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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Are We Listening?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 30, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 6:20-42.

            As we continue our sermon series “From the Manger to the Cross”, looking at the story of Jesus’ life, we come to one of Jesus’ most famous speeches, maybe his most famous speech.  The Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus goes up onto a mountainside and talks to all the assembled people.
            What we read today is not, technically, the Sermon on the Mount.  That’s in Matthew.  What we read is often called the sermon on the plain.  The ideas and themes are very similar.  Some people believe that Jesus probably gave similar messages more than once.  Matthew set down the version from the mountain, Luke set down the one from the plain.  We went with the version from Luke simply the version in Matthew runs for three chapters, and there would not have been time to read it all.
            Also, we’re not going to discuss everything Jesus said in this message, because there’s just too much.  That would be a good sermon series, actually, and we’ll probably do that sometime.  For today, though, we’re going to do kind of an overview.
            Jesus starts out with what are called the beatitudes.  These are, as you heard, blessings for certain groups of people.  And it’s obvious that the way Jesus looks at blessings is different from the way you and I usually look at them.
            When you think of something that’s a blessing, what do you think of?  Your children or grandchildren, maybe.  Your spouse, if you have one.  Enough to eat.  Rain when we need it.  Some of us consider ourselves blessed to live in this country, and to live in this beautiful part of it.  Good friends can be a blessing.
            In other words, when we think of blessings, we think of things that make us happy.  We think of things that make our lives on earth go well.  Those are what we think of as blessings.
            That’s clearly not how Jesus looks at blessings.  Look at the people Jesus calls blessed.  The poor.  The hungry.  Those who weep.  Those who are hated and rejected.
            We would not consider those people blessed, would we?  The people I’ve known who were poor, or hungry, or sad, or hated and rejected, do not seem to consider themselves blessed, either.  So what is Jesus talking about?
            And look at who Jesus says are not blessed.  He says “woe” to the rich, to those who are well-fed, to those who laugh, to those who people speak well of.  
Those are the people most of us would like to be more like, right?  We may say we don’t want to be rich, but I doubt that there are very many of us who would turn down more money.  A lot of us, definitely including me, eat more than we should.  You know I love to laugh.  And we all like people to speak well of us.  Those are the people that most of us would consider to be blessed.  And yet, Jesus has no blessing for them at all.  In fact, in regard to those people, Jesus says “woe to you”.
Jesus gives a reason for it, too.  He says that the people whom he says are blessed--the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated and rejected--will rejoice and receive their reward in heaven, because they’re being treated the way the prophets were.  And he says the people he’s has proclaimed woe to--the rich, the well-fed, those who laugh, those who are spoken well of--will have all that turned around on them, and will find out what’s it’s like to have all that taken away, because they’re being treated on earth the way the false prophets were.
The beatitudes are probably one of the best-loved parts of the Bible.  And yet, if we really look at them and think about what they say, they make us pretty uncomfortable.  We wonder what we’re supposed to do with them.  Are we supposed to try to become poor and hungry and sad and hated, just so we can have blessings in heaven?  That does not make any sense to us.  But what should we do?  How should we react to this?
I think the key to it might be in the next phrase.  Jesus says, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”  And then his next words are, “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.”
We always skip right to the “Love your enemies” part, and that’s obviously really important.  But it’s the part right before that that I want to talk about right now.  Jesus says that he is saying these things “to you who are listening”.
I think what Jesus is saying is that those people he pronounced woe to--the rich, the well-fed, those who laugh, those who are spoken well of--are most likely not listening to anything he says anyway.  They don’t think they need to.  They have everything they want and everything they need.  And if they don’t, they think they know how to get it.  They’re not paying attention to Jesus.  They don’t think they need Jesus.  They don’t think they need God.  They think they can do it all themselves.
And on earth, maybe they can.  But not in heaven.  All this stuff they’ve accomplished on earth is not going to mean anything in heaven.  That’s why Jesus proclaims woe to them.  They think they have it all, and yet they’re missing the most important thing.  They’re missing faith in Jesus.  And because they’re missing that, they’re missing salvation.  And the saddest thing of all is that they don’t even know they’re missing it.
The people Jesus gave blessings to--the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated--those are the ones who are listening to Jesus.  In fact, they’re hanging on every word.  Because they know they need him.  They know they need what Jesus has to offer.  They know they cannot get through life without it.  They know they need unconditional love and salvation.  And they know they need to get it from Jesus, because there’s absolutely no other place, at least on earth, that they can get it from.
So where does that leave you?  And where does the leave me?  Are we hanging on every word Jesus says?  Do we know that we need what Jesus has to offer?  Or do we think we can make it on our own, without any help?
Well, we’re all in church today.  That’s a start.  But it’s only a start.  After all, in Jesus’ day, a lot of rich people who were well thought of went to the synagogue regularly.  But they did not let anything said there impact their lives.  They came, they stayed for an hour--or however long synagogue took back then--and they went home.  They were there, but they were not listening to anything.  They certainly were not going to let the words of God change their lives in any significant way.
We’re here.  But are we listening?  Are we letting the words said here impact our lives?  And I don’t mean my words.  I mean Jesus’ words.  You can think whatever you like of my words.  Jesus’ words are the ones we need to pay attention to.
We all heard Jesus’ words.  We’ve heard them before.  Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who mistreat you.  Do to others, not as they do to you, but as you would like them to do to you.  Do not judge.  Do not condemn.  Forgive and you will be forgiven.  Give and it will be given to you.  Don’t focus on a speck in someone else’s eye when there’s a plank in your own.
Most of us have heard those words before.  But have we listened?  Are we listening now?  Are we doing what Jesus told us to do?  If not, are we going to?  Are we going to let the words of Jesus change our lives?  Or are we just going to come here, stay for an hour, and go home?
As I said, we may love the beatitudes in theory.  We may love the Sermon on the Mount in theory.  But when we really think about what Jesus said, it makes us pretty uncomfortable.  It makes me uncomfortable, too.  
The easy thing to do will be for us to sit here until the end of the service, shake hands, and then leave and go on about our business.  The easy thing to do will be to let Jesus’ words bounce off of us and keep living our lives the way we’ve been living them.  It will be easy for me to do that, too.  That will be the easy way.  But it won’t be the way that leads to God’s blessings.
Jesus has a blessing for people who they know they need him.  He has a blessing for people who know they need what Jesus has to offer.  He has a blessing for people who know they cannot get through life without him.  Jesus has a blessing for those who know they need unconditional love and salvation, and who know they need to get it from Jesus, because there’s absolutely no other place they can get it from.
If we are those people, Jesus will bless our lives.  He may or may not give us what we normally think of as a blessing.  But he will bless us with eternal life.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

As Surely As Summer Follows Spring

Last Sunday was a pretty nice day.  It got up around seventy degrees, maybe even a little higher than that.  There was some wind, as there almost always is, but not a terrible wind.  All in all, a very nice day.  

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a day like that since, and we’re not likely to for a while yet.  The forecast is that it won’t even get back to sixty until the second of May.  We’re not supposed to see seventy again for over a week.

I say “unfortunately”.  Maybe you don’t agree.  Maybe you think it’s fortunate.  But summer is my favorite time of year.  I love the warm weather.  And about now is when I start to get really impatient for it to come.  I’m tired of wearing sweaters and jackets.  I mean, they help hide my stomach a little, but still, I’m tired of them.  I want to be able to walk outside in shirt sleeves and not get cold.  I want to be able to ride my bike around town and work up a sweat.  I want summer.

Now, I am confident that summer will come, eventually.  But I want it now.  And I can’t have it now.  So, I have to wait.

That’s sometimes how it works when we pray.  We know what we want God to do and we ask God to do it.  And it doesn’t happen.  But that doesn’t mean it’s never going to happen.  It might not, but it might.  Sometimes God is going to do what we ask, but God is going to do it in God’s way and at God’s time.  And we have to wait.

It’s the waiting that’s the hard part.  But that’s yet another reason that I’ve asked people to pray for us to open our hearts and open our souls to God’s Holy Spirit.  It’s why I’ve asked people to pray that we will submit ourselves to God’s will.  If we allow ourselves to be led by God’s Holy Spirit, and if we submit ourselves to God’s will, we can be confident that God is always going to do the right thing.  God may not do exactly what I want God to do.  God may not do it exactly when I want God to do it.  But just as surely as summer follows spring, we can be confident that God will do what should be done and what needs to be done.  We can always be confident that God will what is right.

So, I will try to be patient and wait for summer.  And when there are other things that I’m praying about, I will be try to be patient and wait for God to do what’s right.  I’ll be confident that God will do what’s right, in God’s way and at God’s time.  And I’ll be confident that God’s way and God’s time are always better than my way and my time.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Spirit of the Law

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 23, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Mark 2:23--3:6.

            We’ve been doing a sermon series that tries to go through Jesus’ life in chronological order.  We took a break from that for Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, but now we’re going to come back to it.
            If you remember the last time we addressed this subject, we said that at this point of Jesus’ life, the exact time line gets somewhat confused.  We don’t know in exactly what order some of these events took place.  Even the gospels are not always consistent about them.  And that’s okay, for a couple of reasons.  One is that as far as we can tell, the gospels were written about twenty to forty years after Jesus was crucified.  It’s understandable that the exact sequence of events might be a little unclear after all that time.  A more important reason is that, really, the exact sequence of events is not the point.  The point is that Jesus did these things and said these things.  The precise order in which he did them and said them is not all that important.
            But we know that, at this time, Jesus had gathered disciples.  And we also know that Jesus had already worked some miracles and had healed some people.  And we also know that the Pharisees were starting to get pretty upset with Jesus at this point.
            The two passages in Mark before this tell us a couple of things Jesus did that got the Pharisees upset.  One of them was that he was eating a meal at the house of a man named Levi, who was a tax collector.  And also eating with him were other “tax collectors and sinners”.  And the other reason is that Jesus’ disciples were not fasting, as the law required.
            And in our passage for today, Jesus gave the Pharisees another reason for being upset with him.  He and his disciples broke the Sabbath law.  They did what the law considered “work” on the Sabbath day.
            Now, understand the Sabbath law was considered hugely important in the Jewish faith.  There were all kinds of rules and regulations about it.  Most of those rules concerned the definition of what was considered “work”.  You could not go more than a certain distance from your house--otherwise it was considered work.  You could take care of your animals--the law recognized that animals need to be fed and watered--but you could only do so much with them.  And on and on and on.
            And the Pharisees took those rules very seriously.  So when they see Jesus and the disciples not just breaking those rules, but doing so deliberately, they got upset.  And not only that, he claimed to be justified in doing it.  And not only that, he compared himself to King David, probably the greatest king Israel had ever had.  He said he was justified in breaking the rules because King David had broken the rules.
            The Pharisees were outraged.  Who does this guy think he is, anyway?  How can he compare himself to the great King David?  How dare he do that?
            And then, Jesus breaks the Sabbath law again!  He heals a man on the Sabbath day!  And this time Jesus does not even cite any sort of precedent for it.  He just says that healing this man is the right thing to do, and he’s going to do it.  Period.
            And with that, the Pharisees had had enough.  This guy is just rubbing our faces in it now!  He’s not even trying to justify what he’s done.  He’s claiming to be above the law!  And they start plotting about how they can get rid of Jesus.  Permanently.
            Now, Jesus knew the law.  He knew it very well.  When we read the gospels, one of the things we can see is that Jesus can quote scripture with the best of them.  And this was not just because he was the divine Son of God.  He also had grown up in a Jewish home.  He had been taught the law by his parents.  Jesus knew perfectly well what the law said about doing work on the Sabbath.
            And Jesus did not say that the law was unimportant.  In fact, listen to what Jesus says about the law in the fifth chapter of Matthew:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus warns against setting aside anything in the law.  And yet, he felt free to disobey the
law.  How does that work?  If the law is so important, why does Jesus feel free to ignore it?
            Jesus explains it, I think, with two statements.  He says this specifically about the Sabbath law, but I think it applies to his approach to all of the religious law.  Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”  And later, he says, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath:  to do good or to do evil?”
            Jesus is not saying the law is bad.  Jesus believed in the law.  He knew there were good reasons for it.  But he also knew that the law is not an end in itself.  God intended the law to help people, not to hurt them.  What Jesus was saying, I think, is that God did not give people the law to stop them from doing good.  God did not give people the law to keep them from enjoying their lives.  
The thing is, God created life.  God created all life, but God specifically created human life.  And because God created human life, God knows more about it than we do.  God knows what’s best for us.  God knows what the best way for us to live our lives is.  
And so, God created laws and rules.  But God did not create them to make our lives harder.  God did not create these laws and rules so that God would have an excuse to punish us.  God is not sitting in heaven with a big red pen, waiting for us to break a rule so that God can send us to hell.  That’s not the way any of this works.
Remember what Jesus said about the two greatest commandments.  This is in Matthew Chapter Twenty-two.  Some of you could probably say them with me.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.  And Jesus went on to say that all the law hangs on those two commandments.
What that means is that every law is intended, in some way, help us love God and love other people.  That’s what the Sabbath law was intended to do.  And that’s what it did, at first.  Remember what the commandment actually says:  “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”  The Sabbath law was intended to help people worship God and love God.  And that would help people focus on serving God by loving others.
But people had forgotten that.  The Pharisees--probably with the best of intentions--had focused so much on the letter of the law that they forgot the intent of it.  They had created all these detailed rules and regulations, and by doing that, they had made people’s lives harder.  Everyone was so focused on the letter of the law that they forgot about love.  They were so focused on the letter of the law that they actually thought that healing someone, taking away someone’s pain, would be a bad thing to do if you did it on the Sabbath.
That’s not how it’s supposed to work.  That’s not what the rules are for.  God gave people the law to show people how they should live their lives.  God knows that we’ll live better lives, that we’ll be happier, we’ll be healthier, if we live our lives God’s way.  God knows that things will go a lot better for us if we live our lives the way God tells us to live them.  And God knows that we’ll be a lot better able to love others, and to love God, if we live our lives the way God wants us to.
We don’t get to heaven by following rules.  We get to heaven by faith in Jesus Christ.  We get to heaven by showing that faith by doing what Jesus told us to do--loving God and loving others.  God gave us rules to help us do that.  God did not give us rules to make our lives more complicated.  God gave us rules to make our lives easier.  God did not give us rules to make our lives harder.  God gave us rules to make our lives better.
Jesus had respect for the law.  He had respect for the rules.  We should, too.  They’re there to help us, and they will help us.  But the main laws we should follow are the ones on which all the others are based.  Love God.  Love other people.  Live our lives in ways that show we love God.  Live our lives in ways that show we love other people.  Do things that show we love God and we love other people.  If we do that, the rules will take care of themselves.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Stressed Out

Last week was a pretty stressful one for me.  Holy Week is always a pretty busy week, of course.  But this year, I had a funeral during Holy Week.  And I also had a funeral on the day after Easter Sunday.  That means, starting from Palm Sunday, that I had a worship service of some sort on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday, and Monday.  And the thing is, it’s not just the time in the service itself.  It’s all the time getting ready for the service.  Plus, there’s doing all the other things I do every week.  It got to be a lot of stuff to do in a pretty short time.

Now, my point in telling you that is not to get you to feel sorry for me.  Especially, if anyone who is part of the one of the families involved in the funerals is reading this, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me.  What someone goes through at the loss of a loved one is on a totally different scale from anything I went through last week.  If you're part of one of those families, please know that you remain in our prayers.

Every job, and in fact every life, has its stressful weeks.  Last week just happened to be my turn.  I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining, because I’m not.  I’ve said before that I love my job and I love being where I am, and I do.  Nothing about that has changed.  Again, everybody has stressful weeks, and this just happened to be one for me.

The point, though, is that when you feel stress, it can get to you.  It got to me this past week.  Not as badly as it has in the past, I don’t think, but it did get to me.  And the thing is, I did not even realize how stressed out I felt until we got to Saturday, when a lot of the services were over and the stress level went down.  I suddenly realized how much better I felt now that I could see that I really was going to get through this.

But at the same time, I was disappointed in myself.  Because I should’ve known all along that I was going to get through this.  I’d prayed for God to help me.  I was confident—or at least, I thought I was confident—that God would help me.  So if I truly trust God, if I truly have faith, what was I feeling so stressed about?

There’s an old saying that hard times don’t build character, they reveal it.  I think that could apply to our faith, too.  Stressful situations don’t necessary build faith, but they reveal it.  Or, sometimes, they reveal the lack of it.

I’m not going to beat myself up for that.  I don’t think God’s going to beat me up for it, either.  But it does show me—not that I shouldn’t have known it before—that I still have things to work on in regard to my faith.  And with God’s help, I’m going to work on them.

The reason I’m telling you this is that maybe you’ve had those times, too.  Maybe you’ve had times when you were under stress, and it started to get to you.  Maybe you’ve had times when you’ve prayed, and you believed God would help you, but you still felt that stress.  In fact, maybe you’re going through one of those times now.

If you are, know that you’re not the only one.  And know that God understands.  God is not going to beat you up for letting the stress get to you.  But God doesn’t want you to let the stress get to you.  Instead, God wants you to rely on God, to trust God, to have faith that God will take care of things for you and that you will get through whatever the stressful situation is.  You will be okay.

God wants to help us with our stress.  If we open our hearts and souls to God, God’s Holy Spirit will come in.  And then, we’ll be able to handle whatever stress life may throw at us.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Super Sunday

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 16, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 20:1-23.

            It’s the big day!  It’s Easter!  They call the day of the Super Bowl “Super Sunday”, but for a Christian today is Super Sunday!  This is the day we celebrate the risen Jesus, who defeated death, not just for himself, but for all of us.  Jesus, who died so that our sins would be forgiven, rose again so that we would know we can have eternal life in heaven!
            We celebrate this day, and we should celebrate this day.  But at the start of that first Easter Sunday, nobody was celebrating.  Nobody knew what had happened.  Remember, on Good Friday, Jesus was killed.  He was dead.  His dead, lifeless body was placed in the tomb, really more like a cave.  A huge stone was put in front of it.  No one could get in or out.  And of course, since the next day was the Sabbath, nobody even tried to get in or out.  Everyone--literally everyone--assumed that Jesus’ lifeless body remained where it had been placed, in the tomb.
            Before sunrise on that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb.  Other gospels mention other women who were with her.  She sees that the stone has been removed from the entrance.  And she’s shocked.  More than shocked, she’s horrified.  Not only have they killed Jesus, but now it looks like they have not even left his body in peace.  She comes running back to where the disciples are.  She finds Simon Peter and John.  For all we know, they might have been still asleep.  She’s probably crying.  She tells them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
            Simon Peter and John run to the tomb.  We don’t know what they expected to find.  We don’t know what they thought they were going to do.  But they had to go and see for themselves.  John gets there first.  He stands at the entrance, looking at the linen grave clothes with no one inside.  Then Simon Peter gets there and runs right into the tomb.  He sees the grave clothes, too.  And then they left.  They went back to where they were staying.
            The reading tells us “They saw and believed.”  But it also tells us that they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.  So what, exactly, did they believe?  They believed that Jesus was not there, obviously.  Did they believe that he had risen, that he was alive?  Did they believe he was the Savior, the divine Son of God?  Or did they just believe that the body had been moved or something?
            We don’t know.  But they left.  Mary Magdalene did not leave.  Mary stayed at the tomb.  And two angels appeared.  We don’t know if Mary Magdalene recognized them as angels, we’re just told that’s what they were.  They ask her why she’s crying.  She tells them it’s because they’ve taken Jesus’ body away and she does not know where it is.  Then she turns around.
            And there’s Jesus.  She does not recognize him, either.  He, too, asks Mary Magdalene why she’s crying.  She tells him.  And then, Jesus says her name.  And she knows.  She knows.  Jesus is not dead.  He’s alive.  And the celebration starts!  She does not know how this happened.  She does not really understand why it happened.  She does not know how this is even possible.  But none of those things matter.  This is Mary Magdalene’s Super Sunday.  The celebration can begin!  Mary Magdalene knows Jesus is alive, and that’s all she needs to know.
            The first appearance of Jesus, after he rose from the dead, was to Mary Magdalene.  Why do you suppose that is?  Why not appear to Simon Peter and John?  Why not appear to someone else?  Why Mary Magdalene?
            Well, for one thing, she was there.  Simon Peter and John had gone out to the tomb, of course.  But the way this is written, it sounds like they came, they looked around for a minute or two, and they left.  Jesus is gone.  Huh.  How about that.  And they went away.  They thought they’d seen all there was to it.  Time to move along.  Nothing to see here.  
Mary Magdalene did not leave.  She stayed there.  She did not know what had happened, but she stayed.  She stayed in the last place she had seen Jesus.  In her mind, there was nowhere else to go.
Mary Magdalene made herself available to the Lord.  She was not just coincidentally in the right place at the right time.  She decided that if she could not go to where the Lord was, she would stay where the Lord had been.  She would wait for him to come back.  She put herself in that place, so that the Lord could speak to her at that time.  She had enough faith, and enough trust, to wait for Jesus even when he was nowhere to be found.  And she was rewarded for her faith and her trust.
            I think that’s a lesson for us.  There are times in our lives when we really are trying to find the Lord.  There are times when things are not going right, or when we have hard decisions to make, or we just know that something’s missing in our lives.  We’d like to have God give us some guidance, tell us what to do.  Or maybe we’d just like to feel God’s presence, to know God is there with us.  And it seems like we don’t hear anything or feel anything.
            Some of us have had that happen.  Maybe it’s happening for some of us now.  If not, it may at some point in the future.  When it does, think about this.  Are you making yourself available to God?  Are you putting yourself in a place where the Lord can speak to you?
            Maybe you are.  But I think there are times when we think we are, but we’re actually not.  I know I’ve done that.  I don’t have the patience to wait.  I don’t hear from God, so I start running around, trying to do stuff on my own.  I go here and go there, I do this and do that.  I think I’m trying to find God, but the fact is that I’m doing things my own way.  And it’s only when I stop running, when I slow down, or even stop, that I actually hear from God.  And often it’s when I go back to the last place I heard from God, and patiently wait there, that I find him again.
            That’s a lot of what our Lenten prayers were about, really  I asked everyone to pray for ten minutes a day, and for part of that prayer to be for God to help us open our hearts and open our souls to God’s Holy Spirit.  When we do that, we’re not asking for God to do anything in specific.  We’re not telling God to lead us in a certain direction.  We’re just asking God to lead us.  We’re just asking to be in God’s presence.  We’re just patiently waiting, making ourselves available to God, so God can speak to us if God chooses to do so.  And by the way, we don’t need to stop doing that just because Lent is over.  It’s always a good time for us to open our hearts and open our souls to God’s Holy Spirit.
            And look again at Mary Magdalene’s reaction.  As soon as Jesus says her name, Mary Magdalene immediately recognizes him.  And she rejoices!  She knows it’s Jesus.  Again, she does not ask any questions.  She does not ask how.  She does not ask why.  She does not ask how this is possible.  She just rejoices that this is Jesus.  She feels unbelievable joy that Jesus, who she saw killed and put into a tomb, is alive.  Again, none of the questions matter.  Mary Magdalene does not need to know the answers.  This is Super Sunday!  Jesus is alive!  Mary Magdalene knows that, and that’s all she needs to know.
            Contrast that to how the disciples reacted.  We’ve talked about Simon Peter and John going to the tomb for a few minutes and then leaving.  But then, that evening, Jesus comes to the disciples.  He says peace be with you.  But they did not rejoice.  They did not immediately respond at all.  Then Jesus shows them his hands, with the nail prints in them, and his side, which had been pierced by the sword.  It was only then that they believe.  But only then.  They needed evidence to believe it was Jesus.  Mary Magdalene did not.  She believed immediately.
            Now, the disciples eventually got there.  And that’s okay.  Jesus did not get mad at them or anything.  But the thing is, by demanding proof, they cheated themselves.  They cheated themselves of the spontaneous, overwhelming, overflowing joy that Mary Magdalene felt.  They cheated themselves out of Super Sunday.  Again, Jesus did not condemn them for it.  They did not sin by doing this.  But they missed out on some of the joy.  Jesus’ best friends, the ones who’d been with him for all the years of his ministry, missed out on some of the joy of his resurrection.  They missed out on Super Sunday.  And that’s kind of sad.
            So where are you?  And where am I?  Are we like Mary Magdalene, ready to rejoice, ready to have Super Sunday today?  Or are we like the disciples, still demanding more evidence?  Not sinning by doing so, but missing out on some of the joy of Jesus’ resurrection.
My prayer for all of us, including myself, is that we have Super Sunday today.  Let’s make ourselves available to God.  Let’s be where we can find God and wait there, trusting that God is going to come.  And when God comes, let’s recognize Him and rejoice!  Like Mary Magdalene, let’s know that Jesus is alive, and that’s all we need to know.  It’s Super Sunday!

Friday, April 7, 2017

What Are We Celebrating?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 9, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 21:1-11.
            Today is Palm Sunday.  Over the next week, we’ll have Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.  Because of that, we’re taking a break from our sermon series on the life of Jesus and focusing on the events we commemorate at this time every year.
            We usually look at Palm Sunday as a celebration.  We have the kids come up with the palm branches.  Sometimes we have adults waving palm branches, too.  We sing the traditional Palm Sunday hymns, like “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” and “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus”.  A lot of us look forward to celebrating Palm Sunday in this way.
            And in fact, the first Palm Sunday was a celebration.  You heard the description in the Bible.  Jesus is riding into Jerusalem in triumph.  People are spreading cloaks on the road in front of him.  They’re laying palm branches in front of him, too.  It’s sort of like laying out the red carpet today.  And of course, the crowd is cheering for Jesus at the top of their lungs.  They’re shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
            I always wonder how Jesus felt when all this was going on.  We’re not told.  Maybe he felt really good.  I would, probably.  I mean, it would be so cool if we could all have a day like this just once in our lives.  To be the head of parade, riding in triumph through town.  To have everyone in town cheering you on, singing your praises.  That would be one awesome day.  I’d probably remember it the rest of my life.
            But the thing is, we’re talking about Jesus.  The Messiah.  The divine Son of God who knew the future.  Who knew he was going to be killed and knew how and why he was going to be killed.
            Think about this.  Have you ever had someone in your life who pretended to like you?  Who pretended to be your best friend, who maybe even pretended to love you?  And then, eventually, you found out at some point that it was all meaningless?  That they never really cared about you at all, that none of the things they said or did actually meant anything?
            That’s a pretty lousy feeling, right?  It’s one of the worst feelings ever.  You feel betrayed.  You feel used.  You feel stupid, maybe, for ever having believed that person in the first place.  You feel angry and upset and sad and all kinds of other things all at once.  It’s a terrible feeling.
            Now, come back to Jesus.  Jesus hears the cheering of the crowd.  But Jesus knows that, less than a week later, he’s going to be betrayed.  He’s going to be arrest and beaten.  The Roman governor is going to try to set him free, but the crowd--some of this same crowd that’s cheering him on now--is not going to stand for it.  They’re not going to allow Jesus to be set free.  They’re not even going to allow Jesus to be held in jail.  They want, they demand, they will accept nothing less than to have Jesus be killed, slowly and painfully, on a cross.
            Jesus knows all of this while he’s riding into Jerusalem.  Jesus knows all of this while he’s hearing the cheers of the crowd, while he’s watching them throw cloaks and palm branches in front of him.  Jesus knows that everything he’s hearing and seeing is meaningless.  He knows that it’s all a lie.
            When you think about it that way, what is it that we’re actually celebrating on Palm Sunday?  The people who were waving those palm branches on the first Palm Sunday were a bunch of hypocrites, were they not?  If I was Jesus, seeing and hearing all this, knowing what was going to happen next, I think I’d want to call them out on it.  I’d want to stand up and yell, “You jerks!  You lying jerks!  You don’t care about me.  You don’t mean any of this.  You’re just a bunch of hypocrites.  Why should I die for you, you self-serving, spineless jerks?”
            But of course, Jesus did not say that.  Jesus did not say anything like that at all.  In fact, Jesus did not say anything, or if he did, Matthew does not record it.  And of course, Jesus did go ahead and die for us.  Even after the way he was treated, Jesus went ahead and died for us.
            And that, I think, is what we celebrate on Palm Sunday.  Not the waving of the palm branches.  Not the shouts of “Hosanna!”  Not the meaningless cheers of the crowd.  What we celebrate on Palm Sunday is the fact that, knowing everything that was going to happen, Jesus did not turn on us.  Jesus did not get angry with us.  Jesus went ahead and did what he was sent here to do.  Knowing exactly who we are and what we are, Jesus went through with it anyway.  Despite the way we treated him, Jesus went ahead and allowed himself to be arrested, and tortured, and killed, so that our sins would be forgiven.
            And I’m using that word “we” on purpose.  There’s no real reason to think that, if you or I had been in Jerusalem during the original Holy Week, we would not have acted exactly the way the people who were there did.  We’d like to think we would not have, but we probably would have.
            Because you see, those people in the crowd that day were ordinary people.  They were not people who were poorly thought of.  They were common, everyday people.  Some of them were travelers, in town for the Passover.  Some of them were people who lived in Jerusalem, who had jobs or owned businesses or grew crops or raised animals or did whatever they needed to do to make a living.  The people in the crowd were just people.  People like you and me.  And they behaved, in all likelihood, the way you and I would’ve behaved if we’d been there when Jesus came into Jerusalem.
            What we celebrate is not what the crowd did.  What we celebrate is what Jesus did.  What we celebrate is that Jesus knew these cheers were meaningless, and yet he did not get angry.  Jesus knew this was all a lie, and yet he did not get upset.  Jesus knew he would be betrayed, and yet he did not feel betrayed.  Jesus knew he was being used, and yet he did not feel used.  He may, perhaps, have felt sad, but not sad because of what was going to happen to him.  If Jesus felt sad, it was sadness because all these people simply did not understand.  They did not understand who he was or why he was there.  They did not know what they were doing or what they were going to do.  And Jesus knew he was not going to have time to make them understand.  If Jesus felt sadness, it was not for himself.  It was for us.
            What we celebrate is that, despite everything, Jesus did not feel any of the things you or I would probably have felt if we were in Jesus’ place.  Despite everything, Jesus continued to feel nothing but love for us.  Jesus felt so much love for us that, despite the way he was treated, he was willing to go ahead and die on a cross for us.  For you and for me.
            We’ll be going through the events of Holy Week in our special services this week.  We’ll have our Wednesday Lent service and our Maundy Thursday service in Gettysburg.  We’ll have our Good Friday service.  We’ll have our Easter Sunday service.  We’ll talk about all the events we commemorate during this coming week, events that may have made this the most important and most memorable week in human history.
            But Jesus knew all these events ahead of time.  He knew what was going to happen, how it was going to happen, when it was going to happen, and who was going to make it happen.  Jesus knew all that, and he went through with it anyway.  He did that for the forgiveness of our sins, yours and mine.
            The next time you ask God for forgiveness--and the next time I ask God for forgiveness--let’s think of how we got that forgiveness.  Let’s think of all that Jesus did for the forgiveness of our sins.  Let’s think about all he went through.  Let’s think not just about the physical pain, although it’s important that we think about that, too.  But let’s also think about all the emotional pain.  Let’s think about how Jesus was betrayed, not just by Judas, but by all of us.
            And then, let’s think about how amazing it is that, despite it all, Jesus still loves us.  Let’s think about how, despite it all, the Lord does forgive our sins.  Let’s think about how the Lord loves us so much that nothing we’ve done and nothing we ever will do can keep the Lord for loving us and from forgiving our sins, as long as we sincerely ask for that forgiveness.
            What we celebrate on Palm Sunday is Jesus’ love.  What we celebrate on Palm Sunday is the forgiveness of our sins.  We should never take that forgiveness for granted.  We should always be grateful for what Jesus did for us.

            Have a wonderful and blessed Palm Sunday.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Family Time

You may have noticed that I didn’t post a sermon last Sunday.  I posted the sermon from the Wednesday service, but not Sunday.  The reason for that is that I didn’t give a sermon last Sunday.  I was out of town.

The reason I was out of town is that Wanda’s family was having a family reunion in Mitchell Saturday.  As long as we were going that far, we went to Armour Friday to visit my parents.  Then, after the reunion, we went back to Armour Sunday because both of my brothers, one from Virginia and one from Nebraska, were visiting.  We got home Sunday night.

I never like to miss a Sunday.  Still, family things are important.  Our family impacts us in a way that no one else ever does.  We hope that impact will be a good one, and of course it often is.  But whether it’s good or bad, our family still impacts us in a special and unique way.

Did you ever wonder why God created us to live in families?  It’s one of those things we take for granted.  But lots of animals don’t live in families.  Humans universally do.  Go to any country you can think of, and the humans living there will be living in families.  Why is that?

Well, I can’t read God’s mind.  But I think one of the reasons is that God knows how hard life can be for us.  Because life can be hard, God does not want us to go through it alone.  So, God created us to live in families, so we’d always have someone to be there for us and to help us.  And when I say “families”, I’m not necessarily talking about a spouse and children.  Family includes that, of course, but family can include uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and cousins of all sorts.  “Family” can sometimes even include close friends.

Whatever “family” means to us, it’s something important.  And we need to take time to do things with them.  We need to do that even if it means we have to miss out on something else that’s important to us, like being here to lead worship on Sunday morning.

But nothing, not even family, is more important than God.  Our obligation to follow God is more important than anything else.  It’s hard for me to imagine a situation where my duty to family and my obligation to follow God were in conflict.  But if that situation ever arises, I hope I would choose to follow God.  I hope you would, too.

Family is important to us.  But nothing, not even family, should ever be more important to us than our love for God and our obligation to follow God.