Pharisees, arguing with them, even confronting them.  But this is still the early days of Jesus’ ministry.  If Jesus had gotten the Pharisees too upset with him at this early stage, they could’ve shut him down, maybe even killed him then.  They could’ve ended Jesus’ ministry before it got properly started.  Jesus knew it was too soon to provoke the Pharisees into action.  
So, he left and headed back to Galilee.  But to get there, he had to go through Samaria.  And while he’s doing that, he meets a Samaritan woman at a well.
As with a lot of the stories we’ve look at, we don’t know just how this meeting came about.  Did Jesus know this woman would be there?  Did Jesus deliberately time his visit to the well, so he’d meet this woman there?  It’s certainly possible, because again, we’re talking about Jesus here.  None of that is said in the Bible reading, though.  The way it’s presented, it looks like this was simply a chance meeting, that Jesus and the Samaritan woman just happened to be at the well at the same time.  The opportunity arose for Jesus to tell this woman who he was and he took it.
So let’s look at this situation from the woman’s point of view.  For her, this has just started out as an ordinary day.  She’s going out to the well to get some water.  She’s probably done that a thousand times or more in her life.  In fact, my idea is that this was an every day thing for her--every day, about noon, she’d go out to the well and get some water.
I want us to notice that, because it seems like it happens over and over again in the Bible.  People are just going through their lives, living day to day.  They’re doing the things they do every day, the things they’ve done a thousand times before.  And then, in the middle of their ordinary day, God shows up.
That happens over and over again in the Bible.  It happened to Abraham.  It happened to Moses.  It happened to Mary and Joseph.  It happened to the shepherds.  Ordinary people, doing ordinary things, going about their ordinary lives.  And then, all of a sudden, God shows up.  And there’s absolutely nothing ordinary about their day any more.
So this Samaritan woman--and that’s all she’s known as in the Bible, by the way.  Her name is never mentioned.  She’s always just “the Samaritan woman” or even more simply, just “the woman”.  This Samaritan woman goes out to the well, just as she’s done a thousand times before, and there’s this Jewish guy sitting there.  That would’ve been unusual, but probably not extraordinary.  It sounds like this well is along the main road by which you get from Judea to Galilee and back again.  And there were lots of Jewish people living in Judea and in Galilee, so it would not have been that strange to see a Jewish man there.
But then he talks to her.  And that is unusual, because Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  A Jewish man would not normally even speak to a Samaritan woman.  But then, Jesus asks her for a drink of water.  And that was even stranger, because it would’ve been violating Jewish laws for a Jewish man to accept water from this unclean woman, this Samaritan.
So they start talking, and Jesus starts telling this woman that he can give her living water.  And it’s clear that the woman has no idea what he’s talking about.  That raises another question that we’ve talked about before, which is, why did Jesus so often talk in riddles and figures of speech?  Why did Jesus not come out and tell this woman who he was right away?  After all, he’s going to tell her eventually.  Our reading ends with Jesus saying “I, the one speaking to you, I am he”, meaning the Messiah.  Why go through all this stuff about living water?  Why did Jesus not just tell her he was the Messiah right away?
A lot of times we don’t know the answer to questions like that, but in this case I think I know at least part of it.  If, as soon as the woman came to the well, Jesus had said, “Hi, I’m the Messiah”, how would the woman have reacted?  She probably would not have listened to him.  She might have thought he was crazy.  She might have run away.   I certainly don’t think she’d have accepted what he said and believed it.
Jesus knew he had to build up to things slowly.  So he starts talking about this “living water” to get the woman interested.  Then, he tells her something about her life that there’s no way he ought to know.  That gets the woman to trust Jesus, to acknowledge that he’s a prophet.  Then, he’s able to tell her more about God, that to worship God, we need to worship in Spirit and in truth.  That prompts the woman to state her belief that the Messiah is coming.  It’s only then, after all this, that Jesus knows the woman is ready to hear the truth:  that Jesus, the person she’s speaking to right now, is, in fact, the Messiah.
I’ve said before that, when we read these stories, a question we should always keep in mind is, why is this story in the Bible?  What can we learn from it?  In this case, I think there are several things we can learn from this story.
One of them is that, while we need to be willing to stand up for our faith, we also need to know when to stand up to a confrontation and when to back off.  As Kenny Rogers told us, we need to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.  Sometimes we need to back away from a confrontation.  Even if we know the confrontation will have to come sometime, we need to not provoke it too soon.  We need to know, as Jesus knew, when to withdraw from a confrontation and deal with it when the time is right.
The second thing we can learn is to always be ready to take advantage of a chance to talk about Jesus.  It does not appear that Jesus planned this conversation with the Samaritan woman.  Yet, when the chance came to talk to her, Jesus took it.  When the chance came to tell her how to worship God, Jesus took that, too.  And when the chance came to tell her who the Messiah was, Jesus took that chance as well.  We need to be ready to speak up, to tell people who Jesus is, whenever the chance comes.
Another thing we can learn is to not take ordinary days for granted.  We need to keep our eyes open and our hearts open on ordinary days, because all kinds of things can happen on ordinary days.  Our lives can completely change on what looks like an ordinary day.  God’s Holy Spirit can come to us on an ordinary day.  We might even meet the Messiah, as this woman did, on an ordinary day.  To God, there’s no such thing as an ordinary day.  God chooses ordinary days as the days for God to do extraordinary things.
And one more thing we can learn is to approach people slowly with the gospel.  Don’t come firing out with it right away.  We do need to get there eventually, just as Jesus got there eventually.  But we need to build up to it.  Tell them something that will get them interested.  Do something that will help them get to know us and trust us.  Then, tell them a little more.  Then, when they’re ready, we can give them the full gospel message.  Again, we should not use “going slow” as an excuse to not go anywhere.  Jesus did eventually tell the woman the he was the Messiah.  We need to eventually tell people who the Messiah is, too.  We may need to go slow, but we also need to make sure we’re still moving.
This is the blueprint.  And look at how well it worked.  We’re told, first, that the woman went and told everyone about what had happened.  And many people believed in Jesus because of what she said.  They went and listened to Jesus, too.  And when they did that, when they went and heard for themselves, even more of them believed in Jesus.
Today, as far as I can tell, is an ordinary day.  We came to church.  Some of us are going up to Hoven for their Musical Fun Day this afternoon.  Some of us will come to the church council meeting tonight.  Some of us will go home and have a family day today.  Some of us will use the day to get some projects done around the house.  Some of us will take a nap this afternoon.  Some of us will go home and watch the college basketball tournament.  Others of us will do all kinds of other things.  We’ll do ordinary things on an ordinary day.
But pay attention.  Because anything could happen on this ordinary day.  Literally, anything.  God may come to you on this ordinary day.  God may give you the chance to bring someone to faith on this ordinary day.  God may do something extraordinary in your life on this ordinary day.  And God may give you the chance to do something extraordinary in someone else’s life on this ordinary day.
The Samaritan woman went out to the well, just as she had done a thousand times before.  Then, God showed up.  And when she came back from the well, her life had changed completely.  She had met the Messiah.  And she brought a lot of other people to the Messiah, too.
God may show up for you today.  May we all keep our eyes and our hearts open to see what extraordinary thing God may do on this ordinary day.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Are You Praying?

So, have you been praying?

You may remember that last week, I asked you to spend at least ten minutes a day praying.  I also asked you to spend part of that time praying in a specific way.   I asked you to pray that God will help you truly open your heart and your soul so that God’s Holy Spirit will come in.  Pray that God will help you truly surrender your will to God’s will.  Pray to do that as an individual, and pray that we will do that as a parish.  It’s something I’m asking everyone in our parish to do.

So, have you been doing it?  And if so, have you seen any results yet?

Maybe you have.  I think it’s very likely that, if everyone in the parish has been praying this way, there are at least some who are seeing some results.  Maybe those results are something that’s happened.  Maybe those results are simply a greater feeling of inner peace and contentment.  But I think it’s probable that, if everyone in the parish is praying in this way, there are at least some who are seeing some results from it.

I hope you’re one of them.  But if you’re not, that’s okay, too.  Keep praying.  After all, it’s only been a week.  God does not promise us instantaneous results from our prayers.  God works in God’s way and in God’s time.  That does not always fit into what we want, but it does always fit into what we need.  That’s one of the places faith comes into this--trusting that God’s ways and God’s timing are better than our ways and our timing.

If you’re not seeing results yet, it does not mean that God’s not listening.  It may be that God is waiting for a better time.  It may be that God has already started to respond in some way, but we just can’t see it yet.  It may be that God has responded, but the response came in a way that we were not expecting and so we haven’t noticed it.  If you’re not seeing results yet, don’t get discouraged.  Keep praying.

I’m confident that, if everyone prays in this way, and does so for the entire period of Lent, we will see some results.  Now, don’t misunderstand.  This is not a “vending machine” theory.  I’m not saying that all we need to do is pray in the right way and God will pop out the result we want.  I do believe, though, that if we all pray with sincere hearts for God’s Holy Spirit to come into our lives and into the life of the parish, and if we all pray that God will help us surrender our will to God’s will, God will respond to that prayer.  I don’t believe that because I think God owes it to us to respond.  I believe that because I trust in God’s love and God’s grace.  I believe that because I trust in God’s goodness.  God will respond to this sincere prayer because that’s what God does.  That’s who God is.

So if you haven’t been praying in this way, please start.  And if you have been praying in this way, please keep going.  If we all do this, I’m convinced that God will do something.  And who knows?  It just may be something incredible.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

How to Be Content

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 12, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 3:22-36.

            As we continue to look at the life of Jesus, what we have today could be considered to be the actual start of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus has gathered disciples and he’s worked his first miracle.  Now he goes out into the countryside of Judea, spending time with people and baptizing them.
            It’s interesting, I think, that when Jesus started his actual ministry, he did so in a pretty conventional way.  Yes, he’d done a miracle already, but as you remember that was not something that was part of his plan.  That was something he did his mother, Mary, wanted him to.  When Jesus started to execute his actual plan for ministry, he did so in a very ordinary, almost boringly ordinary way.  He did, really, what John the Baptist had been doing for some time.  He went out and spent time with people and baptized them.
            That could be a lesson for us right there.  I think too often, when we talk about bringing people into the church, we think we have to do something new and exciting and different to grab people’s attention.  And yes, Jesus did do some of that with the miracles and so forth.  But that was not the core of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus was not about flash and show.  In fact, if you remember, that’s one of the things Satan tempted Jesus to do:  “Jump off the temple and let the angels carry you down.”
            Jesus was not about being flashy.  He was not about putting on a show.  When it came time for Jesus to start his ministry, what did he do?  He spent time with people and he baptized them.
            And don’t jump over that first part.  We’ll talk about Jesus baptizing people in a minute, but note what he did first.  He spent time with people.
            Jesus did not expect anyone to come to him begging them to baptize him.  He spent time with people.  He got to know them.  He let them get to know him.  He found out what was going on in their lives.  He gave them reasons to feel comfortable with him, to trust him.  After he had done all that, then he offered to baptize them into faith.
            In other words, this business of going and making disciples takes time.  I’m not sure we always recognize that or talk about it.  Too many times--and I’ve been guilty of this, too--we act as if going out and sharing our faith and bringing people into the church and making disciples should be quick and easy.  It’s not.  It was not quick and easy for Jesus.  It’s not quick and easy for us.  
It’s something that takes time.  It takes patience.  And it takes love.  It takes loving people enough to spend time with them.  It takes loving people enough to get to know people.  It takes loving people enough to find out what’s going on in their lives.  And it takes showing love to people, so they can feel comfortable with us and trust us.  Then, we can offer to bring them into faith.  But it won’t happen overnight.
But it does happen eventually.  And it happened eventually for Jesus.  Jesus was gathering more and more followers.  And people noticed.  The people who’d been following John the Baptist noticed, too.  And they appear to have been kind of upset about it.  They come up to John the Baptist and say hey, you remember that guy who was with you on the other side of the Jordan?  That guy you testified about?  He’s stealing your thunder!  He’s baptizing people and everybody’s leaving you and going to him!
Now, think about who John the Baptist was.  He was a famous man.  People from all around were coming to him to repent and be baptized by him.  Even Jesus himself came to be baptized by John.  John the Baptist was a Big Deal.  And now here comes this new guy, this interloper, this upstart, taking people away from him.  Jesus is now the Big Deal, and John the Baptist is becoming yesterday’s news.
It would’ve been easy for John the Baptist to be a little envious of Jesus.  It would’ve been natural for him to resent Jesus.  It would’ve been easy for John to want to try to do something to get the crowds back, to do something to draw attention back to himself, to once again be the Big Deal that he had been.
But John did not do that.  Why not?  Because John was fully committed to doing God’s will.  And when we’re fully committed to doing God’s will, we’re not concerned with whether anyone thinks we’re a Big Deal.  We’re content to play whatever role God has for us, whether it’s a big role or a small one.
You see, John knew who Jesus was.  When Jesus came to be baptized, John said “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him...I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”  And later, when Jesus was walking by, John said, “Look, the Lamb of God.”
John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.  And John knew that he, John, was not the Messiah.  He was merely the one who was sent to prepare things.  That was God’s will for him.  That was the role God had for him to play.  So when these people came to him and said hey, this Jesus guy is taking over from you, John said, well, of course he is.  I told you he would.  He says, “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but am sent ahead of him.’”  He used the analogy of being the best man and your friend’s wedding.  You get things ready for your friend.  You’re there for him.  And then, when he comes and they have the wedding, you’re happy.  You’re happy that you did your part, and that things are ready for your friend to have his day.
John knew that, now that Jesus was here, this was Jesus’ day.  He gives that wonderful statement of humility:  “He must become greater, and I must become less.”  John says, in effect, I’ve had my time.  I’ve done my job.  I’ve followed God’s will, and I’ve played the role God had for me to play.  Jesus will take it from here.  I’m not jealous of him.  This is how it’s supposed to be, and I’m happy that things are going the way they’re supposed to go.  
John knew that, when he was preparing the way, he had been doing God’s will.  And he knew that now, by stepping aside and watching Jesus become greater than he was, he was also doing God’s will.
It’s not an easy thing to do what John the Baptist did.  It’s not easy to step back and let someone else get the glory.  It’s not easy to let someone else get the credit for things.  That’s especially true when you have every right to feel like you deserve some of that credit yourself.  It’s not easy--but it’s worth it.
Think of the peace of mind it must have given John the Baptist to react that way.  Now, John did not just go into retirement at this point.  He continued to preach his message of repentance.  In fact, it appears that he continued to baptize.  But he knew that the one he had been preparing people for was already here.  He could relax, knowing that God had done what God had promised and that it was all working the way it was supposed to work.  He could relax, knowing that he had followed God’s will and that he was still following God’s will.
If John had not done that, if he’d tried to get the crowds back, if he’d tried to get glory for himself, he’d have made himself miserable.  He could not have succeeded--he was not going to win a popularity contest with Jesus.  He sure could’ve gotten really frustrated and really upset trying, though.  But he did not.  John had followed God’s will and he was content with that.
That’s what following God’s will does for us.  It keeps us from getting frustrated and upset.  It helps us feel content.  When we follow God’s will, we don’t need to feel like we’re in competition with anyone.  We don’t need to worry about who gets the credit.  We know that, really, all the credit belongs to God, anyway.  Following God’s will lets us just focus on the job at hand, not worrying about what might happen as a result.  If that means we have to accept a change in circumstances sometimes, that’s okay.  If it means that sometimes we’re out front, taking a prominent position, that’s okay.  If it means that we have let others be out front, while we take a lesser position, that’s okay.  It’s all good as long as we’re following God’s will.
John the Baptist had been a famous man.  But when the time came for him to take a lesser role, he did so graciously and willingly, with no complaint.  He continued to play the role God wanted him to play, even though it was now a lesser role.  He was content, even happy, because he was following God’s will.  May we, too, play the role God wants us to play, whether it’s a big one or a small one.  And may we find contentment and happiness in following God’s will.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Pray For Lent

We are in the period of Lent.  Lent is about realizing that all of us—every one—fall short of who God wants us to be.  It’s also about realizing that we, as a church, fall short of what God wants us to be.  

Because of that, I’m asking everyone in our parish to do something.  I’d like you to participate in it, too.  I’m asking everyone in our parish to pray for at least ten minutes a day.

I know that some of you already do that, and that’s great.  In fact, I’m sure some of you pray more than ten minutes a day, and that’s great, too.  I’m not telling you to cut down.  The ten minutes is intended as a minimum, not a maximum.

There’s more to it than that, though.  I’m asking everyone to spend at least part of that time praying in a specific way.  I’m asking everyone to pray that God will help you truly open your heart and your soul so that God’s Holy Spirit will come in.  Pray that God will help you truly surrender your will to God’s will.  Pray to do that as an individual, and pray that we will do that as a parish.

If we all pray in this way every day for the entire forty day period of Lent, and if we’re really serious about it, I believe God will act, and we will see things happen.  I don’t know what those things will be--they may be things I never even thought about.  But I do believe that if our entire parish prays for God’s Holy Spirit to come into our hearts and into our souls, and if our entire parish prays for our will to be surrendered to God’s will, God will answer our prayer in some way.

So please, spend at least ten minutes in prayer every day.  And as part of that prayer, pray that God will help you open your heart and your soul to God’s Holy Spirit.  Pray that God will help you surrender your will to God’s will.  Pray that our parish, and the churches of our parish, will do that, too.  Who knows?  We may just see some amazing things happen.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Problem Solved

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 5, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 2:1-12.

            We’ve been doing a sermon series on the life of Jesus.  We pick it up today right where we left off last week.  Jesus has just gathered his disciples.  Now, we don’t know whether he had all twelve of them at this point or not.  John has described the gathering of five of the twelve disciples, but that’s all.  In fact, the gospel of John never does tell us about Jesus gathering the other seven.  And since the gospel of John is the only one that tells us the story of the wedding at Cana, that means we don’t know how many disciples Jesus actually had at this point.
            But we are told that Jesus and his disciples are there at this wedding, and of course Jesus’ mother, Mary, was there, too.  And as we read this story, it seems to me that there are at least a couple of lessons we can learn from it, depending on whether we look at the story from the point of view of Mary or of Jesus.
We’re told that they run out of wine.  And Mary takes it upon herself to get involved in that.  And she takes it upon herself to get Jesus involved, too.
We don’t know why she did that.  She knew something about who Jesus was, obviously.  But I wonder, what was it that she expected Jesus to do?  Did she really expect him to work a miracle?  Did she expect Jesus to find some more wine someplace?  Or did she not have any specific expectation, but just have confidence that somehow, Jesus would figure out something?
To be honest, that’s the explanation I kind of lean to.  You’re free to disagree, and I certainly cannot prove that I’m right.  But think about Mary’s situation.  Joseph, as far as we can tell, is out of the picture at this point.  We’re not specifically told that he’s not there, but he’s never mentioned after the incident at the temple when Jesus was twelve.  If Joseph is gone, then Jesus, as Mary’s oldest son, would’ve taken over responsibility for the family.  And so it makes sense to me that, when she needed something or when something went wrong, Mary would turn to Jesus and just expect him to take control of the situation.
Jesus, of course, does not want to act.  He says, “My hour has not yet come.”  But Mary basically ignores him.  She tells the servants that Jesus is in charge now, and they should do whatever Jesus says.  Now again, we don’t know what authority Mary had to tell the servants what to do, but they apparently listened to her.  And of course, Jesus told them to fill the jars with water, and when they took the water out it had been turned into wine, the best wine they had.  And we’re told that this “was the first of the signs through which Jesus revealed his glory; and his disciples put their faith in him.”
I said that there are at least a couple of lessons we can take from this, depending on whether we look at this from Mary’s point of view or Jesus’.  Let’s look at it from Jesus’ point of view first.  Remember, this is not long after Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness.  And we said that part of what he was doing during that time was praying and trying to work out just what he was supposed to do, what God the Father wanted him to do, how he was supposed to really be the divine Son of God.
So, at the end of that, he must have had a plan.  The first step in that plan was to gather some people around him, the disciples.  The next step--well, we don’t know what the next step in that plan was.  But we know that it was not to go to Cana and work a miracle by turning water into wine.  Jesus had no intention of doing that.  In fact, he really does not appear to have wanted to do it or to have thought it was the right thing to do.
You and I make a lot of plans, too.  We make them as individuals, we make them as families, we make them as a church.  And that’s a good thing to do--it’s not really very smart to go through life without having any idea what you might do next.  And I hope that, in making those plans, we spend some time praying and trying to work out just what we’re supposed to do, what God wants us to do, how we’re supposed to be the people God wants us to be.
But the thing is, once we’ve made a plan, it’s easy to get too tied to that plan.  It’s easy to get so focused on our plan that we ignore the needs of people around us.  That does not mean our plans are bad plans.  But we need to be ready to abandon, or at least modify, our plans when the circumstances around us require us to.
Jesus had a plan.  It was a plan he thought he’d worked out through prayer with the help of God the Father.  And now, here comes Mary, wanting him to change that plan.  And when I hear Jesus’ response--”Woman, why do you involve me?  My hour has not yet come.”--I hear some frustration in his voice.  Mom, you don’t understand.  I just spent forty days in the wilderness working out what I’m going to do.  I got tempted by Satan, the real Satan, for crying out loud.  I know what I need to do and how I need to do it.  And darn it, Mom, this is not it.
What might have happened if Jesus had refused?  What if Jesus had stuck to his guns, stuck to his plan?  What if he’d said, “Sorry, Mom, this is not the way it’s supposed to go.  You’re going to have to figure out something else”?  We’ll never know.  Because Jesus did not refuse.  He did what Mary wanted, and we’re told that “his disciples put their faith in him”.
So that’s a lesson from Jesus’ perspective.  We need to spend some time with God and make plans.  We need to do that as individuals, as families, and as a church.  But we also need to be ready to change those plans when God puts things we did not expect in our path.  We need to be ready to change those plans when the needs of others require us to.
But I said there’s also a lesson we can learn when we look at the story from Mary’s point of view.  Mary has a problem.  We don’t know why or how it became her problem, but somehow it did.  And she had no idea what she could do about it.  In fact, she did not think she could do anything about it.
But she knew who could.  She knew that Jesus could do something about it.  And so she went to Jesus.  And it’s interesting--I said earlier that Mary may not have known what she expected Jesus to do, but she knew he would do something.  But when you really look at it, Mary does not even specifically ask Jesus to do anything.  She just goes to Jesus and says Jesus, here’s the problem.
That’s pretty amazing faith, when you think about it.  How many times do we ever do that?  I mean, I suspect a lot of us go to God with our problems, but I suspect we also tell God what we want God to do about them.  And even if we don’t specifically say “God, do this” or “God do that”, we probably at least say, “God, I need you to do something.  I need you to take care of this deal somehow.”  I know I do that.  I don’t think I’m the only one.
Mary does not do that.  Mary just says Jesus, here’s the problem.  And even when it sounds like Jesus is not going to do anything, Mary continues to believe that he will.  No, more than believes--she expects that he will.  She has no doubt about it.  She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Mary is completely confident.  After all, she has told Jesus the problem, so she knows--she knows--not only that Jesus can do something about it, but Jesus will do something about it.  She does not know what Jesus is going to do, but she knows he’s going to take care of the situation.  And so Mary just walks away.  As far as Mary is concerned, the problem is already solved, before Jesus even does anything.
That’s the lesson I think we can learn from Mary’s perspective.  When we have a problem, all we need to do is go to God with it.  We don’t have to beg and plead with God.  We don’t have to tell God what to do.  All we need to do is say, “God, here’s the problem”.  And then we need to trust that God will do something.  Even if, at first, it looks like God is not doing anything, we need to continue to believe that God will.  In fact, we need to do more than believe--we need to expect that God will do something.  We can be completely confident.  After all, we’ve told God the problem, so we can know that not only can God do something about it, God will do something about it.  We may not know what God is going to do, and in fact what God does may not be what we had in mind at all.  But we can know God is going to take care of the situation.  And so, we can walk away.  We can be confident that the problem is solved, even before God does anything.
We all need to make plans.  We need to make them as individuals, as families, and as churches.  And we need to spend some time in prayer when we make those plans, so our plans follow God’s will.  But even so, we need to be ready to change our plans when God puts things in our path that we did not expect.  We need to be ready to change our plans when the needs of others require us to.
            But sometimes, no matter how carefully we’ve made our plans and no matter how much we’ve prayed about them, problems come up that we cannot handle.  When that happens, we need to go to God and give the problem to God.  And once we have, we can walk away, because we know God will take care of it.  We can be confident that the problem is solved, even before God does anything.  And then, we can be like the disciples.  We can put our complete faith in God.

Don't Force It

I wrote last week about the need for patience.  What follows is not intended in any way to contradict that.  However, I do want to go a little further into what patience is and what it is not.

There are times when we’re tempted to confuse patience with inaction.  We need to not force things to happen—we need to wait for God to act in God’s way and in God’s time--but that does not mean we should sit still and do nothing.  When God acts, it’s usually not through some supernatural force from above.  God certainly can do that, and I think sometimes God does do that.  But most of the time, when God acts, God acts through human beings.  People like you, and people like me.  That means that, if we want God to act, we need to act, too.

So how do we draw the line?  How do we tell the difference between doing what God wants us to do and forcing things to happen before God is ready for them to happen?

I think a lot of times, the difference lies in our attitude.  When I do something, including something aimed at trying to grow the church and bring people to God, why am I doing it?  Am I doing it out of love for God, because I know that’s what God wants me to do?  Or am I doing it because I want to achieve a specific result?

Now, maybe you read that and think, well, what’s wrong with wanting to achieve a specific result?  When we try to bring people to God, shouldn’t we want to succeed?  When we offer to bring people to church, shouldn’t we want them to actually come?  What’s wrong with that?

Well, there’s nothing wrong with it, really.  But the thing is, it can lead to us putting the emphasis in the wrong place.  It can also lead to us taking responsibilities that are not ours to take.

Doing things to achieve a specific result leads us to force things when we don’t see that result.  When we do things because we love God, because we know they’re what God wants us to do, we trust God with the result.  We may hope something will happen, but we’re not doing it to make something happen.  We’re doing it to serve God.  When we serve God, we know God will bless what we do, even if the blessing does not come when or how we want it or expect it.

God does not call us to succeed as the world defines success.  God does not even call us to succeed as we define success.  God calls us to love God.  We show our love for God by being faithful to God.  We show our love for God by serving God and obeying God.  And we show our love for God by trusting God with the results of that, rather than trying to force a specific result.

So let’s be patient.  But let’s continue to do everything we can to serve God and stay faithful to God.  That includes obeying Jesus’ command to go and make disciples.  When we do, though, let’s simply do the best we can and trust God with the results.  When we serve God and stay faithful to God, we can be confident that God will bless our efforts.  That blessing may not come when we want it to.  It may not come in the way we want it to.  But it will surely come.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Real Change

This is the message given at the Ash Wednesday services in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 19:16-26.
We have an Ash Wednesday service every year.  We have had for a long time, probably as long as this church has been here.  That means every year at this time--and I hope at other times, too, but especially at this time--we confess our sins to God, we ask for God’s forgiveness, and we ask for God to help us change our lives. 
Now, when you think about it, if every year we ask God to help us change our lives, it must not be working very well, right?  I mean, if we’d really changed our lives last year, if we really were now God’s people, we would not have to do this again, would we?  The fact that we’re here again this year means, pretty much by definition, that we failed to change last year.  And the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that, and on and on and on.
Why is that?  I mean, I’m assuming that we’re serious about this.  And I’m not just saying that, I really do think most of us are serious about it.  Most of us know what our sins are.  We know how far short we fall of who God wants us to be.  We know we need God’s forgiveness.  We know we need to change our lives.  And yet, we never seem to do it.
Now some of us do, at least to an extent.  What that extent is varies a lot, of course.  There are some of us whose lives truly have changed, who are much different people than we used to be.  There are others of us who’ve made a few changes around the margins, who may have managed with God’s help to improve ourselves in a few areas, but who have not had any serious change of heart.  And there are others of us who never really change at all, who continue year after year to be pretty much the same people we’ve always been.  Why?
I don’t think it’s because we don’t want to change.  I mean, that may be true for some of us, but I think the fact that everybody here took the time to come out tonight and come to this Ash Wednesday service means that everybody here really does want to change.  After all, it would’ve been a lot easier for us all to just stay home.  The fact that we’re all here, that we’re going to confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness, means we are serious about wanting to change.
I think what happens a lot of times is that life just kind of beats us down.  We get busy.  We get tired.  We get distracted.  After all, it’s not an easy thing to really change our lives, even if we’re serious about wanting to.  It takes a lot of effort.  It’s takes a lot of time.  It takes a lot of focus. 
And when we get busy, when we get tired, when we get distracted, sometimes it seems like it’s more effort than we can make, more time than we can take, and more focus than we can manage.  And so we slide back into living the same old way we always have.  It’s easier.  It’s simpler.  And besides, we tell ourselves, it’s not like my old lifestyle was so bad.  I was not hurting anyone.  I was not cheating anyone.  In fact, I’ve been doing some good things.  And so we don’t change much of anything, not because we don’t want to, but because we just don’t really think we can.
Which, of course, brings us to our Bible reading for tonight.  A man comes up to Jesus.  He asks Jesus a question.  It’s a very good question, I think.  In fact, if you or I were able to talk to Jesus, it might be one of the first questions we’d ask.  He asks Jesus what good thing he has to do to get eternal life.
Now, the fact that the man asked Jesus this question shows that he knew, just as we know, that he needed to change his life.  In fact, I think it shows that he wanted to change his life, just as we come here tonight wanting to change our lives.
And Jesus gives him an answer.  He tells him certain things to do, based on the Ten Commandments.  And the guy says what we might say.  He says, basically, “Yeah, yeah, I know all that, but it’s not enough.”
In other words, he knows, again just as we know, that our current lifestyle is not enough.  He’s thinking, just as we think, I’m not hurting anyone.  I’m not cheating anyone.  In fact, I’ve been doing some good things.  But it’s not enough.  I know I’m missing something.  I know I need to change my life.
And Jesus tells him, yes, you do need to change your life.  He tells him, you need to sell your possessions, give to the poor, and then come follow me.  And we’re told the man went away sad, because he had great wealth.
            Now, the point here is not that we have to sell everything and give to the poor.  Most of us, including me, could make do with less and give more to the poor, and it would probably be good if we did, but that’s not the point for tonight.
            The point is that if we truly want to change our lives, we need to get rid of everything that gets in the way of serving God.  We need to get rid of the distractions.  We need to get rid of the things that take our time and our effort away from serving God.
            For this man it was possessions.  That may or may not be what it is for you or for me.  It could be possessions, but it could be a lot of things.  It could be work.  It could be a hobby that’s taking up too much of our time.  It could be too much enjoyment of free time.
It could be more than one thing, of course.  It could even be something that’s not a bad thing in and of itself.  In fact, it could be something that seems like a good thing, but that has gotten too important in our lives and is taking our time and attention and effort away from changing our lives and being the people God wants us to be.
And the thing is, we don’t necessarily have to totally do without those things.  Jesus told the man “sell your possessions and give to the poor”.  He did not say he had to get rid of all his possessions and give all his money to the poor.  Some translations say that, but from what I’ve been able to learn that’s not accurate, and I think it takes away from Jesus’ point. 
Jesus was not saying that all possessions are bad.  Jesus was saying that anything, including things that are good or things that are neutral, become bad when we lose our perspective on them.  Anything becomes bad when it becomes more important to us than it should be.  Anything becomes bad when it distracts us from making the changes we need to make in our lives.  Anything becomes bad when it gets in the way of you and me becoming the people God wants us to be.
I don’t know what those things are for you.  I not even sure what all of them are for me.  I have some ideas, though.  And if you’re honest with yourself, you do, too.  And as you and I think about it some more, we’ll get more ideas about things that have become more important to us than they should be and that are distracting us from making the changes we need to make in our lives.
Thinking about those things, of course, is only part of the battle.  It’s an important part, but the really important part comes next.  It’s the part the man who talked to Jesus could not do.  It’s actually being willing to make do with less of those things that have become too important.  It’s actually either de-emphasizing or totally getting rid of those things that are getting in the way of us changing our lives and being the people Jesus wants us to be.
The man Jesus was talking to could not do it.  The disciples wondered if anyone could.  And Jesus says no.  No one can.  Not on our own.  The only way we can do it is with God.  All things are possible with God.
So, as we enter this season of Lent, let’s ask God for help.  Let’s ask God to help us get rid of the distractions.  Let’s ask God for help to help us get rid of all the things that get in the way of our serving God.  It won’t be easy.  It’ll take a lot of effort.  It’ll take a lot of time.  It’ll take a lot of focus from us.  In fact, it takes so much that we cannot do it on our own.  The only way we can do it is with God.  By letting God’s Holy Spirit come into our hearts and into our souls.  By giving up our own will and surrendering our lives to God’s will.
Is that easy?  No.  But we can do it.  In fact, if we want to really change, this is the only way we can do it—by surrendering our lives to God.  Because remember, for human beings this is impossible.  It’s only possible with God.  All things are possible with God.