In the heart of Missoula...


Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors
Celebrating God's love since 1871

"Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" is not just an advertising slogan, but a statement of how First United Methodist Church of Missoula wants to be seen in our community. First Church is a community of open hearts seeking to be a force for God's grace in the "heart" of Missoula's downtown. We are an open minded congregation, respectful of each other yet unafraid of the issues of our time. And we are a church of open doors, welcoming a wide diversity of people to be a part of our congregation. For those who can't manage our stairs, you will find the elevator just inside the street level entrance to the right of the stairs. You will always find a place at First United Methodist Church!

Please visit us at 300 E. Main Street.


star Church services at 8:30 a.m. in the chapel and

10:30 a.m. in the sanctuary

Communion is held each Sunday and all attending are invited to God's Table to share in the meal.
Nursery care will be available to those 5 and under during the services.
There is always a coffee/fellowship time in the Narthex following the service.
You are invited to join us!

sermonby our minister Rev. John Daniels

The Faith and Justice Class will meet in the downstairs Parlor at 9:15 (all year round).

Sunday Opportunities in the Fall:
Sunday School: Children ages 3-12 leave the sanctuary following the 10:30 Children's Time
and meet on the top floor.

A variety of adult classes are also being planned for the fall.

newsletterfor complete details of all that is happening this month in our church.

Upcoming Events - June and July
June 10 Friday Night Out, 6 p.m.
June 16-18 Yellowstone Annual Conference, Helena MT
June 17 Relay for Life
June 26 Administrative Council, 12 noon
June 26 Eagle Watch Service, 1 p.m.
June 28 Book Group, 11 a.m.
July 10 Youth Homes Run for Kids
July 12 August Tower Tidings Deadline
July 24 Book Group, 11 a.m.
July 27 UMW Summer Social, 6 p.m. Bonner Park
July 30 FUMC serves lunch at the Poverello Center


is a Reconciling Congregation.

We welcome all people into the full life and
membership of this congregation.

crossvideoPublication Notice:  Voices of Reconciling Video Available
Click for more information $ 10 includes shipping, $6 to be picked up at church.



Check out our Facebook page. We hope you enjoy it.

crossIn May the FUMC Foundation awarded $8500 in scholarships to seven students.
In November they will consider requests from non-profit groups.

cross UMW Sunday - brought awareness of the Human Trafficking problem in the world.
UMW members gathered with their umbrellas to express their concern for victims of human trafficking.

Under an Umbrella, we are shielded from the storm and protected from the heat.

crossSCAM: A church using the address of 306 E. Main is contacting people saying they have money to donate to them.
If you have gotten such a notice please click here.


New to our Community?



Find out about our church:

Our church is handicap accessible through the street level door on the southeast corner of the building. There is an elevator there that will bring you up to the sanctuary or take you down to fellowship hall. We have large-print bulletins with hymns, large print hymnals, and hearing assistance devices for those that are hard of hearing.
We also have video screens for hymns and scripture. Ask the ushers for help when you arrive and they will find what you need.
Office phone and E-mail contact information on the CONTACT US PAGE.


Reaching out with love to our community and the world hearts

Tzedakah Pocket
Family Promise Host
❤ U of M Wesley House
Host for Homeless Connect
Poverello noon meal 5th Saturdays
Missoula Interfaith Collaborative & January Food Bank Drive
Missoula Food Bank and January Food Drive
YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter
❤ Cub Scouts
Habitat for Humanity
Salvation Army

Intermountain Home
Flathead Lake UMC Camp
Blackfeet United Methodist Parish

East Angola Pastor Support
United Methodist Women’s mission projects
SERRV & Fair Trade Products
Bread for the World
❤ Jubilee for Debt Reduction

 John Daniels
Pastor John Daniels

Administrative Assistants: Sharon Jackson, Rhanda Johnson and Nancy Eik
Treasurer: Leslie Lindley
Financial Secretary: Kay Duffield

Custodian: John Schaff
Childcare Director: Juliette Viera
Nursery Attendants: Faye Gibson, Audra Clark & Juliette Viera

Music Team:
Greg Boris, Music Director and Chancel Choir Director
Peter Edwards, Pianist/Organist
Laura Jacquette, Pianist/Organist 8:30

Brynn Bellingham, Handbell Choir Director
Rhanda Johnson, Joyful Noise Director

hospital **Please let the office know if you or someone in our church family needs a visit in the hospital or at home.
Church Office (406) 549-6118
or Pastor John's cell phone (406) 396-8966.

Office Hours
Monday - Friday: 9 a.m. - noon.
(subject to change - call 549-6118 before coming in or to make an appointment with the pastor)

The life of our church includes:
(Click on colored words to find out more information.)
Adult Spiritual Growth - class descriptions, online class information and
links to The Book of Discipline
Children's Ministries - You Tube Christmas program video
Youth Ministries - FUMY
U of M Wesley Foundation - Facebook link
Amazing Grays - Trips for seniors
Choirs - Chancel Choir, JuBELLation Handbell Choir, Children's Joyful Noise Choir
Foundation - donations and scholarships
Membership - joining the church
Stephen Ministers - caring for one another as we journey through life
Information on what a Stephen Minister does and training information.
Social Action - Family Promise, Poverello, Habitat for Humanity, Intermountain, UMCOR, Angola Partnership, Bread for the World, Jubilee for Debt Reduction
UMW - United Methodist Women schedule and fellowship group information UMW
UMM - United Methodist Men
Walk to Emmaus - Link to their website












First Church loves music and hopes you will come not only to listen but to participate in it! We sing hymns as well as praise songs, often have special music and enjoy all three of our choirs. Choirs practice from September till May.
We love those who volunteer to provide special music during the summer. Call the office if you would like to bless us with your music.

Chancel Choir - September - May Wednesday practice
FUMC Chancel Choir practices and performs during the school year.  Enthusiasm and love of music a must.  Previous experience is not required.  Choir meets Wednesday at 6:30.  All are welcome.  Please join us!  For more information talk to choir director Greg Boris 239-1828.

You Tube video
Retired ministers Hugh Herbert and Barry Padget lead the congregation in singing
Brother Van's Harvest Time. Click on the arrow above to start the video.

JuBELLation Handbell Choir
- September - May Wednesday practice
Interested in learning/playing a new musical instrument? JuBELLation Handbell Choir, based at The First United Methodist Church, is looking for individuals interested in learning or experienced at playing handbells this season!  There are several ways to get involved and be part of this fun group!  Openings include: Full Time, Part Time, and On-call positions. During the school year practice is each Wednesday from 6-8. Brynn Bellingham, Director.

bunnyJoyful Noise Children's Choir
- September - May Tuesday practice
All children from the 1st through the 8th grade are welcome to participate in making a Joyful Noise. During the school year they participate in worship once a month and rehearse on Tuesdays from 6:00 - 6:45 p.m.
Contact Rhanda Johnson in the office (549-6118) for more information.

Adult Spiritual Growth Groups
Do you feel like you are on a spiritual journey? We hope you will allow us to walk with you on this journey and together we will find the answers to our questions. Classes will meet on Sunday morning, Tuesday morning, and Tuesday evening.

Sunday morning: Faith and Justice at 9:15 in Parlor

Interested in online adult classes? Click on UMC classes for more information.
Looking for a specific Bible Verse? Click on Bible Verse Search

The Book of Discipline is available online for your study and review: The Book of Discipline Index, The Book of Discipline Part 1,The Book of Discipline Part 2 and The Book of Resolutions 2012 Part III.

Children's Ministries
September - May Sunday School meets at 9:15 between services and is for  Preschool - 6th grade. Our Rock Solid program is a
Bible study that enables children to experience God through Jesus Christ.  Activities will include stories, crafts, music and scripture. 

Call the church office (549-6118) for more information. Nursery care is available for those not ready for preschool.


You Tube You can watch a You Tube video of the Twelve Days of Christmas given by the children during church December 8, 2013.
 Click on the You Tube logo.

First United Methodist Youth Fellowship (FUMY)
7th through 12th grade students meet most Wednesday evenings at 5:30 p.m. from September until May.
They do service projects, make discoveries about themselves and others, and have fun!

Wesley Foundation - University of Montana Campus Ministry
New to Campus? Connect with us! Campus Connection
The University of Montana Wesley House is located across the street from the campus and Miller Hall at 1327 Arthur Avenue.
College students and visitors are welcomed to stop by for a vis
it. Sunday evenings are family style dinners and Thursday evenings are a Bible Study.
For more information E-mail the Wesley House or Phone: (406) 274-3346.
Join us on facebook
Local Churches: Please send the names of U of M students from your local church to the Wesley Foundation
so they can be invited to join the
Wesley House activities.
Students are welcomed at either First or Grace UMC in Missoula.

UMW logoUnited Methodist Women Facebook
Our UMW is part of the Yellowstone Conference, which covers Montana, 1/2 Wyoming and a slice of Idaho.
You can find information on Conference and District UMW activities on the conference UMW web page.

The National organization of United Methodist Women also has a website full of information, news, and resources

. UMWUMW is open to any woman who would enjoy the companionship of other women and is someone who is dedicated to supporting missions near and far. UMW raises money for mission projects locally, in Montana, nationally and globally. UMW meets the first Thursday Oct-Dec and Feb-May. All meetings are at 1:00 for dessert, program and business meeting, unless otherwise announced in the church newsletter.
Other activities include: Ash Wednesday Soup Supper, July picnic for families who will attend a community band concert at Bonner Park afterward, October Apple Pie sales, and December Candy Sale.
Contact President Klairaine Nichwander 396-1663 for more information.

** UMW Fellowship Circles meet once a month. Nothing compares to a small supportive group of women!

All women of the church are invited to visit groups that interest them.
GEMS Fellowship meets the third Thursday at 7 p.m. in the church library Sept-May
This group of working women is particularly interested in the UMW Reading program and are supportive of one another.
Chair: Laela Shimer 721-1960

L.A.N.S. Fellowship meets the second Monday at 11:30 a.m. for lunch at a restaurant from Sept-Dec and Feb-May.
They are women Living Actively in the New Society. They are interested in social action in the community as well as fellowship.
Chairman: Ellie Barnes 549-1384
RUTH Fellowship meets the second Thursday at 10:00 a.m. in the church parlor Oct-May.
They invite you to come and share their fellowship, coffee, a monthly program, and outreach to church members who need a little TLC and support of missions like the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter.

Chairmen: Kay Duffield 543-6722 or Judy Whiddon 258-2719
VESPERS Fellowship meets the third Wednesday at 1:00 in homes Sept-May
They have been meeting together for a long time which has led to many long friendships. They invite you to their program and meeting. Chairman: Kay Norum 721-5750

**Special Interest Groups:
Book Group meets the fourth Thursday at 11 a.m. in the church library
year round.
Co-Chair: Laurie Ball 926-1252 & Jackie Krahn 543-3979
Knitting Group meets on Saturdays at 10:00 in homes year round.
Chairman: Carole Addis 721-1817

UMMen logoMen's Fellowship Group
The Mighty Methodist Men meet 1st & 3rd Saturdays, at 8 a.m. in the Church Library.

Stephen Ministry ChurchSM logo
Stephen Ministers help with prayer requests each Sunday and serve communion.
As a congregation we participate in Stephen Ministries, where trained Stephen Ministers walk with those whose lives are in turmoil for one reason or another. Anyone in our church family can request a Stephen Minister for themselves. Members of the congregation are encouraged to consider doing the 50-hours of training and helping others in this way. As a Stephen Minister you often find tools to help in your own life as well as nurture your care receiver. More information can be found at:
What is a Stephen Minister?
Call Kay at 543-6722 or Peg at 542-1543 for more information.

Amazing Grays
The Amazing Grays are a group of church members who have been blessed with some gray hairs. They get together once a month for companionship and an enjoyable time. They go out to dinner, have a pot-luck and game night at the church, a holiday party or sometimes make a day trip by bus to some place in Montana. Friends are always welcome. Rides will be provided for those who no longer drive. Participants may sign up following church for the current activities.

New Members are received throughout the year. To learn more, please contact Pastor John Daniels by stopping by or calling the church office at 549-6118.
New Member class currently under way.

Missoula First United Methodist Church Foundation:
Donations and bequests to the Foundation are used for charitable giving, scholarships and fulfilling the church's mission. Brochure with more information on charitable giving and bequests to the Foundation is available by clicking on Foundation Brochure.
Foundation Scholarships: The Foundation offers two scholarships each Spring. The Foundation Scholarship is for an active member of our church and The Katie Payne Scholarship is for a woman pursuing a nursing or medical arts career or a career in law, government or public service. Click on the blue scholarship name above for the application.
The packet containing your application, transcript, and two letters of recommendation must be postmarked April 15th or earlier.

Walk to Emmaus Fourth Day groups for men and women also meet at the church. Walk to Emmaus weekends for men and women are held each spring. Please check out the Walk website at: www.WesternMTWalk.com
Members from other Walk communities are welcome and encouraged to help with the Walks, come to Gatherings and join 4h Day groups.
More Emmaus Community Information from Upper Room.


Social Action - Love in Motion

We give of our time, talent and gifts to local agencies such as Poverello and Family Promise, to state agencies such as the Blackfeet Parish and the Intermountain Home in Helena, to national missions through mission shares, and globally we are supporting a pastor in Angola with a monthly check. We are also a Jubilee Church to help poor countries with their debt.

Family promise logoFirst United Methodist Church of Missoula is part of 19+ churches who are working to house 3-4 homeless families with children. For more information or to volunteer please contact Barbara Blanchard Mahoney at 493-6713 or go to their website: http://familypromisemissoula.net/

I was hungry and you fed me...
Come feed God's people lunch 4 or 5 times a year at the Poverello Center.
We work at the Pov whenever there is a 5th Saturday.
Call the church office to sign up (549-6118).

We are a church partner with Missoula's Habitat for Humanity We invite you to join us for a work day! Contact the office at 549-6118 for more information.

Intermountain is a nationally accredited non-profit organization. They provide mental health and
educational services to effectively meet the diverse needs of children and families facing emotional challenges. Their primary services include: residential treatment, community-based services, and community trainings. Operating for more than 100 years, Intermountain is one of Montana’s oldest child welfare agencies.

We care about others. We participate in giving relief to victims of natural disasters through UMCOR. Our church gives generously to those affected by natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis and will continue to support UMCOR when it heads to new disasters.



jubilee Each Easter we celebrate with a brunch following the Sunrise Service. Proceeds from this breakfast go to support the Jubilee Debt Campaign. To find out more about the campaign go to http://www.jubileeusa.org/home.html


Bread for the World is a non-partisan, Christian citizens' movement in the United States to end hunger. The organization describes itself as a collective Christian voice urging nation's decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.



Special Days. Special Ways. We reach out to the world with Special Offerings

Human Relations Day -February
One Great Hour of Sharing - March
Native American Ministries - April
Peace With Justice - May
World Communion - October
United Methodist Student Day - November
For more information go to: www.umcgiving.org















Sermons by Pastor John Daniels

June 26, 2016 - Summary of General Conference held in Helena June, 2016

Disability Awareness Sunday
The Discipline, the book of procedure and legislation of the United Methodist Church, states that the church is to be inclusive, and that it should enable every person to participate in its life (¶ 139). It further states that all persons with "mental, physical, developmental, neurological, and psychological conditions or disabilities" are fully human and full members of God's family, with a rightful place in church and society. In recognition of this status, the church is to be in ministry with all people who have any special need, and to enable their full participation in its activities. The church is also to be an advocate for equality (¶ 162, emphasis added).
To recognize and affirm these statements, a Disability Awareness Sunday is to be observed annually. The date is determined by each Annual Conference. An offering may be received for disability ministries if the conference chooses to do so (¶ 265).
Petition #101R  - Establish Disability Awareness Sunday as a special offering within the Yellowstone Annual Conference Designate the first Sunday of February annually as a special offering for Disability Awareness Sunday, and establish a Fund within the YAC accounting to support distribution of educational materials and offer grants to support local churches in an effort to educate congregations to raise awareness, led by the Holy Spirit, to respond to and live into an invitation made in the "Paragraph 265.4 of the 2012 Book of Discipline states : Disability Awareness Sunday shall be observed annually on a date to be determined by the annual conference. Disability Awareness Sunday calls the Church to celebrate the gifts and graces of persons with disabilities and calls the Church and society to full inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community." (2012 Book of Discipline) Amend Rule A350 (Guiding Values Team) adding “ Disability Awareness” to the offerings administered by that team.  
Process Committee moved the adoption of Petition 201R It was presented by David Burt It is adopted. 
ACTS OF REPENTANCE:  Claiming our past in the Methodist system of faith living – a local pastor in the Methodist Church, Colonel John Chivington
The following are some of the words at the listening gatherings that we have heard over the last several years.

52 A Way Forward provides that the Council of Bishops shall appoint a special Commission “to develop a 53 complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding 54 human sexuality” and that the Council of Bishops will “maintain an on-going dialogue with this 55
Commission” and that if they complete their work in time, report to a called General Conference before 56 the regular 2020 General Conference;  57  58 The Yellowstone Annual Conference supports A Way Forward, and endorses the leadership of the 59 Council of Bishops and the 2016 General Conference in its decision to address discrimination against 60 lesbian and gay persons currently in the Book of Discipline; 61  62 Social Principle ¶161F, Book of Discipline provisions ¶341.6 and ¶304.3, and other sections conflict with 63 the Constitution of the United Methodist church which provides that “all persons are of sacred worth,” 64 and “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. 65 We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” 66  67 Our United Methodist connection calls us to treat well-intentioned, well-reasoned differences of opinion 68 with mutual respect rather than insisting upon a verdict or language that rejects one side or the other; now
Reconciling Congregations
Movie:  “An Act of Love” – Rev. Frank Schaefer; A documentary about the trial that rocked the United Methodist Church and the minister who risked it all for his son. 
Sharing our church’s video:  “Why Be Reconciling?  What It Means to Those in the Pews”
Reflections on General Conference……
Asking BOM to ignore sexuality criteria for ordinands……
No action; but New England Annual Conference had stated they will not consider sexuality criteria….Desert South-West and California-Pacific are urging the same.

Open Spaces Vision Process:
The best way to describe the “Open Space” process is a daylong “coffee break” where participants will create the agenda and work together. Each participant will be able to propose and co‐lead all the conversations they want to have with those participants interested in the same issues for as long as they desire‐‐no lectures, no conference tracks, no speakers, no time limits, no predetermined set of issues, only those issues that matter most to them.
During the “Open Space” process, you and participants from the local community will set the agenda by identifying specific topics and issues that are important to the community and that should be highlighted and addressed in a session or sessions during the summit. Your active participation throughout the entire day is expected to ensure that the “Open Space” process works to the maximum benefit of all participants — including identifying initiatives/issues for community action after the summit.
Principles of the “Open Space” Process

Open Space Outcomes:

The event is free of charge, but pre-event registration is required because space is limited. Please fill out the online formal request to participate. For more information, please contact Colleen Moore at moorec@udmercy.edu or 313-993-1047.
Mission Engagement – Habitat for Humanity, Covenant Garden, Intermountain; Tug of Love
Interview Demonstrations – how to engage professionals/invested individuals who work on behalf of the marginalized; also, prayer walks throughout town….
Closing of Lemhi Church – process, details…..Transitional Ministry director on site (new position)
Worship services and moments – Retirement; memorial; opening, closing worship;
Spotlight moments – highlighting ministries in YAC to the marginalized….Healing Communities, Addiction Recovery, Soul Repair, other local efforts….
Shared Futures – our two conferences becoming one; petition approved; now moves onto Jurisdictional Conference (July gathering); possible by 2018, likely by 2020




June 19, 2016 - Message included a presentation by Jeff and Cheryl Miller on their work at a Sierra Leone orphanage and the message below from Theresa Cox of the Building Fund Finance Committee:

Please listen carefully to this message. It may be the most important thing you ever hear in this church (surprised look on John’s face, maybe stand up-find a way to draw attention to your confusion). The Building Finance Committee has made special arrangements for those who contribute to the Building Fund to get all-inclusive, one-way tickets to Heaven.  Method of travel and accommodations on arrival depend, of course, on the amount of your donation.

What!? Are you saying people can BUY a one-way ticket to Heaven by contributing to the Building Fund?

Well, of course. There are no round trip tickets to Heaven. You should know that!

That’s not what I meant. What makes you think someone can BUY their way to Heaven.

Televangelists. Mega-churches. The Internet. If it’s on the Internet, you know, it has to be true.

Well, it’s not. We can’t BUY our way to Heaven, nor can we earn our way there with good works, no matter how pure our intentions. One gets to spend eternity with God by His grace alone.

Stage Whisper: Hmmm. Then what am I going to tell all these people about why they should contribute to the Building Fund?

How about telling them how the repairs and improvements to the church will help us better take care of ourselves and others, and about how the new building will make it easier for us to fulfill our mission and strengthen our identity and outreach as Missoula’s downtown church?

Well, okay, but what am I going to do with all these tickets?

Why don’t you give them to me? (Pick up a trash can) I have just the place for them…

Good morning.  It’s nice to see all of you here and to have the opportunity to talk about the proposed renovations.

As I usually do when I’m trying to formulate a message, I looked up a definition-on the Internet. Renovation, also referred to as remodeling, is the process of improving a broken, damaged or outdated structure. I think we can all agree our current building fits all those categories-it is broken, damaged and outdated.

Our building is really three buildings. The first was constructed more than one-hundred years ago, with additional space added as it was needed. Those later additions explain much of what is a little wonky about the building. We don’t exactly have stairs that lead to nowhere, but we do have places that are difficult to reach and not of much use once you find them.

Because of the age of the church and the lack of a previous campaign like this one to address all the issues at once, we’ve stumbled along for years, fixing this and that as need dictated. The boiler and the roof have demanded much attention from the Trustees and Ad Council for years, along with much money from the congregation.

Bringing the current structure up to code alone will cost more than half a million dollars. Once those repairs are made, more money is needed to fix the walls and other things that will be disrupted by the repair process. Mitigating dangers posed by asbestos, lack of security and non-ADA compliant access points comes next, along with improvements to our heating, mechanical and electrical systems. All of that work is essential to the health of the building.  Think of it as basic body maintenance, like eating healthier, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and getting new glasses. Those things will help us feel better and have a clearer view of the world.

In addition to basic health management, we are also planning improvements that will help the people of the church use the structure of the church to further the mission of the church. We are an amazingly active and generous church. Between those things we do internally, to serve our own congregation and others, and things we support by offering space and encouragement, we are taxing the ability of this structure to meet the demands of our mission.

It’s time for a little congregational participation. Please stand up or raise your hand (and stay standing or keep up your hand) if you have ever:

Have you ever served on a church committee, sung in the choir, played the bells, fed or led FUMY, attended a UMW or UMM group or celebrated a life event like a wedding, a baptism or a funeral in this church?

Thank you for sharing. You can sit now or put down your hand.

Do you know we also serve as a venue or support for all of these efforts: African Children’s Choir

I’m sure there are more things we do and causes we serve than I’ve mentioned today. Please feel free to let me know what we have not yet noted, so I can add your special interests to the list.

Our website says: "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" is not just an advertising slogan, but a statement of how First United Methodist Church of Missoula wants to be seen in our community. First Church is a community of open hearts seeking to be a force for God's grace in the "heart" of Missoula's downtown. We are an open-minded congregation, respectful of each other yet unafraid of the issues of our time. And we are a church of open doors, welcoming a wide diversity of people to be a part of our congregation.

What a powerful statement that is.  How inspiring and how terrifying to be ‘a force for God’s grace in the heart of downtown.’ To be ‘open-minded, respectful and unafraid.’ To have open doors that invite all.

These things we have acknowledged doing come from within us and are the result of our commitments and energies. But just as we need our own bodies to accomplish that which we find important in this world, we need a space that supports our efforts.

We are at a critical juncture. We have had the meetings, we have discussed the options, we have talked and listened, listened and talked. And we have prayed for guidance. It is time to decide if we are the congregation that will turn possibilities into realities, or if we will continue to hold our building together with duct tape and bobby pins, putting more effort than is necessary in simply maintaining the status quo.

We need the infrastructure – a heating system that actually heats, a commercial kitchen to prepare meals for those who are hungry, showers for Family Promise participants and others who need shelter, an elevator so those with limited mobility can join us wherever we are in the church, well-defined and secure areas so everyone who uses this space can feel safe where they are.

We also need to create a more welcoming and encompassing space. The plans that have resulted from so many months of work, so many meetings, so many discussions are modest, but compelling. The Building Design Team has worked hard to listen to all of your concerns, suggestions and dreams. From all of that, they have worked with professionals to bring us plans for a lovely, yet humble space, that says to all, ‘You are welcome here’ through beckoning, efficient and useful spaces.

I would like to tell you that we are half way or more to our goal, but I cannot. The Design Team is still working to reduce costs and define a final budget, which is a bit like chasing squirrels with feathers, but we are currently working with a budget somewhere north of $2M. The Finance Committee has raised money and pledges of about one-quarter of that. Obviously, if we do not have a realistic possibility of raising all the funds needed for everything on our list, we will have to make some difficult choices.

Many of you have already made your pledges or given generously to the Building Project. Thank you. Thank you, as well, to those of you who are considering what your place is in this effort. It seems a daunting possibility. Our congregation is not so large or so prosperous that we can easily raise $2M. Jesus fed 4,000 people with seven loaves and a few fish. If each of us does what we can, together we can do whatever God wants of us.

We will soon be announcing the date for an all-church catered dinner at which we will provide specific information about what is included in the plans. In the meantime, please feel free to contact any of the members of the Building Finance Team with questions, concerns, payments or pledges. Team members are Greg Beach, Teresa Henry, Bill Reynolds, John Terreo and me. We can talk with you about a one-time donation or pledges over three to five years. We can make suggestions about alternate methods of giving, which you would need to discuss with a tax professional or an attorney, such as a life estate interest in your home or a charitable distribution from your IRA.

Once we have your commitments and a final budget, we will be able to decide what can be done and formulate a plan for paying for it. We will write grants and seek other funding from outside the church, but it is the people of this church, who believe in what we do and who want to support those efforts, who will determine what we will ultimately be able to accomplish.

When I pray about this effort, I ask God to guide us by providing for those things He feels are important to how we do His work in this world. I don’t know if that means He will work through all of us to fund the entire project, or not. I trust Him to work through all of us to do what is right. I ask you, too, to pray for His help in answering our questions and providing for our needs.


6-12-16--Showing great love
Scripture:  Luke 7:36-8:3
Theme:  Jesus tells us that the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears showed great love – as distinguished from lesser loves, we see that the greatness of one’s love for God puts God front and center – and exhibits a desperation that

As many of you know (because it was announced two Sundays ago!), this past June first, my wife and I celebrated our 25th marriage anniversary.  In recognition of this milestone in our lives, we received many affirmations from our family and friends, through cards and phone calls and e-mail.  One of those messages that came through Facebook particularly caught my eye; it was a quote from the book The Ten Laws of Lasting Love by Judith Viorst ((New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 179).  I’m not sure, but I believe there is a subliminal message in this quote, and I wanted to see what you thought this individual was trying to communicate to my wife and me.  Here’s the quote:
 Infatuation is when you think he's as gorgeous as Brad Pitt, as pure as Pope Francis, as funny as Woody Allen, as athletic as Arnold Schwarzenager, and as smart as Albert Einstein. Love is when you realize that he's as gorgeous as Woody Allen, as smart as Arnold Schwarzenager, as funny as Albert Einstein, as athletic as Pope Francis and nothing like Brad Pitt in any category -- but you'll take him anyway.
Now, here is my question to you today – just what do you think this individual was trying to say to me?  Or to say to my wife?

    Love is the focus of our scripture lesson today – but the focus is unique, tied to a scene of interaction between those who understand love in different ways. 
Jesus is invited to eat at the home of a Pharisee named Simon; while there, a woman in the city, scripture says “who was a sinner,” came into this setting, began to weep, washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, kissed his feet, and anointed them with oil.  It is hard to miss the emotion in the moment, full of sorrow and repentance and an inner woundedness which desperately longs to be healed.  Simon finds this offensive, but keeps it to himself, saying under his breath “Jesus obviously doesn’t know what kind of woman this is!”  But it seems like his body language gives him away.  Jesus then asks who would have the greater love – one who was forgiven little, or one who was forgiven much?  The Pharisee gives the right answer – the one who is forgiven much, loves much.  Jesus then says to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
The implication is clear – Simon the Pharisee shows love in his hospitality, but it is a lesser love.  The woman shows her love in her tears and caress, and it is the greater love.  It would seem that greater love is borne out of greater desperation for God’s forgiveness, healing, and grace.
Now, when we use the word “great” we often mean fantastic and powerful and wonderful, but the word “great” can mean other things which might be relevant and helpful here.  Great can also mean unusual and excessive, or beyond the scope of what is normally expected.  Great can also mean unique or profound, powerful in its direct application to specific situations and individuals.  Great love is much more than a feeling, much more than a sentiment; great love transforms life itself; great love leaves an impact that cannot be forgotten; great love is personal, with an intensity of interest and engagement in the individual beloved; great love makes life new.
I read recently of a TV interview with a single mother who had raised a large family on her own. In spite of all the frustrations, disappointments and obstacles, she had persevered and every one of her children had made remarkable achievements, not only in their schooling but also in their vocation. It was an inspiring story worth celebrating, for it revealed the heights and depths of human greatness. During the interview, the mother was asked her secret -- the reporter said to her, 'I suppose you loved all your children equally, making sure that all got the same treatment?'
 "The mother replied, 'I loved them. I loved them all, each one of them, but not equally. I loved the one the most that was down until he was up. I loved the one the most that was weak until she was strong. I loved the one the most that was hurt until he was healed. I loved the one the most that was lost until she was found."'  (Donald J. Shelby, "The Lord's House and Ours," 10 May 1992, Santa Monica, California).
I think this reflects the nature of God’s love toward us, which we are to take as our own towards each other.  Great love hones in on other’s needs of the moment, and aggressively addresses that need in all the ways it can.  The woman in our scripture lesson expresses great love in her direct attention to Jesus in spite of the glare of the crowd; she does what she can to comfort him and acknowledge his significance in her life, as she sheds her tears, washes his feet, and anointing them as a sign of reverence and humility.  We express great love towards others as we hone in on their needs, spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and do all that we can to let the other person know that they are worth our time, attention, and effort.  And when we love in this way, we do nothing less than love God.
Two questions arise naturally at this point.  For one, when have you experienced great love, such as that expressed in our scripture today?  When have you felt that you were absolutely and completely embraced by someone else, who looked at you and spoke to you or stood up for you or held you when you had fallen or walked with you in a way that said you were the most important person in the world to them – AT A TIME YOU WERE DESPERATE TO BE LOVED?  Have you ever had such an experience, where someone showed you great love?
I have a little brother; his name is Scott.  From a very young age, I nicknamed my brother “Snot”, because that was what he was in my mind.  He suffered from LBS -- little brother syndrome – which means he was a pest, he was annoying, he wouldn’t do what I told him to do, and he’d tell on me when I had done something wrong.   Boy, he really bothered me for many years.
I’ll never forget one day when Snot and I had gone over with some friends to play baseball at the school diamond.  It was a time when you would play pick-up games, when you’d go over to the field and see who was there; it was likely that you could collect enough random people to play a game.
There were a bunch of older boys playing, but they didn’t have enough people to play an actual game.  We came on the scene and before you knew it, we were playing a game.  We were doing OK, until I came up to bat.  I took a few practice swings, just like the pros, but didn’t notice that Tommy Nolan was walking behind me; one of my swings hit him in the head, just behind the ear.  He screamed and ran for home, which wasn’t far away; a couple of our teammates followed him to see if he was OK, and word came back that he was.  But that ended the game; my brother and I headed home.
We only got two blocks away when we noticed that the older boys, who had gone on before us, had stopped ahead of us.  As my brother and I approached them, the made a circle around me.  One of them, his name was Kevin, then came up to me, gave me a push, and said, “Why did you hit Tommy with a bat?”  As I looked up at this teenager who was much larger than me, and suddenly realized that there were six of them and one of me, and that they were all glaring at me, I realized I was about to die.  I was about to get beaten up. 
And then it happened.  From out of nowhere, a voice shouted in a rather high pitch identifying a very young soul, and said almost screaming “LEAVE HIM ALONE; IT WAS AN ACCIDENT.”  At the same time, I stood there in disbelief as my brother, my little pipsqueak, bothersome, annoying, pesky little brother, jumped between me and Kevin, ready to fight.
That’s when my brother became a good natured, helpful, kindly, cool, and awesome individual whom I valued in my life.  HE STOOD UP FOR ME!  JUST WHEN I WAS ABOUT TO DIE!  Or at least, that’s what I thought at the moment.  He was either absolutely out of his mind to face down six large guys – or he had a brother whom he loved beyond reason.  I am so glad it is the latter.
Have you ever experienced great love, something like this?  Where someone put themselves on the line for you?  When things were bad, maybe even terrible, and someone supported you profoundly?  When you were broken, hurting, lost, afraid, angry, at the end of your rope – and someone helped you to hold on?  If so, I believe that we might have a sense of the experience of the woman before Jesus – whose life was changed by the attention and affection of the son of God.
A second question is natural here as well – have you ever loved someone else in this way?  Have you ever been on the giving side of great love?  Have you ever given of your heart and soul, desperate for the other to know how much you care, how much they matter?  Have you ever done something the world would call ridiculous for the sake of another’s need?  This transforms life as well, when you experience the power of love where it is truly needed – much more than a sentiment, much more involved in giving of our lives to another.
Years ago, I led a mission workteam to the San Luis Valley in Colorado to attempt to show great love through repairing homes.  I and seven others found out we were to put a new roof on a disabled woman’s home.  Her name was Pia; she was very poor; she was unable to walk very well; she talked slowly due to a brain injury she had received in an accident a long time ago; she was estranged from all of her family; she was Buddhist; she was very glad to see us.  We worked all week, putting a sheet metal roof over Pia’s dilapidated double-wide trailer; it was hot, hard work, with none of the group except me having done any construction before; we took many breaks and lunches with Pia; we had great conversations with her, listening to her experiences of life and sharing our own.  At the end of the week, the roof was up, and looked great; we were in her living room to say goodbye, when, unexpected to me, everyone began to cry.  Pia was sobbing, expressing her gratitude for the new roof, but more importantly for caring enough to listen to her experiences with understanding and without judgment.  And then she said something I’ll never forget – she looked at us all and said, “I didn’t know people like you existed.”  Somehow, some way, our love for Pia came through, as did her love for us. 

If you have received great love, you know it was great because it changed your life.  If you have given great love, you know it was great because it changed both your life and the life of the beloved.  This is the nature of God’s love for us; this is the love faith prescribes for each other.

Love Deeply,
For the more we give to love,
the more we have to give.
And when we have given all we have,
and there is nothing left but love,
what then is left to be taken from me?
If you ask yourself, "How well do I live?"
the answer comes, "How much do you love?"
--From a James Dillet Freeman poem "How Well Do I Live? How Much Do You Love?" in Love, Loved, Loving! The Principle Parts of Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), 91.


6-6-10    The Unreasonableness of God  Scripture:  I Kings 17:8-24
Theme:  Many times, we feel the limitation of being human on this earth – there’s only so much of us, after all!  This is especially the case when we are under stress – financial, physical, emotional, relational, vocational, spiritual.  Who hasn’t been there?  And who hasn’t felt the urge to lash out in either antagonistic refusal or apathetic capitulation?  The scripture tells of a widow in that exact position – resignation to the impossibility of life.  But she is met by a God who responds to her impossibility – and she is restored.  This is our same God; this is God’s same manner with us. 

This is a sad week in the world of Boxing – in the news, we heard of the death of Muhammed Ali.  This brought to my memory about another boxing story that comes out of the 1930’s.  The story concerns the real life experience of a boxer of that time named C.D. “Big Boy” Blalock.  Here’s the tale:  “Back in the early 1930s, C.D. "Bigboy" Blalock of Louisiana State University--a six-foot-six-inch giant of a boxer--was taking on a stocky fellow from Mississippi State. In the second round, Bigboy let lose a roundhouse. The Mississippi man stepped in, and his head caught Bigboy's arm inside the elbow. With the opponent's head acting as a lever, Bigboy's arm whipped around in almost full circle, connecting with haymaker force on Bigboy's own chin. He staggered, grabbed the rope, walked almost all the way around the ring, and then fell flat for the count--the only prizefighter who ever knocked himself out with a right to his own jaw.” (L.M. Boyd.)
That’s kind of hard to imagine, isn’t it?  Let me ask you a question this morning – HAVE YOU EVER DONE THE SAME THING?  Have you ever knocked yourself out?  Before you answer, apply that question to matters outside of boxing – have you ever worked so hard, worried so much, traveled so far, strained so hard, thought so intensely, complained so bitterly, or otherwise carried on so long, that you knocked yourself out?   Have you ever reached that point where you thought you’ve reached some sort of dead end, some sort of barrier that was insurmountable, where you felt, even knew, that things were unredeemable?  You had no more left to give, no more left to try, no more anything of yourself to share?  Have you ever been there?
We meet a person in our scripture lesson who is at that point – the widow in this story of Elijah.  It’s kind of a strange story – the prophet Elijah is told to go to Zarephath to live, where God tells him he has commanded a widow to feed him.  He goes to Zarephath, finds the widow, and asks her for a drink; she begins to go off to get him a drink, when he shouts to her “how about some bread, too?”  In her response, you can almost hear her cynicism – “First a drink, then some bread; why not roast beef and a pudding?  I’M A POOR WIDOW, STARVING MYSELF; HOW CAN YOU ASK ME THIS THING?”  She puts it a bit more tactfully, however – “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
It’s called fatalism.  Or perhaps pessimism.  Maybe it’s defeatism.  Whatever it is, it’s not without warrant.  THINGS ARE HARD; LIFE HANGS IN A TENUOUS BALANCE; HOPE SEEMS DISTANT.  The last thing she needed in her desperate life is an unreasonable request. 
Let me ask you -- Do people ever ask you unreasonable things?  Do they ever ask of you unreasonable actions?  Do they ever ask you these things when everything’s going great?  Do they ever stop to think about your situation first, or do they make demands they have no right to make of someone in your situation?
When we are asked something unreasonable, our first natural reaction is to practice rational avoidance.  If the request is unreasonable, we have logic on our side – we say to ourselves “I don’t owe them anything; who are they to ask me?  IN THE EYES OF THE WORLD, WE ARE ALL JUSTIFIED IN THIS RESPONSE WHEN THE REQUEST IS UNREASONABLE-– but the result speaks for itself.
I remember a time when I practiced rational avoidance.  A transient named Dean had come to the church I was serving, asking for food.  We had none at the church, so I offered – graciously, I might add – to take him to the grocery store.  Two words – BIG MISTAKE.  He had said he needed just a couple of items to eat, but wound up asking “can I have this too?” about a thousand times – gloves, matches, magazines, deodorant (I didn’t mind buying him that!), toothpaste, toilet paper, etc., etc., etc. began to fill up our cart.  And in my mind, with each request, I heard the refrain – “HOW DARE HE ASK ME FOR SO MANY THINGS!”  When our cart was about a third full, I put a stop to it; after all, it was my right to refuse.  Dean picked up the signal from my face rather quickly, and he stopped asking for things.  I bought him those items –several of which I thought were unnecessary – and we parted company.  AND I MUST CONFESS -- I COULDN’T WAIT TO GET AWAY FROM HIM!  I was angry, resentful, and annoyed that I had been taken advantage of; I’m not sure how Dean felt, except for one thing – HE WAS PROBABLY STILL HUNGRY, FOR WE HADN’T BOUGHT ANY FOOD.    And that’s the point that stayed with me – with my preoccupation over the items Dean was choosing, and my worries over where this was going, I was distracted away from any helpful interaction with this homeless man.  And that was a shame.  I realized that I had been in the process of judging him, when I should have been trying to understand him.  This experience taught me a lesson in what can happen when we try too hard to avoid what seems unreasonable.
Our second natural reaction is what I call sour self-resignation – we say to ourselves and others “Alright, I’ll do it, but then I’ll die!”  “In spite of my own difficult situation,  I will, as an act of caustic reactionism, fulfill your request, BUT I WILL MAKE SURE YOU OBSERVE THE SUFFERING YOU PUT ME THROUGH TO GET IT!”  This is the spiteful response to unreasonable requests – letting the recipient know just exactly how unreasonable they are being while responding reluctantly.
We, in my family, experience this reality regularly; it’s known as the “frustration stomp.”  I think it’s mainly a teenage malady, but I believe that my wife and I catch it every now and then.  It goes like this:  someone asks something of someone else; that someone else perceives this as a burden, an interruption to their normal activity, which is very annoying.  It may be taking out the trash, folding laundry, running an errand downtown, practicing piano, washing daddy’s motorcycle, or mowing the lawn.  Did you know that those things usually become necessary at exactly the wrong time, like when you’re just ready to sit down to read the newspaper, or take a nap, or fidget with the remote control?  Anyway, I digress.  Someone asks something like this of someone else, who in turn becomes annoyed.  Now, they know it won’t help to talk about it much, and that they probably were asked for a good reason, and should take care of the matter – BUT THEY REALLY, REALLY WANT YOU TO KNOW HOW PUT-OUT THEY ARE.  And so their feet get leaden; they stomp out their annoyance.  Like this: (demonstrate).  They not only drag their feet, but they lift them up and crash them down in a cadence translated:  “SEE HOW UNREASONABLE YOUR REQUEST IS?!?”  “SEE HOW I’M SUFFERING BECAUSE OF YOU?”
When unreasonable requests come our way, then, we have these two options – we can justifiably refuse the request, and end the possibilities for further relationship; and we can respond spitefully, in an attempt to punish the source of the unreasonable request.
But there is a third reaction we can choose, the reaction that Elijah suggests in this context – when presented with an unreasonable request, we can see what we can do, with God’s help; I WILL SEEK OUT GOD’S PROVISION, FOR WHAT I CAN DO, AND WHAT YOU REALLY NEED.  Elijah says those words that the widow is probably desperate to hear, denoting that truth she is desperate to receive – “DO NOT BE AFRAID; GOD WILL PROVIDE.”  And these are the same words that enable our positive response to unreasonable requests – “do not be afraid; God will provide.”

One of my favorite stories is told by William Frey, retired Episcopal bishop from Colorado: I’d like to read it to you in this context:
When I was a younger man, I volunteered to read to a degree student named John who was blind. One day I asked him, "How did you lose your sight?"
"A chemical explosion," John said, "at the age of thirteen."
"How did that make you feel?" I asked.
"Life was over. I felt helpless. I hated God," John responded. "For the first six months I did nothing to improve my lot in life. I would eat all my meals alone in my room. One day my father entered my room and said, 'John, winter's coming and the storm windows need to be up -- that's your job. I want those hung by the time I get back this evening or else!'
"Then he turned, walked out of the room and slammed the door. I got so angry. I thought Who does he think I am? I'm blind! I was so angry I decided to do it. I felt my way to the garage, found the windows, located the necessary tools, found the ladder, all the while muttering under my breath, 'I'll show them. I'll fall, then they'll have a blind and paralyzed son!'"
John continued, "I got the windows up. I found out later that never at any moment was my father more than four or five feet away from my side."
William Frey, "When Words Come To an End,"
         That’s our reality, people of God – our God is with us.  Our God will provide.  Even when things are unreasonable.  ESPECIALLY when things are unreasonable.  God will provide what we need to face such moments – the right words to say, the right thoughts to think, the right actions to take – IF WE TRUST IN THAT PRESENCE COMPLETELY.  For then, it is no longer up to us, is it?


5-29-16  The Hallmark of Christian Generosity Scripture: II Corinthians 8:1-15
Theme:  It is the mark of generosity that often separates out the visible lives of Christians from others.  It is standard equipment to practice generosity in faith, for it reflects our response to God’s generosity towards us.  Love knows no greater expression, than that which we give of ourselves towards others—Memorial Day highlights this expression in the ones who gave their lives for the sake of others.

Today is the Sunday that has us recognize Memorial Day for the year 2016.  I came across an article this past week entitled:  “Here's what to know for Memorial Day 2016.”  I was intrigued -- here’s what it said:
“Here’s what to know for Memorial Day 2016:

Notice anything missing?  Notably, about the most important thing to know about Memorial Day?

Almost in passing, this 1,892 word article used 82 words to state that the purpose of Memorial Day was to remember American service people who died in combat.  That’s 4.3% of the article, given to the real reason behind Memorial Day.  I think this article reflects something that is present in our society – that we sometimes have a tendency to replace the significance of an event or remembrance with our own pursuit of comfort or leisure.  How ironic, perhaps, that our pursuit of comfort and leisure is possible because of those who fought for – and often died for – our freedom to pursue a good and bountiful life!
Memorial Day is the day we are to remember those who died in service to our country – we remember and honor the men and women who sacrificed their freedoms for our own, who faced danger for our safety, and fell that we might rise.  Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day;  Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.[5] 
         As such, we remember those who gave of themselves profoundly.  Our scripture lesson expounds the virtues of generosity such as this; Paul lifts up those who gave of their abundance that all may have what they need for life – Paul speaks of their wealth of generosity in giving self-sacrificially for those in need.  This fits with the Christian understanding that there are things worth fighting for, that there are sacrifices worth making, to move life more in line with God’s desire for creation.  There are even things worth dying for, placing one’s life on the line for the sake of others.
         We dare not forget those who have given their lives for the sake of others.  I watched a youtube video yesterday which interviewed two mothers who lost their sons who served in the military.  One of the mothers put it bluntly – she said “Memorial Day is not a day for hot dogs on the grill and a beer or two among friends and family; Memorial Day is a solemn moment of remembrance and appreciation for what some have given for all.”
I have had the honor of knowing many parishioners of the churches I have pastored who had served in the military.  I remember one particular veteran who served in World War I -- his name was Ed VanWinkle, a member of the Kit Carson United Methodist Church.  Two things I remember about Ed – for one, boy, could he swear!  When I first met him, he was 95 years old, and I had thought up to that time that really old men didn’t swear – Ed proved me wrong.  He demonstrated to me a unique grasp on the English language, replete with colorful adjectives used powerfully.  But the second thing I learned from Ed was his deep respect for those who were absent – for those who paid the ultimate price in what they called “the great war.”  I could almost feel his sorrow mixed with appreciation as he would recall the losses of his fellow soldiers. As he said more than once, “freedom isn’t free.”
We as Christians are naturally predisposed to struggle with the violence in the world, with the wars that are fought for reasons that seem less than justified in the eyes of God.  We as followers of Jesus are automatically motivated to pursue peace on earth and love for all.  But as followers of Jesus we are also called to recognize that there are things worth fighting for, that we are called to protect the innocent, release the captive, stand with the oppressed, and defeat injustice.  We look to, and work for, that day when violence and strife are replaced by relationship and understanding, when there will be no more need for individuals to stand in harm’s way for the sake of everyone’s freedom and security.  But until that day, there will be those who serve for the sake of others, and who will die in the line of duty.  And we dare not take for granted the blessing of what we have in our lives today, nor forget the price that others paid for the privileges we have now.
Twelve years ago, when I was pastoring a church in Vermont, I received a writing called “A Tribute to Memorial Day 2004” by a High School Senior named Joseph Raisner.  I’d like to leave you with these words by this young man who appreciated that freedom is not free, but built upon the generosity of those willing to sacrifice themselves for a higher end.  Here are his words:
“It has been said that one must die so that others may know the full value of life.  We are all given only one life to live.  It may end in an instant – an instant unfamiliar to one and all.  Yet it is because of this certainty of death that we place such a high regard on human life.  Were we all able to live forever and experience no losses, we would never be able to fully appreciate them moments in life that make us truly happy.  But just as happiness isn’t free, the freedom to live life to its fullest has its costs as well.  That’s what the members of our Armed Forces do for us:  they pick up the check so that the rest of us may enjoy the land in which we live.  They fight for our freedom, for the freedom of their fellow human beings, and for the freedom granted to us by the founders of our nation.  Every minute of every day, there is a soldier somewhere far from home, giving all he has to give for a much higher cause.  Likewise, there is always a veteran somewhere, with his fingertips on a war memorial, thanking a fallen soldier for saving  his life years before.  These brave soldiers, sailors, fliers, and marines died protecting their country and what it stands for.  They died defending a way of life that they felt was worth dying for…for families, children, freedom, morality, values, and responsibility.  They gave all they had to give, and we owe our freedom, our happiness, and our lives in gratitude.”


The Differences That Can’t Stop God – Children’s Sabbath Message; Youth Group message
Scripture:  Acts 2:1-21
Theme:  The day of Pentecost shows how God can work with – and rise beyond – the differences between us.  It is the Holy Spirit that can help us understand each other, and discover that, in our understanding of each other, we grow in our understanding of God.

People can be very different from each other.  People are often different on the outside.  There are different nations, different cultures, different histories, different lands, different foods, different rules, and different languages.  Some people wear suits and ties, others wear robes; some people wear dresses, some wear coverings over their heads.  Some people walk, some ride buses, some drive cars, and some even drive motorcycles.  Some people like spicy food, some like vegetables, some like meat.  Some people live in the mountains, some live in the deserts, some live on islands in the middle of the ocean.  Some speak English, some speak Spanish, some speak Swahili, some speak Chinese, and some even speak with their hands.  There are a lot of outer things that are different about people in our world.

People are also different on the inside.  We have many ways of thinking about things; we have different opinions, different ideas, and different perspectives.  Some people think loudly, letting others know what they think.  Some people think quietly, holding their thoughts and ideas close inside.  Sometimes the different ideas and opinions people have cause others to become angry with each other; but other times, our different ways of thinking about things can teach us about each other and our world.  People can also have different hopes for the future, different priorities, different ways of making tomorrow better than today.  Some people work at making a lot of money; some people work at owning a lot of things.  Many people feel it is important to have many friends, and feel that working together is the right thing to do.  Yet some people feel like living alone.

People can also have very different experiences in life.  People around the world can face different challenges that cause pain – many do not have enough to eat; many make very little money; and many  face the violence of crime or warfare.  Many people face illnesses like cancer; many are sad because someone they loved has died; many have parents or brothers or sisters that they do not get along with very well.   But many people also come together to help each other; many people enjoy doing things together, like playing sports or working on crafts or eating a meal together.  Sometimes people come together in order to help others face what is difficult in their lives – in sharing their experiences, they can support each other through hard times.  In so many ways, people can be very different from each other. 

In our Pentecost Bible lesson from Acts, we hear of people speaking many different languages – and it was confusing.  People were not sure what was happening, until Peter explained that it was God who was doing something special to break through the differences between people.  Those who were present were able to hear messages from the Holy Spirit in their own language – God made it possible for people to understand that God was with them all, even though they were different from each other.  And what God said to them all was that they were the same in many ways.

We are all the same in that we all need to be loved.  The Holy Spirit spoke out of love for people, for all people, and shared God’s desire that all people know they are important to him.  We all need God’s love, and we all need to be loved by people in our lives.  We need to know that we matter.  We each need to know that someone thinks we are special just as we are.  We each need to know that someone is thinking about us in good ways, that someone wants to be with us, to share things with us and let us share things with them.  God does this all the time, and God wants us to do this with each other as well.  Whether we speak English, or Spanish, or French, or Chinese, we all need to hear kind words and receive loving attention.

We also need others in our lives to help us live.  From family to friends to church to community groups, we need people to work with, to learn from, to support us in what we try to do.  We also need to support them in their needs too.  Loneliness is a very sad thing; many things that we need for a good life cannot happen unless we are around people who care for us and love us.  We know that God always loves each one of us, which helps, but God’s love is made more real when it is shared between people.  At Pentecost, people of different nations and languages came together because they needed each other; God helped them to understand each other, and began to show them how to love each other beyond their differences.

We also all need God in our lives.  Most people sense that there is something, or someone, beyond us and yet with us.  Jesus came to help us understand God.  Most people know that the world, that the universe, is too big to take in, and yet we are a part of that universe; somehow, each of us is an important part of all that there is.  God helps us to understand these things.  Faith is letting God love us.  Faith is trusting that God will guide us.  Faith is having God in our lives.  Faith is knowing that God is a part of all things, including us!

God made us different.  Yet God loves us all the same – fully, personally, completely, eternally.  This would seem to mean that God loves differences as well.  Pentecost is the time of year when we remember this kind of love that God has for each one of us – and hear that this is the kind of love we are to have for each other.  No matter what language we speak, or where we live, or what we do for a living, or what ideas we have in our minds – we are loved by God.  And God helps us love each other.  Amen!


 5-8-16 Demonstrable Faith  Scripture:  Acts 16:16-34
Theme: There are many times we don’t do the things we ought to do, because we don’t like to do those things, AND there are many times we do the things we shouldn’t do, because we like those things so much.  Paul’s model demonstrates the insistence upon God’s will of love above all – and hints at the inescapable challenges of faith for those who follow Jesus.

Several months ago, as I was driving around town, I saw something in the middle of the road – as I drove past, I saw that it was a wallet.  I pulled over and retrieved the wallet, and proceeded downtown to the police department to hand it in. As I placed the wallet on the counter of the police station reception desk, and told the receptionist that I had found a wallet in the middle of the road and was returning it, her eyes became large; she opened the wallet, found some ID and some money inside, and then looked at me again, as if she wasn’t sure what to do.  She acted quite surprised, as if this hadn’t happened before; and I asked her about this.  “This doesn’t happen very often,” she replied, “especially with money inside.”
I almost thought I saw, in her expression more than her words, a statement of disbelief, almost as if she was wanting to say “what kind of weirdo are you?”  This made me very sad – not that someone thought I might be weird, but that this situation appeared to be very rare or unexpected, at least in the experience of this receptionist.  It was her surprise that took me aback – surprise that someone might actually do the right thing.
A similar kind of surprise meets us in our scripture passage regarding the experiences of Paul.  Paul is in Philippi, working with the beginnings of the Christian community in a Roman city.  Paul has been pestered for days by a demon-possessed slave girl, and has finally had enough; he exorcizes the demon; he frees the slave girl from her imprisonment.  The people who made money off of her then have Paul beaten and thrown into prison – no wonder Paul was reluctant to heal her! 
But the point is this:  Paul didn’t want to deal with the woman, but knew he had to, and did.  Have you ever been in that space?  There was something you didn’t want to do, but knew that you should do?  This confronts us regularly in the faith, and all too often, we end up in the prison of inaction.  We know what is the right thing to do, but because of fear or laziness or apathy or uncertainty or doubt or procrastination or what have you, we find ourselves reluctant to proceed.  We may wind up not only failing God, but failing ourselves as well.
I remember many times in my role as pastor when I approached the hospital room, the committee meeting, the home where tension was great, or the organization in distress, wanting to be doing anything but what I was going to do, but knowing I had to do what needed to be done.  I had to meet with the family whose son died of an overdose.  I had to meet with the committee who wanted to get rid of their pastor.  I had to facilitate a conversation between warring factions of a family on fire with blame and antagonism toward each other. I had to meet with an organization dealing with ethics violations. 
I remember a conversation I had with a retired pastor, who had mentioned to me his fond recollection of how often he had approached the door of a home where things were difficult, praying that they were not home! 
So often, I found myself doing things I did not want to do – because I had to – not because I wanted to, not because it was my job, but because these were the right things to do, the needed things to do, as a pastor but more to the point, as a follower of Jesus.   
That you are here means that you know this as well as I do -- many times, to follow Jesus means to do what we don’t want to do – but know we should. 
         What are the things we’d rather not do?  Jesus presents quite a list -- love our enemies, visit the sick, give to the poor, help those in need, confess our sins, put others first, be grateful for our challenges, humble ourselves before God and each other.  But what about our own, personal lists?  Are there things you really don’t want to do, but feel as if, to be completely honest with ourselves and our God, we really should do?  What are those things you don’t want to do, but know you should?  Think with me for a moment; I invite you to close your eyes, and consider a few questions:

What are those things that you don’t want to do, but know you should?  Paul’s model applies to us all – we are invited to take action.

Paul also demonstrates the contrast – that, many times, to follow Jesus means to not do what we want to do – but know we shouldn’t.   There’s one word that fits perfectly here – TEMPTATION.  Paul, having been beaten and imprisoned for exorcising the slave-girl of her demon, found his prison doors opened and his shackles unbound by a tremendous earthquake.  FREEDOM!  If Paul was human, he could not avoid feeling the temptation to flee his prison.  But the faith Paul professed spoke a stronger word of “should.”  He should consider the fate of the jailer.  He should consider what his purpose was in Christ.  He should count suffering an expected part of the faith.  He should let God take charge of his witness.  Those “should’s” won out, leading Paul to a demonstration of his faith leading his life.
In its various forms, temptation is a part of every human being’s experience, but one the Christian is committed to fighting when it leads to unhealthy life or unhealthy faith.  And yes, there are all sorts of temptations, big ones, small ones, ones that really won’t impact life very much if catered to, and ones we try very hard to believe really won’t impact life very much if catered to, but know we’re not really fooling anyone, least of all ourselves, very least of all our God.
Several years back, a Chicago law firm placed an ad on a billboard; on the ad were several barely clothed models.  Across the billboard was written, “LIFE IS SHORT – GET A DIVORCE.”  The city took the signs down after a week, but presently there is a website called “Life is Short—Get a Divorce” that is in full operation.  I fear this kind of thinking is written on our hearts.  It’s the kind of message that is not only in us, but all around us, tapping into that all-too-common thread of temptability.  It may be sex, it may be money, it may be food, it may be alcohol, it may be drugs, it may be power, or control or exploitation or greed --  it may be one of any million things, but the message is the same – there are things we want to do or have, and shouldn’t.

How about us?  Are there things we definitely do want to do, but know we shouldn’t?  Of course there are, if we are human.  But what wins – what we want to do, or what we should do?  Again, I invite you to close your eyes, consider some questions:

         Are there things you don’t want to do, but know you should?  BE ABOUT IT, says our God.  Are there things you really want to do, but know you shouldn’t?  FIGHT THE TEMPTATION, says our God.  Not in order to make life smooth.  Not in order to earn blessing.  Not to rack up good karma towards heaven.  We are to do what we should do, and not do what we shouldn’t do, because it is our nature as Christians.  If we claim that we live in and with Jesus, his nature cannot help but become our own.   
I heard it put best in a quote I read yesterday:  “Love is evidence of Jesus living in our lives.”   If we claim to follow Jesus, to trust Jesus, and to love Jesus, the evidence will be visible in the choices we make and the lives that we live for God and for others.  “Love is evidence of Jesus living in our lives.”  Amen.


5-1-16 The Preparation Christ Gives  Scripture:  John 14:23-29
Theme:  We are used to being prepared before we do things.  But Jesus says do things before you are prepared, in order to live faithful lives.  Doing the things Christ encourages ( “obey my teachings, do my works” ) IS preparation for life – whatever it dishes out, those who are deeply imbedded in the practice of their faith will be prepared.

This past week, I had a pretty full schedule – meetings, services, groups, committees, and classes to lead or attend, not to mention working on our yard and our lawn in preparation for spring.  In the middle of this busy week, it seemed to me that the inevitable happened – I got sick.  I could feel a cold coming on – scratchy throat, stuffy nose, headache.  At one point, I did what I think probably comes naturally to a person when they feel lousy – I complained to my spouse.  I was searching for the medicine of sympathy, for the cough syrup of compassion, for the prescription of pity that my wife would understandingly send my way.  Instead, I got the medicine I deserved and needed more.
“I feel a cold coming on,” I said to her.
“You’re doing too much,” she said to me.
“I don’t feel well,” I said to her.
“You probably shouldn’t have gone to all five of those meetings today,” she replied.
“Do I have a fever?” I asked her.
“Most likely,” she said, “for people who work outside in the yard while it’s raining wearing only a t-shirt and shorts typically don’t stay well for long.”
I could almost hear her saying two things:  One is best described by a glance at the overhead screen.  I think I heard my wife saying “HELLO!?!?!”  But what I think I really heard her saying was that I had not been preparing for a busy week – I had, in fact, been preparing to get sick.
         I think, if you listen carefully to our scripture lesson today, you can almost hear Christ saying a similar “HELLO!!!” to his disciples, for he is telling them something crucial, something essential, something absolutely required in order to be prepared for life– keep the faith. 
Not study the faith, not think the faith, not argue about faith, although these are essential as well, but keep the faith.  Practice the faith; put it in motion; be active in your faith.  He says it this way:  “Those who love me WILL KEEP MY WORD, and my Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with them.”  Keeping the word of God, keeping the faith, means loving God as God asks to be loved – with all of the heart and mind and body and strength, as well as having that love spill over to our neighbor.  Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  This is the crucial preparation for life – being active in our faith.

         Let me ask you a question, and invite you to think seriously about it for a second.  The question is this:  WHEN HAVE YOU BEEN TRULY UNPREPARED FOR SOMETHING?  I’m not necessarily talking about a test we neglected to study for, or a speech we were unexpectedly asked to deliver; I’m talking more about that phone call in the middle of the night, bearing unbearable news; I’m talking about that statement made from someone you trusted which destroyed that trust; I’m talking about the kind of moment when we thought we knew what was going on, but found out otherwise.  WHEN HAVE WE BEEN TRULY UNPREPARED FOR SOMETHING?

Several years ago, when I was the leader of our youth group in Lewistown, Montana, the leaders and I had put together a very special meeting plan.  We had a great game that we were going to play; I had created my own worksheet to engage the youth in a meaningful conversation about faith; we had even purchased items specially for the occasion – small flashlights that would go along with the scripture which talked about “being the light of the world.”  We were so prepared.
         The youth group members came into the room, about fifteen in number, with three adult leaders who had made the plans.  We always started our meetings with a prayer and then a snack; after people had their food, I asked a very general question that I usually asked about that time.  I said, “How’s everyone doing today?” in my upbeat, youth-leader-trained manner.
         There were a few “fine’s” and “good’s” and “alright’s” around that room, but one youth member was noticeably quiet, and even seemed, well, not so good.  Her name was Erin – so I turned to Erin and said to her “Erin, how are you doing?”
         She said, “I really feel bad; I keep praying for my grandmother to die.”
         Neither I, nor the youth group members or leaders, were prepared for that.  But we all recognized that something very serious was going on with Erin.  For a split second, I could sense my youth leaders erase in their minds all the plans we had made for that meeting; I did so as well, and we proceeded to ask Erin what was going on.  It turns out that she really needed to talk about her grandmother, who was terminally ill, and in great pain most of the time.  The pain-killers were not working any more; every breathe hurt; this had been going on for months.  No one seemed to be able to do anything to comfort her grandmother, and Erin found herself praying that God would end her pain, that God would take her from this life. 
         We spent the entire youth group meeting talking about life, about faith, about family, about suffering, about death.  It was one of the most significant moments I have had in any church group – not that we solved her problem or gave a good answer to her as to why this was happening – but that the entire group almost seamlessly came alongside Erin, listened to her, let her know that there was nothing wrong with her, that they wish things were not the way they were, and that they wished they could help.  The plans of the meeting we had prepared for were thrown out the window – but the youth group was prepared for something much more important – they were prepared to meet real life as it arose in one who needed them in that moment, not to provide the answers, but to provide the loving presence everyone needs when unexpected darkness intrudes.
         The greatest preparation we can have for life, says Jesus, is not to rigidly control the future, which is precarious if not ultimately impossible.  The greatest preparation we can have for life, says Jesus, is to love God, to keep God’s word, to embrace God’s will in all things.  It means adjusting to the unexpected according to God’s priorities before our own.  It means trusting that God will provide the guidance needed, and the peace required, to see the unexpected through.  Preparation means trusting, or loving, Jesus before the unexpected happens.
         One of my favorite stories is one told by Harry Emerson Fosdick, noted pastor in New York City, at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan's West Village, and then at the historic, inter-denominational Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, Manhattan
He told of a time when he visited a teenage girl who had been stricken with polio.  As he visited with her, she told him about a conversation she'd had with one of her friends, who told her, "Affliction does so color life." To which this courageous young girl agreed, but said that she would choose which color.  Fosdick commented on her chosen attitude of faith this way:  “At her young age she had already discovered one of life's great secrets: It's not what happens to you that matters as much as what happens in you.  For faith in God does not so much shield us from danger and death as it gives us the power to overcome it.”
         When the unexpected comes – and it will come, into each and every life, into each and every one of our lives here – we have been given the ability to choose the color of our experience.  We are invited to choose the color of faith.  We can be prepared, not through manipulating the future nor by having all the answers.  We can be prepared by following the counsel of Jesus – to keep his Word.  This does not mean to memorize the Bible, but to live out Jesus’ words, to engage in the kind of love we have received from God, and profess to practice ourselves.  “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  No further preparation is possible; no further preparation is needed.

4-17-16 Visions of Heaven Scripture:  Revelation 7:9-17

Theme:  John relates to us a tale of transition, from the existence that we know directly here and now, to the time in the unknown future when newness shall reign.  In his vision, he relates this one quality of anything that God is about – renewal.  Renewal of hope, renewal of possibility, renewal of his presence, renewal of life itself.

         Once upon a time, a man was having some very interesting visions, some very interesting experiences, all having to do with the number five.  It began in the morning, when he opened the newspaper to see that it was May 5th, 2015 – 5/5/15.  He thought that was interesting.  Then, his wife made him pancakes for breakfast, and he just happened to see that she had given him a stack of five pancakes without him asking for five.  Interesting.  On his ride to work, he saw five pigeons sitting on the guardrail along the highway – five of them, just sitting there.  Strange.  When he got to work, he sat down at his desk, surprised to see a five dollar bill on it.  Did he leave it there the day before?  He couldn’t remember.  Opening his e-mail account, he discovered he had five new e-mail messages.  Funny.  On and on it went, five of this, five of that, and he began to feel mystical.  Something was up.  Something cosmic.  Something mysterious.  Something important. 
Towards noon, he made a decision – he called his bookie, and asked him what races were being held that day.  His bookie told him about a few, but one caught his ear – the fifth race at Number Five Downing Street.  “What horses are racing?” asked the man.  “Well, let’s see, here’s their names -- there’s Alabama Belle, Juniper, Double Ace, Five-Spot, …”  “HOLD ON!” said the man, “That’s the horse for me!  Put ten thousand dollars down on Five-Spot!”  “Are you sure?” said the bookie.  “Yes,” said the man, “Ten thousand on Five-Spot to win.”  Well the bookie did as he was told.  The man waited around, anxious to see the results of his vision.  Finally the bookie called – indeed, the vision had been true!  Five-Spot came in fifth.
Today, we hear a message about visions – not of the number variety, and certainly not motivating us to gamble, but visions of the future nonetheless.  John, in our scripture passage, tells us what he is seeing in the future – he sees a great multitude from every nation, standing before the Lamb, angels surrounding the throne, giving honor and praise to God.  This has been understood as a vision of heaven, a future reality that embraces the brokenness of the world and works healing, justice, renewal, and peace.  Hunger will end; thirst will be quenched; pain relieved; sorrow comforted; and life will be renewed. 
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  This vision of heaven – but a fine point is made here, perhaps:  it says in verse 14 that this future of peace, healing, and justice is intended for those “who have come out of the great ordeal…who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” 

A very important question arises:  DO I QUALIFY?  DO YOU?

How very much has been made of who will get into heaven and who will not!  How many times have my colleagues in pastoral leadership told someone in their congregation or beyond that they were not going to make it!  And so often the main problem is how we have interpreted what heaven means – and done so terribly subjectively, biased in our favor.
         Some cases in point:  the other night, I googled “heaven” and found out there are several heavens out there – there’s 8-track heaven, screen saver heaven, hypercard heaven, nerd’s heaven, cello heaven, heaven-hill distilleries, and stationary heaven.  Some stranger ones as well – there’s a website labeled “Angelic Heaven;” do you know what you’d find on that site?  It’s a fan website for the 1970’s show, Charlies Angels.  There’s HOG Heaven – any guesses?  HOG stands for Harley Owner’s Group.  And there’s some acrostics that I came across that I thought were interesting – you know, where the letters to the word HEAVEN each stand for a word?  One was Helping Educate, Activate, Volunteer, and Empower via the Net.  Another was Healthier Environment through the Abatement of Vehicle Emissions and Noise.  Yet a third was Hippopotomi Enacting Anticipatory Versions of English Novels. (OK, I made that last one up, but I find it much more interesting!).

And, in fact, aren’t all the rest of these made up as well? 
There are many human interpretations of what heaven means, but these perceptions are woefully subjective, and hence extremely limited in what they can tell us, if anything, about God’s heaven. I believe that we have taken the idea of heaven and in many ways cheapened it by reducing the concept to something we can directly relate to.  But the only way to relate to heaven is indirectly – through who God is, through what God wants, and through how God acts.

The honest truth is that, in reality, we know very little specific about heaven.  We know very little, but the very little that we know makes all the difference.  For one, we know that, whatever heaven is exactly like, God defines its boundaries and supplies its substance.  God is completely accessible there, more profoundly or more directly or more spiritually or more whatever than God is here.  Words quickly fail, but it’s what John is saying in our scripture lesson when the author states that God shall shelter his people, shall provide for their needs, and shall address their pain.  In other words, whatever heaven is like, God will be in direct relationship with us.  We know this now, in this mortal flesh, through our faith.  We will experience this directly when we have become a part of the heavenly realm.  I like how an author put it – that heaven is "an unknown region with a well-known inhabitant who prepares the region for those he knows."
Secondly, we know that heaven, the new heaven that John describes, will somehow be defined by compassion and mercy.  From verse 16 it says that in heaven “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
It is here that we must be very careful both not to promote heaven by making it conform to our idea of pleasantness, and not to dismiss heaven by pretending it is only wishful thinking.  Let’s take each one of these thoughts in turn.  On the one hand, we often times define heaven pretty narrowly, thinking of it as a place where the saints of this world exist, where peace and light and harmony and love saturate the air.  You can almost see the heavenly hosts, sitting amongst the clouds, playing their harps, dancing, singing, conversing eloquently, floating there in the ether of the cosmos, walking along golden sidewalks.  These are human images, meant to inform but not define what heaven might be like.  As we hold onto these images too strongly, we are in danger of creating our own heaven, and distancing ourselves from God’s.  We forget that, regarding God’s heaven, there will be surprises.
Let me share with you a little poem I like a lot; it goes like this –
I dreamed I went to heaven, and I was quite surprised
To see just who had made it to that home up in the sky:
The ragged, dirty drifter, the kid who rarely spoke,
The loudmouthed woman down the street – was this some kind of joke?
Then I noticed they were staring right at me.  They made it clear,
That all of them were thinking, “What are you doing here?”
(“Heaven’s Misfits” by Ann Luna)
We are told that heaven is where God is, that God is a God of love, mercy, and compassion, and that those who are faithful will join God there.  Most everything else we have heard about heaven reflects human interpretation of what these truths mean.  And whenever human interpretation is happening, we tend to interpret in our favor.  We need to be careful; there will be surprises.
The other common thought about heaven is that it is truly pie in the sky, and not real.  Heaven, this line of reason goes, is simply a creation of our minds of a place to counter our all-too-human dissatisfaction with existence.  It is a fantasy we have created to offset the nightmare of this dark world.   There are many in this camp who would say heaven is no more than “pie in the sky” longing with no substance.
C.S. Lewis has a response to this kind of thinking.  He says, “We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning Heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about "pie in the sky," and of being told that we are trying to "escape from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere." But either there is "pie in the sky" or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced, whether it is useful at political meetings or not.”
         When heaven is used as a bargaining chip to threaten people who don’t think, act, believe, or live as we think they ought to, then heaven is misused as a weapon.  When heaven is used to build up a population of self-righteous people who feel superior in the knowledge of their future security, then heaven is misapplied as a bribe.  When heaven is used for any purpose on earth except to continue striving towards God, it is misunderstood.  For in the end – which is what heaven is really all about – it has to do only with the desire to be with God.  Those whose desire results in a faith that guides life, a love that imitates Christ’s, and a heart humbled by grace, will be with God.
         I would like to leave you with something to meditate on – not what is heaven like, but what the desire for God might be like.  It’s one of my favorite poems, framed in antiquated language, but beautiful nonetheless.   

(Compensation by Theodosia Garrison)
"Because I craved a gift too great
      For any prayer of mine to bring,
            Today with empty hands I go;
            Yet must my heart rejoice to know
      I did not ask a lesser thing.

"Because the goal I sought lay far
      In cloud-hid heights, today my soul
            Goes unaccompanied of its own;
            Yet this shall comfort me alone,
      I did not seek a nearer goal.

"O gift ungained, O goal unwon!
      Still am I glad, remembering this,
            For all I go unsatisfied,
            I have kept faith with joy denied,
      Nor cheated life with cheaper bliss."

Desire God above anything else.  Shape your life according to this desire.  This is the path to heaven.  Amen.


April 10, 2016 - Guest preacher from Angola
WHY DO BELIEVERS SUFFER?  LIFE AND FAITH  Job 1:6-12, Job 2:6, Job 42:12-16  (TEXT: Job 23:10)
By Rev. Andre Cassule, pastor, United Methodist Church at Caculama, Mbuku in Angola
“But he knows the way that I take, when he has tested me, I will come forth like gold”
Although most of the book consists of the words of Job and his friends, Job himself was not the author. We may be sure that the author was an Israelite since he frequently uses the Israelite covenant name for God (Yahweh; the Lord)
Two dates are involved: (1) that of Job himself and (2) that of the composition of the book. The letter could be dated anytime from the reign of Salomon to the time of Israel´s exiles in Babylonia.
Theological theme and message
When good people (those who “fear God and shun evil”) Job 1:1 suffer, the human spirit struggles to understand. Throughout recorded history people have asked: how can this be? If God is almighty and “olds the whole world in his hands “and if he is truly good, how can he allows such an outrage? The Bible is a mine which Christians should never stop mining as they journey through this sinful and broken world to seek instruction, guidance, information, hope and sustenance for overcoming the billows, difficulties and seeming contradictions of life.

One of such contradictions is the question or subject what we are going to discuss together this morning. Why the faithful or believers do suffers? Most of us might have at one time or the other been pressed to ask this question because of what happened to us or to others we know as faithful children of God compared to others in whose life and living God might not be so apparent to us.
Specifically, in Angola my country, of course,  asked why  are we suffering what’s wrong have we done to pass through all these war?   Why should Mr. A whom you know as a devout Christian have problems and affections, when Mr. B who asserts that he does not believe in God and lives Accordingly, appear to prosper with seemingly less trouble and difficulty-free life?
The story:
The story of Job has been summarized in the passages we have read in the Bible. Listen to how God Himself described Job again.
“”My servant, there is no one on earth like him. He is blameless and upright, a man who fears God  shuns evil” (1:8) and yet God allowed him to be afflicted. Satan said to God, “it is not for nothing that Job is your faithful servant. You have given him enormous blessing and protection. But you touch his earthly possessions; you will see a different man”.

“Everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself, do not lay a finger” (Job 12:1). Not only did God allow Satan to afflict Job, God also prescribed the bounds beyond which Satan could not go. Satan went away and four things happened to Job.

  1. The Sabeans attacked and carried away all his oxen and donkeys and killed his servants (Job 1:14-15).  The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants. (Job 1:16)
  2. The Children’s raided and carried away his camels and servants(Job 1:17)
  3. Mighty winds struck the house where his seven sons and three daughters were feasting and marry-making and they were all killed (Job 1:18-19).

In each of the four cases the bearer of the bad news was the only one spared to tell the sad news to Job in great grief and mourning and his complete resignation to God, Job said,  “naked I came from my mother´s womb and naked I will depart.

 The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).  But what is more, in all these, Job did not sin against God by charging Him with wrongdoing.

While God allows all things to happen, we must remember that He is not author of sin or evil. Job had shown tremendous faith and restraint. On a second occasion, Satan came with the angels who came to present themselves before the Lord.

Again Satan, the roamer, came from roaming through the earth, going back and forth in it looking for victims. But at this point, listen to what God said additionally of Job this time, “and he (Job) still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason”.

We should remember that the main purpose of Satan and bad angels and evil human beings who follow him is to destroy the hand work of God. Satan then said something like this to God, “what is property, anybody can lose all his property and still be faithful and loyal to you; but you touch his skin; he will surely curse you to your face” God answered,”. “Very well, then he is in your hands but you must spare his life”(Job 2:4-5)

Job´s wife who advised, “curse God and die” and his three friends who claimed that Job could not be what he would want the world to believe him to be an upright man if he suffered all the affliction. To them, sim could only be the cause of Job´s affliction. Job refused to accept his wife´s advice and he mildly rebuked her as talking like a foolish woman. Wife or no wife, Job maintained his integrity and his cause and course with God.
Job 4:7). Job asked questions and sought explanations. He even sought for mediator between him and God but he remained an upright man who fears and respects God.
He held on to his faith and did not accuse God of any wrongdoing. Job continued to fear God and to shun evil. He said, “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). Job continued with his good deeds to others. In spite of his seemingly helpless and hopeless situations and his cry of anguish to God, God never abandoned nor forsook him. God maintained His own timetable and agenda. 

Lessons and Application:
In the case of Job all is well that ends well. But the question persists, “why do good people suffer?” no simple or single explanation can be given to this age-old question of good people undergoing difficulties, suffering and afflictions. Let us look at some of the reasons offered in the word of God, the Holy Bible.

1. Testing strengthens our character (James 1:2-3; Rom. 5:3-4). The testing of our faith develops perseverance and painful situations produce character the same way regular exercise builds muscle tone. To every desert of calamity there is an oasis of comfort in terms of improved character. In such cases, trials are meant to improve and enhance our Christian life rather than to impair it. It helps to develop the fruit of the Spirit in us (Gal. 5:22-23).

2. Peter adds that testing proves that our faith is genuine (Gen. 22:1-2; 1peter Our tested faith gives honor to God. Remaining steadfastly faithful despite our agonies, especially unmerited and seemingly undeserved suffering testify to others how much we value God. Life is a laboratory of faith. The strength of our faith and sincerity of commitment to God is tested through trials. 

3. Testing proves we are God´s children (Heb. 12: 6-8). Every parent disciplines a child he loves to help the child develop to useful adult and maturity to the pride and satisfaction of the parent. We are reminded through trials that we are God´s children under discipline.

4.Trials can lead to increased blessing- the story of Joseph ending up as prime Minister of Egypt, Job having his possession doubled and Daniel prospering in captivity under King Darius (Dan. 6:28) we take the sweet and the sour and blend them to honor and glorify God (Job 2:10).

Let us remember that all of this broken world suffering can be traced back to one tragic event – the disobedience of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:6-7). Consequently, sin and its results – suffering and evil entered the world. Although, God is not the author of sin and evil, He allows suffering to discipline us and if necessary, punish us and us to repentance. Pain, affliction and suffering can be effective tools to raise our sights to God´s level and cause us to live more like Christ.
For believers, Christians and children of God, no matter how they come, suffering and difficulties are meant to make us better and not bitter. All things happening are known by God and allowed to happen by God for His purpose (Amos 3:6). Through suffering, God teaches us lessons that we would or could not learn any other way (Psalm. 119:75).
Jesus did not promise His followers easy life or problem – free existence in this world, “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In a sense God allows pain and affliction in order to display His power (John 9:3) while Satan’s aim is destruction, Jesus came to tear down Satan´s work (1John 3:8).  And God receives glory and honor when people manifestly endure their suffering through the power of God´s grace. And surely, an affliction becomes blessings when blended with ready and prayerful acceptance. Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy (Psalm 126:5).

         May our Lord Jesus bless these words in our hearts.  Amen


4/3/16   Truth’s Demonstrative Nature  Scripture:    John 20:19-31
Theme:  Many times, we demand proof before we believe.  This belief is still valid in the eyes of God, yet the greater, deeper faith depends not on sight, but on trust, which may not yet be demonstrated to us.

         This morning, I would like to play the game of free association with you.  You know how this goes – I say a word, and you repeat the first word or thought that comes to your mind.  For example, I say “hot” and you say (“cold” or “weather” or “water”).  Let’s begin:

Fast  (slow, lane, car)
Black (white, night, humor)
Sun (moon, warm, heat)
Syria (refugees, ISIS, violence)
Winter (snow, cold, gone!)
Politics (yuck, ugly, frustrating)
Spring (warm, life, renewal)
Motorcycle (cool, great, awesome)

Now, I want to become more specific in the subject matter.  I want us to do this “free association” with people in the Bible.  Let’s begin:

Noah (faithful, boat-builder, two-by-two)
Paul (apostle, epistle-writer, woman-despiser)
Ruth (devotion, patience, commitment)
Judas (judge of Israel, wisdom, leadership)
Abraham (patriarch, very-old father, sacrifice)
Peter (rock, fisherman, stubborn)
Mary (mother of Jesus, blessed, saint)
David (king of Israel, slayer of Goliath, psalms)
Thomas (DOUBT)

There it is.  For many of us, the first thing that comes across our minds when we think of Thomas, the disciple of Christ, is doubt.  We call him “Doubting Thomas” and have characterized him as the one who had to see before he believed.  We sometimes label him a person of weak or inadequate faith for this reason.
         But a careful reading of this text reveals otherwise, I believe.  We often chastise Thomas for his doubting, but did you notice?  Christ did not.  Again, from the story, once Jesus has reappeared to Thomas, he proclaims “My Lord and my God!” – he has been moved to the most faithful proclamation possible for a Christian.  Jesus then responds, “Have you believed because you have seen?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (vs.29)

Nowhere does Christ say, “cursed are those who will not believe until they see.”  Christ does not condemn Thomas for his doubt.  He encourages Thomas to move beyond his doubt, but there is no chastisement towards Thomas.  We are the ones who tend to read condemnation into the story.
         This is very good news for us, for I believe that Christ addresses us in the same way as Thomas.  Christ does not condemn us for our doubts.  Like Thomas, I believe Christ wants us to work through and move beyond our doubts, but we are not condemned for questioning God.

         Let me ask you perhaps a strange question this morning – do you have faith in your doubts?

         What I mean is this:  are your doubts useful to your life and your faith?  When you doubt something, does it cause you despair, or is it the beginning of a journey towards the unknown?  When you are uncertain about something essential, do you spiral down into hopelessness, or start searching for solid ground?
         We’re approaching a very key point that addresses the nature of questioning.  Why do we doubt?  Why do we question?  We doubt and question because things are not clear.  Doubt occupies the middle ground between certainty and dismissal; doubt stands between knowledge and ignorance.  And although we want to believe that we have a lot of answers and know a lot of things as a human race, I believe that we find ourselves in that middle ground most of our lives.

An astronomer who was known to be quite critical of religion approached a minister at a party. “Pastor,” the astronomer asked, “wouldn’t you agree that all of Christian theology could be summed up in this simple song, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’?”
“Yes,” the pastor replied, “if you would agree that all of astronomy can be summed up in this song, ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are!’”
Things aren’t so simple; things aren’t so clear.  There is plenty of room for doubt in a world where black and white clarity is seldom achieved. 
But the question raised by Thomas is this:  what do we do with our doubts?  This is the main point that separates those who would grow in the faith from those who work against the faith.  It’s what separates Nicodemus, the Pharisee whose heartfelt curiosity drove him to seek out Christ in the hiddenness of night, from Herod, who brazenly questioned Christ as to his ability to do signs.  It’s what separates Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue whose daughter was dying, who sought out Christ to heal her, from Pilate, whose questioning of Christ was motivated by politics and concerns over social stability.
         Motivation is everything!  The answer to the question “what motivates our doubt?” means everything for Christ’s accessibility to us.  For those who doubt because they shun the difficulty of the Christian life, or because they don’t like the idea of something or someone calling the shots for their lives, or because they want to be lord of their own lives – for these persons, doubt provides the doorway out of God’s dominance – and also out of God’s grace.
         There was a story told about the famous attorney, Clarence Darrow, in a moment of rather un-religious sentiment.  It seems that Mr. Darrow, made this statement:  "They tell me there is a God; but I have never seen him, I have never touched him, I have no personal acquaintance with him."  Within that same context, another person replied, "They tell me that Mr. Darrow has a mind, but I have never seen it, I have never touched it, I have no personal acquaintance with it."
         If our desire in doubting something is to push it away from ourselves, we will almost always succeed.  We, as human beings, are quite capable of criticizing, questioning, and doubting anything to the point that we can justify dismissing it completely.  Our world regularly does this with religion, faith, and God.
         But for those whose questions are heartfelt, soul-centered, and honestly searching, God is inescapable.  That is the beauty of the story of Thomas – as we approach God with our doubts, God promises to respond on the level we need for belief.   
Doubt is the beginning of a deeper life, a deeper faith that insists on truth beyond the limitations of our own understanding – in other words, on God’s terms.  Faithful doubting is reaching out into the darkness, trusting that a hand is reaching back to us, and will indeed reach us despite our inability to see.
Frederick Buechner said that “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving. -- Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking.

Our faith is in a God of revelation and mystery.  We do not know all.  But we can know more.  Doubt, questions, inquiry, testing, exploration, trial and error – all can be vital to the increase of our faith.  These are the “ants in the pants” of faith that keep it alive, that keep it from both the arrogance of self-righteousness and the emptiness of dismissing belief.  We are never condemned for our doubts, but are invited to see our doubts as a pathway towards deeper and more substantial faith. The doubting process carried Thomas to the point of making the greatest statement of faith anyone can make – “My Lord and my God.”  May we each employ our doubts, to similar effect.



3-27-16 Stranger than Fiction – Easter Sermon
Scripture:  John 20:1-18
Theme:  Easter—strange story?  Essential story?  How to understand the strangeness of God’s revelation – only possible through the understanding of love.

         In looking at our scripture lesson today, there’s a lot of strange things going on.  Mary Magdalene, a woman, is out and about before daylight, heading toward the tomb of Jesus.  Strange there were no men with her.  The stone had been rolled away.  Strange, for freshly occupied tombs were taboo, were to be avoided and not messed with.  Mary runs to Simon Peter and the “other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.”  Strange that he wasn’t named.  Peter and that disciple began running towards the tomb, but that other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  Strange to point out this fact.  The text says the other disciple did not go in, but saw linen wrappings lying there; then Peter arrived, and entered the tomb.  Strange detail about their arrival.  Peter saw the cloth from Jesus’ head rolled up by itself, separate from the other wrappings.  Strange information that seems to tell us nothing significant.  Finally, the other disciple entered the tomb, and without explanation, he saw and believed.  Strange that there is no mention of what he was feeling or thinking to move him to belief.
         THAT’S ONLY THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF OUR SCRIPTURE LESSON, the first ten verses, and it gets stranger yet.  Two angels in white, one at the head, one at the feet.  Jesus himself appearing in the tomb, apparently in some quasi-physical, semi-spiritual state.  Mary mistaking him for the gardener, whoever he was.  If we read the text carefully, almost every single verse carries an unusual amount of mystery, a high degree of strangeness that scholars and theologians intensely debate to this day.
         Behold the Easter story, the strange tale of God’s revelation in Christ.  It truly is stranger than fiction, full of twists and turns that are hard to comprehend, hard to put together.  Many have pointed out that it is these twists and turns that make the Christian faith so hard to swallow.  Why all the mumbo-jumbo?  Why all the idiosyncrasies and abnormal jostling? 

Why such a strange story, when, if God is truly God, all-powerful and all-knowing, God could have made it so much more straightforward, so much less strange?  Is this only about something we can’t really understand – the possibility of life after death?
I like how this thought was described once in a cemetery.  Upon a tombstone was written the following inscription: 

“Remember man, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you shall be, so be prepared to follow me.”

On that same stone, someone had taped this note:

         “To follow you is not my intent, until I know which way you went.”

         We want heaven; we don’t want hell.  But we also want to know what is worthy of life here and now; we want to know what is right and wrong; we want to rise above subjectivity; we want to discover truth in all of its forms; we want to experience and share love that is life and world changing.  Faith is where we ask God about these matters.  Faith is where we ask God regularly and intentionally, what is relevant for meaningful life? 

         I wonder, probably like you do, about such matters the time.  Of course, the most direct answer is “we don’t know.”  God is God, beyond our comprehension, beyond our direct access in a way that settles all questions.  God is, in a word, strange. 
         But isn’t it the strange things that are often more real?  That which is strange becomes an object of inquiry; the longer the inquiry, the more becomes known, and the greater the knowledge of something, the less strange it becomes.  Who knows -- it can even become a part of us, to the benefit of our lives.
Years ago, a community was facing a great controversy.  The city government announced that they were going to begin adding fluoride to the drinking water.  This was strange, adding a chemical to water that would be used for cleaning, drinking, cooking, and washing.  There were meetings and forums to discuss the situation, and many people were against this strange new substance being added to their water.  Well, against the wishes of many in the community, the decision was made; fluoride was to be added to the drinking water on the appointed date.
The date came, and so did the complaints.  Letters to the editor poured in, complaining of stomach pains, of headaches and nausea, of dishes not getting clean, of the wash losing its brightness.  Grass was dying, pets were becoming weak, goldfish were floating belly up.  It was chaos, it was bedlam, it was catastrophe – and it was all in people’s heads.  After a week, the city wrote a letter to the community, apologizing for still not having the equipment in place to begin the water treatment.  They had never added any fluoride to the water.  Things quieted down, the equipment finally got installed, the fluoride was introduced – and the people’s teeth were never better.

It’s the strange things that sometimes hold the greatest promise and garner the greatest attention – but may also raise the greatest doubts and fears. 
Thirty years ago, if someone told you that one day, you’d use your phone to type messages and take pictures more than to make phone calls, you’d think it a strange thing to say – but today, it is true.
One hundred years ago, if someone told you that polio and small pox would someday be practically eradicated from the face of the earth, you’d think it a strange thing to say – but today, it is true.
One thousand years ago, if someone told you that the world was round and not the center of the universe, you’d think it not only strange but dangerous – but today, we know these things are true. 
Two thousand years ago, if someone went around embracing untouchables and caring for the poor, taught people to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, and spoke regularly about a different kingdom, not of this world, but yet in this world, and known through God – you’d think it not only a strange thing, but a dangerous thing, perhaps even worth the cross – but today, we believe it is true.
The strangeness of God is what gives the world meaning, what enables the world to become more than it already is.  Faith is the initiative that invites that strangeness into the center of life; faith is the trusting in God more than our knowledge, abilities, or comprehension.  Faith is the trust that places everything in the embrace of the unlikely, the improbable, and the impossible reality of the cross – for it is in the cross that we discover the power and simplicity of love, in its ability to face the worst and rise to the best.
I remember hearing a story about a company attempting to start a new pension plan, which required 100% participation. Every employee signed up except one. No amount of argument or persuasion could get this person to change his mind. Finally, the president of the company called the man into his office. "Here is a copy of the proposed pension plan and here is a pen," he said. "Sign up or you're fired." Whereupon the man immediately picked up the pen and signed his name. The president of the company then said, "I don't understand why you refused to sign until now. What was your problem?" The man replied, "You're the first person who explained it to me clearly."

“For God so loved the world, that he gave us his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16) 
This is the Easter message – that God has, in Christ, given himself to us.  Back then.  Today.  Tomorrow, and beyond.  God has made himself accessible to his people.  God has not, and never will, abandon those whom he loves.  There is no stranger truth than this – “For God so loved the world, that he gave us his Son.”  There is no more wonderful truth than this – “For God so loved the world, that he gave us his Son.”  Amen.


3-20-16   Checklist for Proper Glory -- Scriptures:  Luke 19:28-40, Isaiah 50:4-9a

Theme:  Jesus’s approach to Jerusalem highlights elements of the kind of glory that should motivate us onwards towards the fulfillment of God’s desire in our lives, in our world – those elements include constant awareness of the long-range goal, a tempered respect for enthusiasm, and a willingness to suffer for the right things.  These elements were coming to Jesus outside of Jerusalem, and his model serves as our guide.

         Recently, I read an article that talked about the incredible energy that surrounds the Academy Awards which happened on February 28th.  The article talked about the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the incredible extremes that stars go to in order to be dressed fashionably and be prepared (or fashionably unprepared) to make that acceptance speech.  It’s a kaleidoscope of the famous, the notorious, the image conscious, the popular, the outrageous, the scandalous, the scantily-clad, the eloquent and the vulgar.  And there, to take it in, are the crowds – photographers, critics, journalists, interviewers, paparazzi, adoring fans, glowering cynics, but in general, crowds that are there because they are tremendously interested in the famous or the infamous.  They reflect how interested, even how obsessed, we are regarding other people’s lives.  There was a powerful quote that ended the article, however, that put all this in perspective regarding all the glitz and glamour of not only the Academy Awards, but of Hollywood in general.  Here’s the quote:  
“People in Hollywood are always touching you – not because they like you, but because they want to see how soft you are before they eat you alive.”
I think this quote has a bearing on what’s going on in our scripture passages for today.  Jesus is approaching Jerusalem on the back of a colt; there was the crowd, shouting their praise, waving their palm branches, throwing their cloaks on the roadway, dancing in the streets, proclaiming their adoration to this figure, this famous person, this Messiah, this man of power and influence.  And, I can’t help but wonder, if Jesus wasn’t thinking all the time, about how all these people were praising him, acclaiming him, worshiping him, touching him, not because they liked him, but because they wanted to see how soft he was before they ate him alive.
         For that’s what’s coming, and Jesus knows this.  The glory of that moment outside the city gates would not last; it was a shallow reflection of the hopes and dreams of a people that knew what they wanted to hear, what they wanted to believe.  They were captivated by their own idea of glory, their own definition, that tried to point to God as an instrument of their will, rather than the opposite.   Holy Week would find glory redefined, and that new definition would shape all subsequent Christian faith, up to this day.
         What is this new definition of glory?  What, as the sermon title suggests, is proper glory?  Or, if we want to be technical, what is proper CHRISTIAN glory?  We can start with what it is not.  It is not glory as defined by most of human history.  Indeed, we can here find this understanding explicitly given by Webster’s dictionary, where glory is defined as “exalted honor, praise, or distinction accorded by common consent.”  There was a lot of such common consent going on outside of Jerusalem that day, but it was a shallow thing that wouldn’t last the week.  It was a fleeting glory based upon the good feeling of the crowd – not upon a grasp of the divine intention.
         Glory has got to mean something more than the world’s definition.  Our scripture lessons give us a model in both the suffering servant of Isaiah and in Jesus himself.  If we look to these two images, these two models, we see that Godly glory, glory defined by faith in Christ, arises in those who pursue God’s will regardless of external influences.
         It’s as simple as that.  It’s as impossible as that.  To glorify God means to minimize the distracting affects of our environment so that we can re-engage that environment on God’s terms and not our own.  This is modeled by Christ, one moment heralded as the new King with shouts of acclamation, the next moment scourged as a criminal.  He was able to place the pressures of his environment in proper priority behind the will of God, and, hence, engaged that environment on God’s terms, God’s terribly harsh, yet incredibly redemptive, terms.  And his model is to be our own.
         I read something awhile back which spoke to me about this proper glory.   An author named Nancy Guthrie, in her book Holding on to Hope, which came out in 2002, tells about her experience of actually, physically holding on to Hope.  Hope was her daughter, who was born quite ill, and was not expected to live very long.  Here’s her story in her words:
We had Hope for 199 days. We loved her. We enjoyed her richly and shared her with everyone we could. We held her during seizures. Then we let her go.
The day after we buried Hope, my husband said to me, "You know, I think we expected our faith to make this hurt less, but it doesn't." Our faith gave us an incredible amount of strength and encouragement while we had Hope, and we were comforted by the knowledge that she is in heaven. Our faith keeps us from being swallowed by despair.
But I don't think it makes our loss hurt any less.
Early on in my journey, I said to God, "Okay, if I have to go through this, then give me everything. Teach me everything you want to teach me through this. Don't let this incredible pain be wasted in my life!"
God…allows good and bad into our lives and we can trust him with both.…Trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness—this is the kind of faith God values most of all….
I believe that the purpose of Hope's short life, and my life, was and is to glorify God.
Nancy Guthrie, Holding On to Hope (Tyndale, 2002); submitted by Gary Smith, Ft. Myers, Florida
Nancy talks about the purpose of Hope’s short life as being to glorify God, but listen to how she sees this process – that “God allows good and bad into our lives and we can trust him with both – trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness, (when the crowd cheers you on, and then fades away, eventually calling for your destruction) – this is the kind of faith God values most of all, the kind of faith that brings glory to God.”
         That’s what glory means – staying the course, retaining the focus, maintaining the purpose regardless of external influence.  It is being stubborn in our faith to the point that, if it be of God, it consumes us, commands us, and constrains us.  It is choosing to be shaped by God before the world, to understand our direction is not to be set based upon what is more or less difficult, more or less pleasant, or more or less acceptable to our family, neighbors, community or world.  It is to base our direction, our action, upon what God expects of us, and to follow through regardless of the cost.
         That’s where we so often stumble – when the degree of challenge reaches the point of discomfort.  We like things to be a certain way, with an acceptable amount of risk and danger, and a much greater amount of security and prediction.  I came across a quote I love that reflects how we think life should be in just one simple sentence; this was shared by Pastor George Vander Weit, who said, “When I die, I want to go peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did, not screaming like the passengers in his car."
         Death should be peaceful.  Life should be satisfying.  Prayer should be comforting.  Virtue should be rewarded.  Accidents should not happen.  People should behave well.  Government should be honest.  Worship should get out on time.  Christ should be honored as king.  Christ  should not be betrayed.  An innocent man should not be crucified.  Should, should, should.
         It has been said that the should’s of life are the corrosion of hope and the limitation of life; when we get so preoccupied with what should happen that we do not pursue what could happen, we stifle and begin to die.  Only by moving from should to could to will to do will we ever get to did.  Did you get that?  Only by putting the should’s behind us, and embracing what we can do, will we accomplish anything worthwhile.
I’ve got a parable that expresses this truth.  I’m sure you’ve heard this parable before, but it deserves retelling, and I found it in the format of a poem.  It’s entitled “Keep Kicking”, and it goes like this:
Two frogs fell into a can of cream – or so I’ve heard it told.
The sides of the can were shiny and steep, the cream was deep and cold.
“Oh, what’s the use?” said Number one, “’Tis fate – no help’s around –
Good-bye, my friend!  Good-bye, sad world!”  And weeping still, he drowned.
But Number two of sterner stuff, dogpaddled in surprise,
The while he wiped his creamy face and dried his creamy eyes.
“I’ll swim awhile, at least,” he said – Or so it has been said –
“It wouldn’t really help the world if one more frog was dead.”
 An hour or two he kicked and swam – not once he stopped to mutter,
But kicked and swam, and swam and kicked, then hopped out, via butter.
Only by putting the should’s behind us, and embracing what we can do, will we accomplish anything worthwhile.  And this is especially the case laid out by Christ, who should not have been thought of as a military Messiah, who should not have been betrayed, who should have been able to turn the crowd, who should have been able to avoid the cross, who should not have been crucified, should not have fallen into that abyss – Christ put all of those should’s behind him, and did what he could to glorify God.  Things solidified in the resurrection; our salvation is the result.
         Jesus did what he could; we are to do likewise.  We are to set our sights not on what we want life to be, but what God wants our lives to be.  We are to set our course not based upon the influences around us so much as the Godly influence within us.  We are to put aside the should’s in favor of the could’s, regardless of the cheering or the jeering of the crowds.  In this lies the glorification of God.


3-13-16 Christian Efficiency Scripture: Philippians 3:4b-14
Theme:  Value is largely subjective in life.  We associate value with what’s important to us.  When we see things from the perspective of faith, things become more personal (hence, our personal relationship with God) and hence more backwards to the world’s way of thinking.  With the ultimately personal step of repentance, forgiveness, and sanctification, we begin to have our value systems changed – spiritually, mentally, and physically.

         A few years ago there was a man in New York City who was kidnapped. His kidnappers called his wife and asked for $100,000 ransom. She talked them down to $30,000.
         The story had a happy ending: the man returned home unharmed, the money was recovered, and the kidnappers were caught and sent to jail.  But, can you imagine what the negotiations on that phone call were like?  "$100,000 for that old guy? You have got to be crazy. Just look at him!  Look at that gut!  You want $100,000 for that? If you only knew what I had to put up with in living with him – he doesn’t pick up his socks, never washes the dishes, doesn’t ever listen to me.   $100,000?  You've got to be kidding.  Give me a break here.  $30,000 is my top offer."  I wonder what conversation ensued once the man was returned to his wife, and discussed her negotiating a discount for his ransom?
         This true story makes a very good point, which brings us to the issue raised in our scripture lesson today -- Just how much is a person worth?  Or, drawing upon the message of Paul from scripture this morning:  what is it that makes a person valuable?
         The world certainly has its answers.  Wealth.  Power.  Success.  Fame.  And I believe that, often, the Christian perspective has its answers as well – what makes a person valuable is believing the correct doctrines or creeds, membership in the right church, obeying the ten commandments, or doing good deeds.

         Paul is in a position to give us some particular wisdom in this area, for Paul is what the world might call an unqualified success. 
His list of credentials is amazing – born into a proper and influential Jewish family, born of the tribe of Benjamin (which was the number one tribe for religious leaders), not only a member in good standing, but a leader of the Pharisee sect, and a leader that held enough power to order or even oversee the persecution of any group deemed unorthodox or heretical.  His record was unblemished; he obeyed the law perfectly; he did all the right things, and he knew all the right people.  He had it all.
         Yet he counts it all as loss!  He considers all of his vast achievements, positions, influence, and power as nothing compared to something he has received through no power of his own, no accomplishment of his life, no position he has held.  Paul counts this tremendous resume of his past glory as nothing compared to the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” 
This perspective invites a reversal to our normal way of thinking about ourselves in light of faith.  Usually, we talk about leaving past regrets behind for the sake of more effective, efficient living right now.  But here, Paul challenges us to consider leaving even our past positives behind for the sake of “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord.”  The cliché that comes to mind is “do not rest on your laurels.”  Perhaps Paul would rephrase this:  “do not rest on your religious virtue.”
Awhile back, Alan Alda, the television and movie actor perhaps best known as the lead star in the TV series “MASH” wrote a book of memoirs with the kind of title that grabs a person.  The title of the book is  “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.”  In an interview, he explained the significance of the title:

“I was 8 years old. My father was trying to stop me from sobbing because we were burying the dog, so he said, “Maybe we should have him stuffed.” We kept it on the porch, and deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries.
There are a lot of ways we stuff the dog, trying to avoid change, hanging on to a moment that’s passed.”

Let me ask you:  have you ever stuffed the dog?  I think you know what I mean.  It’s the kind of question Paul puts before us today through his own example. 
Do we hold onto the positive past too tightly?  Do we rest too much on our laurels?  Do we worship what has been to the detriment of what is or what shall be? 

Years ago, I remember pastoring a couple whose marriage was in great jeopardy.  It turns out that the wife had been caught in an affair.  The husband was filled with rage, the wife was feeling condemned, and our conversations, pastor and couple, were extremely intense.  As we continued to meet and talk about how to repair this situation, if possible at all, it came to light that the husband had recently had an affair as well.  Pain after pain was shared – and then, I remember one meeting where they both said to me, each in their turn, that they had been members of the church for all their lives.  Good, upstanding members.  Attended church, did the right things, volunteered, studied the Bible, led Sunday school classes.  WE DID ALL THE RIGHT THINGS – I heard them saying. 
And there, I believe, we faced the problem.  Doing the right things is no guarantee of having a righteous life.  We need help – help beyond ourselves, beyond our weakness and temptations and confusions and errors.  We need help that we cannot find by formula, doctrine, attendance, or good works.  We need the help that God offers in Christ – who modeled forgiveness beyond transgression, compassion beyond pain, love beyond condition.  This may sound trite, this may sound like what a pastor would, of course, say – but that couple’s healing did not begin until they invited God into their center, to do what they could not do themselves for their relationship.  That’s when things began to heal.

Often, I believe, the negative past weighs us down – when we did wrong, when we failed, when we missed something important.  But sometimes, Paul reflects, the positive past does this as well.   Having done all the right things, being righteous and blameless before the world and before God – these things do not guarantee the life of substance God intends for us all.  It is only in relationship with Jesus that we find ourselves as our fullest selves – regardless of past failures or successes, in spite of past vice or virtue.

I remember reading a story of a young Naval Academy graduate, who after completing his first overseas cruise, was given an opportunity to display his talents at getting his ship underway and out of port. The young officer's efficiency established a new record for getting a naval ship underway. He was stunned, however, when a sailor approached him with a message from their captain. "My personal congratulations upon completing your underway preparations exercise according to the book and with amazing speed. In your haste however, you have overlooked one of the fundamental rules -- make sure the captain is on board before you leave."  -Bobby Ives, "Greetings," Boat Notes, The Carpenter's Boatshop, Fall 1999 Newsletter, 1.

How often do we leave port, confident of our sailing skills, only to discover the captain of our lives was left behind?  No skill, no righteousness, no worship, no theology, no doctrine or creed or ritual or works, can replace a relationship with God that lets God be Lord of our lives, in all ways, great and small.

“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”  Let us not be controlled by what lies behind, be it good or bad; let us instead strain forward to what lies ahead in the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord.


3-6-16  The Movement from Judging to Witnessing Scripture:  II Corinthians 5:16-21
Theme:  We often see people from certain human points of view:  as competition, as conformative, or as complementary.  But God desires that we see each other through a Christian point of view – worthy of love, necessary for faith, to be served by us, never to be judged by us.  This goes for non-Christians as well as Christians.

Three women were having coffee one day, when the conversation turned to their children.  “My son,” said one of the women, “is a state supreme court judge.  When he walks in the room, people say “your honor.”  “That’s nothing,” said the next woman, “My son is a bishop.  When he walks in the room, people say, “your eminence.”  “Oh, that’s nothing,” said the third woman, “My son is 6 foot 8 inches tall, weighs 280 pounds, has tattoos over his arms, wears a Mohawk hairdo, and scowls all the time.  When he walks into the room, people say, “My God.””
Today, we are challenged by scripture to consider how we see each other – how we understand the significance, substance, and value of other human beings.  Paul has something challenging to say to us regarding this; he says: “Once we know Christ, from this point on, we regard no one from a human point of view.”   We are told not to regard any other person from a human point of view.  But just what is the human point of view?  Just how do we tend to see each other as human beings?
I think there are three major ways that we tend to see each other.  The first is perhaps the most obvious regarding sports, but is very present in subtle ways almost everywhere ego is present – we often tend to see others as competition.  Often masked as criticism, gossip, cynicism, insult, insinuation, blame, or accusation, its basic characteristic is a sense of me against them.  And the goal of competition is to look better than the other guy. 
Once upon a time, there were two evil brothers. They were rich, and used their money to keep their ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church, and looked to be perfect Christians.
Then their pastor retired, and a new one was hired. Not only could he see right through the brothers' deception, but he also spoke well and true, and the church started to swell in numbers.
 A fund raising campaign was started to build a new assembly. All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the new building.
"I have only one condition," he said. "At his funeral, you must say my brother was a saint."
The pastor gave his word, and deposited the check.
The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. "He was an evil man," the pastor said. "He cheated on his wife and abused his family."
After going on in this vein for a small time, he concluded with, "But compared to his brother, he was a saint."
Often, we try to shape human perception in this way – to look better than others, to look better than we really are.  This is a very human point of view.  And one that ultimately never works to make us into better human beings.  
We also tend to see others from a human point of view when we see them as proper conformists; this is the practice of measuring persons by how well they conform to our ideal.  Do they conform to our sense of right and wrong?  Do they think like we do?  Do they heed our advice?  Putting it into today’s language, are they good Republicans?  Are they good Democrats?  Are they good Christians?  Are they good Americans?  Are they good investors, good property owners, good landlords, good tenants, good baseball fans, good cooks, good parents, good children, good teachers, good preachers, (how did that one slip in?)   DO THEY CONFORM TO WHAT WE THINK ALL NORMAL, HEALTHY, RIGHTEOUS, GOOD-HEARTED PEOPLE SHOULD?  Or, in other words, are they just like us? 
Barry Bailey, pastor of a mega-church in Fort Worth, Texas, tells of his experience with two of his closest friends, Jean and William Tucker. William was Chancellor at Texas Christian University.  An article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram featured their coming to terms with the fact that Jean's oldest nephew had died of AIDS. Rather than try to hide the tragedy, Jean said, "I am going to make this public. " The nephew was an artist. The Tuckers had some of his paintings in their home. They loved him dearly. But what made Jean decide to tell the story was that following her nephew's death, someone came to her, trying to bring comfort. The person said, "I am so sorry." Jean thanked the person. Then the person asked, "What did he die of?" Jean replied, "He died of AIDS." Then the other person said, "I'm sorry, ... anyway."
Can you hear the judgment in that “anyway”?
Often, as human beings, we discover that we are not the same – we have different experiences, different realities, different orientations, different challenges.  And sometimes those differences produce automatic judgment.  This can also be a very human point of view.
Lastly, another human point of view has to do with how much another person complements our lives.  Sometimes we look at people and measure their value in terms of how much they add to our lives.  Not only do they think like us, look like us, or sound like us, but do they like us, do they like to do things with us, are they interested in who we are as persons, do they contribute value and meaning to our lives?  We trust them, we express emotion to them, we share more with them.  They are our friends.  But this, too, can be problematic towards those whom we do not see in the same way.
I remember an experience when I was in second grade.  Under Mrs. Foss, my teacher, we had a system in place; for those students who kept an “A” average for a month, there was given the great and honorable privilege for one week of dismissing one row at a time for recess.  I had proudly achieved that grade for a month, and had come to my week for dismissing the rows for recess.  I was supposed to choose rows that seemed quietest, most orderly, most attentive.  I thought that’s exactly what I was doing, until Thursday came.  When I came up to the front of the class as usual, before I began, one student rudely said, “You’re not being fair!  You’ve dismissed the third row first every day!”  I began to protest, when the student behind him said, “That’s because Pat’s in that row.”  Everyone knew Pat and I were best friends.  And I realized that’s exactly what I had been doing – dismissing Pat’s row first because Pat was in it.
It was a childish display of favoritism, but it followed me, as it follows all of us, into adulthood.  We treat some people better than others—because of what they can do for us, what they contribute to our lives.  But this can be a tricky thing if it results in treating others as of lesser value, judging them as somehow inferior or less worthy of our attention, because of what they can or cannot do for us. 
When we see others from a human point of view, there is always the problem of self-interested myopia – we tend to color our view of their significance and value with respect to our own significance and value – and this can be a problem.  It can be a problem because of our tendency to judge people by their differences from us – and where there is judgment, love is diminished.
Paul outlines a better perspective for the Christian – “Regard no one from a human point of view.”  Regard no one from a perspective of judgment or condemnation – leave such matters to God.  Instead, our place as followers of Jesus is to seek out the potential of all to rise to their God-given fullness of life, to be, as the scripture states, “reconciled to God.”  Our message, our work, is to be about the reconciliation of the world to God’s reality, practicing love for all, regardless of differences.  Our work is to regard everyone from a Godly point of view – we are, as the scripture says, “entrusted with the message of reconciliation; we are Ambassadors for Christ, and God is making his appeal through us.”  Our work is to love beyond reason, beyond judgment, beyond differences.   
Dr. Ronald M. Patterson from Shiloh Church in Dayton Ohio wrote about an experience that taught him about this work we Christians are all called to.  He tells about the time he was assigned to work at Boston City Hospital as a chaplain's assistant.  He writes:  “I was assigned to a prison ward, and one of the prisoners there was a big-time drug dealer. It was my duty to visit him because he was very ill. Well, with the half-hearted pseudo-compassion of the typical do-gooder, I did my duty. Later, I confessed this to the Roman Catholic nun who was my supervisor. I said, 'How can I go and pray with this man who was ruining the life of this city? He deserves his illness and a whole lot more.' Do you know what she said to me? 'Patterson, who died and elected you God? Somewhere deep within that man, covered by the layers of pain and denial and every rotten thing he has ever done, there is the kernel of God's image. Your only job is to see that spark; and the only way you can ever see it is to forget everything else about whatever anyone else has told you about right and wrong and believe with your whole heart that the spark is there. He, too, just as much as anyone you will ever meet, is a child of God's love."'--Recalled and preached by Dr. Ronald M. Patterson, Shiloh Church, Dayton, Ohio)

We are to seek out the kernel of God’s image in every person – to trade our human point of view for the way God sees us all.  May it be so; amen.


2-28-16  What God Offers -- Scripture:  Isaiah 55:1-9       
Theme:  God wants everyone – everyone! – to come to Him, to receive what He wants to give, with priority given to those of lesser existence – the thirsty and hungry, the homeless and the refugee, the lost and afraid.  And we are invited to be the agents of delivery for the graciousness of God.  A step in the right direction is the redressing of the things that keep God’s children in the shadows of life – fear and hatred being the most insidious, indifference perhaps the most widespread.  We, as followers of Jesus, are called to interfere with the better motivations of compassion.

         I don’t know if you realize this, but, have you noticed – we live in a beautiful place?  My wife and I were walking early one morning before the sun came up, and witnessed the absolute beauty of the mountains around us illumined by a full moon.  Walking along the Clark Fork river near the down-town area is always a delight.  Just a month ago, we saw something beautiful in our church, when Homeless Connect took place in our facility—to me it was a beautiful sight.  I traveled down to one of our churches in the Bitterroot, joining with my clergy colleagues for study and fellowship; they are a wonderful group of faith leaders, a beautiful time together; on the way, I took in breathtaking peaks dusted with fresh snow and playful clouds that danced this way and that.  We live in a very beautiful area of beautiful places and people.
         But recently, some things have come to my attention, and perhaps yours, which are not so beautiful.  Which are, in fact, unpleasant, ugly, and even dangerous.  There seems to be a rising tide of animosity, prejudice, and hatred moving into our area. Angry speeches made against the possibility of refugees settling here in our area.  Threatening e-mails and phone calls made to representatives and leaders who are exploring the issue.  Hostile rallies where only like-minded opinions are welcome, and opposite opinions are shouted down without respect or civility.
         Can I ask a question:  WHAT’S GOING ON?
Shouting matches in Hamilton.
Letters to the editor full of prejudice and isolationism.
Courthouse rallies where blanket generalizations are made, like “refugees rape, kill, and destroy,” and “refugees hate Christians, Jews, women, and gays.”
Legislators crafting a letter to the Governor, asking to block all Syrian refugees from entering our state.
Nationally, 31 governors stating that they would block, oppose, or fight refugees moving in.
And I don’t even want to mention some of the political rhetoric hitting the media.
So, again, I ask:  WHAT’S GOING ON?
I believe it’s the same thing that’s been going on throughout human history – namely, that we are being tempted by our lesser nature, our lower character.  We are letting our thoughts and actions be guided by two of our greatest adversaries, fear and hatred.  And it’s making things ugly.
I had thought about changing the scripture lesson for today based upon the rise of hostility in the air, but when I read and read the lesson from Isaiah 55, I discovered it fit very well.  The passage has something very important to share with us regarding this ugliness – namely, that it is not God’s will.  Listen to the scripture again, where it says from the mouth of God, “Come, everyone who is thirsty; come, you who have no money (can we hear God saying “Come, you who have no home; come, you who have no rest; come, you who have no hope….”?), here is water!  Here is food!  Here is life!”  Almost like God is addressing especially those who are cast out and adrift…. Listen again to the scripture, where God says “Now you will summon foreign nations, at one time they did not know you, but now they will come running to join you!  I, the Lord your God, the holy God of Israel, will make all this happen.”
Could it be that the Lord our God, the holy God of Israel, will make this happen – through us?
About two months ago, we had a visitor to our church from another state, traveling through.  He happened to have attended our church on the Sunday when I happened to place the picture of a presently-prominent politician running for the presidency, and mentioned in the sermon that I found the statement by this political figure that “we need to ban all Muslims” profoundly problematic.  This gentleman caught me after church, in order to let me know that he disagreed with my perspective, stating that “you know, all Muslims really are terrorists.”
That’s when I grabbed him by the shoulders, gripping him in a half-nelson wrestling hold, threw him over my shoulder onto the floor, and pinned him there until he agreed with my perspective.  NO, I DIDN’T DO THAT, OF COURSE, but I must admit a very slight feeling along those lines.  Here’s my point:  SUCH FEELINGS ARE TO BE FOUGHT.  Or, better yet, SUCH FEELINGS ARE TO BE CHANNELED, AWAY FROM HATRED AND TOWARD UNDERSTANDING,
AWAY FROM FEAR AND TOWARD HOPE.  Fear and hatred work division between those of differing perspectives, opinions, and circumstance; hope and understanding work relationship with all.

We continued our conversation.  He stated that all Muslims are terrorists.  I asked him if he knew any Muslims.  He said, and I quote, “Yes, I know who they are.”  Did you hear it?  The nebulous, enigmatic “they?”  As differentiated from the nebulous, enigmatic “us?”  I asked another question – do you know any Muslims personally?  He said, no, that he himself didn’t know any Muslims personally.  The conversation then turned to the Muslims I had known in my experience, who were leaders in their faith community who worked with me and other faith leaders to construct a service of remembrance for the September 11 attacks; it was the Muslim community who spoke out loudest against the attacks, saying that in no way did this represent the Islam they knew.  The man I was speaking to said, “Oh, I didn’t know they would support such a service.”  I hope I heard in his voice a bit of a changed perspective – a more understanding perspective, a less fearful perspective.
Now, I understand something that is probably the case – that there are many more persons who are not hate-filled, more balanced in their perspective and ready to explore these and other contentious issues with civility.  It is often the vocal minority that gains the greatest attention – and we might be tempted to reduce this to something of a momentary lapse of reason in our nation.  Maybe – maybe not.  History is full of times when radicalism was allowed to run unfettered for too long, giving rise to the darknesses of history that fill textbooks in school.  Nazism, genocide, political coups, oppressive dictatorships, and the like have often been enabled by good people falling into indifference, born out of the sense of things improving on their own, that someone else will speak out, or move for constructive change.
Elie Wiesel said that “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
         Indifference exists when we do not know enough or care enough to understand something or someone personally.  Indifference is the distancing of humans from each other on a mental, spiritual, and even physical level.  Indifference is the depersonalization of human reality.  And what is human reality? 
From the perspective of our God, our human reality is that WE ARE DESIGNED TO BE CONNECTED TO EACH OTHER through a love that is not to be confined.  Shaped, yes.  Pursued, definitely.  Scrutinized, of course.  But not confined to those of our choosing.  God’s love is unbounded, universal, and personal; and, if we say we love God, we adopt that love as our own.  The stranger becomes a brother, the refugee a sister, the mournful a member of our family, the homeless our companion, the victim our ward.  If we are connected to God, we are to some degree connected to each other.  All of us, wherever we live, whatever we face.
Elie Wiesel had more to say about this indifference – he said that “We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.  Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.  Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”   -- Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy:  Night/Dawn/The Accident
This week, many persons of an opposite spirit to this hatred and ugliness are going to interfere.  We are going to interfere in the form of a march of solidarity on this coming Tuesday at 5pm.  We begin at the X’s at the north end of Higgins.  We walk from there to Caras Park together; some leaders in our community will share brief talks about taking a stand against hatred, intimidation, and violence, and for compassion, understanding, and peace.  It is likely that there will be people voicing opposite opinions as we walk; it is probable that not all of us in the walk will fully understand all the complexities involved in these issues.  But we will all be attempting to move beyond what we say we believe, and place those beliefs into action.  This includes praying for the refugees who may or may not find their way here.  This includes praying for those whose voices have been raised in hatred and anger.  And this includes each one of God’s children, as they wrestle with the reality of a God who will not rest, until all have truly heard the invitation we heard in our scripture passage from Isaiah today – “Come everyone, come to me, and you will have life!”


2-21-16-Lamentation for Jerusalem -- Scripture:  Luke 13:31-35

Theme:  Jerusalem has been seen by many as a geographical epicenter of sacredness for three world religions – and this has led to the unfortunate and profoundly ironic result of it being one of the most war-torn, violent, and destructive places on the face of the earth!  Is this not a result of each faith system forgetting it’s most central teaching – that God is above, over, and provident over all?  It is basic human nature to confuse the profane with the secular; let us be careful not to do the same.

Today we find Jesus somewhere on his way to Jerusalem, that holiest of cities, established by David, home to prophets and priests and identified with the presence and activity of the divine.  Jesus, however, makes an astonishing statement regarding his destination – “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  SEE, YOUR HOUSE IS LEFT TO YOU.”  In other words, you are left alone, without the benefit of God’s direct intercession.
This is a shocking rebuke.  These words sound like Jerusalem is to be pitied, judged, and even condemned as unworthy of God’s favor.  The city seems to be a symbol of everything working against God’s revelation, killing the prophets, stoning the messengers, unwilling to allow God his domain.  Jerusalem, that holiest of cities, is described by Christ as working the greatest efforts against God’s revelation.
 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” cries Jesus – but it’s not a cry out against Jerusalem alone.  It is a cry against the way humanity sometimes gets it wrong, when what is holy is used for unholy purposes.  And as we look to the example of Jerusalem, as Jesus saw it then, and as history has showed it since, we see something of a caution for the practice of our faith – to make sure that we never abuse the holiness of God.

  1. One reason for the tension in Jerusalem over the years has been a

practice that could be called the “Elevation of non-essentials.”  This is seen in the tendency groups have to make land or buildings or ritual or objects more important than people; to emphasize controlling influence over tolerant compromise; to focus on hierarchical leadership over relational leadership. 
Its essence can be most simply put as “making things more important than God and God’s will.”
Now, what does this mean?  I remember, during my three years at seminary, I would spend a few days every now and then at my aunt and uncle’s house in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.   There was a joke about that town, that its real title was “Basking Rich”, for it was a very wealthy town.  My aunt and uncle’s home reflected this wealth – it had around 4,000 square feet overall, and was furnished in all the latest styles.  It was a pretty comfortable, nicely arranged home for their family of four individuals.
But I found it ironic, strange, and confusing that the nicest, most comfortable, prettiest room in the entire house was OFF LIMITS.  It was the living room just off the front entrance; very nicely furnished, a few sofas and chairs that looked brand new, and, this I remember – white carpet.
I remember once when I ventured into that room in order to read my book.  As soon as I crossed the threshold, sirens began to wail; bars dropped down right in front of me; tear gas spewed forth from holes in the wall; a trap door opened up underneath my feet, and I slid down a slide into a dungeon, where I met the skeletal remains of the last person who had dared to cross that threshold.
OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s how I felt when I heard my aunt’s raised voice saying to me, “JOHN, WE DON’T GO IN THERE!”  I thought she was joking, until I looked at her, and saw that special kind of look that says, “DON’T YOU DARE.”  I don’t mind admitting to you that I was incredulous; if it weren’t for the fact that they were providing me with a free place to stay, feeding me excellent food, taking me to movies and treating me wonderfully, I just might have said something.
We sometimes make things too important, and sometimes they way we make them too important is to keep them from being used in the important way they were designed to be used.  THUS, WE HAVE JERUSALEM.  Jerusalem, Jerusalem – the one who is to see the coming of God on earth, who is to proclaim “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,”  instead killing the prophets, stoning the messengers, crucifying the revelation of God made flesh.  How ironic!  How backwards!  And how human.
Any time we make a room, or a building, or a ritual, or a place, or an event, or an object more important than a person or a relationship, we are behaving like those in the Jerusalem that Jesus criticized.  If we are proclaimed beloved by God, if we are carved into the palm of God’s hand as it says in Isaiah 49, then somehow we share in the holiness of God.  God’s priority is our relationship with God and each other; all else is meant to support these relationships, not the other way around.

  1. Another way to think about Jesus lamenting Jerusalem has to do with

what is called “Perceptive exclusivity.”   Born out of people’s sense of insecurity, it is the common practice of identifying oneself by critiquing another.  You make yourself feel superior by showing just how bad someone else is. 
You know how this works.  I have compiled a formulaic expression of this process from my own experience as a parent and when I was growing up as a child. 
Child A does something wrong. 
The parent confronts him or her. 
Child A says, “But Child B did something worse!” 
So the parent confronts Child B. 
Child B says, “But Child A did something else bad!” 
So the parent goes back to Child A. 
“I hit her because she hit me” says Child A. 
“I hit him because he looked at me funny” says Child B. 
“Did not.” Says Child A. 
“Did so” says Child B. 
“You smell bad,” says Child A. 
“You look ugly” says Child B  
“You’re dumb” says Child A.
 “You’re stupid” says Child B. 
And the parent finds himself or herself in the awkward place somewhere between laughter and tears, reaching for extra strength Tylenol.

“If I can make someone else look bad,” the rationale goes, “then I look better, and I am more set apart from them.”  This is not just a child’s game; we all play it, or are tempted to play it.  And often we expand this to a global scale.  Perceptive exclusivity has a natural progression about it; it moves from tolerance, to animosity, to hatred, to a desire to erase the opposite group from existence.  I believe that more wars are caused for this reason than any other – the sense that one people is better than another, that one people is superior than another, having more rights, more sovereignty, more wisdom, MORE JUSTIFICATION than others.  This perspective sees hatred as justified because of one’s righteousness according to God – but this perspective, at the same time, fails to remember one of God’s most important revelations, in Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, even strains of Buddhism and animism, and so many other world religions – that all humans are God’s children, and are precious in God’s sight.
         Whenever we make things, places, ideologies, cultures, people, races, histories, or what have you – whenever we make these things more important that knowing and following God, we have replaced faith with religion.  This may sound strange to our ears, until we realize that FAITH IS NOT THE SAME AS RELIGION.  Religion is the system of structures, doctrines, practices, and organizations THAT WERE MEANT TO SERVE FAITH, as tools for the construction of meaningful, tangible belief.  We have turned things around when we make those things more important than the things we profess inwardly, spiritually.  Religion absolutely has its importance, but it is in relation to faith as precedent.  Faith is the reason for religion’s existence; it should never be the other way around.  No matter how reasonable, justified, solid, or rational a religion may be, it is to be the servant of faith in God.
         When Jesus laments Jerusalem, he laments all of our tendencies as people of faith to sometimes get it wrong.  Even us Christians.  Even we who follow Jesus to the best of our abilities.  Even we who preach the Word of God to others.  We sometimes think we know enough to condemn others.  We sometimes think we know enough to feel superior to others.  We must be careful.  The call of God through Jesus is one of repentance, one of humility, one of sacrificial love.  There is no room for arrogance, no room for judgment of another, no room for exclusion, no room for hatred.  God’s holiness is meant to prioritize people over places, practices, or possessions; and we are made more holy as we follow God’s lead.

         In closing, we’re going to share something a little different.  Our JuBellation Bell Choir director Brynn let me know that they have a selection to share with us called Song of Peace – once I read the note on the piece, I realized it potentially reflected the sentiment Jesus might have experienced as he lamented Jerusalem.  The note was written by the composer of Song of Peace, Arnold B. Sherman; he says “Song of Peace is a reflection of the way the world has treated peace almost from the beginning of time.  The gentle round DONA NOBIS PACEM is given a harsh and angular treatment, representing the needless violence and senseless acts of terrorism that plague the world almost daily.  In this piece you can hear an interspersion of the psalmist’s cry, “How Long, O Lord, How Long?”, with the dissonance building until it stops; out of the chaos comes the round once more, moving towards a harmonious setting that speaks of eternal hope, peace, and restoration for all humankind.”  Here, then, is our bell choir performing “Song of Peace.”       


2-14-16  Challenging our Self-Justification  Scripture:  Luke 4:1-13
Theme:  It is the nature of temptations to only arise when we are faced with something we are free to do yet shouldn’t do.  The essential element is choice, and choice has no chance for expedient result lest the subject retain a guiding influence from a higher source.  Jesus modeled this in his temptation in the desert – the capacity of the human to choose beyond self-interest.

A teen-age boy told his parents he was going to run away from home. "Listen," he said, "I’m leaving home. There is nothing you can do to stop me. I want excitement, adventure, beautiful women, money, and fun. I’ll never find it here, so I’m leaving. Just don’t try to stop me!" As he headed for the door, his father leaped up and ran toward him. "Dad," the boy said firmly, "you heard what I said. Don’t try to stop me. I’m going!"
"Who’s trying to stop you?" answered the father, "I’m going with you!"
Today, we consider something that affects us all in one form or another – TEMPTATION.  Temptation is one of those terms that is played with in different ways, such as being tempted to watch too much TV or eating to excess, but in its root meaning, it is nothing to take lightly.  The dictionary defines temptation as “a fundamental desire to engage in short-term urges that threaten long-term goals.”  I heard another definition that I find helpful in my life – that temptations are doorways that offer lesser alternatives to our better natures.  And yet, another definition that makes a point – temptations offer temporary indulgence for the price of a diminished future.
On this first Sunday in Lent, we have arrived at the first of the Gospel lessons that traditionally are shared on this day – the famous episode where Jesus is tempted by the devil.  After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus is led into the wilderness, where he stays fasting for 40 days, and then is attacked by Satan three times:

“Are you hungry, Jesus?  MAKE SOME BREAD” says the devil.
“One does not live by bread alone” says Jesus.
“Want to rule the world?  WORSHIP ME” says the devil.
“Worship is meant for God alone” says Jesus.
 “Are you worried about getting hurt?  HAVE GOD COME TO YOUR
RESCUE” says the devil.
“Do not test God” says Jesus.
Now, much has been made from this scene, many ideas about Jesus’ humanity and divinity, the nature of the devil, the manners in which we are tempted like God’s son.  But today I wanted to share with you one thought that has always been at the center of this story for me – that Jesus demonstrated his ability and willingness to choose responses that ran against his own self-interest.  Jesus was tempted by his freedom to do or be whatever he wanted to do or be – but that what he wanted most was to be faithful to God.
Tempted by freedom – isn’t this what makes temptation what it is?  Confronted by something we know we shouldn’t do, think, feel, or participate in, temptation exists because we know we are free to give in.  We can eat the entire box of oreos, we can tell a convenient lie, we can look at the pornography, we can share the juicy gossip – and the world continues to revolve, our daily lives do not change very much.  At least for awhile.  We are free to do these things, without great outward impact here in society; but the impact in two other areas – inside our hearts and in the eyes of God -- can be tremendous.  And such impact will eventually translate to the world around us, to the ones we love, to the ones who love us.
Have you ever been tempted by FREEDOM – tempted to deal with reality in our own manner?  And let’s go beyond the freedom to overindulge in eating dessert, or talk behind someone’s back.  Let’s think about the temptation to be free to do what we like, what we want, what makes us feel good or comfortable in our own lives, the only lives we really have a say in ultimately.  Let us think about the world we would be tempted to create if our own preferences justified creation….

I thought about this recently when I heard a politician say  “IF THE GOVERNMENT WOULD JUST LEAVE US ALONE!  We’d manage our affairs by ourselves, and do a better job.”  I wonder.  I wonder if I was just left alone, with my own rational common sense, intelligence, and way of seeing things….I like the idea.  If I was free, totally free to choose what I thought was best for my life, you know it would place a priority on motorcycles, chocolate, and fishing.  I’d have my own personal Jacuzzi in my office for those times of “deep meditation”; the Missoulian would reserve the front page of their paper for my weekly commentaries regarding what’s wrong and what’s right with the world, complete with a smiling photograph of yours truly.  We’d have teleprompters up here for my sermon notes to be projected on, so I would never lose sight of my astounding insights.  I’d have all of you trained as media technicians, dramatic readers, and liturgical dancers, just to spice up worship regularly.  And every year I would have a three-month sabbatical that would take me across the world to visit every holy site, church, cathedral, and chapel in the world, beginning with an obvious destination like the holy beaches of Hawaii or the sacred city of Las Vegas.  All we would have to do is come up with a $2.3 million dollar budget for this church.
WORKS FOR ME – HOW ABOUT YOU?  I know this all too well, and it’s probably what you are all thinking as well – I’M GLAD IT’S NOT ALL UP TO ME!  My complete freedom to justify my life in the way I want to might just work for me – but would be terrible for those I love, for those who depend upon me to do my part on their behalf, who are counting on relationships with me that are not completely one-sided.  I’m glad I have some external constraints upon my life, that I am able to live in the midst of people I love, and need to be responsible to.  I am glad that I am not responsible for determining what justifies my life!  I’M GLAD I HAVE SOME EXTERNAL CONSTRAINTS UPON MY LIFE, THAT I AM ABLE TO LIVE UP TO A GREATER REALITY THAN MYSELF.

There is great power in freedom to lead us astray, whenever it is focused upon self; the devil knew this, and it was the object of his temptation.  But there is greater power in freedom to make this life more of what it was meant to be, whenever it is focused upon God.  It is when we focus too much on things other than God that we are headed for the most trouble.
         A read about one man’s experience along these lines.  He was shopping with his wife at a local shopping mall.  He writes “while my wife and I were examining messages on an advertising kiosk, a shapely young woman in a short, form-fitting dress strolled by. My eyes followed her.
Without looking up from the item she was examining, my wife asked, "Was it worth the trouble you're in?"  -- Drew Anderson (Tucson, AZ), Reader's Digest.
“Was it worth the trouble you’re in?” could be translated into “is the temptation worth risking the future you desire?”  Or, better yet, “Is the temptation worth the future God desires for you?”
 Temptations will always arise; there is nothing unusual about this.  In Jesus we see a clear demonstration that there are things worth resisting in this life, things that sound exciting, enticing, and good on the surface, but lead us nowhere good, that compromise life as God would have us live it, and, if we think about it, life as we ultimately need it.  Temptations will be most effectively handled by making sure we are serving something – or someone -- greater than ourselves.  Someone who is qualified to challenge our self-justifying ways.  Someone who knows us better than we know ourselves.  Someone who always has our best interest – our best eternal interest – in mind.




7-6-14 - A Final Word from the District Superintendent

Scripture:  Colossians 1:1-14
Theme:  The DS has some insights on the new pastor appointed under his watch – and there are concerns!  But not if we remember what God has said to us consistently, constantly, as reflected in today’s scripture – we share in the inheritance of the saints in the light; we are given the opportunities to grow in the knowledge of God; and God is with us every step of the way. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-XElA0vVI98c/UDUjEPHYqzI/AAAAAAAAuQQ/tg42yGZ4X3k/s1600/harley_davidson_2013_breakout_cvo_in_pagan_gold_paint_marks_110th_anniversary_up5af.jpg

Recently, I made a request of our Bishop Elaine Stanovsky – that she would grant an extension to the position of Western Mountains District Superintendent until 10:30am, July 6th, 2014.  She graciously extended that privilege, and so I stand here before you as the Western Mountains District Superintendent for the next 25 minutes.  I felt this was an important request to make, for as District Superintendent overseeing the new appointment to this church, the First United Methodist Church of Missoula, Montana, I needed to raise up to your awareness some things about your newly appointed pastor.  I am uniquely qualified to make commentary, I believe, for I know this new pastor fairly well – we talk on a regular basis, and have done so for over 40 years.  Let me put it to you directly – there are some things you really ought to know about him. Read more of the message


First United Methodist Church of Missoula / Kay Duffield, Webmaster (hart2u2@yahoo.com)