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!
by our minister Rev. John Daniels
Sunday School: Children ages 3-12 meet from 9:15 to 10:15 on the top floor.
The Faith and Justice Class will meet downstairs at 9:15.
Children's Christmas Pageant Dec. 6 at 10:30 a.m.
Chirstmas Concerts: JuBELLation Dec. 13 at 1:30 and John Floridis Dec. 20 at 7:00 p.m.
Christmas Eve Services at 5:30, 8:00 and 11:00 p.m.
MISSOULA FIRST UNITED METHODIST CHURCH is a Reconciling Congregation.
We welcome all people into the full life and membership of this congregation.
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.
SCAM: 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.
Nov. 22 Advent Decorating in the Sanctuary
Nov. 24 Book Group, 11 a.m.
Nov. 26 Queergiving, 3-7 p.m.
Nov. 29 United Methodist Student Day
1 Tree of Life Lighting, 6 p.m. Ceremony, 6:30 p.m.
3 UMW General Meeting, 1 p.m.
6 Children's Christmas Pageant, 10:30 a.m.
6 Eagle Watch Service, 1 p.m.
6 & 13 Alternate Giving Sundays, 11:30 a.m.
7 Ad Council 7:00, Moore Room
10 Ruth Fellowship, 10 a.m.
10 Amazing Grays Christmas Party, 5 p.m.
11 Friday Nite Out, 6 p.m.
13 UMW Candy/Bake Sale, 11:30 a.m.
13 JuBELLation Handbell Concert, 1:30 p.m.
16 Vesper, 11:30 a.m.
20 John Floridis Concert, 7 p.m.
24 Christmas Eve Services, 5:30, 8 and 11 p.m.
29 Book Club, 11 a.m.
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
UMW - United Methodist Women schedule and fellowship group information
UMM - United Methodist Men
Walk to Emmaus - Link to their website
Reaching out with love to our community and the world
❤ Tzedakah Pocket
❤ Family Promise Host
❤ Missoula Interfaith Collaborative & January Food Bank Drive
❤ Host for Homeless Connect
❤ Poverello noon meal 5th Saturdays
❤ East Angola Pastor Support
❤ United Methodist Women’s mission projects
❤ SERRV & Fair Trade Products
❤ Intermountain Home
❤ Flathead Lake UMC Camp
❤ Blackfeet United Methodist Parish (BUMP)
❤ YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter
❤ Cub Scouts
❤ Habitat for Humanity
❤ Salvation Army
❤ Wesley House
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
Junior Nursery Attendants: Sophia Clark, Kade Hedahl, Kayla Leavell, Madison Lightfield and Austin Means
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
**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.
Monday - Friday: 9 a.m. - noon.
(subject to change - call 549-6118 before coming in or to make an appointment with the pastor)
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 - 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.
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 - 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. For more information call Joann Wallenburn at 677-4424.
Joyful Noise Children's Choir - 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. Fall classes will meet on Sunday morning, Tuesday morning, Tuesday evening and Wednesday evening. Click on the blue button below for details.
Tuesday Adult Classes - Covenant Bible Study program on Tuesday mornings, and the NOOMA series with Rob Bell on Tuesday evenings
New Member Classes - First UMC will be holding new member classes when there is interest. These classes will be not only for those interested in becoming members of the church, but also for those with questions about the Christian faith, church life, the Methodist denomination, and why we do what we do in our church. The class runs for five sessions, with group input shaping potential Sundays for reception into the church (for those who wish to join). If you are interested in this class, please contact the church office at 549-6118 or e-mail at FUMCMissoula@gmail.com. We hope you will join us!
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.
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.
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 visit. 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
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.
United Methodist Women
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 have a website full of information, news, and resources
Thank you letter from the Blackfeet United Methodist Parishes for the 2014 Christmas Boxes
. UMW 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
Stephen Ministry Church
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.
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.
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.
First 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.
Special Days. Special Ways. We reach out to the world with Special Offerings
11/29/15 Leading, Following, or Getting Out of the Way Scripture: Luke 21:25-36
Theme: Re-aligning ourselves with the birth of Christ means to not only remember, but to reflect, upon God’s revelation. We go back to go forward in this manner, that we may be future-oriented beings, built upon the foundation of the expectant hope Christ was all about. Christmas re-introduces this truth – about our need for, and God’s offer of, redemption.
I have a strange question to ask you this morning. How many of you have a clock radio that you use to wake up in the morning? It’s a pretty common device in many households; we have several in our home.
A couple of months ago, I was staying in a motel for a week of clergy meetings in Bozeman. My motel room had a clock radio that I made sure was set to the time I needed to get up in the morning. Just like the ones we have at home, there was a choice between “music” or “alarm.” At home, we almost always move that setting to “music,” and make sure it’s aligned with our favorite station. The alarm setting is very obnoxious, with a sharp buzz that jolts one out of slumber. So, on that motel clock radio, I found what seemed like a good station, playing jazz or something, place the setting to “music”, and went to sleep, ready to wake up at 7am. I awoke to a very pleasant melody playing on the radio, which had as it’s morning program of very soft music. I felt very rested, until I discovered it was 9am; I think I had been lulled back to sleep, and I had missed my first meeting of the morning, at which I was to make a presentation!
Who doesn’t prefer the “music” setting to the “alarm” setting? Awaking to music is so much more soothing, so much softer, so much more comforting – and yet, one might not awaken, or awaken fully, to the call of the day. Awaking to a loud and obnoxious alarm can be abrupt and stressful – but perhaps more certain to do the job, and have one more prepared for the day.
Today is the first day of Advent. Advent is the season that looks forward to the birth of Christ. The music of this season is the fond remembrance of that birth – calling to mind the proclamation of the angels, the approach of the wise men, the shepherds in the field, the star overhead, the manger scene with Mary and Joseph, a donkey, a calf or two, and a lot of hay. And of course the small miracle who is the center of it all, the baby Jesus. Our hearts are easily warmed by such melodic remembrance.
But today, we receive an alarm of sorts, in the form of our scripture lesson. We hear of no manger, no holy family, no wise men or shepherds or angels. We hear, instead, of the coming “distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
That’s no soothing tune! That is an alarm, full of tension, angst, and fear. It is meant to awaken the faithful to the future with a jolt. The theme of the first Sunday in Advent is Preparation or Hope; some traditions have the theme down as Expectation or Anticipation. In general, the First Sunday of Advent is meant to ask a future oriented question: WHAT IS COMING? Often, this is translated in such a manner to speak to the coming of Christmas day, to make sure we are remembering the story of the birth of Jesus -- but this is only a part of the understanding. In a sense, we are to look back in remembrance not only of the events but the purpose behind those events; the purpose God had in sending Jesus to the world.
And, just what is God’s purpose? In today’s lesson, Jesus tells us to “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day of redemption does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap….Be alert at all times.”
“Be alert at all times.” There is the statement. But, a question follows: what does it mean for a Christian to be alert at all times?
I get a question quite often that brings this issue to focus. The question I get is usually put this way – “pastor John, things are so bad right now, with the violence and terrorism and breaking up of families and cancer; do you think the end of the world is coming?” My answer is, indeed, yes. The end of the world is coming. It could happen today. It could happen tomorrow. And it is just as likely that it will happen in 7.5 billion years, as scientists predict, when our sun will enter its death throes. In other words, it can happen anytime. This is not meant to raise anxiety, but to check reality, to make sure we are making the most of the time we have right here and now.
I read about a notice that appears in the window of a coat store in Nottingham, England: It says -- "We have been established for over 100 years and have been pleasing and displeasing customers ever since. We have made money and lost money, suffered the effects of coal nationalization, coat rationing, government control and bad payers. We have been cussed and discussed, messed about, lied to, held up, robbed and swindled. The only reason we stay in business is to see what happens next."
I think Jesus is telling us something incredibly powerful, incredibly helpful that should make us ready and willing to see what happens next, and it is this – IF WE ARE PREPARED, IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE WHEN THE END OF THE WORLD WILL HAPPEN. The source of our fear is not so much that we won’t know when the end is coming – the source of our fear is that we won’t be prepared in an eternal sense, in a sense that trusts in God’s provision far beyond the known universe and its discontinuance. The source of our fear is that we feel we are not prepared for the end.
But God has made it possible for us to be ready for anything that may come, even the end of the world, by giving us a continually renewed beginning in Christ. This is the real meaning of Christ’s birth – a message of life meant for all who live which prepares all who live for anything that may come.
What does it mean, though, to really be prepared for anything, including the end of the world? What does it look like to live a life so faithful, so God-centered, as to remove all fear of what may come?
Some years ago, a young man who wanted to change his life went into a church and sat down in the sanctuary. He took out a piece of paper and a pencil and began writing down a long list of things that he promised he would do to change his life — a whole page of things — and he signed his name at the bottom. He then took the paper up and placed it on the altar, and sat down again in the sanctuary.
As he was sitting there, however, he began to sense the voice of God speaking softly in his own soul. And the more he listened to it, the more he heard the voice of God saying something clearly to him. The voice said, “My son, you’ve done it all wrong. I want you to go back up there and get the piece of paper and tear it up. And then I’ll give you another instruction.”
So, the young man got out of his pew and walked up to the altar; he did as the Lord told him. He then went back to sit down in the pew and waited for the Lord to instruct him. After awhile, a message came through. The Lord said to him, very gently, “Take another piece of paper and sign your name to it at the bottom; let me fill in all the rest.”
To be prepared is to allow God to fill in the rest, to set the standards for our living and our believing, to be the first question in our minds and the last thought in our hearts. To be prepared is to know God as the reason for all that is, and all that we each are. Christ came for this purpose – to prepare us to live fully and rightly as determined by God. May we understand the birth of Jesus as the preparation we each need to face any future.
11-15-15 A Land with Plenty – Scripture: Isaiah 58:6-8
Theme: Bread for the World Sunday – a Sunday that raises the reality of scarcity in a world of plenty. God desires the abundance evenly spread; it is a human manipulation that keeps some immersed in the depths of hunger.
One morning this past week, my family and I were driving around town chasing down errands. We had been to several places and had been driving for some time, when we realized the time was past noon. We decided that we’d better find one of the finer dining establishments known by the Golden Arches or by the clanging Bell, when I found myself saying a certain phrase. The phrase that is often used at such times. The words that probably each of us have spoken ourselves or heard at some time or other. The statement that identifies the sensation of hunger.
I said, “I’m starving!”
As soon as I said it, a very disturbing thought came into my mind. “NO, YOU’RE NOT!” That thought came into my mind with a jolt largely because I had been thinking about this worship service and its emphasis for today regarding the reality of hunger in our world – and the probability that most of us sitting here have not experienced true hunger.
Will Davis Campbell (July 18, 1924 – June 3, 2013) was a Baptist minister, activist, author, and lecturer. He once told about an experience he had that awakened his mind to the realities many people face; he said:
“Some of us were conducting a workshop on voter education in Memphis. I had gone to a home in what can only be described as a slum with two of the young people who were doing a survey of registered voters. Two small boys were seated at a vinyl-covered table in the kitchen. They said their mother was not at home. We opted not to ask about their father. It was mid-afternoon. The scene was one of depressing squalor. One of the boys was eating something I could not identify from a cup. The other one sat across the table from him, making no move to share what his brother was eating. “Why isn’t he eating?” one of the students asked, nodding toward the first boy. The boy eating from the cup answered matter-of-factly, like he had been trained to say it, and conditioned to believe that was the way things would always be. “It was his turn yesterday,” he said. It was obvious that his brother understood, and there was not the slightest hint of rancor between them.”
Today, we are identifying with Bread for the World Sunday, which is an ecumenical effort to highlight the reality of hunger in our world as well as to seek out ways to address root causes of injustice, poverty, and oppression. Bread for the World is an approved Advance project (#982325) of the United Methodist Church, which is one of the major mainline proponents of such efforts. Our denomination and many others support this effort in the knowledge of a few things:
- For one, hunger, technologically speaking, is unnecessary – we produce enough food to feed the entire world’s population, the latest estimates stating that world food production produces 1 ½ times the amount for each person to receive the recommended 2,100 calories per day an average person needs to maintain health.
- Secondly, hunger is recognized to be unfair, often being employed as a weapon to control persons in developing nations, often a result of poor governmental oversight and questionable political practices – as the sometime philosopher and theologian Bono, from the rock band U2 put it, “Where you live in the world should not determine whether you live in the world.”
- And thirdly, and perhaps most significantly for people of faith, hunger is a primary concern of God.
In Isaiah 58:6-8, God says “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry….?”
In Deuteronomy 15, it says “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
In James 2:15-16, it says – “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go and be filled,” without giving them the things they needed for the body, what does it profit? “
In 1 John 3:17-18 it says – “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
In Proverbs 22:9, it says – “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.”
In Matthew 25:35, Jesus says – “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”
In Luke 3:11, Jesus says – “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”
Shall I go on?
If Christianity is about following Christ, then it follows that where Jesus went, what Jesus did, what Jesus said, and what Jesus shared is where we should go, what we should do, what we should say and what we should share. And it is apparent that the things Jesus taught, did, said, and shared were largely, almost exclusively, oriented towards the marginalized and their favored attention from God.
Now, perhaps I am preaching to the choir here, for this church especially is amazing for its outreach on behalf of the marginalized. From Family Promise to the Poverello Center, from the Foodbank to the Union Gospel Mission community meal we housed here in our fellowship hall yesterday, from contributing to famine relief through our denomination’s Advance program to supporting agricultural missionaries to Angola (remember Kutela Katembo?), from the youth group going trick or treating for canned food to the various individuals in our church, sitting with us today, who will go unnamed but who provide a meal or a sack of groceries for someone that will otherwise go hungry – our church does some really amazing ministry in the effort to alleviate hunger in our community and our world.
But the fact remains – there is so very much more to do. Let us not waiver, but continue on, with this work that concerns us all in the body of Christ. Our prayers are needed; our contributions are needed; our acts of service are needed; but above all of these, our loving response is needed, in all the ways we can, towards all the people we can, for ever so long as we can (as Wesley said). So long as one person, one family, one child who faces hunger, the work of loving response goes on.
Frederick Buechner once said that “the world teaches that the more you get, the more you have. Jesus teaches that the more you give away in love, the more you are. Let us seek to be all that we can be as God’s children, by making sure we are helping all God’s children to do the same.
How the Great Guest Came by Edwin Markham
Before the cathedral in grandeur rose
At Ingelburg where the Danube goes;
Before its forest of silver spire
Went airily up to the clouds and fires;
Before the oak had ready a beam,
While yet the arch was stone and dream --
There where the altar was later laid,
Conrad the cobbler, plied his trade.
It happened one day at the year's white end --
Two neighbors called in on their old-time friend;
And they found the shop, so meager and mean,
Made gay with a hundred boughs of green.
Conrad was stitching with face ashine,
But suddenly stopped as he twitched a twine:
"Old friends, good news! At dawn today,
As the cocks were scaring the night away,
The Lord appeared in a dream to me,
And said, `I am coming your Guest to be!'
So I've been busy with feet astir,
Strewing the floor with branches of fir.
The wall is washed and the shelf is shined,
And over the rafter the holly twined.
He comes today, and the table is spread
With milk and honey and wheaten bread."
His friends went home; and his face grew still
As he watched for the shadow across the sill.
He lived all the moments o'er and o'er,
When the Lord should enter the lowly door --
The knock, the call, the latch pulled up,
The lighted face, the offered cup.
He would wash the feet where the spikes had been,
He would kiss the hands where the nails went in,
And then at the last would sit with Him
And break the bread as the day grew dim.
While the cobbler mused there passed his pane
A beggar drenched by the driving rain.
He called him in from the stony street
And gave him shoes for his bruised feet.
The beggar went and there came a crone,
Her face with wrinkles of sorrow sown.
A bundle of kindlewood bowed her back,
And she was spent with the wrench and rack.
He gave her his loaf and steadied her load
As she took her way on the weary road.
Then to his door came a little child,
Lost and afraid in the world so wild,
In the big, dark world. Catching it up,
He gave it the milk in the waiting cup,
And led it home to its mother's arms,
Out of the reach of the world's alarms.
The day went down in the crimson west
And with it the hope of the blessed Guest,
And Conrad sighed as the world turned gray:
"Why is it, Lord, that your feet delay?
Did you forget that this was the day?"
Then soft in the silence a Voice he heard:
"Lift up your heart, for I have kept my word.
Three times I came to your friendly door;
Three times my shadow was on your floor.
I was the beggar with the bruised feet;
I was the woman you gave to eat;
I was the child on the homeless street!
I was the one your love did meet."
11-8-15 Stewardship Sunday Scripture: Matthew 6:19-21, 25-33
Theme: What stewardship isn’t; what stewardship is; and how we try to be good stewards in the Body of Christ is how we live a life of faith.
WHAT STEWARDSHIP IS NOT: (John)
Today is our first official annual Stewardship Sunday. It’s a moment during our Christian year when we ask what Christian Stewardship means. The word stewardship is defined as how a person manages property or affairs which are not their own yet are entrusted to their care.
Too often, in churches especially, the word Stewardship is directly and only connected to money. This is not necessarily wrong, but it greatly misses the point of what stewardship is truly about. Stewardship is not primarily about money; but money is a part of our stewardship. Stewardship is about how we use all that we have. How we use what we have speaks volumes about our priorities and values. How we use what we have speaks volumes about what we believe.
Scott and I are going to talk back and forth a bit today about stewardship – and the first thing that I’d like to share is how easy it is to get it wrong. I’ve told the finance committee, and perhaps others, of the time when I was pastoring a church in Colorado and we conducted a membership survey – when we write letters to members who have become “inactive.” We bend over backwards to be kind in those letters, to say something to the extent that “we’ve noticed that you’ve not participated in our church in quite awhile, and were wondering whether you would like to remain a member of our church, or have found another faith community in which to be involved.”…..The letter was gracious, gentle, soothing, tactful, kind, loving, and heartfelt – and always generated one or two responses that were filled with hostility.
One such response came from a woman who had moved a thousand miles away, and had been absent from our church for 20 years. In her response, she said, “How dare you question my membership in my church! I was baptized there as a child; I was married there, baptized my children there, served this and that committee…..” She was basically saying “DON’T YOU DARE REMOVE MY NAME FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIP ROLES,” which was fine; but what I remember most about that letter was that, inside the envelope, next to the letter that seethed with hostility, she had enclosed a check for $365. It was as if she was making some sort of point – her membership in our church was worth a buck a day. I wanted to send the check back and say “that’s not what we were going for….we simply were trying to connect.”
But it made me think about this association – that, in society, we tend to measure things based upon some assumptions about value and cost; membership costs a dollar a day; groceries, services, utilities, mortgages, gasoline, cell phones, etc. all have a certain dollar valuation which is reasonable, expected, and, for the most part, affordable.
But stewardship is not about assuming a certain standard of cost; it is about respecting what we have and from whom we have received it; it is about our relationship with the Provider, and trying to follow the desires of that Provider for using what he has given in the first place. We are given the things we have to support our lives, to obtain the basics for living – which go beyond food, clothing, and shelter, towards less tangible but more essential things like hope, healing, and harmony. Stewardship has no fixed pricetag; or, to put it another way, the price of stewardship is one negotiated between self and God.
WHAT STEWARDSHIP IS: (Scott)
STEWARDSHIP – WHO WE ARE (MEMBERSHIP/ATTENDANCE SLIDE)
STEWARDSHIP – WHAT WE HAVE (BUDGET)
STEWARDSHIP – HOW WE USE WHAT WE HAVE – Slideshow
Stewardship is not about money or amounts or quantities or resources before it is about how we understand that all we are and all we have belongs to God – and consider how God desires us to use what is entrusted to us for life, ours and others. I found what I think is a wonderful definition of Christian stewardship by Brian Bauknight -- “True stewardship is not fund-raising. It is not dues paying. It is not well-intended manipulation. It is not charity. It is not an itemized deduction on Schedule A of Form 1040. It is not legalism. And it is not alsgiving. Giving is a response from a growing awareness of God in our lives. Giving is a response from a growing love for God.”
I remember an experience in my past that demonstrated the true nature of stewardship. Peggy Miller was a dear member of my church who, over time, became bedridden – at the age of 100. I found myself visiting her about every other week, recognizing that her body was failing. Her mind was always sharp, and she asked about the church which she could no longer visit – and she was genuinely interested. During our visits she would do something that always made me uncomfortable – she’d pull out her checkbook to write a check for her offering. I worried that she thought I was visiting for that purpose, to make sure the church gets her money, but no, it was the opposite. She looked forward to our visits because she had no other way to get her check to the church – and she told me how much it meant to her to continue to support her faith family. She loved to hear of the things she could no longer participate in directly at the church, knowing that love was there. I could tell that it was extremely important for her to feel like she was still a part of it all – and indeed she was.
It is important to ask the right questions when considering how to be good stewards of God’s provision for our lives. Not “how much is required?”, but “how much does our heart say?” Not “What does God demand?” but “who is God to me?” Not “what does the church need?” but “how can I best further Christ’s love on this earth?”
11-1-15 The Power of the Right Question Scripture: Mark 12:28-34
Theme: What is the main question of life? What’s most important? What’s the “one thing we need to know?” What’s the meaning of life? So many answers, so many possibilities – the beauty of Christ’s revelation, is that he gives us a solid answer; what remains is its translation into life.
This morning, I have some questions for you regarding your knowledge of the Bible -- feel free to state your answers:
Who was the greatest financier in the Bible?
Noah: he was floating his stock while everyone was in liquidation.
Who was the greatest female financier in the Bible?
Pharoah's daughter: she went down to the bank of the Nile and drew out a
What kind of man was Boaz before he got married?
What is one of the first things that Adam and Eve did after they were kicked out of the garden of Eden?
They raised a little Cain.
What excuse did Adam give to his children as to why he no longer lived in Eden?
"Your mother ate us out of house and home."
How long did Cain hate his brother?
As long as he was Abel.
The ark was built in 3 stories and the top story had a window to let light in, but how did they get light to the bottom 2 stories?
They used floodlights.
Where is the first mention of insurance in the Bible?
When Adam and Eve needed more coverage.
These silly questions and answers have been floating among the internet for decades, and are recognized for what they are – jokes. But most of the questions we have regarding the Bible or faith or God are not funny; most of the questions we pose along these lines identify us as creatures of serious inquiry, ones who are hungry to know more than we presently do for the sake of guidance, comfort, growth, and affirmation in life. We long to know more about God and God’s will; so we ask many, many questions, in prayer, in groups, in worship, in silence…..
Recently, I attended the first meeting of a new group in town centered on the issue of Emergency Family Housing for Missoula. In that meeting, we determined a behavior covenant to guide our interactions – a behavior, or relational, covenant basically outlines how a group promises to behave. We put down such things as respecting each other, listening deeply, speaking for ourselves, and participating regularly. As we were adding to the list, one person stated his contribution – “No dumb questions.” There was silence around the room, just for a moment. The person continued to clarify, saying that we agree that there are no dumb questions, that all questions are worth asking. Our group seemed relieved with this clarification.
But it made me think. We’ve all heard the cliché “there are no dumb questions.” It is usually a statement meant to welcome the fullest participation in whatever is going on, a statement meant to convey a safe space to share what’s on the mind, whatever that is. But is it true? Is there such a thing as a dumb question?
This past week, I did not watch the republican debate, but heard about it later. There was one quote which caught my attention; it was when senator Ted Cruz questioned the questions that were being asked. He said
"This is not a cage match," Cruz said. "And you look at the questions: 'Donald Trump are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson can you do math? John Kasich will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio why don't you resign? Jeb Bush why have your numbers fallen?' How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?”
His point was pretty clear – there are such things as dumb questions. And, in turn, he was asking for better questions.
This brings us to our passage today, where I believe Jesus is presented with a better question, a good question. Jesus is met by a scribe who seems curious rather than antagonistic towards him. The scribe asks Jesus a good question: “Which commandment is the first of all?” It cuts to the chase. It is direct and bold. It doesn’t mess around with pleasantries or chatter. Yet it also is not an attack, but offered in apparent sincerity. And Jesus responds with a good answer – “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” This was such a good answer that the critics are silenced, and the scribe is affirmed.
Here is the point: THERE IS POWER IN GOOD QUESTIONS. I found this quote recently about the dynamic of a good question. It said: “ A good question is heartfelt and mind-processed; it is occupied with substantial living and relevant action. A good question doesn’t play around; it is demanding yet sincere, direct yet tactful, and is obsessed that nothing significant be missed. But above all, a good question is patient. A good question is patient in that its premise must be understood, and may take time to communicate. But a good question is also patient in that it almost invariably leads to many more good questions.”
A good question is one that leads to more good questions.
The question: “What is the greatest commandment?”
The answer: “To love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love neighbor as oneself.”
Can you hear the questions that naturally follow?
What does it mean to love God with all of one’s heart? How does one love God emotionally, relationally, and affectionately?
What does it mean to love God with all of one’s soul? What does such a spiritual connection look like?
What does it mean to love God with all of one’s mind? How do we shape our thinking in ways that draw us closer to God?
What does it mean to love God with all of one’s strength? Is this physical strength, spiritual strength, emotional strength?
What does it look like to love our neighbor as ourselves?
How do we love ourselves?
Who is our neighbor?
Are these commandments to love, or invitations to love?
Can you command love at all?
And on and on and on with question after question after question. Each one deserving a lifetime of contemplation – or at least a sermon or two!
But the point is this: good questions are ones which are not afraid of answers that bring up more questions. For it is in those further questions that the progress of faith may continue. God is not box-able; God is not containable by our thinking or understanding. But God is approachable in our questioning of who God is, how God works, and what God desires.
A friend once asked Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel prize winner in science, how he became a scientist. Rabi replied that every day after school his mother would talk to him about his school day. She wasn't so much interested in what he had learned that day, but she always inquired, "Did you ask a good question today?"
"Asking good questions," Rabi said, "made me become a scientist."
“Asking good questions,” Jesus says, “moves you closer to the kingdom of God.”
10-18-15 Being Careful About Our Prayers Mark 10:35-45
Theme: If ever the act of praying seeks the elevation of self in righteousness, it automatically becomes detrimental to that same self, for the disposition that prays in such a manner has lost track of the foundation of faith – “not I, but thee.” It is in the holistic shifting from self to Spirit that self is gained.
I recently read about an experience at an airport on a day of particularly bad weather. Flights were delayed and cancelled; hundreds of anxious travelers were on standby. One of these passengers, a senior business executive, was desperate to get on a plane so he wouldn't be late for a meeting. He kept crowding the counter, trying to get the airline staff to do something to move his name higher up the standby list.
The agent had just put down the microphone, having said to the crowd for the third or fourth time: "Those of you who are on standby, please sit down and we will call your name when we have a seat for you."
But this was a man who would not take "maybe" for an answer. He kept pestering the agent, explaining how important it was that he get on the next flight. Finally, in exasperation, he asked her, "Do you know who I am?"
The agent had had enough. Picking up the microphone, she announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a man here who does not know who he is. Would someone please claim him, offer him a seat in the waiting area, and tell him I'll talk to him when it's his turn?"
HOW FULL OF OURSELVES WE GET – SOMETIMES! Self-importance is a natural human trait perhaps, but it is a trait most distasteful – especially for the Christian. And this is the shocking situation we see in our scripture lesson today – James and John expressing the audacity of asking Jesus to do whatever they want.
JUST WHO DO THEY THINK THEY ARE? ASKING GOD TO DO WHAT THEY WANT?
Jesus would be justified in condemning such a request; he would be well in his place to scold them or chastise them for such a ridiculous demand. Make demands of God? How arrogant! How rude! How dangerous…….
But Jesus responds in a different way – a very different way. He asks them what they want him to do for them. They respond with what seems like more arrogance – “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” And Jesus responds with “ARE YOU NUTS?” or something like that. His actual words are “You do not know what you are asking.” And in this response of Jesus, I believe we are brought round to ourselves.
The question is this: HAVE YOU EVER NOT KNOWN WHAT TO PRAY FOR? HAVE YOU EVER NOT KNOW WHAT TO ASK FOR, WHEN PRAYING TO GOD?
Many years ago, when I basically ran my own motorcycle repair shop out of my parent’s garage, I found myself in a particularly challenging situation. I had come across a mechanic’s nightmare, in the form of a very stubborn bolt. It was a bolt holding on the clutch mechanism for a 1973 Suzuki TS185; it was a bolt I needed to remove in order to fix the bike. I started with a regular box-end wrench, and placed it on the bolt to remove it – it turned just a hint, and then nothing. Every good mechanic knows the next step – liquid wrench. I applied about a gallon of liquid wrench to that bolt, let it set for quite awhile, and tried again – it moved not at all. Every good mechanic knows the next step – get a bigger wrench. So I pulled out my pipe wrench and clamped it onto the bold – I heaved on that wrench, to no avail. Every good mechanic knows the next step – which is called leverage. You take a piece of pipe that will fit over the end of the pipe wrench, effectively extending the lever arm. I found a piece of pipe about two feet long that would work, fit it over the pipe wrench, and pulled with all my might – NOTHING. Didn’t move at all. Every good mechanic knows the next step – a longer piece of pipe. I found one, about four feet long, and thought to myself THIS TIME, THIS TIME, IT HAS TO WORK! And work it did – the bolt gave to my delight, which turned to angst when I realize I had sheared the bolt completely off. As I gazed upon that visual, of the bold head stuck in my extended leverage pipe wrench but the bolt threads remaining in my motorcycle, a few thoughts came into my head – one, LEVERAGE REALLY WORKS! Two – my motorcycle was not going to be repairable after all. And three – as I looked at the bolt closely, I instantly learned about a phenomena called “reverse threads.” I had been tightening, not loosening, that bolt the whole time.
I wish someone somewhere would have said to me DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU ARE DOING? For I was starting at the wrong point -- instead of asking how to get the bolt off, I should have been asking HOW DOES THIS BOLT WORK?
I feel a kinship with James and John in such matters, for they were doing the same kind of thing we all do when we think we know what we are doing or what we are asking for – but have failed to consider a preliminary question regarding how things work in the first place. The right question of faith is not “how do I gain glory?” but “HOW DOES GOD WORK IN THE FIRST PLACE?”
Maybe this is part of what James and John are dealing with. Their strange request of Jesus may have behind it a sense of searching for security, a longing to know that they are righteous, that they are on the right track, that they have the right answers, and that they will find themselves at the end of time firmly embraced by God. But Jesus puts them off – and turns things around. He describes what it means to be great in the eyes of God – “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
The greats sought by the world are great power, great fame, great wealth, great territory, great intelligence, and great excitement. These produce great imbalance, great rivalry, great suffering, great arrogance, and great shallowness of being.
The greats of Christ are great humility, great forgiveness, great patience, great compassion, great hope, and great sacrifice. These produce great reconciliation, great understanding, great healing, great peace, and great love.
The greats of the world have momentary appeal.
The greats of Christ have eternal solidity.
There is no comparison.
Author and activist Parker Palmer, in his article “All the Way Down” in Weavings magazine, wrote about the greatness of Christian humility in its power to raise him from the depths of his severe depression. He says “I had read somewhere that humility is central to the spiritual life, which seemed like a good idea to me: I was proud to think of myself as humble!
“What I did not know is that for some of us the path to humility goes through humiliation -- being brought low, unable to function, stripped of pretenses and defenses, feeling fraudulent, empty, useless -- that allows us to regrow our lives from the humus of common ground.
“The spiritual journey is full of paradoxes, and one of them is that the humiliation that brings us down -- down to ground on which it is safe to stand and to fall -- eventually takes us to a firmer and fuller sense of self. When people ask me how it felt to emerge from depression, I can give only one answer: I felt at home in my own skin and at home on the face of the earth, for the first time.
--Parker J. Palmer, "All the Way Down," Weavings, September-October 1998, 40.
Humility – the act of bringing oneself low – allows for the lifting up of another. This is essential for faith in God; this is essential to make room in the mansion of self for its primary occupation by God. Humility also necessitates the lifting up of others in comparison; so long as one feels superior to anyone else, judgement precludes love. But humility does not mean debasing the self or promoting self-worthlessness; on the contrary, faithful humility acknowledges the true, frail, lowly self that God has deemed precious – and that we could see clearly if we could only get ourselves out of the way! It is the soul that discards all conditions for loving others that finds the full benefit of that love for oneself. It is in this way that, in the lifting up of another in love, God lifts the lifter.
One last note: Albert Schweitzer was once asked to name the greatest person alive in the world at that moment. He said: "The greatest person alive in the world at this moment is some unknown individual in some obscure place who, at this hour, has gone in love to be with another person in need." This is the example and teaching of Jesus; loving service towards others is nothing less than loving God.
10-11-15 The Magnetism of Materialism Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
Theme: Materialism is one of the basic personality characteristics of every human being; what differentiates health from illness is degree – how much are we controlled by what we own, what we possess? The answers tend to express the true God that we worship.
A newly married man asked his wife, “Would you have married me if my father hadn’t left me a fortune?”
“Honey,” the woman replied sweetly, “I’d have married you no matter who left you a fortune.”
I couldn’t help sharing that joke, for it raises the issue brought to our attention in today’s scripture lesson – which is about riches. Specifically, the scripture tells about a moment when a rich man engages Jesus in what it means to be holy, what it means to be justified before God – and finding that his significant wealth, his significant material possessions are a significant problem.
As it was then, so it is today.
The other day, I was waiting in an auto-repair shop while my car was being worked on. It was a long wait, so long that I eventually was drawn to the television set that they had positioned in one corner of the room. I couldn’t hear it very well, but I saw what looked like a Halloween party or a masquerade ball, with people dressed in all sorts of costumes; they were very excited, with many of them jumping up and down, running around the room, with facial expressions as if they were screaming in excitement. I wanted to know what this spectacle was, so I moved closer to the television set – and that’s when I realized I was watching the gameshow “Let’s Make a Deal.” I remember watching that as a child – the game where you choose whether to keep the money or exchange it for what’s behind door number 3, or some such thing. But what I remembered as a child had grown up into a crazy scene of grown people behaving like – well, children – all for the promise of material and wealth. It was the material that really caught my eye – behind one door was a kitchen appliance package made up of carpeted appliances – a refrigerator, stove, and dishwasher covered with shag carpeting. I kid you not! Behind another door was a jet ski. And behind another door was a new car. I watched in amazement as all of these prizes were passed by for the hoped for better prize behind the next door. Each contestant wanted more – yet usually wound up with less.
Do you know this show? For those of you who do, can I ask you a very personal question – did you ever, even secretly, long to play “let’s make a deal?” Even a little bit?
The promises of riches, of prizes and material and money and cars and all-expense paid vacations to places with beautiful beaches and warm water – who doesn’t want such things? There is a magnetism about material things, something which draws most people toward them in one way or another. Very often, that magnetism leads to pursuit and acquisition, until the sought for items finally are possessed – only to find out that one remains unsatisfied, and thus craves more. More money, more food, more clothes, more vehicles, more technology, more toys, more devices – the operative word here is “more.”
Jesus, in today’s scripture, is bringing up the issue of materialism, the human tendency to focus on possessions and wealth, the tendency to accumulate and hoard and collect more than we need. A rich man comes before Jesus and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”
20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Christ had a lot to say about being wealthy in this life:
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
And those are just the ones from this one passage today.
These are the kinds of things that make working with money and possessions a very confusing thing. How much is too much? How much is too little? HOW MUCH IS ALLOWED FOR A CHRISTIAN, A FOLLOWER OF CHRIST, TO ACQUIRE AND USE FOR LIFE? As a pastor, I regularly see the struggle in my parishioners over how to think about, manage, and use their money and possessions. I remember one young man who came to my office one day to seek counseling. He was a nice young man in my church; he had a wife and a son, a nice family. But times were hard. He couldn’t pay his bills. He was getting threatening notes from companies – electricity, gas, home mortgage firms. He was in tears in worry over how he could make his finances work out. I really felt bad for him, up until he mentioned in passing, “and I don’t know how I’m going to make the payments for the two new jet skiis we just bought.” I asked a few more questions – they had just bought two new jet skiis for $6000 apiece, and had taken out loans to cover the cost. They also had loans for annual trips to Las Vegas and Florida, for relaxation; they had lost money while gambling at the casinos in Las Vegas and Florida, also for relaxation; and a whole host of other spendy habits that were running them into the financial hole they were in. When I mentioned to this young man that maybe a change in these areas of spending habits was needed, he looked at me as if I was being ridiculous – I felt as if he was about to say “BUT I NEED THESE THINGS.” And there, I felt, was the problem.
I NEED THESE THINGS. You can almost hear the rich man in our scripture lesson today say the same words to Jesus. I’ve worked for these things, I depend upon these things, I need these things in my life. BUT YOU CAN ALMOST HEAR JESUS SAY “DO YOU NEED THEM MORE THAN GOD?” The rich man was in a dilemma – he had come to Jesus because he knew he needed God – but when faced with a choice between what he possessed, AND WHAT GOD ASKED OF HIM, he found himself trapped. Trapped between faithful desire, and magnetic materialism.
How much is too much? How much is too little? I think Jesus gives us an answer today -- we have too much if what we possess gets in the way of God’s will. God’s will for us – and God’s will for everyone else.
What is God’s will for us? That we be physically secure, materially balanced, and spiritually centered in life -- and help others to do the same.
What is God’s will for others? That they be physically secure, materially balanced, and spiritually centered in life -– and help us do the same.
The other way to say this is perhaps more familiar – Jesus tells us that we are to love God with all of our heart, mind, body, and spirit – AND LOVE OUR NEIGHBOR AS OURSELVES. Love our neighbor with our words, our deeds, and our possessions. For followers of Jesus, our relationship with those around us must be more important than our relationship to the things we own or the money we control.
I have one last thought to share with you today. It has to do with one of my favorite stories, which is a pretty popular one, I believe, but deserves retelling in the light of this passage. It’s the story of the Mexican fisherman.
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The fisherman replied, “only a little while.” The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”
“But what then?” Asked the fisherman.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions – then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your children, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends.”
Let us hear what Jesus is telling us today -- There’s more to life, than just having more.
10-4-15 “When Things Are Going Too Well – Look Out!” Scripture: Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Theme: Sometimes – all times? – prosperity is our undoing, for that which we desire, once pursued, and especially when achieved, easily becomes our god. This is the remarkable thing about Job – when he had everything, he never lost sight of God as everything; when he lost everything, he never lost God. Could we say the same about ourselves?
In consulting my preaching schedule for this year, I realized something last night that ought to be remedied this morning – I realize that it has been four months since I’ve given you a test. And I know how much you love tests in this congregation! Don’t worry – this is a fairly easy test, a “fill-in-the-blank” test without any of those difficult Old Testament words like Zelophehad or Zurishaddai. A simple fill in the blank test; ready?
If you add together two plus two, then you get four.
If you touch a hot stove with your finger, then your finger gets burned.
If you order a happy meal at McDonalds, then you get a hamburger, fries and a drink.
If you drive 40 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone and pass by one of our motorcycle policemen with a radar gun, then you get a ticket.
If you mix together 1 cup flower, 1 cup sugar, ½ cup cocoa, 1 cup butter, two eggs, and a dash of salt and put in a 325 degree oven for 30 minutes, then you get brownies.
If you bring those brownies to a church committee meeting, then that meeting goes much smoother;
If you are faithful to God, then you get a life full of blessings.
If you love God with all of your heart, mind, and spirit, then God will keep you from all harm.
If you do all the right things, then God will answer all your prayers the way you want them answered.
We have before us today one of the most challenging yet misunderstood books of the bible. Job. The story of a man, upright and blameless before God, who was nonetheless subjected to incredible loss of property, family, and health. JOB DID ALL THE RIGHT THINGS; JOB WAS FAITHFUL TO GOD; JOB WAS BLAMELESS AND PURE. NONETHELESS, Job is destroyed. He is reduced to a kind of nothingness, losing wealth, possessions, family, and even health. We meet him in this condition, where his wife gives poignant comment about the hopelessness of his condition – all that remains in her perspective is for him to “curse God and die.”
Job suffers terribly. And many people look towards Job as someone who can help them when they are suffering, telling them why bad things happen to good people, showing them how to bear the terrible struggle they face, trying to grapple with maintaining faith in the midst of injustice. But Job is largely silent on sharing tactics to deal with hardship. There are no verses which are self-help in nature, no depression-ending phrases, very few eloquent words of peace and comfort and appeasement. On the contrary, the book of Job is a very unsettling book because of its harshness. Job does not curse God, but curses his own life. Job does not give up his faith, but he is almost violently angry with God. Job never turns away from his Lord, but shakes an angry fist toward heaven, demanding that God hear his case, that God make some effort to explain the situation he finds himself in. Job does not only sit on the ash-heap, scraping his sores with a potshard; he also approaches his God with the intensity of one who has been wronged, and wants to know why – and doesn’t receive a good answer.
No, the story of Job provides few if any answers as to the reasons for suffering. The story of Job instead gives us an incredibly sobering testimony to true faith. Job demonstrates that TRUE FAITH IS UNCONDITIONAL. True faith is not dependent upon anything other than the fact that God is God, and we are not.
Unconditional faith. Faith in God simply because God is God, and we are not. Placing no demands upon God that God obey our logic, our understanding, our sense of fair play and individual justice. Faith without conditions imposed upon God. Faith without the “if-then” approach to God.
The New Interpreter’s Bible says that “Much of religion seems preoccupied with striking a bargain with God – ‘if you will do this for me, then I will do that for you.” “God is bound to protect me from tragedy because I have been good or simply because I belong to God.” But God is not in the bargain business so much as in the business of complete sovereignty, complete lordship of all. It is the ultimate humility to realize that, in the game of life, God holds every card.”
Job makes us ask some very hard questions: Is our faith in God conditional? Why do we worship God? Why do we reverence God?
- Do we reverence God because God is so good to us? BE CAREFUL – bad times may defeat our reverence.
- Do we reverence God because faith is so comforting to us? BE CAREFUL – faith may call us to great discomfort in such things as personal confession or service to others.
- Do we reverence God because of God’s mercy? BE CAREFUL – we may find the eye of God casting its vision upon our soul, our behavior, our actions in judgmental conviction.
- Do we reverence God because God shares with us a world of justice? BE CAREFUL – we may find ourselves facing a situation that is oppressive and anything but just.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He wrote it in response to the tragic loss of his son, Aaron, who died at age 14 of a disease called progeria, otherwise known as rapid aging disease. The first lines of the book state that “there is really only one question that matters: Why do bad things happen to good people?” He spends most of the book responding to that question in two ways: his first is to answer the question directly – why do bad things happen to good people? He answers I DON’T KNOW. He says, “I don’t know why God didn’t stop my son from dying. I have seen the wrong people get sick, the wrong people be hurt, the wrong people die young.”
But the second way he responds to the question is what enabled his return to faith in God as God. The second way he responds to the question is to change the question. He states that, when facing the insurmountable, the unfair, the unjust, rather than question the reason for the suffering, he asks what is to be done in the midst of the darkness? He says, “When bad things happen to good people for no good reason there is no meaning in the event. But the tragedies of life can be redeemed from senselessness by imposing meaning upon them. The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me?” for that is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
This question changes everything, for within this question lies the other implicit reality we see in Job – GOD IS STILL THERE. God interacts with Job; God listens to his anger, his frustration, his sorrow, his pain. God never leaves; God is discovered in the shadows of loss. God, in God’s self, never abandons Job.
“Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?” If we are willing to make this question our focus, perhaps another question follows – “Now that this has happened to me, how can God help me to deal with it?” God may not promise complete understanding of why bad things happen to us; but God does promise a covenant of presence to those willing to receive. God offers us grace, the presence in the midst of darkness that will not leave us, that will guide and sustain us, and meet us in our need. We must trust beyond our understanding in order to receive what God offers; but we receive beyond our own provision what is needed when we do.
One of the most helpful readings I have come across is attributed to an unknown Confederate soldier; you’ve probably heard this before, but I find it reflects the practice of keeping God as God, without condition, and trusting that God’s presence is our greatest need, regardless of our own perspective or understanding.
A Creed for Those Who Have Suffered
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey…
I asked for health, that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things…
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise…
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God…
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things…
I got nothing I asked for – but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed!
-- unknown Confederate Soldier
As long as we are on Earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.
-Thomas Merton, A Thomas Merton
Reader, ed. Thomas P. McDonnell, (New York: Image Books, 1974), 320.
9-27-15 Spiritual Amputation Scripture: Mark 9:38-50
Theme: There are things we need to cut out of ourselves, to leave behind, to get away from, if we are to truly serve Christ. Mark’s passage talks about those things in terms of 1) those things that cause personal sin; and 2) those things that cause others to sin. Both can be terribly difficult to acknowledge, let alone address. But both need to be faced if we are to accurately amputate that which will allow our souls to regain their health.
Today, our scripture lesson contains one of the most recognizable teachings of Christ – “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; and if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; better to enter the kingdom of God with one hand, one foot, or one eye than to be thrown into the torments of hell, where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
To begin with, something must be said right off the bat. And it is not, “is there a surgeon in the house?” Perhaps it is obvious, but I believe that it deserves saying again and again – Christ is not saying here to cut off various appendages, but to stop certain behaviors, to end certain attitudes, to change certain perspectives. Amputate, or get rid of, things that undermine our own faith or the faith of others! I believe the lesson can be extended to both faith and life, for the two are interwoven – get rid of the things that are detrimental to life, both our own life and the lives of others.
Today, Christ is focusing on WHAT A RESPONSIBLE CHRISTIAN DOESN’T DO. What he or she avoids. How the faithful are to remove certain things from their hearts, their minds, their lives. Not hands, but the actions they may perform. Not feet, but the places they might carry us to. Not eyes, but the perceptions they sometimes choose. There are things we are to cut out of our souls and even our lives for the sake of our health, physical and spiritual.
Let’s start with the most obvious -- we need to remove bad things from ourselves. Never before in the history of the world have we had so many choices before us – so much material, so many opportunities, so much to do, think, feel, sense, and practice. But many choices are not good for the body or the soul.
Case in point: I love buffalo hotwings – especially with blue cheese dressing. But they don’t love me back. I have some issues with high cholesterol, and the doctor has told me to limit my intake of high cholesterol foods. One serving of buffalo hotwings draped in blue cheese dressing contains a year’s supply of cholesterol. They are horrible for one struggling with cholesterol. But I got off hotwings; in fact, I haven’t had a serving of buffalo hotwings in over five months. Do you know how I broke my addiction? WE NEVER BUY HOTWINGS. We do not have them in our house. And I find when they are not present, I do not fixate on them at all – unless, of course, a commercial for them comes on the television.
Perhaps hotwings are not the most profound example around, but replace those items with other, more nefarious items, like alcohol, like pornography, like weapons, like television, like drugs, like clothes, like video games, like money, anything that can command our attention and direct our actions in unhealthy or even dangerous ways, and hear the words of Jesus – “If something causes you to stumble, cut it out of your life, lest it become your God.”
John Wesley said “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.” This is a faithful way to understand what Jesus is getting at – not letting things find a way into the heart, a place which should be prioritized for God and for others.
Remove the temptation; remove the toxin; remove the item causing the imbalance of life. Cut off that which does us harm, so it can harm us no more.
But what about when we cannot remove the object or item, when it is not a thing we cannot cut out of our lives? We can often remove ourselves from the situation or the context. This issue may come up when you are considering SOMETHING OR SOMEONE YOU NEED TO WALK AWAY FROM. It may be a person or group which is unhealthy, or which produces a situation that is unhealthy or destructive – a person or group who diminishes us, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or physically.
I saw this once with a member of my youth group several years ago. His name was Matt; he was a good kid, but had fallen in with the wrong crowd. Drugs and vandalism had wound him up in jail. For four months, he was in the county jail, where I visited with him several times.
After a couple of months, I was talking with a sober, clean Matt. He was a different person. We had a good talk. He spoke about getting out of jail sometime, about missing his friends and family. As we talked, I was shocked when he told me that he was making plans to move out of state, to move in with a distant cousin he hardly knew down in Texas. I said that that seemed like a really big move, and I remember that he said he didn’t have a choice. “I must separate myself from their influence,” he said, “If I don’t, I’ll be back here in a month.” To put it concisely, his family defined dysfunction – his siblings ran a methamphetamine lab in their grandmother’s garage (which was broken up later), there were relationship issues, legal proceedings against the family, on and on, a true situation stranger than fiction. As for Matt’s friends? Two months after Matt was arrested, one friend was incarcerated up in Denver for drug dealing, one friend was in jail for threatening the school with a gun, and one friend was on the run from the law, wanted for vandalism. All this, in a town of 200. Matt looked at all of this, and knew he had to remove himself from those influences. Good for Matt.
Sometimes we have to remove things from our lives that are unhealthy. Sometimes we have to remove ourselves from that which is unhealthy.
But our lesson today goes farther. It speaks to us of our influence on others. Just by who we are as people – and especially who we are as Christians, we have influence on others. We have influence, and with that influence comes responsibility, both the responsibility to encourage the faith and the responsibility not to impede the faith. Today’s focus is also upon raising our awareness of the times when we might impede the life and faith of another.
Years ago, one evening, my family had another couple over. We had a very pleasant dinner, and we played a few games with our children. The time came for our guests to leave; right at that moment, Molly, all of four years old, came to the doorway. “Do John and Lois have to go?” she asked. “Yes, honey, it’s time for them to leave.” I said. “Oh, dammit,” she said, and walked off. My mouth dropped. Terri and I stood there in stunned embarrassment. John and Lois laughed. When they had gone, I rushed off to find Molly to ask her where on earth she learned that word, when I realized the truth. Molly was with me earlier that day, in the garage, when I hit my thumb with a hammer. She learned it from me. I was her obstacle to a clean mouth in that moment. I was, in that instance, a negative influence.
That is the question posed today by Jesus to those who would follow him – are we ever a negative influence in the life of someone else? Following Jesus is no guarantee that we do not affect others negatively, but following Jesus means we think it is important to scrutinize our lives constantly, and re-align if necessary. It’s a tough question to ask of ourselves, because we’d all like to believe that we are never a negative influence in someone else’s life. But I think it’s kind of like the fact that almost all people think they are better-than-average drivers – which, if you think about it, is impossible. It is important to ask ourselves, as objectively as possible, “are we ever a negative influence in the life of someone else?” The answer may help steer our behavior more gracefully, removing any possibility of being a stumbling block in the life of another.
How we speak, act, communicate, behave – it has a bearing on others. We have to be careful that we do not become an obstacle to the life or faith of another. It often means changing of our behavior – watching our words, our actions, even our thoughts - for the sake of someone else.
Some questions can help immensely in this process – when considering doing or saying something to another, ask four questions:
Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it necessary? Is it loving?
If not, don’t speak, don’t act, don’t proceed. You may be causing damage to another soul.
Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it necessary? Is it loving?
If so, then what we share will be helping another rise in life and faith.
This is the way modeled by Jesus. Amen.
9-20-15 Are We Too Friendly With The World?
Scripture: James 3:13-4:8a
Theme: There is an extremely strong compulsion inside every human to live well in this world – to live healthily, securely, shrewdly, wisely; to get ahead, to win, to have power, to do whatever we want. But we quickly go too far, becoming more friendly with the world than friendly with God – and the result moves us farther from the presence we need to truly live.
A news item in the Missoulian caught my eye yesterday – it seems that a man pleaded guilty to shooting a bartender and his dog. The reason he shot the bartender and his dog was that the bartender made a drink the wrong way – the man asked the bartender for a “red beer” which usually combines beer with tomato juice. This bartender, it appears, used clamato juice instead of tomato juice. Here is the thing that caught my eye – the argument that led to the shooting centered around religion. The shooter claimed that drinking clamato juice was against his religion, which is Judaism. I thought it interesting that the shooter didn’t stop to think that probably his faith has something to say against killing another human being…….but, add together religious belief, plus human nature especially while intoxicated, and you have a recipe for the absurd.
In James, it says “4Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” Our news provides ample testimony to this tendency to follow our worldly cravings, whether it be beer ingredients, a child molestation case in Billings, or a former Griz basketball player accused of aggravated assault – all news from yesterday.
Such things are the exceptions to the rule – we might think. But our worldly cravings guide us in many ways that are questionable at best. Case in point: I was listening to the radio recently when I heard about a fairly new development in the area of fantasy football – betting real money on non-existent teams. Fantasy football involves teams and leagues that exist in cyberspace – created in part by team owners who have some level of choice regarding drafting players on their team (real players’ statistics and data), switching between teams, and choosing when their teams play other teams. I must admit I really am clueless about the whole thing, except that fantasy is behind it all – there are no actual players, there are no actual stadiums, there are no actual coaches, there are no actual footballs. The only thing that is becoming actual is the amount of real money being spent on fantasy football – so far this year, $500 million has been spent on advertising alone; it is anyone’s guess how much actual money has been wagered and lost in the betting between the 50 million people who play. Betting real money on a fantasy game, with fantasy players playing fantasy opponent teams in fantasy games with fantasy scrores. That someone, somewhere is getting rich is no fantasy.
Does this bother anyone else here?
I think James would have a great problem with this; I think Jesus would, too. And I think our culture, even our world, is full of such things. Not just fantasy sports teams, but fantasy life things, things that are popular, exciting, new and improved, powerful, beautiful – but that have no hope of connecting life with meaning and purpose that is substantial, eternal, and foundational for life. I think that much of our society is caught up in shallow living, turning in friendship to the world for what the world claims is worthy of life, but fails ultimately to deliver. My eldest daughter, Emily, and I were discussing this kind of thing yesterday afternoon, and she said it this way: “If you’re grounding yourself in temporary things, your grounding will be temporary as well.”
CS Lewis once said “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses
When we settle for what the world has to offer, we are far too easily pleased. When we choose instead to receive what God has to offer, we invite the challenges of faith to be our guide. But in those challenges, we find things that are unshakable; we find things that are not dependent upon the fickle nature of the world; we find our grounding permanently established, not prone to give way. James describes this grounding as “17the wisdom from above…which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
The solution to the world’s tensions and animosity is for followers of Jesus to be stubborn in their hope, steadfast in their belief, and sacrificial in their love. This is the wisdom James speaks about – a wisdom that is counter-cultural and above common sense. This wisdom promises no quick fixes, no comfortable road, no easy answers. But it delivers a presence that can be had in no other way; as James puts it, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”
James is comparing two things: Friendship with God, as opposed to friendship with the world. Friendship with God offers companionship for life, unconditional love, forgiveness of wrongdoing, compassion for the suffering, guidance regarding how to live, how to serve, how to hope, how to change. Friendship with the world offers momentary excitement and distraction, animosity between differences, competition that separates the few winners from the many losers, the work of keeping up appearances and defending reputation, and hope based in temporary things. Friendship with the world, verses friendship with God – If James were with us today, I believe he would say “there is no comparison.” Amen.
9/13/15 Our Greatest Tool Scripture: James 3:1-12
Theme: Our words may speak the message of God or be a tool of the devil. We have the choice. But God’s choice is for our words to reflect His will – to build up the community of faith, to be positive light in a dark world.
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words can also hurt me.
Sticks and stones break only skin
While words are ghosts that haunt me.
Pain from words has left its scar
On mind and heart that’s tender.
Cuts and bruises now have healed;
It’s words that I remember.
(From the book, Coping With Bullying in Schools by Brendan Byrne (1994))
This poem comes from the book Coping with Bullying in Schools by Brendan Bryne. It reworks the classic lines most of us know as “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But words, indeed, can hurt – can’t they? And, as the poem states, the wounds of words can last a long, long time.
Today, we hear a very strong message from James that we know all too well through our experience of life —words can hurt. They can hurt badly. They can injure deeply. They can inflict wounds that are invisible to the eye, yet induce profound suffering. As James puts it, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
I remember a time when I was in the waiting room of an office. I was speaking to the receptionist behind the counter. Another person who had finished her business was on her way out the door, when she stopped and asked the receptionist “when is your baby due?” The receptionist said, “I’m not pregnant.” In the two seconds of silence that followed, I felt the temperature in the room decrease several degrees; the woman was very apologetic and embarrassed, but there it was – the words could not be taken back; the damage done.
It reminds me of the saying I heard once: “Be careful with your tongue. It’s in a wet place and can easily slip.”
How easily this kind of thing can happen! Intentionally and unintentionally, we sometimes say things that hurt. And sometimes we are on the receiving end – we are hurt by what others say, about us or about things or persons or issues that matter to us personally.
There is an opposite side of the coin, however; words can be the most helpful things we offer to others. In contrast to the question “have we been hurt by words” is it’s opposite – “have we been helped by words?”
Have you ever experienced the power of a kind word? A time when someone said something you needed to hear?
I hate to admit this, but three of the most powerful words I receive regularly are “pumpkin,” “sugar-love”, and “sweetie.” Can you guess who tells me these words? My mother. Oh, how I used to squirm when I was younger when my mother would use such terminology towards me – and sometimes even in front of my friends! So embarrassing – but now I realize, so needed. To have someone share their direct affection in such ways – everyone needs something like this, to have someone communicate just how special and loved they are. I find I no longer mind it so much when I call up my parents, and hear my mother use such syrupy language – for behind the syrupiness is the warmth of her love for me and my family. We are precious in my mother’s eyes; and all need to know they are precious. And we all have this power, to express through our words just how precious others are; we all have the power of affirmation, exercised in the words that we shape for the benefit of others.
Someone once said “It’s not who you know; it’s who you “yes.”” (Myra Richman, head of the PR firm Richman and Associates) May the words that we speak to each other always seek to affirm the preciousness that God has placed in all.
9-6-15 Impossibly Impartial Scripture: James 2:1-17
Theme: Impartiality is the Christian way. This means working hard not to judge others as to their God-value, by treating others as God has treated us – with mercy over judgment, with graciousness over just-deserts, with a skewed fairness giving more to those who have less, whether or not they deserve the gift.
One day, as my wife Terri and I were eating at a restaurant, I overheard a waiter ask a couple sitting next to us how they liked their meal. The man said it was great, but the woman told the waiter that her steak was tasteless, bland, and that she did not enjoy it at all. The waiter apologized and said he would strike the cost from their bill. The woman responded with “well, you’d better.”
Awhile back, I was standing in line at that finer dining establishment known by its yellow arches, when a man pushed his way to the front of the line. He was very angry, called the workers behind the counter a few names I cannot repeat here, and made some fairly flagrant gestures. It turns out they had gotten his order wrong in the drive through. The workers apologized, and the manager did too; they corrected the error in a couple of minutes, apologizing again. The man took the order and said very loudly – “Teach your people to read!”
Three weeks ago, my family and I had a chance to get out of town to do some backpacking and boating. As we travelled to our destination above Seeley Lake, we were required to stop at a watercraft inspection station, where they look over your boat and ask questions in the effort to constrain invasive species. As the gentleman asked me questions, I asked him one – I asked him what it was like interacting with people in this manner. He stopped in almost a stunned way, as if he had never been asked that question before. “You have no idea,” he said, “how awful people are – mean, rude, disrespectful, shouting at us, even threatening us….all because we take a few minutes of their time trying to protect what they’re about to enjoy.” His discouragement, even disgust, was evident, both in what he said to me and his effusive “thank you for being nice” response to me and my family.
We like what we like. And we don’t like what we don’t like. We are a species of preferences, particularities, and tastes, as if the highest ideal is contained in the message “Have it your way.”
We like what we like; and we don’t like what we don’t like.
This translates into our relationships: We like who we like. And we don’t like who we don’t like. Now, I know we are all nice, well-adjusted, loving Christians here, but…………..are there some people you just don’t like? Think of neighbors, politicians, extended family members, figures in history, radio talk show hosts or guests, persons who hurt us in the past, people who have opinions opposite to our own, persons who stand against what we stand for……..
AND, then, we love who we love. Family, trusted friends, and perhaps our fellow church people, ones who are part of our extended family. Ones who are perhaps easier to love, due to our common lineage, our common interests, our common experiences, or our common economic status?
Today, we hear a challenge to this tendency to love whom we choose to love. Today, in the epistle of James, we hear the text speak against favoritism – the elevation of one person above another. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” James is advocating a radical impartiality in our practice of relating to other people – to all other people. In short, as people who follow Jesus, we are asked to love whom God loves.
What does this look like? How does this work?
Yesterday, I was reading the Upper Room, and I cheated – I skipped ahead; I read the devotional article for today. It spoke to me of James’ message through the clarity of another’s experience.
Upper Room Devotional for September-October 2015
Loving the Unlovely by Matt Stephen from Arkansas:
“As a school principal I used to unconsciously place children into two categories: “Lovely” children (those who were no trouble) and “unlovely” (difficult) children. One particular first grade student was sent to my office nearly every day because his behavior was so out of control. I began to dislike this child because he spent so much time in my office disrupting my routine. One day his mother failed to pick him up from school, so I drove him home. As we pulled into a rundown trailer park, he pointed to a windowless trailer where garbage littered the yard and the door was wide open on a freezing cold day. This was his home. His mother appeared at the door and ushered him in. Stunned, I drove away.
How could I discount this child who did not have the comfort of a dry, warm place to live? Doesn’t he need me more than others? From that day forward, I considered all children to be God’s children – not “lovely” or “unlovely.” God holds us responsible to take care of each one of his children. When I treat any child carelessly, I am treating Christ carelessly. When I treat each child as a beloved child of God, I am honoring Christ.
WHEN WE TREAT ANY PERSON CARELESSLY, WE ARE TREATING CHRIST CARELESSLY. WHEN WE TREAT EACH PERSON AS A BELOVED CHILD OF GOD, WE ARE HONORING CHRIST. AMEN.
"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal ... But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors ... Next to [communion with God}, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses."
-C. S. Lewis:
The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1%5), 1415.
8-30-15 Actions Speak Louder Than Sermons Scripture: James 1:17-27
Theme: “Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” Words are necessary, but action carries a louder voice, bigger impact, and greater authenticity. How limiting is the temptation to settle for speaking the truth, rather than aiming for the more difficult living the truth!
There once was a man who died and found himself in a beautiful place, surrounded by every conceivable comfort. A white-jacketed man came to him and said, "You may have anything you choose -- any food -- any pleasure -- any kind of entertainment."
The man was delighted, and for days he sampled all the delicacies and experiences of which he had dreamed on Earth. But one day he grew bored with all of it, and calling the attendant to him, he said, "I'm tired of all this. I need something to do. What kind of work can you give me?"
The attendant sadly shook his head and replied, "I'm sorry, sir. That's the one thing we can't do for you. There is no work here for you."
To which the man answered, "That's a fine thing. I might as well be in hell."
The attendant said softly, "Where do you think you are?"
(-Rick Fields et al, Chop Wood, Carry Water New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1984),
What a concept – that hell is the condition of having no significant work to perform.
This parable turns the tables on much of our thinking, I believe, for a part of being human, at least in much of our society, is the tendency to see work as a negative. We’ve heard the statistics – over half the people in this country hate their jobs. We’ve heard friends and family and acquaintances complain about the daily grind, about difficult co-workers and unpleasant work environments. We’ve perhaps seen this tendency in ourselves, times when we thought of work as a form of drudgery or even punishment. Beyond the workplace, who of us have not at times sought out to do the least amount of work required when facing an unpleasant but necessary task? We sometimes seek ways to simplify, shorten, or otherwise limit the expenditure of our energy when facing something difficult, tedious, or nebulous.
I recently came across a list of the top five energy-draining, reluctancy-saturated tasks in various areas of typical life. These are, in effect, the jobs we’d most like to avoid:
IN THE HOME: the most avoided work includes:
- Taking out the garbage.
- Cleaning the bathroom
- Washing the dishes.
- Cleaning out the car.
- Doing the laundry.
AT THE OFFICE: the most avoided work includes:
- Excessive amounts of paperwork or red-tape..
- Talking to an obnoxious client.
- Dealing with a mistake we made.
- Facing an evaluation.
- Adjusting to a new system (computer, file, records, or something like that)
ON THE FARM: the most avoided work includes:
- Cleaning out the stalls.
- Breaking through the ice in a watering trough
- Working with barbed wire.
- Dealing with too little moisture; and it’s corollary
- Dealing with too much moisture.
AT THE CHURCH: the most avoided work includes:
- Attending a church committee meeting after a long, hard day
- Filling out end of the year reports
- Listening to a sermon.
- Writing a sermon.
- Delivering a sermon.
In short – THERE IS WORK WE’D RATHER NOT DO. But almost always, our frustration arises because we know that many times THE WORK WE’D RATHER NOT DO IS WORK THAT DEFINITELY NEEDS DOING. Our faith is largely about this understanding – that the work that is most challenging, most difficult, most uncomfortable to us is the work most needed to keep life moving as it was designed to move, to change the world and change ourselves for the better. Our faith invites us to undertake some very difficult things –
our passage lists caring for widows and orphans, but also bridling the tongue, listening before speaking, and checking anger; we can add other difficult things, such as forgiving those who wronged us, helping others without reward, giving of ourselves to those in need, standing for justice when it is not a popular thing to do, welcoming the stranger who is not like us, embracing those of opposite opinion to our own. These are hard things to do! But they are often the only things that promise hope for life to go forward as God desires.
James speaks to this situation of our tendency to avoid the activity of faith. He is saying that actions speak louder than words. “Be doers of the Word, and not hearers who deceive themselves.” The author has in mind people who are in danger of making faith solely a matter of the mind and the heart.
What goes on inside of our minds and hearts is not a substitute for a living faith. Those things preceed living, they guide living, they are essential to living – but they cannot stand alone. Just as a vessel cannot hope to satisfy the thirst if it is empty; words, thoughts, and ideas cannot hope to satisfy the spirit or the life if they are not fulfilled in action.
In this past year, as I’ve become acquainted with this congregation, I’ve observed a strong counter-cultural syndrome at work in our membership – it’s technical name is multi-episodic, diversified-venu altruism; it’s more common label is “repeat volunteers.” Yesterday, I volunteered at the Poverello center, Missoula’s resource organization for the homeless and underserved. In preparation for my shift, I consulted our church’s volunteer schedule put out by Lorraine Carlson – and noticed many of the same names of people who volunteered the last time three months ago. They are repeat volunteers. A few times, I’ve been able to interact with the Family Promise program as it comes to our church – and I notice some repeat volunteers working again. When we hosted Homeless Connect last winter, many of these same names and faces appeared, always with a few new persons who are on their way to becoming, I believe, repeat volunteers. In preparing for First Night at our church, in working the fundraisers for our mission workteam project, in the Back to School bash this past week, in the many events and gatherings of our Body of Christ, we have a very strong base of repeat volunteers – for which I am extremely grateful. This is one thing that stands out about the First United Methodist Church in Missoula – THIS CHURCH CONSISTENTLY GOES BEYOND HEARING INTO DOING.
Others see this too – many times, as I meet new people in town (new to me, that is!), and the conversation turns to my role as pastor of this church, often they say, “Oh, that’s the church that hosts Homeless Connect,” or “that’s the church that has all the AA groups,” or “that’s the church that makes the best lasagna for the Poverello Center meals.” Our reputation precedes us. I love this about our church! We are recognized for making a positive difference in Missoula, as we move our faith into action. It’s as if we have learned through experience that this tangible, practical love of Jesus works! As we love others as God loves us – not just in words, but in help offered, resources supplied, time and effort applied for the benefit of others – somehow, someway, our lives become fuller, richer, more substantial. It doesn’t make sense rationally, to gain ourselves by giving ourselves away – but it works that way; our lives gain higher value as we give ourselves away in love.
I believe many, many people here in Missoula are anxious to discover they can make a positive difference in the world, but they either don’t know how, or more importantly, why they have such a desire. We have something to share with them, I believe. This is where our faith may speak to their desire, as it shapes our efforts around the love Christ modeled -- loving others as if they mattered, as if they were valued, as if they were precious to us. Words alone will not convey that love; it must be demonstrated to be truly received.
Practical Christian loving – that’s what we’re talking about. That’s the action that speaks louder than words for the follower of Christ. That’s the message James is trying to get through. We are to be about practical Christian loving. Often, not comfortable. Sometimes inconvenient. By the world’s standards, inefficient. But it is always effective if it is sincere; it is always life-changing if it is received; and it is always world-improving as it spreads. We are to be about this action born out of faith. We are to never settle into the comfortable world of words, ideas, prayer, ritual, thoughts, theologies, or otherwise inner practices ALONE. We are to be about the living, breathing, feeling, experiential life God has given to us to share.
“We are as we love.” – William Sloane Coffin
8/23/15 Cornered By God
Scripture: John 6:56-69
Theme: There are many who claim that they do not believe in God because of rational or experiential considerations – God’s commands are not reasonable, impossible to follow through on, even unnecessary in the context of everyday life and future hope. But that same rationality and experience provides no substantive or practical alternative to the provisions of the divine. All substitutes fall short, and deliver very little in comparison to the grace offered by God.
A worker asked for a pay raise and got this note back from his supervisor: "Because of the fluctuating predisposition of your position's productive capacity as juxtaposed to standard norms, it would be momentarily injudicious to advocate your requested increment." The puzzled worker went to the supervisor and said, "If this is about my pay raise, I don't get it." "That's right," said the supervisor.
In our passage for today, Jesus gives one of his more difficult teachings – and the response of many of his followers saying “I don’t get it.”
Jesus said “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Sounds like cannibalism.
Jesus implies that he is “the bread of life,” that those who eat him will live forever, not like “that which your ancestors ate, and they died.” Was Jesus comparing himself to Moses who gave the children Manna, or bread, in the wilderness?
Jesus said “no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” What about free will? What about choice? Does God play favorites?
Let me ask you – does anyone here struggle with these sayings?
Maybe we should broaden the question – do you struggle with some of the teachings in the Bible?
Maybe we should even go further – do you struggle sometimes with being a Christian?
In our scripture passage, what follows the challenging words of Jesus is understandable: many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
Now, when we don’t understand what is going on, or when we don’t like what someone is saying, what do we tend to do? It depends, we might answer, but in general, we at least do not seek out such situations or relationships. No, I believe that most often, when we don’t understand something, or when something makes us uncomfortable, we are tempted to avoid it. We like knowing, we like certitude, we like tangibility. Things that challenge us, command us, engage us, stress us, or other wise would control us in some way other than our natural, innate inclinations make us ill at ease. Perhaps if we were in that crowd listening to Jesus on that day, we may have decided to avoid him as well.
I love a poem I received recently that puts this tendency in very eloquent and flowing words. This comes from Arthur Guiterman in the book Gaily The Troubadour, published in 1936: There is no title. It goes like this:
First dentistry was painless;
Then bicycles were chainless
And carriages were horseless
And many laws, enforceless.
Next, cookery was fireless,
Telegraphy was wireless,
Cigars were nicotineless
And coffee, caffeineless.
Soon oranges were seedless,
The putting green was weedless,
The college boy hatless,
The proper diet, fatless,
Now motor roads are dustless,
The latest steel is rustless,
Our tennis courts are sodless,
Our new religions, godless.
The message is clear – WE TEND TO GET RID OF THINGS THAT COMPLICATE LIFE; we like things simple, understandable, comfortable, things that work seamlessly, predictably. We are great reducers, you and I, eliminating that which seems to be detrimental to life. We perhaps even have this tendency towards God.
Let’s go ahead and ask the question of the hour – HAVE WE EVER FELT LIKE TURNING AWAY FROM GOD? It could take many forms – giving up on prayer, doing something that you know faith says is wrong, hating someone, seeking vengeance, doing something really selfish and unnecessary, lying, cheating, thinking bad thoughts? Have you ever looked at your faith, looked at God, and thought to yourself – “enough of this!” and wanted to walk away?
Maybe you haven’t – but many have. I meet some of them every now and then. People who used to believe in God, but do not anymore. People who talk quite frankly with me about their change. People who are fairly bold in their assertions that God has no place in their lives, that God is just a figment of the imagination. Every now and then I have conversations with those who are “outside of the church” or “outside of the faith.” They have their reasons. The other night, I thought about the most common arguments that I hear regarding unbelief, and they fell in six different categories, six different types of arguments I have heard regarding a person’s unwillingness or inability to believe in God (touchstones):
- The Suffering Argument: “There’s too much badness in the world for me to believe in God.” If God is good, and there is bad in the world, and God is all powerful, then we have the irreconcilable conclusions, or paradoxes, about God that either God is not all good or all powerful, or, at best, doesn’t care; all three possibilities contradict God’s defined nature, and hence, contradict God’s existence. This argument, if centered upon, would easily encourage a person to become a determined fatalist, a profound cynic, or an extreme pessimist. Little room for a God of mercy and peace here.
- The Wizard of Oz Argument: “There’s too much mystery for us to be sure of anything, let alone an all-powerful God behind it all.” Behind it all is nothing else than simply what we have; all else is show, based upon what we want to see (A giant and powerful wizard where, behind the curtain, it is only a person or people working the show). This argument is a common one for those who describe religion as an “opiate for the masses”, something we have created (and likewise, a God we have created) to make ourselves feel better. This is the perspective of what one might call an empirical realist.
- The Self-Sufficiency Argument: “I’m OK, you’re OK, we’re all OK, just as we are, free to be you and me; God is an unnecessary oppressive force which only suffocates individual autonomy and initiative.” Usually this is the rationale that is used to support hedonism – that which feels right is right.
- The Scientific Argument: “It is pointless to consider anything that is not demonstrable, directly tangible, and subject to direct experience.” As one scientist put it, “If you wound back the clock to the beginning of the universe, and let things play out once more, you’d never get human beings a second time. Everything is random, without plan or purpose – it just is, nothing more.……” This argument is a common one used to support atheism, or a type of logical or anti-spiritual humanism.
- The Existentialist Argument: “All I really know is what is embodied in my own reality, and thus, cannot be certain of anything that lies beyond my sphere of experience.” This one usually ends in agnosticism, the philosophy of not knowing.
- The Flagrant-Hypocrisy Argument: “Christians are such hypocrites! All talk and no action. If such hypocrisy comes about by worshiping God, I want nothing of it!” The result of this argument can easily lead one to become not just a-religious, but anti-religious, and against everything a Christian believes in, including God.
There are probably more arguments that are commonly used to justify non-belief. You’ve probably heard them before; or perhaps, you’ve even used one or some of them before.
Here’s the point: WHERE DO THESE POSITIONS TAKE US? They all end up, when pursued to their logical, rational, experiential end, to the realm of the arbitrary, the pointless, and the futile. Agnosticism, atheism, anti-spiritual humanism, fatalism, pessimism, cynicism, hedonism – are these disciplines worthy of life? If you have ever known anyone who uses such argumentation – or, better yet, if you have ever centered your own life along these lines, you realize that where they take you is often not a very pleasant place for the living.
If such thoughts ever come to your mind, or if you ever witness evidence of such
things in another, the answer of the Disciples who stuck by Jesus is sobering. Jesus asks the ones who remained behind, “Do you also wish to go away?” And the disciples say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Some scholars refer to this as the “tyranny of the Gospel.” It is explored when we ask the question of those who are uncertain of maintaining their faith, “WHAT IS YOUR ALTERNATIVE?” What is the alternative to God? Many people spend so much time and effort trying to replace God with something more convenient. Some choose alcohol or drugs. Some choose money. Some choose power. Some choose to have an affair. Some choose reputation. Some choose material possessions. Some even choose motorcycles. The list is endless. We are all prone to the contagion of idolatry – making things more important than they really are, worshiping things rather than God.
ALL FALL SHORT, in the end, of a God who forgives and loves, who redeems and sanctifies, who is crucified and is risen, all on our behalf. WHAT IS YOUR ALTERNATIVE TO GOD? What is your alternative to something which stands for peace, love, and understanding? What is your alternative to a force, an entity, which loves us unconditionally, which forgives us readily, which does not demand perfection from us, but only that we do our best? What is your alternative to a God who has an all-encompassing love, an embrace not only of every human being but of creation itself, which says from the beginning “it is good.”? What is your alternative to a God who models and supports justice for the violated, relief for the oppressed, comfort for the afflicted, forgiveness for the penitent, healing for the sick, hope for the despondent, and compassion for the suffering? What is your alternative to a God who, in his mysterious ways, became flesh and dwelt among us, was even willing to die for us, all because we are precious in his sight? What is your alternative to God?
This morning, I close with testimony from CS Lewis. Lewis wrote a book called Surprised by Joy, in which he describes his conversion to the Christian faith after several years of being an atheist and finding it wanting. This excerpt is found in Chapter 14: Checkmate, where he describes being cornered by God: “[As an athiest,] I had always wanted, above all things, not to be "interfered with." I had wanted (mad wish) "to call my soul my own." I had been far more anxious to avoid suffering than to achieve delight. I had always aimed at limited liabilities. The supernatural itself had been to me, first, an illicit dram, and then, as by a drunkard's reaction, nauseous. Even my recent attempt to live my philosophy had secretly (I now knew) been hedged round by all sorts of reservations. I had pretty well known that my ideal virtue would never be allowed to lead me into anything intolerably painful; I would be "reasonable." But now what had been an ideal became a command; and what might not be expected of one? Doubtless, by definition, God was Reason itself. But would He also be "reasonable" in that other, more comfortable sense? Not the slightest assurance on that score was offered me. Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. The reality with which no treaty can be made was upon me. The demand was not even "All or nothing." I think that stage had been passed, on the bus top when I unbuckled my armor and the snowman started to melt. Now, the demand was simply "All."
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused be wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.
8-16-15 You’d Like a Pound of What? Scripture: I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Theme: What if God granted you a wish? What would you wish for? Immediate requests are typically of the world; more permanent, faithful answers consider Who God is, and what God promises to provide. Authentically praying to receive what God offers guarantees fulfillment.
Once upon a time, there was a faculty meeting happening at a large college somewhere in the Midwest. The dean of the school was gathered there with all of his staff. An angel suddenly appears in the middle of the proceedings and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom.
"Done!" says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispers, "Say something."
The dean looks intently at his colleagues gathered around him and says, "I should have taken the money."
Today, we have this kind of scene in our scripture lesson from I Kings. King David, the King who re-established the nation of Israel, the King who was responsible for writing the Psalms, the King who defeated the Philistines, the Amelekites, the Canaanites, the Jebusites, the Moabites, the Edomites, and several other “-ites”, the King who was arguably the greatest leader in the history of the Jewish people – King David was dead. Solomon, David’s son, was chosen as the new king. And today’s passage stands at the very beginning of Solomon’s rule. It begins with a vision, a dream, where God comes to Solomon. God says to Solomon “Ask what I should give you.” Today, we might read it as God asking Solomon “what do you wish for?”
Now, there’s a thought -- What if God granted us one wish? What would we wish for? Now, many of us can easily identify with Solomon, and quickly say the same thing – “I’d wish for wisdom.” There might be other virtuous choices that come to mind as well – “I’d wish for world peace,” “I’d wish for complete understanding,” “I’d wish for truth, compassion, faithfulness, purity, etc., etc., etc….”
But of course there is another side to our selves, one which is more immediate, and perhaps even more true to life. There’s that annoying little voice that we can’t quite silence, that all-too-physical side to us that demands attention. “I’d wish for a million dollars!” “I’d wish for perfect health.” “I’d wish for political power, or to be famous, or for that new car or new home.”
And then there’s an even more profound and direct kind of wish that would come before any other – “I’d wish that the cancer would be gone.” “I’d wish for a broken relationship to heal.” “I’d wish that a loved one’s self-destructive behavior would subside.” “I’d wish for recovery, for an end to depression, for deliverance from an enemy, for justice, for mercy, for forgiveness for myself.”
Yesterday, I learned of Thelma; Thelma is a two year old experiencing aggressive cancer; they removed a small football size tumor from her last week, and her prognosis is uncertain. She will probably live at the children’s hospital in Seattle for a minimum of eight months taking chemotherapy…..I am almost certain I know what her parents wish for, and perhaps even can guess what Thelma wishes for.
We’ve all had these kinds of thoughts, I believe. We’ve all played the game of make a wish. This is a part of being human. I believe that Solomon must have had these same kind of wishes (indeed, if you follow the story of Solomon beyond this passage, he turns out all too human, and, thus, a victim of his own weaknesses, sins, and even faithlessness.)
But Solomon recognizes that everything rests in rising above his desires for precise outcomes to the challenges of his position; he recognizes that he perhaps couldn’t even conceive in his mind of what outcome would be best. Such matters demand objective consultation. THIS IS WHERE WISHING CHANGES INTO PRAYING – when what we are involved in is between us and God. Wishes are desires we possess inside of our being, usually self-focused and often pleasure or comfort seeking; prayers are interactions between us and God, many times petitionary in content, but primarily relational in nature. Seeking God’s perspective would lead to receiving God’s presence, which is the highest ideal for the person of faith. In the prayer response of Solomon, he recognizes where the greatness of his father, David, comes from, and he, Solomon, wants more of the same. In verse 6, Solomon says to God --“You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love……..
“And now, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. GIVE YOUR SERVANT THEREFORE AN UNDERSTANDING MIND TO GOVERN YOUR PEOPLE, ABLE TO DISCERN BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL.”
To me, this interchange between Solomon and God reveals something that helps us in our own relationship with God. And it is this -- God is not in the wish-granting business, but the grace-giving business. God is not a genie granting wishes; he is something better, something greater. God is a presence, a life, a heart, a love, that offers itself to us. Call it guidance, call it wisdom, call it discernment, call it anything you want, but the basic point is that the one wish, the one gift, that God promises and delivers to anyone who asks is HIMSELF. Ask for anything else, you may or may not get it. Ask for God, and it is given.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that “There is nothing wrong with letting God know what we want, as long as we do not mistake our list for the covenant. The covenant has no conditions. The covenant is no deal. It is God's promise to be our God, which contains within it the promise that we shall be God's people -- not by our consent, but by our creation” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, as quoted in Christianity Today, April 27, 1998.)
We are God’s people, not by our consent, but by our creation – and prayer seeks to open ourselves to this reality. We are God’s people, in that God desires to be with us, to share with us the things that make life more of what it should be, even in the midst of what we think ought not to be -- which happens all too often. BUT IT IS ESPECIALLY IN THE MIDST OF WHAT OUGHT NOT TO BE THAT WE NEED GOD – to sustain us, to guide us, to carry us when we can walk no more.
In Elie Wiesel's autobiographical novel Night, he tells of how a rabbi taught him how to pray. The rabbi explained to him that in every question there is a power beyond the obvious answer. "Man raises himself toward God," he says "by the questions he asks Him. Man questions and God answers. But we do not understand those answers."
"I pray to the God within me," says the Rabbi, "that he will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions." (Elie Wiesel, Night, in his Night, Dawn, The Accident: Three Tales (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 15.
I think this is what Solomon was praying for – the wisdom to know which questions were worth asking. Solomon was looking at a whole bunch of unknowns – a nation in potential turmoil, hostile nations ready to pounce at any weakness, the favor of his court, the normal struggles of governing, the uncertainty of the future for his people. When he was asked by God “what do you wish for?” he responded by asking for the only thing that was certain in this world – that God would be with him. NOTHING MATTERS MORE THAN THIS. And it is left to each one of us to nurture this same motivation inside of our hearts, when facing the newness and unpredictability of life that comes with each new day – to long for the guidance, the wisdom, the truth of God – in short, to pray for the presence of God -- before anything else.
CLOSING PRAYER: from St. Francis of Assisi: “Our God, each day is a little life, each night a tiny death; help us to live with faith and hope and love. Lift our duty above drudgery; let not our strength fail, or the vision fade, in the heat and burden of the day. O God, make us patient and pitiful one with another in the fret and jar of life, remembering that each fights a hard fight and walks a lonely way. Forgive us, Lord, if we hurt our fellow souls; teach us a gentler tone, a sweeter charity of words, and a more healing touch. Sustain us, O God, when we must face sorrow; give us courage for the day and hope for the morrow. Day unto day may we lay hold of thy hand and look up into thy face, whatever befall, until our work is finished and the day is done. Amen.”
--Francis of Assisi, 1181-1226.
8-9-15 Making Good Trades -- Scripture: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Theme: To proclaim to be a Christian is one thing. To live a Christian life can mean another. Where faith and behavior mix provides the substance of Christ’s wisdom, and shows us that we are empowered to choose to be whom God wants us to be.
This morning, I wanted to share with you a good recipe for chocolate chip cookies that I wrote down by observing my family baking in our kitchen over the years; you might want to write this down:
Ingredients: 1 cup butter, ½ cup sugar, 1 cup brown sugar, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2 ½ cups flour, 1 package chocolate chips.
- take butter out of fridge to soften.
- open chocolate chips and taste them, to make sure they are fresh.
- cream butter with sugar
- taste a few chocolate chips to make sure they’re still fresh.
- add eggs and stir.
- eat any chocolate chips that “accidentally” fell out of the ripped open bag, to assure that only clean chocolate chips go into the cookie mix.
- mix together dry ingredients.
- make sure the chocolate chips haven’t begun to melt on the counter by tasting a few.
- mix together wet and dry ingredients
- see if the chocolate chips are ready to go in by tasting a few.
- pour the chocolate chips into the flour-butter mixture; at this point, there are only seven or eight chocolate chips left.
- open a new bag of chocolate chips to supplement the seven or eight chips left from the first bag.
- After tasting the new bag of chocolate chips for freshness, pour them into the mix.
- taste the resulting dough for quality (do this at least three or four times, for the purpose of clarity)
- bake and eat.
Such is the recipe for great chocolate chips cookies at our house. Let me rephrase that – such is the recipe for great chocolate chip cookie MAKING at our house. You see, the enjoyment of chocolate chip cookies has so much more to do with the PROCESS OF MAKING THE COOKIES than with simply eating the end result. Making the cookies is a greater part of the fun (at least in our house!).
So it is in the house of God. In today’s scripture lesson, Paul presents to us a similar kind of emphasis. There is a recipe or formula of sorts that he shares with the Ephesians and with us, that talks about the recipe that makes a life Christian. Notice how I said that – not that makes a Christian, but that makes a life Christian in its disposition, attitude, and especially action. These are hands-on applications, the things that are tangible, direct, and applicable – even painfully so – to the normal everyday living all of us experience. You can almost hear Paul saying “do these things, and discover what it means to live as a Christian.”
This “recipe” for Christian living involves what I think of as a lot of trades. Giving up one thing for another. Paul encourages us in this passage to give up:
Falsehood for truth;
Thievery for labor
Criticism for instruction and guidance
Insults for graceful speech
Bitterness for kindness
Wrath and anger for tenderness and forgiveness
Imitation of the world for imitation of God.
Now, each one of these trades could easily consume a sermon in itself, which I’m not going to attempt today. But there is one area which is uncomfortably personal to me that I’d like to dive into with you this morning. It is the fact that I have a very strong temper.
This may or may not be surprising to you – but there have been persons in my past who found this a shock. There that school of thought that defines pastors as ones who don’t get angry, who have patience beyond compare, who can sit in the furnace of the world and not sweat, who can take any criticism, animosity, or attack and simply turn the other cheek.
There may be pastors out there who are like that, but I am not one of them. I get angry. There are things that really tick me off. Things that make my blood boil. Things that make my face turn red, my body tense up, and my hands turn into fists. And it goes back a long way.
When I was around eight or nine years old, I remember trying to build a chair in my family’s garage. It wasn’t turning out very well; it was wobbly, unbalanced, and ugly. To make a long story short, this made me mad, and I tore the chair to pieces. My chair turned into toothpicks. Literally, pieces, little chunks of wood all over the garage floor; I had taken a hammer to it. Very destructive.
And this kind of behavior was not only levied towards inanimate objects. I translated my anger outwardly in many ways; I had a tongue that could do damage, I had my share of fist-fights with my peers, and, as I have already shared with you, I thought fondly of my little brother as a convenient punching bag. I probably wasn’t that different from most young children who have an abundance of energy without a lot of skills to handle such, and my parents did their best to keep me from getting out of control, but the fact remains that anger was a problem for me – and sometimes others.
My anger got me into trouble when I was a kid, and it would have continued, probably leading me into greater and greater trouble, if it weren’t for a realization that came to me in a very unpleasant way. I was around nine or ten years old; I was in the process of performing one of my brotherly duties towards my siblings, which, of course, included snooping around my sister’s room – you know, looking for any candy I could steal, something that could get her into trouble, something that I could embarrass her with.
I found something completely different. On my sister’s desk was a folded up piece of paper next to an envelope. It was a letter! Possibly to her boyfriend, or talking about her boyfriend, or something else that could be really embarrassing! So, thinking as much, I eagerly unfolded the letter to read it.
I found something I hadn’t expected inside of that letter. It was written to her best friend, and it was all about me. But it wasn’t complimentary at all. I read in that letter about how she had the meanest brother, who was always flying off the handle at her, who wasn’t ever nice to her, who even seemed to hate her or couldn’t stand her. I wanted to believe that she was talking about our little brother, but, no, she mentioned me by name. On and on that letter went, as I continued to read in disbelief. Was I really like that? Weren’t all brothers supposed to be like that towards their siblings? She saw me as an angry, mean-spirited, self-absorbed, devious soul. I was truly stunned, for I didn’t think of myself in that way at all.
I know that reading that letter was a wrong thing to do, but it resulted in something incredibly valuable to me. I began to see myself through the eyes of another, to really understand who I was in the world of other people. And I began to realize that I had a very strong temper that made me into a very angry person. I didn’t like that; I wanted to change that. And that was the beginning of one of the most valuable lessons of my life – I learned that WE CAN CHOOSE HOW TO HANDLE OURSELVES. WE CAN CHOOSE HOW TO CONDUCT OUR LIVES. We may not be able to control what is given to us in life, but we can definitely control what we do with it. In my case with anger, with my temper, I learned that although I might not be able to keep anger from my heart, I could choose what to do with it, how it manifested itself outwardly. I found that I could even exert influence over what would make me angry, and thus lessen my tendency to lose my temper. It boiled down to the truism I know, from my own experience, is valid for life: “If you don’t control your anger, your anger will control you.”
Paul says it simply: “BE ANGRY BUT DO NOT SIN.” Do not act upon your anger. Do not give in to bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander. Such things can be controlled – absolutely. Both Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain serve as examples. They both had the same practice that helped them control their anger. When they was livid with somebody, as Mark Twain remarked “some fool who didn’t know his blank from his brain,” they created the habit of pouring their anger out in a letter to the person. They didn’t hold anything back, allowing their eloquence and knowledge of curses and insults to have full reign. They would put everything into that letter, sign and seal it in an envelope, address the letter and place the equivalent of a stamp on it. Then, they would let it rest; Mark Twain liked to take the letter and place it on his fireplace mantel, and leave it there for three days; Abraham Lincoln actually took the letters and filed them away. I think it was Mark Twain that promised himself that if he still felt the same anger after three days were up, he would mail the letter. In the many years of this practice, Mark Twain tells us that he very rarely sent any such letter. Had he mailed many of them, he would most likely have wound up friendless and isolated. Abraham Lincoln said that he found just writing the angry letter diffused his emotions enough to regain balance and perspective, and his composure came back into balance.
I employ my own tactics to control my anger. I have written angry letters that I never mailed. I have counted to ten, to one hundred, even to one thousand, until my anger subsided. I have taken long walks, cold showers, and, yes, long rides on my motorcycle. I have given myself time-outs, moved myself beyond the stress until I regained control. And, most of all, I HAVE PRAYED. I have asked God for help, for patience, for humility, for understanding, for guidance – and that has made the most difference for me. I let God into my frustrations, and find it changes me. I ask God to transform my anxieties and animosities, and find that God responds. I allow God into my anger, even when my anger is directed at God – and find that God receives it all, and responds with what I can only describe as a substitutionary peace that helps change my perspective and align myself more helpfully to address the issue at hand. Anger may indeed be a part of our lives, but it does not ever need to become our god.
“If you don’t control your anger, your anger will control you.”
To me, this is one strong example of the main point of Paul’s lesson, Paul’s recipe formula for Christian life, for Christian practice. If you don’t control your worldly life, your worldly life will control you. This is basic Christian philosophy; this is the wisdom of life from God’s Son. CONTROL YOUR WORLDLY LIFE. Do not let the world control you.
End with the text from The Message
“What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself.
Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry – but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.
Did you use to make ends meet by stealing? Well, no more! Get an honest job so that you can help others who can’t work.
Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.
Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted.
Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.
Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their patents, mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.”
Of the 7 deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking Transformed by Thorns, p. 117.
The great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was legendary for his fits of rage. The librarian of one of Toscanini's orchestras was particularly vexed by the maestro's habit of throwing valuable musical scores at the musicians when angry. Watching closely, the librarian observed that Toscanini's first act when enraged was to take his baton in both hands and try to break it. If the baton snapped, Toscanini usually calmed down and rehearsal continued. If the baton did not break, he began hurling scores. The librarian's solution? He made sure the conductor had a generous supply of flimsy batons on hand for rehearsal!
August 2, 2015 Growing Young in Faith….. by Don McCammon
When John asked me to lead today’s services, I asked him “Is there a theme or topic for the day?” the response was “Possibly talk about growing up, maturity, integrity, humility, grace – Our Standard Of Maturity.” That is a broad topic. It reminded me a lot about what my parents tried to talk to me about when I was a teenager – and didn’t pay a bit of attention to. As I thought and prayed, studied today’s text and reviewed my faith journey, I realized that this is really about how we approach and share our faith, our understanding of our faith and how we actively share our faith understanding in God’s world. None of this happens overnight – so part of this maturing process is how we each take steps throughout our lives, some steps that appear to go backwards, sidewards and forwards, but steps that lead us back to understanding and sharing faith as a child understands and shares faith – the wonder, the wide-eyed openness and open heart and open handedness of sharing. The comforting understanding that God’s grace is always present, the Spirit is always surrounding us and Christ’s love embraces us – always.
Paul wrote a letter – even in the mid-50’s AD – that speaks to us today. He writes from prison. As his ministry matured, we see him moving from an expectant “Expect Christ’s return any minute, like now!” message to a “We need to live as a body of Christ and prepare ourselves and the world for His return.” His message describes the walk and service of the Believer, what our conduct should be, what the unities of Christ’s family are to be preserved and what purpose the gifts of grace we have been given should be used for.
But wait a minute – how does all this fit in with my job, my travels for work, cooking dinner for Donna, feeding our chickens, caring for my parents, making sure the car runs, our grass is mowed, keeping up with the news, keeping my engineering skills current, singing and then add on the church meetings, United Way and I need some sleep sometime……..
Let’s go back…..
Paul writes: “Live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, one with humility and gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love and maintaining unity of Spirit in the bond of peace…….” Read more
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.
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