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Friday, May 26, 2017

When the Impossible Looks Easy

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 28, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 14:22-36.

            Most of you know what a sports fan I am.  One of the things that’s amazing about watching sports is how great athletes make what they do look so easy.  You see a baseball player make a great catch, or a football player make incredible moves, or a basketball player make a seemingly impossible shot, and yet they seem to do it so effortlessly.  They make these incredible plays, and they make it look like it’s the easiest thing in the world.  They make it look like anybody could do it.
            That is, they make it look that way unless you’ve actually tried to do it yourself.  And then, you know that very few people could do it, because it’s not easy at all.  It’s incredibly hard.  It took years and years of practice, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.  It took a lifetime of effort, really, to be able to do the things top athletes do.  It’s only because they’ve put in all that effort that they can make it easy.
            I bring this up because I think, sometimes, we don’t really have enough appreciation for the miracles of Jesus.  I don’t think people did at the time, either.  We’re always told that people were amazed when Jesus did a miracle, but then a little while later, often in the next paragraph, people are back to treating Jesus like he’s no big deal, making demands, telling him what to do, complaining about what he has done.  It’s like whatever miracle Jesus did, it made no impact at all.  Jesus just seemed to make doing miracles look so easy.
            That’s not to say that it was easy for Jesus.  That’s one of the many things we don’t know:  just how hard doing miracles was on Jesus while he was on earth.  We have one instance in the eighth chapter of Luke, where a woman touches Jesus’ clothes and is healed, and Jesus says “I know that power has gone out from me.”  So clearly it was not nothing for Jesus when he did a miracle.  It took something out of him.  There are other times, too, where after healing people for a while, Jesus needed to go off by himself and rest and sort of recharge.  So working miracles was clearly not as easy for Jesus as it might have sometimes looked like.
            In fact, our Bible reading for today takes place right after Jesus had worked a miracle.  He had just fed over five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish.  And you know, this is often referred to as “Jesus feeding the five thousand”, but what the Bible actually says is that he fed five thousand men, plus women and children.  So it really could’ve been ten thousand people or even more that Jesus fed that day.  With five loaves of bread and two fish.
            After that, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead of him in a boat, headed for the other side of a lake, while he stayed behind to pray.  Again, that sounds like Jesus needed to have kind of a restoration time after working a miracle.  But then, after he’s done, Jesus goes out to where the disciples were, walking on the water to get to them.
            Again, Jesus makes it look so easy.  Was it easy?  I don’t know.  But Jesus made it look that way.  In fact, Jesus made it look so easy that Peter says to him, hey, let me try that, too.
            And Jesus says, sure, go ahead.
            And Peter does it.  And he can do it.  And Peter is making it look easy, too.  But then, he looks around and sees the waves, and feels the wind.  Peter starts to think about what he’s actually doing.  And he starts to sink.  And, of course, Jesus reaches out and pulls Peter back up again and they get into the boat.
            So what’s the point?  Well, there are a couple of them.  One is, quite simply, that we should not take the miracles of Jesus for granted.  We’ve read and heard some of these Bible stories so often that we sometimes lose the impact of them.
            But really think about some of the things Jesus did.  There are people here who are dealing with chronic health issues.  Others of us have loved ones who are.  Think of what it would be like to have Jesus suddenly touch you and heal you.  Think of what a miracle that would actually be.
            Think about being in that crowd of five thousand men, plus women and children.  Think about being hungry and being a long way from anywhere that you could get food.  Think about what it would be like to see Jesus standing there with five loaves of bread and two fish and acting like he can feed that whole crowd with that little bit of food.  And then think about seeing the disciples start handing out food, and finding out that Jesus actually is going to do it!  He actually is going to feed that whole crowd with that little bit of food.  It’d be incredible.  It’d be a miracle.
            And think about being in the boat in our Bible reading for today.  Think about being in the boat with disciples.  You’re rowing against the wind.  It’s night time.  You’re trying to make it to shore.  And all of a sudden, you look up, and there’s what looks like a human being walking on top of the water coming toward you.  And then you see Peter get out of the boat, and for a little while he’s walking on top of the water, too!  What an incredible thing to see!
            But here’s the other point.  When Jesus worked miracles, he did not always work them by himself.  There were times when he let other people share in the miraculous power he had.  There were times when Jesus worked through other people.
            When Jesus fed the five thousand-plus people, what did he do?  Did he make the five loaves turn into five thousand loaves in front of everybody’s eyes and start handing them out to people?  No.  He took the five loaves and the two fish, he gave thanks to God, he gave the loaves and fish to the disciples, and he told them to get busy feeding the people.  In other words, Jesus worked his miracle through them.  Jesus allowed the disciples to use his power to do something no one would’ve thought they could do.
            And in our story for today, when Peter asked Jesus to walk on water, did Jesus say no?  Did Jesus say, “No way, only the son of God can do that?”  No.  Jesus said, sure, come on out.  The water’s fine.  Jesus allowed Peter to use his power to do something no one would’ve thought he could do.
            So that’s the other point.  While Jesus was on earth, he allowed his disciples to use Jesus’ power to do things no one would’ve thought they could do.  And now, Jesus still allows his disciples--you and me--to use Jesus’ power to do things no one would’ve thought they could do.  But there’s one condition.  We have to trust in Jesus’ power.  We need to have faith.  We need to believe.
            When Peter trusted Jesus, he was able to walk on water.  But what happened?  Peter started looking around.  He started thinking, what in the world am I doing?  I cannot be doing this.  This is impossible!  This cannot be happening!  He stopped trusting Jesus.  He started thinking of all the reasons he could not do this, rather than trusting in Jesus and believing that he could.
            The Lord can still work miracles.  The Lord does still work miracles.  Sometimes, the Lord works miracles without human help, simply through the use of divine power.  But a lot of times, the Lord allows his disciples--you and me--to use that divine power to do miraculous things.
            But just like Peter, we need to trust in Jesus’ power.  Because, by definition, a miraculous thing is something that most people don’t think is possible.  And so, when we think of miraculous things, there will always be people who can come up with at least twenty-five reasons why what we’ve thought of won’t work.  In fact, those people will say that what we’ve thought of is not possible.  It simply cannot be done.
            And if we believe that, then it becomes true.  If we believe that something cannot be done, then it cannot be done, at least not by us.  But if we believe, as Jesus said, that all things are possible with God, then maybe it can be done.  If we open our hearts to God’s Holy Spirit, and if we trust in Jesus’ divine power, and if we ask the Lord to allow us to use that divine power, then who knows?  Maybe it can be done.
            After all, everyone knows you cannot feed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish.  But the disciples used Jesus’ power and did it.  In fact, they made it look easy.  Everyone knows you cannot walk on water.  But Peter used Jesus’ power and did it.  In fact, he made it look easy.  What other things that everyone knows you cannot do might be done, if we use Jesus’ power?
            That’s our challenge.  What’s your dream for this church?  What could this church do, if we trusted in Jesus’ power?  Yes, I know we’re a small church.  Yes, I know we don’t have a lot of money.  But that’s the point.  We’re not talking about something we can do through our power.  The disciples could not feed thousands of people with their own power.  Peter could not walk on water through his own power.  He could only do it with God’s power.
            Think about this.  Pray about this.  Open your heart to God’s Holy Spirit.  Pray for God to show you God’s will for this church.  Pray for God to show you God’s will for your own life, too.  If we’re doing God’s will, the Lord will allows us to use God’s divine power.  And then, just like Peter, this church will be able to do the impossible.  In fact, we may even make it look easy.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Graduation Day

This is a slightly edited version of a blog post I wrote last year.

Last Saturday was graduation day in both Gettysburg and Onida, and probably some other places, too.   It’s an important day, of course.  It’s a day some people will never forget.  Mostly, those people are called “parents” or “grandparents”.  Sometimes, they’re called “great-grandparents”.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an important day for the students, too.  But the importance of it comes at us more in retrospect than it does at the time.  For the most part, I’m guessing the students themselves will probably not find this day all that memorable. 

If that seems wrong, let me ask you:  how much do you remember of your high school graduation?  Maybe you’re different from me, but I remember very little of mine.  I remember the speaker because it was Bill Janklow, who was the state attorney general at the time.  But I can’t remember anything he said.  I can’t remember who came to my graduation party, other than my parents.  I can’t remember the moment that I received my high school diploma.  I really can’t remember much of anything of my high school graduation.

I suspect, though, that if you asked my parents, they could probably tell you a lot about that day.  They could tell you what I said in my valedictorian speech (I have no idea).  They could tell you who gave me my diploma (I don’t know).  They could tell you each person that was at my graduation party.  They could probably even tell you what they served.  My high school graduation was a much bigger deal for them than it was for me.  And I suspect that will be true of a lot of parents this week, too.

There are a lot of reasons for that.  I think one of them, though, is that as we get older, we start to savor moments more.  When we’re young, we’re often too busy living our lives, going from one thing to the next, to stop and savor the moment we’re in.  As we get older, though, we start to realize that life is not all that long.  The moments we have become more important to us, and we try to remember everything about them, because we don’t know how many we may have.

Neither of those approaches is wrong.  In fact, they’re really both appropriate for their time.  When we’re young, it’s appropriate that we move from one thing to the next.  It’s appropriate that we spend our time just living our lives.  We don’t want young people weighed down with the thought that life is short.  Their lives are just beginning.  We need young people to be enthusiastic about their lives.  But when we’re older, it’s appropriate that we start to feel the passage of the years, and that we start to appreciate things more. It shows, again, how right the book of Ecclesiastes is when it says there is a time for everything and God has made everything beautiful in its time.

So, if the graduating high school seniors don’t appreciate graduation day as much as their parents and grandparents do, it’s okay.  Let them keep looking forward to the next thing.  In fact, encourage them to do that.  They’ve still got lots of next things ahead of them.  And some of those next things just could be amazing.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Sacrifices of Jesus

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 21, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Mark 6:1-6.

            When we look at the life of Jesus, we have to remember that Jesus was at the same time fully human and fully divine.  We don’t know exactly how that worked, but it’s something that comes up at various points in Jesus’ life.  And one of those points came up in our Bible reading for today.  Jesus, after having been on the road for some time, comes back to his home town of Nazareth.
            For the divine Jesus, of course, there was no such thing as a home town on earth.  The home of the divine Jesus was in heaven.  But for the human Jesus, Nazareth was his home.  As far as we can tell, he grew up there.  He spent most of the first thirty years of his life there.
            Because there’s no evidence to the contrary, we assume that Jesus lived a pretty ordinary life there during that time.  He was a carpenter.  His earthly family was there--our Bible reading mentions his mother Mary; four brothers, James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon; and some unnamed sisters.  Presumably he had friends there, too, some of whom he’d probably known since he was a little kid.
            Our best guess, as far as I could find out, is that about a year and a half had passed since Jesus had started his traveling ministry.  Jesus had done a lot of things in that time.  He had healed people.  He had worked miracles.  He had preached to thousands of people.  And now, a year and a half later, after all that he had said and done, Jesus was coming home.
            I would think that thought would’ve made Jesus happy.  Seeing all these people he had not seen in quite a while.  Finding out what had happened to them.  Getting to eat Mom’s home cooking.  And, of course, being able to go to the synagogue and teach and do the things for his old friends and neighbors that he’d done for so many people in so many other places.
            Except, of course, it did not work out that way, did it?  We’re told that the people there were amazed by Jesus, but not in a good way.  They were resentful of him.  This Jesus was not the same person they had known.  He’d changed.  And the people of Nazareth did not like this new Jesus.  They were saying, what’s up with all this?  Here he is, up in the synagogue, teaching and working miracles.  Who does he think he is, anyway?  He’s just an ordinary person like we are.  What does he think, that he’s better than the rest of us now?  We’re told that the people of Nazareth were actually offended at Jesus teaching in the synagogue.
            When we think about the sacrifice Jesus made for us, we usually think of his death on the cross.  And we should think about that.  That was incredibly important, for a lot of reasons.  But that was not the only sacrifice Jesus made for us.  Jesus made lots of other sacrifices for us, too.
            One of them is simply being willing to come to earth at all.  I mean, think about it.  Jesus was in heaven.  The Divine Son.  God the Son.  In heaven with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.  The trinity.  The three in one.  All of them together fully God and each of them fully God.  And we don’t know quite how that works, but just think about how awesome that would be for Jesus in heaven.
            And Jesus willingly gives that up.  He separates himself from the other two members of the holy trinity.  That’d be like giving up a part of yourself.  Can you even imagine that?  I don’t think I can.  All the time he was on earth he’d have felt incomplete, like a part of him was missing.  
That was a tremendous sacrifice Jesus made.  It must have been a really terrible feeling for him, to feel incomplete and separate in that way.  Maybe that’s why Jesus would sometimes go off by himself to pray.  Maybe, when he did that, he could get some measure of connection with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit and not feel so incomplete, at least for a while.
            And then, there was the sacrifice Jesus made by his ministry on earth.  Again, he had lived in Nazareth his whole life.  He had family there.  He had friends there, old friends who’d known him all his life.  He had a business there.  He had a home there.  He was living in the normal routines and rhythms of life that we all live in.
            When Jesus started his earthly ministry, he gave all that up.  He left his family behind.  He left his old friends behind.  He left his business behind.  He left his homes behind.  He left behind his entire way of life, the way of life he’d been living ever since he was little.  Think about what that would be like, to leave behind the only life you’d ever known like that.
            And think of what he left it behind for.  A life of wandering.  No stability.  No home life.  No place to even call home.  As Jesus says, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  A life of people constantly demanding things from him.  A life of people constantly criticizing him, trying to tell him what to do.  A life of people trying to trick him and trap him.  A life in which no one, not even his closest associates, really understood him or what he was trying to do.  That’s a tremendous sacrifice that Jesus made, when you think about it.  Jesus did not just sacrifice his life when he died on the cross.  Jesus sacrificed his entire earthly life when he started his ministry.
            Jesus knew what he was doing, of course.  When Jesus left home to start his ministry, he knew what that meant.  He knew it was what he had come to earth to do.  Jesus knew he had not come to earth to live a quiet life as a carpenter in Nazareth.  He knew he was the Savior, the Divine Son of God.  He knew what he needed to do, and he knew what was going to happen to him as a result.  Maybe not every last detail--we don’t know that--but he knew enough.  He knew everything he was giving up, both during his life and in his death.  But still, it was a sacrifice.  And Jesus made that sacrifice.  He made it for us.
            Why do you suppose, after a year and a half on the road, Jesus came home?  We’re not told.  Maybe Jesus never said.  Maybe the disciples themselves did not know.  It could be that he wanted to check on Mary and his earthly siblings, to see how they were doing.  It could be that he just wanted to rest and get away from things for a while.  It could be all kinds of reasons.
            But I wonder if, while Jesus was there, it ever crossed his mind to wonder what his life would have been like if he’d never left.  We don’t know that he did, but again, while he was on earth Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.  A lot of us, as humans, look at our lives and wonder about what would’ve happened if we’d done things differently.  Maybe Jesus did, too.
            Maybe the human Jesus wondered, what would’ve happened if I’d just kept working in the carpenter shop?  He could’ve had a quiet, normal life.  Maybe he’d even have gotten married and raised a family.  Things would’ve been so much easier.  They’d have been so much simpler.  A nice house to come home to.  People who cared about him.  No one constantly trying to trick him or trap him or come up with a reason to throw him in prison.  There could have been a part of the human Jesus that thought that all sounded pretty good.
            But of course, Jesus did leave home, and he did start his ministry.  Because Jesus knew he was the divine Son of God.  And he knew that he had come to earth for specific reasons.  To teach us.  To heal us.  To provide an example for us.  To die, so that our sins could be forgiven.  Jesus knew that was why he had come to earth.  And he knew that he needed to do what he had been put on earth to do.  But still, he had to make that choice.  And he had to make the sacrifices necessary to do what he had been put on earth to do.
            But here’s the thing.  Jesus was not the only person who was put on earth for specific reasons.  You know who else was?  You.  And me.  Each one of us was put on earth for specific reasons.  No, none of us is the divine Son of God.  But each of us was put here to do certain things.  We’re put here to love God.  We’re put here to serve God.  We’re put here to love each other and serve each other.  We’re put here to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
And there will be times when doing those things complicates our life, just as it complicated Jesus’ life.  And there may be times when we’d rather not do them.  There may be times when we realize how much easier our lives would be, how much simpler our lives would be, if we did not do what God put us here to do.  And there are going to be times when, if we’re going to do what God put us here to do, we’re going to have to give some things up.  We’re going to need to make some sacrifices.  If we’re going to do the things God put us here to do, we’re not always going to be able to do the things we want to do.
And then we’re going to have to make a choice, just as Jesus had to make a choice.  Are we going to do what God put us on earth to do?  Are we going to love God and serve God with everything we do?  Are we going to love each other and serve each other at all times?  Are we going to go out and make disciples of Jesus Christ?  And are we going to do those things even when doing them means we have to give some things up and make some sacrifices, sacrifices that we might not really want to make?  Are we willing to give up a quiet, normal life, if that’s what’s necessary to do what God put us here to do?
Jesus was willing to give up his entire earthly life so that he could do what he was put on earth to do.  Are you and I willing to do the same?

Friday, May 19, 2017


It occurs to me that I haven’t given you an update on my parents for a while.  As last Sunday was Mother’s Day, and as we just saw them the Friday before, this seems like as good a time as any to do that.

They’re doing--okay.  Dad is ninety-four now, and Mom will turn ninety-two next month.  They’ve been in the nursing home in Armour for nearly a year.  Some days are better than others.  That’s true in every way:  physically, emotionally, psychologically, and every other “ly” you can think of.  And of course, all those “ly”s are connected.  On days when they’re feeling good, they seem to be adjusting to their situation and handling it better.  On days when they don’t feel good, they have a hard time accepting things and wish they could be back in their home.

I imagine that’s all pretty normal.  Some of you reading this may be older and in living situations you did not choose.  And I imagine you’ve gone through some of these same things.  As the saying goes, old age isn’t for cowards, and I know you understand that much better than I do.

It kind of reminds me of what Jesus said to Peter at the end of the gospel of John:  “When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”  All of us want to be able to do what we want to do when we want to do it.  It’s very hard when suddenly we have to live on someone else’s schedule, and do what they want us to do when they want us to do it.  It’s not much fun when that happens.

But it’s inevitable.  It will happen to all of us if we live long enough.  There’s no way around it.  Our human bodies are only designed to last for so long.  We can like that, or we can not like it, but our liking or not liking it does not change it.  It’s just the way it is.

But you know, as Christians, we should never really be think that we can do what we want to do when we want to do it anyway.  As Christians, our lives should not be about what we want.  Our lives should be about what God wants.  Rather than doing what we want to do when we want to do it, we should focus on doing what God wants us to do when God wants us to do it.  That should always be our goal.

How can we do that?  Well, it seems to me that the number one thing we need to do is pray.  Pray that God will help us open our hearts to God’s Holy Spirit.  Pray that God will help us submit ourselves to God’s will.  Pray that God will give us the faith to do that even when God’s will is different from ours.  Pray that God will give us the trust to do that even when God’s will does not make any sense to us.  Pray that God will give us the courage to do that even when God’s will takes us to places we don’t want to be and asks us to do things we don’t want to do.  Pray for the ability to believe that God’s will is always better than ours, that God’s plans are always better than ours, and that God’s timing is always better than ours.

So let’s not focus on doing what we want to do when we want to do it.  Let’s focus on doing what God wants us to do when God wants us to do it.  Let’s submit ourselves to God’s will, rather than focusing on our will.  When we do, God will show us the way.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Rule of Love

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 14, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 13:10-17.

            How do you feel about rules?
            It seems to me that, a lot of times, we human beings have kind of a love/hate relationship with them.  On the one hand, we don’t like it when someone thinks they have the right to tell us what to do.  We don’t like rules that keep us from doing the things we want to do.  We don’t like rules that seem unfair to us.
            And we really don’t like it when we have to live by rules that are imposed on us by someone else.  We feel like, well, if there have to be rules, and if I have to live by them, I should at least get some say in what they are.  I should not have to live by someone else’s rules, without having any input on what those rules are going to be.
            But on the other hand, there are times when we like rules.  After all, if we were going to play a game, what’s the first thing you’d want to know?  What are the rules, right?  What am I supposed to do?  What can I not do?  Rules are necessary if we’re going to play a game, no matter what the game is.
            That’s true of all society, too.  Rules are necessary.  And we need to know what they are.  And we also need to know that there’s a penalty for breaking the rules.  We especially want to know that when someone hurts us by breaking the rules.  We want that person punished somehow, because it’s not fair.  We all need know what the rules are, and we all need to play by the same rules.
            Now, at this point you may be wondering what all this has to do with our Bible reading for today.  Our Bible reading did not say anything about rules.  Our reading was about the disciples asking Jesus why he always talked in parables, and Jesus’ response to that question.
            Well, it seems to me that when the disciples asked Jesus why he always talked in parables, what they were asking him, in effect, is, why do you beat around the bush so much?  Why don’t you just come out and say what you have to say?  Just give us the rules.  Stop telling all these stories that nobody’s really sure what they mean anyway.  Keep it simple.  Just tell us what we’re supposed to do.  Tell us how we’re supposed to live.  Tell us what the rules are, so we can follow them and keep right with you.
            And I think there are times when you and I can relate to that.  There are a lot of times when we read what Jesus said and we’re kind of left scratching our heads about it.  And it’s not just with the parables, either.  There are a lot of times when we’d like Jesus to just come out and say what he has to say.  Just tell us what to do.  Just give us the rules.  That way we can follow them and know that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.
            Jesus does not do that, of course.  And listen to what he says it the reason why.  Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah and says this:
You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.  For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.  Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.
            You see, one of the things that happens when everything revolves around rules is that we never look beyond what the rules say.  We may hear the rules, but we don’t try to understand the reasons behind the rules.  We may see what the rules say, but we don’t perceive what it is the rules are supposed to accomplish.
            And that can lead to our hearts becoming calloused.  We get so worried about knowing the rules, about doing exactly what the rules say, about following them strictly and to the letter, that we don’t even think about why the rules exist and what they’re for.  We don’t even think about how our strict application of the rules could end up hurting people rather than helping them.
            Some of you may already be thinking of a few weeks ago, when we talked about Jesus breaking the Sabbath law by healing someone on the Sabbath.  The rules said you were not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and healing someone was work.  So, if Jesus had followed the letter of the rules, he would not have healed this person on the Sabbath day.  But Jesus knew that the loving thing to do was heal him.  Jesus knew that the Sabbath law was not intended to keep people from helping others or loving others.  As he said, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.  So Jesus heard and saw the rules, but he also understood and perceived the reasons behind the rules.  And so he acted, not out of a desire to blindly follow rules, but out of a desire to fulfill the purpose behind the rules.
            That’s why Jesus often spoke in parables rather than just giving rules.  The parables he gave--the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, numerous others--were examples to us.  They were examples of how to live in ways that help others and that show love to others.  Jesus did not want us to live our lives in slavish obedience to a set of rules.  He wanted us to live our lives out of love--love for God and love for other people.
            And think about this.  Once we have a set of rules, what’s one of the first things people do?  They try to figure out ways to get around them, right?  They look for loopholes.  They try to figure out ways they can use the rules to their advantage, and often to use them to the disadvantage of someone else.
            That happened in Jesus’ time.  They started out with the Ten Commandments.  Simple.  Ten easy rules for everyone to remember.  And then people started to look for ways around them.  And pretty soon there had to be interpretations, and definitions, and judgments, and before long there were so many rules nobody could even remember them all, much less obey them.
            It’s the same thing with the government.  We started out with the Constitution.  Simple.  Fit on one page.  Now, there are so many laws and rules and regulations and interpretations you would not be able to fit them all into this sanctuary, at least not if you put them on shelves and left enough room for people to walk between them.  It is literally impossible for anyone to know all the law that there is in this country.  There’s just too much of it.
            And it’s the same in the United Methodist church.  Our governing document is called the Book of Discipline.  This is the 1892 version.  Small.  Simple.  Compact.  This is the 2012 version.  Three times as many pages.  Bigger pages.  And this does not even include the Book of Resolutions, which is two or three times bigger than the Book of Discipline.
            In fact, remember what prompted Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan?  A guy comes up to Jesus wanting to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life.  In other words, he wanted to know the rules.  Jesus says to him, basically, you know the rules as well as I do.  What do they say?  And the guy recites them.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  And Jesus says, see, you already know the rules.  And the guy then asks, “And who is my neighbor?”  
            Looking for loopholes.  We’re all looking for loopholes.  This guy was hoping Jesus would give him a list of rules.  That way, he could figure out how he could get around them, doing what he wanted to do while still technically obeying those rules.  But Jesus did not give him a list of rules.  Jesus gave him one rule--the rule of love.
            There are no loopholes in the rule of love.  Jesus does not allow them.  Jesus tells us to love even our enemies.  Jesus tells us love people who curse us.  Jesus tells us to love people who persecute us.  There are never any exceptions to Jesus’ rule of love.  There is never a time when Jesus tells us that it’s okay for us not to love someone.  Every time someone asks Jesus a question about what they should do, how they should act, how they should live, Jesus’ answer is always love.
And notice something else.  Jesus’ rule of love is personal.  It’s something that each of us is supposed to do personally.  Jesus never gives us an example where we can shift the responsibility to love someone over to someone else.  Jesus never gives us an example where we can pay someone else to show love in our place.  Jesus never gives us an example where we can encourage someone else to show love for us.  Jesus law of love applies to each of us directly.  Each of us needs to show love ourselves.  No exceptions.
            Jesus did not want us to be rule-keepers.  And he certainly did not want us to be loophole-seekers.  So, Jesus did not give us a list of rules.  Jesus gave us examples to live up to.  Jesus gave us stories to show us how to live in the rule of love.

            So let’s not be hearing but not understanding.  Let’s not be seeing but not perceiving.  Let’s not let our hearts become calloused.  Instead, let’s follow Jesus’ rule of love.  Let’s see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and understand with our hearts.  Then, we can truly call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Confirmation Sunday

We had Confirmation Sunday this week.  That’s one of my favorite Sundays of the year.  It’s always wonderful to welcome new people into the church, of course.  But my favorite part of the day is listening to the students read their statements of faith.

Confirmation class ran from September through the first part of May.  We met every week.  We covered a wide variety of topics.  We covered some of the Old Testament and some of the New Testament.  We talked about church history in general and United Methodist history in particular.  We tried to hit as many of the important points of our Christian faith, and of our faith as United Methodists, as we can.

And after a while, as the one who leads the class, I start to wonder.  Are they getting any of it?  Are they understanding any of the stuff I’m trying to teach them?  Are they really growing in their faith?  Are they really feeling a stronger connection with God?  Do they understand what it means to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior?  Or is this stuff just bouncing off them?  Are they just here because their parents made them come, and so they’ll do the minimum they have to do to get through it?  Or do they really want to know more about God and to be able to open their hearts to the leading of the Holy Spirit?

Those of you who’ve taught anything—church school, regular school, or have just tried to teach anyone anything—will understand this.  You’re doing your best, you’re trying to teach them the best way you know how.  You hope they’re getting it—but are they?  A lot of times, it can be really hard to tell.

And then comes Confirmation Sunday.  And the students read their statements of faith.  And I think, yes!  Yes, they are getting it!  They are growing in their faith!  They do feel a stronger connection with God and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior!  They were not just sitting there letting this stuff bounce of them.  They actually absorbed some of it.  More than that, they actually thought about it!  They really are trying to get closer to God and to let themselves be led by God’s Holy Spirit!

It’s a wonderful feeling.  It’s one of the best feelings you get as a pastor.  It’s a good feeling I’ll carry with me for weeks to come.

You know, if you watch the news, it’s easy to get discouraged about young people.  But I can tell you there are some really awesome young people around here.  And we have some of them in our parish.  It makes me feel pretty good to know that.  I hope it makes you feel pretty good, too.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Just What We Always Wanted

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 7, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 11:2-19.

Have you ever had a time when you really wanted something?  I don’t mean just kind of casually hoping for something.  I mean really, really wanting something, wanting it so much that you think about it almost every day.  And then, you get the thing you wanted, and--you have a hard time believing it.  You think, is this really true?  Did this really happen?  Do I really have this thing that I wanted so much?
Well, we’ll come back to that.  We’ve been looking at the life of Jesus more or less in chronological order.  At this point in Jesus’ life, he’s been in active ministry for probably a couple of years.  That means Jesus is starting to get a reputation.  People are hearing about these miracles he’s performed.  They’re hearing about the people he’s healed.  They’re hearing about the things he’s been saying, too.
            One of the people who heard about all this was John the Baptist.  This is the part of John the Baptist’s life we don’t talk about too much.  We talk about how John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Jesus.  We talk about how John the Baptist baptized Jesus.  But then, we just kind of let John the Baptist fall out of the story and focus on Jesus instead.
            That’s understandable.  And of course, John the Baptist himself said that Jesus was much more important than he was.  But still, after John baptized Jesus, he did not just go away and retire or something.  He was still an important person.  He was still preaching and he was still baptizing.  He did not hesitate to speak his mind and he did not hesitate to declare the need for people to repent of their sins.  And he did not hesitate to say that even the King, King Herod, was a sinner who needed to repent of his sins.
            That did not sit well with King Herod.  So, Herod had John the Baptist arrested and thrown in jail.  And that was where John was at the time of our Bible reading for today.
            But as we said, John the Baptist heard about what Jesus was doing and saying, even in prison.  So, John sends some people to Jesus to ask him one question.  They ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
            Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read that, I think, how can John ask that question?  I’d have thought that if there was anyone who knew who Jesus was, it was John the Baptist.  I mean, by earthly reckoning, they were related.  Jesus’ earthly mother, Mary, and John’s mother, Elizabeth, were related to each other.  In fact, in the first chapter of Luke, we read about Mary going to visit Elizabeth while she was pregnant with Jesus.  And Elizabeth instantly knew that Mary was going to give birth to the Savior.  Surely she must have told John about that, right?  So why would John send people to ask Jesus if he was the Savior?  He should’ve known that already.
            And then, there’s the story of Jesus’ baptism.  We talked about that earlier in this sermon series.  Jesus comes out of the water, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  And of course, John is right there.  You’d think he’d have to have heard that.  So again, why would John send people to ask Jesus if he was the Savior?  He should’ve known that already.
            And that gets me back to the question I asked at the start of this message.  John the Baptist wanted the Savior to come.  He wanted it more than anything in his life.  He’d spent his entire life doing everything he could to prepare the way for the Savior to come.  He completely dedicated to getting as many people as possible ready for the coming of the Savior.
            And then the Savior came.  And John the Baptist knew he had come.  He heard the voice from heaven saying so.  He heard all the reports of everything he was doing.  And yet.  And yet.  He still was not quite sure.  He had wanted this so much, and yet now that it had happened, he hesitated.  He wanted to trust.  He wanted to have faith.  But could he?  Could he really trust that this was the Savior?  What if he’d gotten something wrong?  What if he put his trust in Jesus, and it somehow did not work out?  John wanted this so much, and yet, he was afraid to actually believe it had happened.  He could not quite bring himself to believe that the Savior, whom he had waited for all his life, was actually here.
            I think we all have times when that’s where we are.  We want to believe in Jesus Christ.  We want to surrender our life to him.  And yet.  And yet.  We hesitate.  We’re just not quite sure.  We want to trust the Lord.  We want to have faith.  But can we?  Can we really trust that Jesus is the Lord, the Savior?  What if we’ve gotten something wrong?  What if we put our trust in the Lord and it somehow does not work out?  We want to believe.  Sometimes we really, really want to believe.  And yet, we’re afraid to actually believe.  We cannot quite bring ourselves to believe that Jesus Christ really is the Savior.  We cannot quite trust him.
            Jesus does not get mad at John for sending these people to ask the question they asked.  He does not criticize John the Baptist for his lack of trust.  He just tells them, look, go tell John what you’ve seen and heard.  Tell him everything there is to tell about me.  Tell him about all the people I’ve healed.  Tell him about the things I’ve said.  Tell him what he’s heard is true.  He’ll know what it means.  Just tell him.
            What Jesus was telling John’s people to do, in effect, is to remind John of what he already knew.  And a lot of times, that’s what we need to do--be reminded of what we already know.  We know all the things the Bible says about the Savior.  We know the things it says he said and did.  We also know all the times when we’ve felt the Lord working in our lives.  We know all the times we were in a tough spot and the Lord helped us out.  We know all the times when it looked like things were going against us and we did not know what to do and somehow it all still worked out all right.  We know all the times God has been there for us.  We know all the times God’s Holy Spirit has worked in and through us.  We know that we can trust the Lord.  We just need to be reminded of it.  Or, sometimes, we may need someone else to remind us of it.
            And sometimes, we need to be the ones who remind others.  Because we know there are a lot of people out there who are struggling with their faith.  If you and I, who are in church, struggle with truly believing in Jesus Christ; if you and I, who are in church, struggle trusting God enough to truly turn every aspect of our lives over to God; then how much more are people going to struggle who are not going to church anywhere?
            This is not said in a judgmental way.  It’s not for me to judge anyone’s faith.  That kind of judgment is God’s job, not my job.  But there are lots of people out there who struggle with this.  There are a lot of people, right here in this community, who would say they believe in God, who would say they believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, but who struggle with really trusting God enough to really surrender our lives to him.  
They’re afraid.  They’re scared.  They don’t know what will happen if they really surrender their lives to God.  Often, they want to believe it would be something wonderful, but--what if it’s not?  And so, again, they hesitate.
They know they need God in their lives.  But they need to be reminded, just like we need to be reminded.  They need to be reminded of who Jesus is.  They need to be reminded of how much they need him.  And if we don’t remind them, who will?  And I don’t mean we as United Methodists.  I mean we as Christians.  If we, as Christians, don’t remind people of how much they need God who will?  If we, as Christians, don’t remind people of all the things God has done, who will?  If we, as Christians, don’t help people get over their fear and get over their hesitation, who will?  If we, as Christians, don’t tell people everything there is to tell about Jesus Christ and remind them of who Jesus is, who will?
That thing that we’ve always wanted, that thing that we’ve been waiting for all our lives--it’s here!  It’s actually here!  So let’s stop hesitating.  Let’s stop being scared.  Let’s truly turn our lives over to the Lord, knowing that God really can be trusted with our lives.  And let’s help others turn their lives over to the Lord, too.  Let’s help them know that God really can be trusted with their lives.  Our salvation is here.  Now.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

All the Trouble in the World

There’s a lot of sadness in the world.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that.  Every week we see at least one obituary in the local paper, maybe two or three or even more.  That means, every week, there are families around us are grieving because they have lost someone they love.  And of course, because grief is not something you get over in a week, the number of families around us who are grieving keeps getting bigger every week.  If you think about how many families there are right in our own area who’ve lost someone they love, the total seems overwhelming.

And then there’s the number of hospitalizations.  For months now, we have constantly had a few people in the Gettysburg hospital.  Sometimes it’s been as many as six or seven or even eight.  For those of you reading this in large towns, it may seem laughable to call that a lot, but for here, it’s a tremendously large number.  And of course, that does not count the people from here who are in the hospital in Pierre or Aberdeen or Sioux Falls or Rapid City.  It also does not count the number of people who are at home, but are dealing with illnesses or injuries on an everyday basis.  If you think about how many families there are right in our own are who are dealing with serious illnesses or injuries to a loved one, the total seems overwhelming.

And there are all kinds of other problems.  People have financial problems.  They have problems in their family relationships.  They have problems at work.  They feel alone.  They have all kinds of other problems, too.  And that just deals with the everyday problems of people in our area.  We haven’t even talked about people who are the victims of storms, the victims of violent crime, or all sorts of other things.  We also haven’t talked about dangerous situations in our country or in the world.  When you add it all up, the sadness there is in the world seems overwhelming.

I haven’t told you all this to depress you.  But the truth is, though, that we all think about these things sometimes, and we all get depressed when we do.  And what makes the depression worse is that it seems like there’s nothing we can do about any of it.  Again, it seems overwhelming.

But there is good news, and here it is:  we have a God who is overwhelming.  You and I cannot even imagine how overwhelming God is.  God is overwhelmingly great.  God is overwhelmingly good.  God is overwhelmingly powerful.   God is overwhelming in all kinds of other ways, too.

Because God is so overwhelming, we don’t have to be depressed when we think of all the trouble in the world.  You and I may not be able to do anything about these things, but God can.  So what we need to do, again, is go to God and ask God to help us open our hearts and open our souls to God’s Holy Spirit.  Tell God the problems.  Be open to God using you to solve the problems, but don’t try to force a solution.  Let the solution happen in God’s way and in God’s time.  Be alert to see the chances God gives you, but don’t think that you have to solve things.  Leave it to God, trusting that God has the power and the wisdom and the strength to solve anything.

When your problems seem overwhelming, remember that we have an overwhelming God.  And remember that, no matter how things may seem, the Bible promises us that God is going to win in the end.  And remember that, as long as we have faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, the Bible promises that we are going to win in the end, too.