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Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Awareness of God

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 30, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 21:5-36.

            In our sermon series on the earthly life of Jesus, we’ve come to the events of Holy Week.  As we said last week, in the actual Holy Week, we tend to go right from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday.  We skip over the events of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
            There are a couple of reasons we do that.  One is just the lack of time.  There’s a lot of stuff that happened in that time frame, and even with extra services there’s only so much of it we have time to talk about.
            But I think there’s another reason we tend to skip over these things.  See, at this point, Jesus knows his time is getting very short.  He knows he only has a few days left to tell people everything they need to know.  And so, as you may have already noticed in recent sermons, Jesus’ tone becomes a lot more serious.  He’s talking about real life and death matters.  And not just earthly life and death.  He’s talking about eternal life and death matters.
            And what Jesus says about those things sometimes makes us uncomfortable.  Today, for example, Jesus is talking about the end times.  He’s talking about Christians being persecuted for their faith.  He’s talking about Christians being betrayed by their families and their closest friends.  He talks about a time of punishment, when all kinds of disasters are going to happen.
            Quite frankly, a lot of times, we’d rather not deal with that.  And I fall into that trap, too.  It’s a lot easier to hear about God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes will not perish but will have everlasting life.  It’s a lot easier to hear about how God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him.  It’s a lot easier to hear about how the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself.  And to be honest, it’s a lot easier to preach those things, too.
            But that’s a trap.  And we fall into it at our peril.  Now don’t get me wrong.  All those things I just mentioned are very important.  We need to hear those things sometimes, and I need to preach them sometimes.  But we cannot just stop there.  When Jesus said the things we read from Luke Twenty-one, he was not talking to himself.  He was not talking just to make noise.  In fact, this is the last long speech of Jesus’ that Luke records.  This was one of Jesus’ last chances to tell the disciples, and us, things we need to know about what’s going to come before the end.  So I think it’s really important that we hear and pay attention to what Jesus had to say.
            You already heard it, but let me repeat a few of his words.  “Many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am he’ and ‘The time is near.’  Do not follow them.”  “Nation will rise against nation...There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences.”  “They will lay hands on you and persecute you.”  “There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.  They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations.”
            It’s possible, of course, to hear or read those words and apply them to today.  And some people do that.  They believe that we’re in the end times now.  If you believe that, I’m not going to argue with you.  Your beliefs on that, either way, are your beliefs, and there’s no way to prove who might be right or wrong.
            Jesus’ point, though, was not to say a specific time when the end times were going to come.  In fact, he once said that even he did not know exactly when the end times would be, that only God the Father knew that.  His point, though, was that it could happen any time.  It could happen a hundred thousand years from now, but it could happen this year.  Or this week.  Or today.  We don’t know.  And because it could happen at any time, we need to always be ready.  “Always be on the watch” is how Jesus put it.  Be prepared at all times, so whenever the final judgment comes we’re ready for it.
            Now, that does not mean that we should constantly be scanning the skies looking to see if Jesus is coming.  But what it does mean is that we should live our lives with the awareness that Jesus could come at any time.  And it means we should live our lives with the awareness of God working in and through us, leading us and guiding us.  We need to live our lives with an awareness of God’s presence at all times and in everything we do.
And the way we can do that is to open ourselves up to God’s Holy Spirit.  Truly open our hearts and open our souls to God.  I know I’ve said that before, but it’s one thing to say the words and another thing to mean them, and it’s still another thing to put them into practice.  I may say the words, but I fail at doing it many times.  Maybe you do, too, I don’t know.
            It can be hard for us live with that awareness of God in our lives.  Jesus knew that.  He knew why, too.  Listen to what he says:  “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.”
            That word “dissipation” is one we don’t use much any more.  In fact, I don’t know when the last time is that I have used it.  But here’s what it means:  it means squandering.  Frittering away.  Wasting.  Misspending.
            How many of us do that with our time?  Squander it.  Fritter it away.  Waste it.  Misspend it.  Maybe you don’t, I don’t know.  But if you don’t, I envy you.  Because I do.  That’s the trap.  We think we have plenty of time.  That each day, each hour, each minute, is not all that important.  That we don’t have to think about God right now.  We can do it later.  There’s no hurry.  We can get right with God some other time.  
Maybe you and I do have plenty of time, but maybe we don’t.  And that may have nothing to do with the end times.  Even if the End Times are a long way off, each of us will have our own personal end time, when we leave this earth and face judgment.  And none of us knows when that day will be.
            Now, understand, I’m not saying we can never take any time to relax, that we can never get any rest.  Even Jesus took some time to rest.  We need to unplug once in a while, to recharge our batteries, to refresh ourselves.  But even then, we should not just be frittering away our time.  We should not be wasting it.  Even in our relaxation time, we need to live with the awareness of God in our lives.  We should not take a vacation from God.  We should not take a vacation from being Christians.
            Look at what else Jesus says can be a trap.  We get weighed down with “the anxieties of life”.  Boy, do we ever.  We worry about all kinds of things, don’t we?  And I’m not being critical of that.  Life does have anxieties.  We worry if we have enough money to pay our bills.  We worry if we’ll keep our health.  We worry if we’ll have and keep people in our lives who love us and care about us.  We worry if we’ll find and keep jobs that give us some satisfaction.  We worry about the people we care about, too, and whether they’ll have all these things.
            Now to some extent that’s normal.  None of those things is an unreasonable thing to be concerned about.  But sometimes we get so concerned about the “anxieties of life” that we let God get crowded out.  We stop living with that awareness of God in our lives.  We don’t intend to.  Sometimes we’re even praying to God.  But we stop feeling that connection to God.  We stop feeling God with us.  We stop feeling God working with us.  We stop trusting God to guide us and help us through life.  Again, we don’t intend to.  But we let these worries, these concerns, these “anxieties of life” get to us.  We let them get in the way of our relationship with God.  We let them get in the way of our ability to have faith in God and trust God.
            As I said, Jesus knew this could happen to us.  And he told us what to do about it.  He put it into the context of being persecuted, but I think it applies to all of these things.  And besides, let’s face it, when these anxieties, these concerns, these worries get the best of us, it feels like we’re being persecuted, right?  Not in a physical sense, but in an emotional and psychological sense.
            So here’s what Jesus said:  “Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves.  For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict….Not a hair of your head will perish.  Stand firm, and you will win life.”
            If we trust in Jesus, you and I can avoid these traps.  We can avoid the temptation to dissipate our time, to fritter it away.  We can avoid the temptation to let the worries and concerns and anxieties of life get the best of us.  We can rely on Jesus’ words.  We can rely on Jesus’ wisdom.  We can be aware of God’s Holy Spirit with us always, guiding us and helping us through life.  We can live that awareness of the presence of God at all times.
            So let’s do it.  Let’s open our hearts and our souls to God.  Let’s feel God’s Holy Spirit leading us through our lives.  Then, we’ll be ready.  Whether the End Times come or our own personal end time comes, we’ll be ready.  We will stand firm.  And we will win life.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Power of Prayer

A week and a half ago, we were incredibly dry in Gettysburg.  So, on Monday of last week, I spent much of the day posting songs on facebook that had to do with rain.  “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, “Rainy Day People”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”, etc., etc.  I called it a virtual rain dance.  And, sure enough, early Tuesday morning it rained.  And Wednesday morning it rained some more.  And Friday night, it rained some more.

So, did my virtual rain dance cause it to rain?  Well, no. I don’t really think so.  But it does bring up a point, which is this:  to what extent, if any, do our prayers change what happens?  Or, to put it another way, can we influence God with our prayers?

There’s no question that we try.  Lots of people have been praying for rain.  When someone we care about is sick, we pray that God will heal them.  When someone loses a job, we pray that God will help them find another one.  But do our prayers influence God?  Does God act differently because of our prayers?

I don’t know.  On the one hand, I don’t believe that God is waiting to hear from me before he plans His day.  On the other hand, Jesus told us that we could pray for the things we want and that God knows how to give good gifts to God’s children.  On the one hand, I don’t think God says, “Well, if Jeff prays for this person to be healed I’ll heal them, but if not, well, too bad for them.”  On the other hand, I do pray in all the situations I mentioned in the last paragraph, plus a variety of others.  I must think something is going to happen as a result of my prayers or I wouldn’t bother.  And the fact is that I truly do believe that prayer has power, and I believe that I have seen God at work in answer to prayer.

The bottom line, I guess, is that there’s a lot about prayer I don’t understand.  The reason for that is that there’s a lot about God I don’t understand.  Maybe you feel the same way.

But here’s the thing:  it’s okay.  We’re not expected to understand everything about God.  In fact, if you think about it, it’s not possible for us to understand God.  If you think about who God is:  the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfect God--the God who can be everywhere at once and see everything at once and hear everything at once, the God who exists at the same time in the past, present, and future--how in the world could you and I, as puny and weak and small as we are in comparison, possibly understand God?  There’s no way.  A god that we could understand would not truly be God.

The Bible never tells us that we need to understand everything about God.  It never tells us that we need to understand everything about prayer.  It tells us that we should pray and that we should trust God.

So that’s what I’ll do.  I hope it’s what you’ll do, too.  Continue to pray.  Continue to pray for the things and the people that are important to you.  Remember to give prayers of thanks as well.  Continue to believe prayer has power.  But also remember to pray the words that Jesus told us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, including these four:  “Thy will be done.”

We can and should bring our concerns to God.  Then, we should trust God, knowing that God knows best, that God loves us, that God is good, and that in the long run, God always wins.  And if we truly believe in God, if we truly trust God, and if we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, then in the long run, you and I will win, too.  Because, after all, the power of prayer is really the power of God.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dare to Be Different

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

Trusting God in the Drought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What Do I Care?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Independence Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Are You Hot?

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

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

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Being There For Each Other

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

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

Saturday, July 1, 2017

God Is In Control

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

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