In the heart of Missoula...


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

"Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" is not just an advertising slogan, but a statement of how First United Methodist Church of Missoula wants to be seen in our community. First Church is a community of open hearts seeking to be a force for God's grace in the "heart" of Missoula's downtown. We are an open minded congregation, respectful of each other yet unafraid of the issues of our time. And we are a church of open doors, welcoming a wide diversity of people to be a part of our congregation. For those who can't manage our stairs you will find the elevator just inside the street level entrance to the right of the stairs. You will always find a place at First United Methodist Church!
Please visit us at 300 E. Main Street.

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



star Church will start at 10:30 during the school year
On Sunday the Faith and Justice Class will meet downstairs at 9:00 and
Choir practice is in the chapel next to the sanctuary at 9:00.
You are invited to join us!

sermonby our minister Rev. John Daniels.

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

You are invited to join us!

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 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.
Office phone and E-mail contact information on the CONTACT US PAGE.

John Daniels Pastor John Daniels

    As we wish Pastor Barry a happy retirement, with open hands and heart we welcome Pastor John Daniels. This spring the congregation of FUMC joyfully responded to the announcement that Bishop Elaine Stanovsky had appointed the Rev. John Daniels as the incoming minister. At the June meeting of the Yellowstone Annual Conference, the Rev. Daniels’ appointment was finalized, and he officially became pastor of FUMC on July 1.
On July 6, at 9:30 a.m., we welcomed John Daniels as FUMC’s new pastor. Many will recognize Pastor John as the former Western Mountains District Superintendent for the Yellowstone Conference. His July 6th sermon served as an introduction of the new pastor from the DS. You may also recognize his wife Terri, who sings in our choir, and his children Emily, Molly and Ethan. Emily has one year left at the University of Montana, where she is studying music education. Molly is pursuing degrees in journalism and theatre at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Ethan is a student at Sentinel High School. He would like to attend UM and get a degree in a technical field associated with computer graphics.
   To give Pastor John time to shift from District Superintendent to pastor of FUMC, and because many from the congregation are gone during the summer, the Staff Parish Relations Committee has planned informal get-acquainted activities starting in late summer. These will be announced in the August Tower Tidings and worship bulletins.
   SPRC asks you to keep Pastor John and his family, Pastor Barry and his family, and the congregation in your prayers during this time of change.

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

time and talent
As church starts up this fall we could use your help in many different areas.
Please fill out the Time and Talent Survey and turn it in to the office or put it in the basket in the Narthex.
Your time and talents are appreciated!

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

Current EVENTS
September 4 UMW Pizza Party at the Carousel for Missoula
September 7 School Year Worship Schedule begins, 10:30 a.m.
September 7 Chancel Choir practice starts at 9:00 a.m.
September 7 Sunday School starts.... volunteers needed
September 11 Amazing Grays trip to Flathead Methodist Camp
September 12 Friday Night Out at Avery's
September 14 Blessings of the Backpacks
September 14 Bring school supplies and hygience items for the Blackfeet Mission project
September 14 Fry Bread Taco Feed after worship to benefit the Wesley House
September 16 Joyful Noise Rehearsal begins at 6:00 p.m.
September 17 Vespers Circle, noon
September 20 UMW Fall District Meeting at Great Falls First UMC
September 22 Book Club, noon
September 28 Annual Foundation Meeting after worship - open meeting

The life of our church includes:
(Click on colored words to find out more information.)
Adult Spiritual Growth - fall classes, online class information,
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 and training information.
UMW - United Methodist Women schedule and fellowship group information UMW
UMM - United Methodist Men
Social Action - Family Promise, Poverello, Habitat for Humanity, Intermountain, UMCOR
Walk to Emmaus - Link to their website

Reaching out with love to our community and the world hearts
Tzedakah Pocket
Poverello noon meal 5th Saturdays
Family Promise Host
January MIC Food Bank Drive
Wesley House
Host for Homeless Connect
East Angola Pastor Support
SERRV & Fair Trade Products
Intermountain Home
Flathead UMC Camp
Blackfeet United Methodist Parish
United Methodist Women’s mission projects
YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter
❤ Cub Scouts
Habitat for Humanity

Pastor: John Daniels - Click here to see a current sermon.
Administrative Assistants: Sharon Jackson and Rhanda Johnson
Treasurer: Leslie Lindley
Financial Secretary: Kay Duffield

Custodian: John Schaff
Nursery Attendants: Faye Gibson, Audra Clark & Juliette Viera
Junior Nursery Attendants: Sophia Clark, Kade Hedahl, Kayla Leavell, Madison Lightfield and Austin Means

Music Team:
Greg Boris, Music Director and Chancel Choir Director
Peter Edwards, Pianist/Organist
Joann Wallenburn, Handbell Choir Director
Rhanda Johnson, Joyful Noise Director

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

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

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
FUMC Chancel Choir will begin the fall season on Sunday Sept. 8th.  Enthusiasm and love of music a must.  Previous experience is not required.  Choir meets Sundays only at 9:00 a.m. before service.  All are welcome.  Please join us!  For more information talk to choir director Greg Boris 239-1828.

JuBELLation Handbell Choir

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.

bunnyJoyful Noise Children's Choir

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 Mondays 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.
 adult ed

Interested in online adult classes? Click on UMC classes for more information.
The Book of Discipline is available online for your study and review: The Book of Discipline Index, The Book of Discipline Part 1,The Book of Discipline Part 2 and The Book of Resolutions 2012 Part III.

Children's Ministries
Sunday School meets during the worship service, right after Children's Time 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. kids christmas 2013

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

First United Methodist Youth Fellowship (FUMY)
7th through 12th grade students meet most Wednesday evenings from 7:00 - 8:30 p.m. from September until May.
They do service projects, make discoveries about themselves and others, and have fun!

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

UMW logoUnited Methodist Women
Our UMW is part of the Yellowstone Conference and you can find information
on Conference and District UMW activities on the conference UMW web page.
The Conference covers Montana, 1/2 Wyoming and a slice of Idaho.
The National United Methodist Women also have a website full of information, news, and resources

. UMWUMW is open to any woman who would enjoy the companionship of other women and is someone who is dedicated to supporting missions near and far. UMW raises money for mission projects locally, in Montana, nationally and globally. UMW meets the first Thursday Oct-Dec and Feb-May. All meetings are at 1:00 for dessert, program and business meeting, unless otherwise announced in the church newsletter.
Other activities include: Ash Wednesday Souper Supper, spring Flea Market, July picnic for families who will attend a community band concert at Bonner Park afterward, September Pizza Party at the Carousel, October Apple Pie sales, and December Candy Sale.
Contact President Ellie Barnes 549-1384 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 invted 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.
contact: Ellie Barnes 549-1384 or Peg Plimpton 542-1543
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.

Chairman: Ellen Stubblefield 728-2115
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.
Chair: Dorothy Avery 549-7117

**Special Interest Groups:
Book Group meets the fourth Thursday at noon 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.
Chair: Carole Addis 721-1817

Quilting and Crafts Group meets as the need arises for mission projects.
Chair: Kay Norum 721-5750.

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

Stephen Ministry ChurchSM logo
We participate in Stephen Ministries, where trained Stephen Ministers walk with those whose lives are in turmoil for one reason or another.
Stephen Ministers also help with prayer requests each Sunday and serve communion. Anyone in our church family can request a Stephen Minister for themselves. We hope to offer a new class to train Stephen Ministers. 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 satisfaction in your own life as you nurture your care receiver.
What is a Stephen Minister?
Call Kay at 543-6722 or Peg at 542-1543 for more information.

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

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

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

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

Social Action - Love in Motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sermons by Pastor John Daniels

9-7-14 - Sermon by guest preacher Don McCammon

8-30-14 - The Pilgrim’s Regress

Scriptures:            Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28

Theme:  Sometimes our progress is regress – what appears to be forward thinking moves us backward.  This is what God dealt with in Moses and his disclaimer about his abilities to be God’s representative.  This is what God dealt with in Peter when he spoke of his desire to go against God’s plan.  What God wants may not fit neatly into life.  But what God wants is the only thing that makes life work.
As many of you know, I am a very fortunate new pastor, for I have the great advantage of having in my congregation a professional consultant – namely, the previous pastor of this church, Rev. Barry Padgett.  Barry and I get together every now and then, and I’ve found his counsel extremely helpful in these beginning days of working with this church.  One day, recently, I asked Barry if he could tell me what were the keys to his successful ministry here.  He said, “Two words -- Good decisions." I asked Barry how he came to know which are the good decisions?" He said, "One word -- Experience." "That's all well and good," I said, "but how does one get experience?" "Two words," said Barry. "Bad decisions."
          Today’s scripture lessons engage us in the dilemmas facing individuals caught up in the struggle between faithfulness to God and allegiance to the world around us.  Moses is being asked by God to lead his people into freedom.  Peter is being told of God’s plan for God’s son.  Both men recoil at what God has revealed.  Both men stand on the brink of deciding in favor of life as they would have it rather than what God would desire.  Both men stand on the brink of a bad decision – to go against the will of God.  And God stops them in their tracks.
          God gets angry at Moses.  Christ gets angry at Peter.  Some would say that God gets uncharacteristically mad at his representatives in these moments.  I believe it’s for a good reason, for sometimes those who stand in God’s best favor are in the greatest danger for missing the point of faithIt is to draw us closer to God, and not the other way around.  And the closer we become to God, the more we may feel the temptation to have God obey our desire, due to our “faithfulness.”
Call it self-righteousness.  Call it confidence of faith.  Call it strength of conviction.
But whatever we call it, we are all susceptible to what Peter and Moses faced.  We are susceptible to a sense of worldly progress and comfort that works against God.  What may seem like progress to us may actually be a regression, if we fail to look for the will of God before anything else.  It can be mighty tempting not to look too hard for that will, because we know that somewhere in there, there is a cross.  And deep down, it is natural that none of us likes that very much.
Daniel Defoe wrote:
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there;
And 'twill be found upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.
Christ’s anger at Peter is telling us something.  God’s impatience with Moses is telling us something.  With those who are faithful, like Peter, like Moses, with those who are called disciples, with those who are Christ’s body – THERE IS A GREAT DANGER HERE!  There is great danger surrounding this body of Christ, every body of Christ. 
It is not that we will exceed our budget. 
It is not that we will never be able to keep worship under an hour on a Sunday morning (hint, hint, pastor John!). 
It is not that we will make some big mistakes. 
These things do and will happen.  But they are not our greatest danger.  Our greatest danger IS THE DANGER OF LOST FOCUS. It is the danger of losing sight of our faithfulness to God above anything else.  Indeed, everything else depends on this faithfulness, especially when such faithfulness requires struggle.
          When I was in engineering, I remember hearing about two companies that served as examples of this kind of thing.  These two companies made drills, for boring holes in different materials.  Both companies were very strong around the turn of the century, highly competitive with each other.  But as the years went by, one company grew by leaps and bounds, while the other one gradually decreased in vitality and strength, until about 40 years ago, it closed its business for good.  What was the difference?  One company’s mission was to make the best steel drill bits possible.  The other company’s mission was to make the best holes possible.  The first company was limited to one material, steel.  The second company found itself branching out into new territory, using high-pressure water, steam, lasers, specialized metals, pinpoint electrical impulses, welding strategies, and a whole host of other techniques to make holes with greater precision, greater speed, in a greater variety of mediums, than could ever be done before.  It was this second company that understood its ultimate mission which had the greatest success.  This second company gained a truer focus on why it existed as a company – not to make drill bits, but to make holes.  It was that focus that made all the difference.
We catch Moses and Peter at a time when God invites them to regain their focus.  God invites them to regain their focus at a crucial time.  Much is at stake.  The world is about to change.  God’s plan is about to unfold.  And God uses his people to unfold that plan.  Faithfulness to God is required; faithfulness to the world is the obstacle.  Like Moses, we must face the fact that when God calls us, we’re probably going to feel uncomfortable.  Like Peter, we must face the fact that when God expresses his intention for this world, we may not personally like it.  But this is God.  This is God’s will.  This is God’s way.  And it is to become our own, regardless of its convenience, comprehensibility, or common sense.
This congregation has weathered many changes over the years – some went very well, some did not go well at all, as attested to in my DS files as well as in my conversations with several persons with long memories.  This is how it is in every congregation, I believe – our past is a kaleidoscope of simple and complex changes, easy and hard transitions, helpful and harmful occurrences.  I really hate to announce this, but here goes – MORE CHANGE IS COMING!  Not only in the adjustment to new leadership styles and priorities, not only in the new groups and people becoming active in our congregation, but also right here, in worship – some changes are coming to this weekly moment in time when we gather to praise and listen for God.  These particular changes will begin next week – we will be shifting to speaking in tongues, snake handling, and mandatory personal testimony.  JUST KIDDING! 
We have two new worship teams which have been taking a look at our worship format, and a few of their ideas will be put into motion next Sunday.  Again, no snake handling, but it will be a little different.  May I share them with you?
For September, we are looking at these changes:

  1. Hymn of the Month
  2. Different order at start of service
  3. Offering Doxology changing monthly

The Worship Teams and others have also been looking at other possibilities for worship in the future, including:

  1. Having Sunday School children share in communion in worship once per month
  2. Exploring liturgy for communion
  3. Exploring different forms of congregational prayer
  4. Laity Sunday
  5. Children’s Sabbath
  6. Stewardship Sunday
  7. Conversation Sunday
  8. Youth-led worship
  9. Second worship service

Let me stop for a moment and check – how’s your heart rate?  Mine has increased.  It has increased because change is difficult, especially when what you are used to is precious and important and comforting.  And when you change things, you risk what is precious and important and comforting to yourself.  But without exploring changes, we might be missing what could be precious and important to ourselves and others in a new and different way – a God-inspired way.  As the Lord expressed to Moses, as Jesus expressed to Peter, as God says time and time again in Holy Scripture, “Behold, I am about a new thing,” our God does not sit still when there is hunger to be satisfied, thirst to quench, comfort to give, truth to illumine, justice to measure, or love to share.  And God invites those who believe in Christ to follow wherever he may lead.
The guiding question of the worship teams is not which hymns are most popular, nor what liturgy flows smoothly; it is not what decorations to place upon the altar, nor what type of bread to use for communion.  The guiding question of the worship team is not “what do we want here?”, but “what does God want here?”  I don’t know about you, but I like the first question much better – “what do we want here?”  Take a survey, ask about preferences and likes and dislikes, poll for the top fifty hymns, ask about pew seat comfort, inquire about proper length of time for the sermon (wouldn’t you agree that about an hour?) – there are very tangible ways of finding out what we would like here, for we know ourselves very well, we know what we like and don’t like, what we would feel like investing ourselves in.
But what about what God likes and doesn’t like?  What about God’s take on what happens in this space?  If worship is to be about God, shouldn’t God’s desire, God’s reality, God’s purposes, God’s essence guide all that we do?  Please hear me – THIS DOES NOT MEAN OUR PREFERENCES ARE UNIMPORTANT, but that they must be oriented to the will of God, even servant to the will of God.  For faith is about wanting what God wants, doing what God does, and loving as God loves, to the best of our ability.  If we aren’t prioritized this way, our focus upon Jesus is suspect.
I would like to leave you this morning with a thought along these lines from retired Bishop William Willimon about faith’s insistence that God’s will come before our own.  He says “The great mistake of modern, American-style Christianity is the assumption that we can use our faith in Christ to get the world we want.  It’s a mistake because it fails to appreciate that Christ is God’s means of getting the world that God wants.  We’re not here in the Body of Christ to get a new technique whereby we can use Jesus.  We are here to risk the possibility that hereby Jesus might use us!”
What do you want, Lord?  In worship, in life, in thought, in deed?  What is it that pleases you, that causes you to smile, that lets your light shine?  Help us to be about these things, dear God, in all that we are, in all that we do.  Amen.

8-24-14 Just Who Am I?
Scripture:  Matthew 16:13-20
Matthew 16:13-20
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Theme:  Who do we say Jesus is?  Many terms and labels are used by many, many people who claim to be Jesus followers.  But if we stop with the label, we really don’t know who Jesus is – unless we fold our own faith experience into the mix.  For Jesus asks not only his disciples, but everyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ – “who do you say that I am?”

          There once was a final exam being given on a college campus.  There were five hundred students in the classroom, working hard on this test, which happened to be worth 70% of their grade.  The tension was great as the hours ticked away – nearing the end of the test period, the professor gave a ten minute warning, then a five minute warning, and finally a two minute warning, stating that absolutely no exams will be accepted once the time was up.  Finally, the professor said “time’s up—stop working on your papers and hand them in now”, whereupon the remaining twenty or thirty students came brought up their papers to hand in.  All, that is,  except one student, who continued writing furiously.  The professor said nothing, but just waited.
          After about ten minutes of this, that last student brought up his paper to hand in.  “Time has been called; no more papers will be accepted” said the professor sternly.  The young man had a look of wildness in his eye, but stopped for a second, and looked the professor in the eye.  “Do you know who I am, professor?”  The professor said he did not.  He asked again, “Don’t you have any idea just who I am?”  The professor, a little worried now, said again that he did not know who the student was.  Whereupon the student said, “good” and stuffed his paper into the middle of the pile of tests, and ran out the door.

          “Do you know who I am?”  Sometimes, anonymity is a blessing!  But not when the person in question is Jesus. 
          This is the question Jesus places before us today.  He does so by asking his disciples about his reputation in society – “Who do people say I am?” – whereupon his disciples say that there is much talk about him going on, that he is John the Baptist returned from the grave, or Elijah come back from antiquity, or even Jeremiah or a prophet of old come to continue on the business of God……
          It sounds a lot like the kind of thing that’s going on in today’s world, regarding how people think about Jesus.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there is a lot of thinking about Jesus out there, in the world – and quite a lot of it is, shall we say, interesting.  This came to light awhile back when I was teaching a course for the School of Christian Mission, which is now called Mission U.  I was leading a class on a segment dealing with the identity of Jesus, discussing the variety of ways Christ was expressed by both the faithful and those who discarded Jesus as a figment of historical imagination.  I came across quite a few images of Jesus that gave a sense of the wide spectrum of understandings that are out there.  Here are a few (may I draw your attention to the screens…..)

Jesus jesusjesus jesus
          There are a lot of ways people visualize Jesus, aren’t there?  There are many ways that people think about Jesus.  There are many ways to answer the question, “Who do people say Jesus is?” 
          But in today’s scripture lesson, Jesus presses the issue.  He asks his disciples a more pointed, even personal question – “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s response is one shaped by his own personal experience of connecting with God – Peter might have responded “you’re the one who fed the five thousand people with five loaves and a few fish; you’re the one who almost let me drown when I saw you walking on water; you’re the one who cast out demons, healed the sick, and calmed the storms.”  But he didn’t call to mind the experiences he had with Jesus – he shared instead his affirmation that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of God, the divine made flesh.  Somehow, someway, in his experience with Jesus, God became real to Peter.
          I believe that’s what Jesus is getting at in our passage today – what matters is not so much what others say about Jesus, but how God becomes personally real to us through Jesus.
          I’m going to try something with you today – it’s called a guided meditation, a guided prayer, regarding this question Jesus poses before us today.  This is the kind of thing where you get out of it what you put into it.  I’d like to ask you to close your eyes, try to remove distractions, thoughts – and just be centered upon the presence of God right now.  .  Let us pray:

  1. Think of a time when God was most real to you, as a child…….in your youth……..as an adult………years ago, or yesterday……..
  2. Think of what you were going through at that time, in your life, in your faith; how did you feel --  Towards others?  Towards yourself?  Towards the world?  Towards God?
  3. How did you experience that God was real?  Did God speak to you?  What did God say?  Did you sense a presence?  Did God come to you in other ways? 
  4. How did you change from that experience of God’s reality?  Did your faith grow, or weaken?  Did things become clearer or more cloudy?  Did you feel closer to Jesus, or farther away?
  5. From this time you are recalling, hear the question of Jesus once more – “who do you say that I am?”  Who was Jesus to you in that time of the past?  Has your experience of Jesus changed from then?

          I invite you to come back from the meditation – and just pause for a moment.  What you have recalled, what you have concentrated on inside of yourself, was an answer to the question Jesus posed to Peter long ago.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus asks this of every one of us; the answers that matter are the ones we have received from our own personal experiences of the Living God, whatever they may be, as we live according to the light given to us by Christ. 
          I leave you today with the words of Albert Schweitzer, who had this to say about Jesus:  “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (― Albert SchweitzerThe Quest of the Historical Jesus)

The world is a kind of spiritual kindergarten where bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.
E.A. Robinson.

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” ― C.S. LewisMere Christianity


8-17-14 - The Value of a Crumb
Scripture:  Matthew 15:10-28
Theme:  Protocol.  Propriety.  Appropriateness.  Politeness.  Manners.  Priority.  There are many ways that we measure and judge things, situations, circumstances, experiences, and yes, even people.  All of these are to be put aside, however, for the sake of the measurement of faith.  As our faith goes, so goes our lives, so goes our hopes, so goes our miracles, so goes our possibilities.  This is what the Canaanite woman taught us through the demonstration of her faith – all things are possible through faith.

Today, I would like to play a type of word association game that has to do with the “greats” of our experiences:  essentially, I want you to fill in the blank.
          If I say “Michael Jordan,” what do you think? – great basketball player.
          Albert Einstein – great thinker
Aretha Franklin – great singer
          William Shakespeare – great writer
Emily Dickinson – great poet
          Abraham Lincoln – great president
Mother Theresa – great humanitarian

          We can play this game a little closer to home, and bring it right into our church and community.  If I say

          Jane Kisselbach – great Tzedakah Pocket outreach coordinator
Tu Reed– great pie baker (she gave me a pie last year)
Bob and Dorothy Avery – great groundskeepers
Jason Cox/Frank Kisselbach/Steve Carlson -- great media technician
Greg Boris – great music director
Peter Edwards– great pianist and organist

Missoula – great place to live
Rock Creek – a great river to fish
Honda CX500 motorcycle – a great motorcycle (because that’s what I drive!)
Big Dipper – great ice cream
University of Montana Grizzlies – great football team
First United Methodist Church of Missoula – great church!
          There are different kinds of greatness that define us in life, aren’t there?  Different things that we are good at, that we have a disposition for, that find us truly capable, adept, functional, and skilled; different characteristics and styles and types of experiences and realities that speak of grandness and significance.
          And the woman in today’s scripture lesson is defined by Christ himself as possessing a truly remarkable identity – she is a woman of great faith.
          Now we may think that this is a common label in the Bible, one that Christ laid on several persons.  Actually, he used this description towards only two people, a roman guard at Capernaum, and this woman whom we have before us today.  Only she and this roman soldier were ever praised for their great faith.  Not the disciples.  Not the leaders of that day.  Not the crowds of people that followed Christ….Only this outcast, this woman of the wrong side of the tracks, wrong gender, wrong people, wrong economic status, and wrong whatever else….she was proclaimed by Christ himself to have great faith.
          So, the question is:  WHAT MAKES HER FAITH GREAT?
          One thing seems quite apparent – that a person of great faith knows that God has deemed them worth his attention, regardless of what anyone else may say or think; they know that, through Christ, they own the privilege of an audience with God.
I recently read about an American tourist in Paris, who purchased an inexpensive amber necklace in a trinket ship, was shocked when he had to pay quite a high duty on it to clear customs in New York. This aroused his curiosity, so he had it appraised. After looking at the object under a magnifying glass, the jeweler said, "I'll give you $25,000 for it." Greatly surprised, the man decided to have another expert examine it. When he did, he was offered $10,000 more. "What do you see that's so valuable about this old necklace?" asked the astonished man. "Look through this glass," replied the jeweler. There before his eyes was an inscription: "From Napoleon Bonaparte to Josephine." The value of the necklace came from its identification with a famous person. 
Likewise, you and I have been identified with Christ.  We have been identified with and by God, as God’s beloved children.  All of us.  Everyone.  Bar none.  Whether we acknowledge God or not.  Whether we proclaim faith or not.  All of us are precious in God’s sight.  And the person of great faith recognizes this reality for themselves and everyone else.  I really like how Malcom Forbes put it in one of his famous quotes – he said “People who matter are most aware that everyone else matters, too.”  (Malcolm S. Forbes, The sayings of Chairman Malcolm.).  Great faith knows that we all have the right to address God.
Great faith also seeks worthy goals.  Let me rephrase that – great faith seeks God-worthy goals.  We see this in the woman addressing Christ, who is there on behalf of her daughter, possessed by a demon.  She seeks the welfare of another, motivated by love.  Is this not consistent with the goals of God, in seeking the welfare of God’s beloved—us?
A college professor prepared a test for his soon-to-be-graduating seniors.  The test questions were divided into three categories and the students were instructed to choose questions from only one of the categories.  The first category of questions was the hardest and worth fifty points.  The second, which was easier, was worth forty points.  The third, the simplest, was worth thirty points.
          Upon completion of the test, students who had chosen the hardest fifty-point questions were given A’s.  The students who had chosen the forty-point questions received B’s.  Those who settled for the easiest thirty-pointers were given C’s.
          The students were frustrated with the grading of their papers and asked the professor what he was looking for.  The professor leaned over the podium, smiled, and explained, “I wasn’t testing your book knowledge.  I was testing your aim.”
          The Canaanite woman had good aim.   She was not aiming at socially acceptable behavior.  She was not worried about her standing as an unacceptable person in the eyes of this Jewish man.  She was not confused about the extent of God’s care towards even the least of the people of the earth.  She wanted God’s attention.  Her aim was to address God on behalf of her daughter.
Great faith seeks worthy goals—goals worthy of God, goals worthy of the life God intends for us to have.
Finally, great faith trusts that God will respond.  Even in the darkest, most challenging experiences, great faith trusts that God will respond.  Even against logic, likelihood, and probability, great faith trusts that God will respond.
Tony Campolo is a minister who is a well-known motivational speaker; he was here in Missoula this past year, I believe.  He tells about an experience he had when he visited a church in Oregon, where he was asked to pray for a man who had cancer.  Tony prayed for the man’s healing.  That next week he received a telephone call from the man’s wife. She said, “You prayed for my husband; he had cancer.”  Tony thought when he heard her use the past tense verb that his cancer had been eradicated, but before he could think too much about it, she said, “He died.”
Tony felt terrible.  But she continued, “Don’t feel bad.  When he came into that church that Sunday he was filled with anger.  He knew he was going to be dead in a short period of time, and he hated God.  He was 58 years old, and he wanted to see his children and grandchildren grow up.  He was angry that this all-powerful God didn’t take away his sickness and heal him.  He would lie in bed and curse God.  The more his anger grew towards God, the more miserable he was to everybody around him.  It was an awful thing to be in his presence.”
But she continued:  “After you prayed for him, a peace had come over him and a joy had come into him.  Tony,” she said, “the last three days have been the best days of our lives.  We’ve sung; we’ve laughed; we’ve read scripture; we prayed.  They’ve been wonderful days.  And I called to thank you for laying your hands on him and praying for healing.”  And then she said something incredibly profound.  She said, “he wasn’t cured, but he was healed.”
Great faith trusts that God will respond.  But please, please note what is being said here.  Great faith trusts that God will respond.  With God’s response.  With God’s redress to our situation.  With God’s provision for our needs.  THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT GOD WILL NECESSARILY ANSWER OUR PRAYERS IN THE WAY WE THINK THEY OUGHT TO BE ANSWERED!    It may be so; but often, the response of God will not follow the line of our reasoning or our understanding.  Great faith knows that our trust in God needs to be unconditional if it is to be authentic – and this is no small thing for those of us with typical human nature.  Great faith trusts in God unconditionally – and trusts that, whatever the response given to prayer, God is in the response, somewhere, someway.

Often, I believe we Christians are guilty of misunderstanding the nature of great faith; this is why it is so important to be challenged by the example of the Canaanite woman, whom Christ himself identifies as a person of great faith.  For the greatness of our faith is not to be measured in the amount of biblical knowledge we can gain, nor in our eloquent exposition of our beliefs; great faith is not necessarily tied to how often we attend worship, how much we give in the offering plate, or how often we pray.  Great faith does not necessarily mean grand acts of philanthropy or tremendous self-sacrifice. 
Christ is saying something different here I believe, in his interaction with the woman – that true greatness of faith resides in the determination of the individual to connect with God, to seek God’s will in all things, and to know that God will respond to our search for grace.  Great faith is to be found in the day-to-day reliance upon God’s presence and guidance for our lives – even in the mundane, tedious, regular, unspectacular moments of life, even if we are quick to discount our qualifications to receive God’s favor, even if others make us feel like we are less worthy of grace.  God will have none of this; and neither should we.  Great faith realizes that God is not only with us all, but for us all.  And this is a greatness of faith available to us all.


8-3-14 - Wrestling with God

Scripture:  Genesis 32:22-32

Theme:  There are times when we wrestle with God, much like Jacob.  The most we can hope for is a stalemate made possible by grace, not our strength.  It is in this sense that we can see how willing God is to join in our struggle – allowing us the full expression of our own efforts, while limiting his wrath and power due to his liberal use of mercy and understanding.  Very necessary items, as we struggle in the moment between ceasing to run from the past, and starting to move forward toward the hopeful future.

Over the past few weeks, my wife and I have been working on many home projects, especially in our yard.  We’ve been working on installing 140 feet of deer-proof fence, six feet high and made out of cedar.  We’ve been working on leveling out a section of our side yard that has been causing rainwater to run into our bedroom.  We’ve been working on removing a patch of gravel from underneath our porch in order to level the area off and make it more usable.  We’ve been digging up the antiquated sprinkler system and repairing broken lines and sprinkler heads.  In the process of all this digging and lifting and moving and building, I have made a very interesting, if not painful, discovery – I AM NOT THE SAME STRAPPING YOUNG MAN AS I USED TO BE.  My physicality has declined; I ache in places where I’ve never ached before; it used to be I’d work for three hours and take a ten minute break – now those timeframes are reversed. 
You see, my past had misinformed my present.  I was different now; my world had changed, especially my physical ability to handle such things.  I had thought things were basically the same as they had been in the past; boy, was I wrong! 

How often do we let our past misinform our future?  Our scripture lesson points this tendency out.  We find ourselves in the middle of a scene regarding Jacob, just one episode in the midst of a saga.  Jacob has been rather a kind of scoundrel – he is on the run, for the reason of first bribing his brother Esau out of his birthright, and second cheating Esau out of the blessing of his father Isaac.  Jacob was a kind of  traitor to his own family.  Esau made no bones about it – he wanted revenge.  He wanted to kill Jacob just as soon as Isaac was out of the picture.
          And so we see Jacob on the run, running from his past, running from his poor decisions, running from death, running from those he had crossed.  In today’s scripture, we find him in a very strange moment.  He has just been told that Esau is looking for him; and Esau has four hundred men with him.  Jacob is sure Esau is bent on revenge, and makes plans to save what he can of his family and possessions.  He splits all that he has in two, so that if one group is destroyed, the other might survive.  He plans another bribe to be made to Esau, but this time a bribe for forgiveness – a gift of 220 goats and 220 sheep, 30 camels, forty cows, ten bulls, thirty donkeys.  He hopes that his bribe will cause Esau to stop seeking revenge, and allow him to live.  In today’s value system (and, yes, I did calculate out today’s value for goats, sheep, camels, cows, bulls, and donkeys), this amounts to a bribe of $340,000.  Jacob was willing to pay Esau, his brother, $340,000 to spare his life.  I believe we might call this an act of desperation.
          Jacob has been running from his past, and today we hear him begin to consider stopping the race.  He has come to the moment of truth, where he faces his past in order to embrace the future, whatever that future might be.
I believe that here, in this lesson we are presented with an essential truth of life, and it is this:  there is a big difference between running from your past and running toward your future.  I believe that we catch Jacob in this moment, where he is deciding to forsake the former and embrace the latter.  He is, in this sense, choosing to stop running from his past by repentance, and choosing to start running toward his future established by his trust in God.  And it is in the moment of this transition that we find a most interesting event – God is in the midst of it.  Not only present, but actively engaged in the tribulation of Jacob.  We see Jacob wrestling with God.  Not just a mental, prayerful struggle with the divine, but an actual, physical wrestling match between flesh and blood which leaves Jacob physically injured, limping the next day.
          God engages Jacob in this particular moment; the scripture does not say exactly why.  Yet it doesn’t take much of a leap of insight to see the strong possibility that God was engaging Jacob in his struggle between dealing with his past and discerning his future.  Jacob knows which one leads to death, and which one leads to life, and Jacob makes it clear, he wants BLESSING, to be blessed by God, to have his life, his family, his legacy, preserved.  Could it be that Jacob was wrestling with who God wanted him to be different from his past, yet connected to it in a different way – a way of confession and reconciliation, a way of humbling oneself by what has been, in order to let it go?  Life  diminishes when we mortgage the future to pay off the past.
          One of my favorite stories is about a family with parents and two children, a boy and a girl, who all live on a farm with all the usual farm animals.  One day, the boy, being bored, pulled out his slingshot, which he had recently received for his birthday.  He was aiming at and missing fenceposts and trees, when he wondered if he might be able to hit one of the ducks sitting in the yard.  He aimed, let go – and to his great astonishment, hit the duck!  Who then died immediately.  This was bad, really bad – but what was worse, he heard a noise behind him, and realized his sister had witnessed the homicide.  In a panic, he pleaded with her not to tell the parents, and she agreed – as long as he did what she said.  So, life took on a different flow – when it was time for chores, and the sister was supposed to do the dishes, she’d say “Oh, my brother wants to do the dishes.”  When he began to protest, she would whisper to him, “REMEMBER THE DUCK?”  And he’d comply.  He wound up cleaning her room, taking care of her pets, doing pretty much anything she was supposed to do, after his protests were met with her whispering to him, “REMEMBER THE DUCK?”  This went on for some time, until the boy had had enough; it was time for confession.  So he went up to his mother, contrite, humbled, and confessed.  He was astonished to hear her say that she knew all about it, that she had witnessed the duck homicide on that day.  When he asked her why she didn’t tell him that she knew what had happened, she said, “I was curious how long you’d let your sister control you – and knew that was better than any punishment I could come up with!”
          Letting the past control us – don’t we get into this all the time?  Don’t we let the past have sway over our self-esteem, our initiative, our sense of worth and ability and potential?  Don’t we hear “REMEMBER THE DUCK?” echoing in our minds and hearts? 
          But whose voice is it that we hear?  For those of us in the faith who have been forgiven by God, it is certainly not God saying “REMEMBER THE DUCK?”   Most often, I believe, it is our own voice that we are hearing, a voice acknowledging the power of the past to haunt us and control us – but it is so often a power we ourselves have given to the past to remain as a diminishing force within our lives.

          How much would change in our lives, I wonder, if we intentionally defined ourselves more by our future than by our past?  I believe presently that most people, myself included, define themselves by their past – when asked the question “who are you?” we most naturally state such things as where we lived most of our lives, our accomplishments, our failures, our vocations, our possessions…..all things we did or acquired in the past.  Rarely do we point primarily to the things that lay in our future. 
People have been asking me about who I am.  I normally answer with things like – I was the pastor of this and so church during thus and so years; I have been to Africa and Mexico on mission trips; I have been a DS, went to this seminary, that college, had 12 motorcycles, married my wife in 1991, raised three children, and on and on – with things in my past.  What I answered in a different way?  What if, when asked “who am I?” my answers were more along the lines of hopeful possibility?  What if, when asked “who am I?” I said, “I’m the person who will finally finish our yard work, level off the ground, and complete the fence.    I’m the person who will be working in this church to see to the development of a new worship team, a new adult class, and a different process for exploring our future possibilities for ministry in Missoula and beyond.  I’m the person who will be as involved as possible in the developing lives of his spouse and children, letting them know I am there for them unconditionally.  I’m the person who God loves in an eternal sense, and counts me worth his attention and presence.  I’m a person who God will not give up on, come what may.”

The story of Jacob is our story, in that it says that we, as people of God, are designed not to run from our past but instead to run toward our future – that is, the future to which God has invited each one of us.  It is not a future without struggles, challenges, or tensions; it is a future, however, where those struggles, challenges, and tensions are leading somewhere hopeful.  New life.  New life in the immediate future; new life in the eternal sense.  New life in the presence of God.
This is what was given to Jacob, in his struggle to turn from the past to the future.  This is what is given to each of us, as we struggle to turn from what was, to what could be – to what shall be – with Christ.  God wrestles with us, not to diminish us, nor to cause us to suffer, but to join with us in our own struggles, eventually leading us to his desired alignment of our lives.  It is our place to remain in the struggle, confident that God’s will help us become ever more what he desires us to be – loved and loving children of God. 


7-27-14 --- Perspectives on Another World

Scripture:  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Theme:  When we try to envision what a completely different place is like, we use analogies and examples from our own place of habitation.  Until we actually enter that foreign land, we will not know exactly, but only in part – and hopefully, that part that we do know may prepare us for the journey and new life in that land.  Thus is the Kingdom of Heaven as outlined in our scripture today – mysterious though it may be, it is the land we Christians are destined for, and need to prepare for.

          Today, I would like to describe something to you.  I’d like to share with you one of the most delicious foods I have ever eaten.  No, it isn’t chocolate, if you’re wondering.   It was about 18 years ago, when my family and I visited Africa, where my sister was serving in the peace corps.  One evening, she took us to a wild-game restaurant, and we ate several wild-game meats, which I had never eaten before.  We ate wild boar, crocodile, turtle, and boa-constrictor.  But one stood out.  It was one of the best meats I have ever eaten.  I’ve told some of you what it was, but can you guess?  It was TURTLE.  I’d like to describe it to you this morning.
          It was delicious, tasty, really good, sumptuous, flavorful, and excellent.  There; now you know what turtle tastes like.  Right?  No?
Let me try again.  Turtle is sophisticated, sensitive, robust, yet tangy, delicate in a harsh sort of way, tender, rich, and smooth textured.  Are you getting a better picture?  Not really?
Once more:  TASTES LIKE CHICKEN.  Well, actually, it tastes kind of like a cross between duck and chicken – a little greasy, but richer than chicken, more hearty in texture.  Now do you get a sense of what turtle is like?
How can I get this across?  How can I share with you what turtle tastes like – its texture and its flavor?  ONLY BY ALLUDING TO WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW – many of you have eaten duck and most of us have eaten chicken, and perhaps we can stretch our minds to combine the two, to get a sense of something new.
Welcome to the process of describing the kingdom of heaven!  This is what is going on in our scripture lesson today – Christ is giving us a sense of the kingdom of God by alluding to what we already know, what we can envision in our minds, to get a sense of something beyond the realm of our experience.  From this we receive only limited understanding, for the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Heaven, is not completely accessible to us as we abide on this earth in mortal flesh, limited to our human understanding and frailty.
But there’s a lot here, a lot that connects.  It has a lot to do with the song John just sang for us, from those hard-rock theologians known as The Police – the song says that “we are spirits in the material world.”  We are spiritual beings having a physical experience – and Jesus is inviting this emphasis in our self-understanding.  He is giving us, as spiritual beings, details of the kingdom that are useful to us, that can help us to not only understand what the kingdom of heaven is like, but also to prepare for that kingdom, even to work for that kingdom on this earth.  Here’s what I gain from our lessons today concerning the kingdom of God:
For one, we are challenged by the thought that the Kingdom of Heaven is a master of disguise.  It is in this sense that it is deceptive in a positive sense, something small that contains greatness, like the Mustard seed containing the promise of a huge tree or bush.  It is, in this sense, an easy thing to miss in this world, even though it contains within its domain the greatest of possibilities on earth.  The Kingdom of Heaven is involved in great reversals.
Many years ago I counseled a couple who were going through a rough time.  The wife had recently had an affair.  Things were not good.  I remember the husband coming to me one afternoon, and before we began to talk about things, he showed me his arm.  “Look here, pastor John,” he said.  I saw what looked like an injury on his forearm; it was red and aggravated.  “I can’t help but pick at my arm,” he said to me.  Pointing at his wound, he said, “That’s where I had my wife’s name tattooed.”  To me, that’s what this couple was doing to each other – straining in their relationship together for years, for as it turned out, the husband had had an affair years ago.  They wouldn’t allow their wounds to heal; they festered and festered with reminding and chastising and anger and hurt.
Until a very small thing happened.  It happened in my pastor’s office.  I remember the moment well.  Just two words were spoken by each of them, two words that they has spoken before, but failed to truly mean it.  But this time, you could feel it in the air, in their tears, in their honesty, in their pain.  They said, “I’m sorry.”  A very small thing, a mustard seed’s size, but within it held the greatness of healing and reconciliation.  Somewhat like the kingdom of heaven – the parameters of greatness are reversed.
The kingdom of heaven is also Expansive – enough for all to partake, to be “leavened”, to rise join with the spirit of God.  In this sense there is no limit to the kingdom’s ability to contain all of God’s creation; whether or not such is the case is subject to God’s judgment, and perhaps our willingness to adopt God’s unconditional love as our own. 
I remember hearing a story about World War II.  I’m not sure of all the details, but I believe that it is true.  An American soldier had been killed in a small village in France.  His army comrades wanted to give him a decent burial, and noticed that there was a cemetery nearby.  Approaching the church, they contacted the priest about their wish.  “Was the soldier Catholic?” asked the priest.  “No, he was protestant,” they said.  “I’m sorry, but we can only allow catholics to be buried here.”  Seeing the sorrow and hardship on the soldier’s faces, the compassionate priest had an idea.  “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “Just outside the cemetery fence there’s a free spot of land.  You could bury the man in that spot.”  The men looked at each other, and decided that would do.  They buried their friend just outside the fence.
At the end of the war, those same army buddies made a trip back to pay their respects to their fallen comrade.  They came up to the spot where they thought his grave was, but couldn’t find it.  Finally, they approached the church, and found the priest, the same one who had helped them before.  “Where is the grave for our fallen brother?” they asked him.  “It’s still there,” said the priest.  “For years, I was bothered by what I had done, by our rule against allowing only catholics here.  I knew I couldn’t change the rules, but I could move the fence.  I moved the fence so that now the grave of your friend is within the new boundary of the cemetery.”
God is in the habit of moving fences, expanding the boundaries of his grace for anyone who would receive his presence and desire his relationship.  God’s just aching to involve more in his love!  And we are encouraged to do the same, to broaden our reach in this world towards the lost, the lonely, the unloved.  The kingdom of heaven, in this manner, is expansive.
Third, the kingdom of God is described as Priceless – not measurable in terms of worldly value; surpasses any virtue or goodness we can yet imagine. Yes, we can state and believe this about a distant kingdom of heaven, but what about it’s involvement in us now, its presence in our lives today?  How can this understanding of the pricelessness of God be applied to our living right now? 
I have a confession to make – the past three days, I’ve been gone to a training for circuit elders and discipleship training – THAT I DIDN’T WANT TO GO TO!   I left my home in a sour mood on Thursday, having too much to get done here, not enough time for things, not wanting to get in the car for the five hour drive, 291 miles distant, one-way.  ……I just didn’t want to go.
But now, upon my return, I reflect on what happened there –

  1. I had a conversation with a pastor with whom I had tension with in the past – and we resolved our tension – PRICELESS!
  2. I was surprised at the quality of the presentation, spurring many productive conversations and ideas in my head for future ministry directives – PRICELESS!
  3. At the beginning of our training, the room was fully of anxiety about our new circuit elder structure; by the end, the anxiety had changed to excitement – PRICELESS!
  4. The leader of the training told me that my presence and interaction was helpful to the whole process, and he thanked me, making me feel like a million bucks – PRICELESS!
  5. And, just for full disclosure – I went fishing on the Boulder River for a half hour, and caught eight fish – and didn’t lose even one fishing lure. – PRICELESS!

In short, the training and seminar did what any good training or seminar should do – it motivated me to grow, to seek more of this kind of experience.  And such motivation is priceless.
If the kingdom of heaven is priceless, beyond any measurable valuation our world could deliver, then it should occupy the center of our being, the top of our priorities, inducing the greatest motivation to experience and live in to.  It is a very sobering truth that, often, God and his kingdom is down on our list of our priorities, behind stable jobs, good insurance, proper politics, and even healthy families.  The kingdom of God is worth more than all of these; it is priceless.
Finally, we come upon perhaps the most challenging aspect of the kingdom given in the parable of the fish being sorted out, the good retained, and the bad thrown out.  In this sense, the kingdom of heaven is often thought of as judgmental, with good fish representing good people, and bad fish representing bad people.  However, I think a more helpful understanding that may work God’s will more effectively, and keep us from the folly of trying ourselves to determine just who is a good person and who is a bad person, is the understanding that the kingdom of heaven is Defined; it has parameters; it welcomes the good, and banishes the evil.  There are things to work for, there are things to work against, and it is in the recognition of these distinctions that we may gain – or lose -- our lives in the kingdom. 
(Alfred Nobel story – Alfred was a man who had become famous.  He was a chemist, who had developed and patented one of the world’s greatest construction resources.  Dynamite.  His discovery made him very rich.  He had hoped that his invention would enable the construction of huge projects, blasting away huge areas for dams, roads, buildings, and the like.  But, his invention began to be used for a more horrible end – warfare.  Bombs, rockets, weaponry of every kind became instantly more destructive and lethal.  This saddened him, but one day, he was reading the paper and saw that the newspaper had made a mistake.  His name was in the obituaries.  The obituary had labeled him the creator of modern warfare.  This is not what he wanted to be remembered for!  And so, Alfred Nobel decided to dedicate himself to the opposite of warfare, to make a difference in the world by acknowledging peace and its advocates.  So today, when we think of the name of Alfred Nobel, we do not typically thing of Nobel’s invention of dynamite, but the Nobel Peace Prize.  There is good and there is evil, and we are given the choice of which to pursue in this life.  We are also made to know that the kingdom of God does not tolerate evil, but embraces the good.
If we were to die today, what would our obituary say?  If we were to pass on from this life, how would what we have done here look to God?  Were we adamant about doing the best we could according to God’s goodness?  Or were we just too busy to bother about that?  Did we give in to temptation when we knew better?  Were we lazy in our faith?  Were we too proud to ask for forgiveness?  Was our humbleness born out of our desire to appear humble, or out of a true desire to place God first?  Did we pursue greatness or grace?  The kingdom of God has parameters, a defined boundary, banishing that which is evil, embracing that which is good.  Faith is the effort to determine which is which, with God’s help, and to make sure we seek the one, and avoid the other.  The kingdom of God is defined..

          So then, we have it, different aspects of the kingdom of heaven that give us pause for reflection and direction for faith:   

The kingdom of heaven is mysterious, a mustard seed bursting with potential.
The kingdom of heaven is expansive, able to contain all who would receive.
The kingdom of heaven is priceless, more important than anything we can name.
The kingdom of heaven is defined, outlined by the boundary between what is evil and what is good.

          But, before we leave this space, I return to the thought reflected by Jesus and echoed in the song John sang, that we are spirits in the material world – and that perhaps we all are offered glimpses of what the kingdom of heaven is like in our own experience.  So, I am going to do something with you today that you might have done before, or not…..I’m going to invite you to do some homework.  On the pews you will find sheets of paper with the question “What is the kingdom of heaven like………..for you?”  This is a very simple exercise; throughout this week, I would invite you to pay attention to your everyday experiences, and see if you happen upon a moment in time, or a glimpse or experience or encounter where you sensed that somehow, the kingdom of God was at hand, that God was present, that God was doing something, that God’s domain or kingdom was somehow, in ways great or small, present.  Jot your experiences down, and return these to the church next Sunday for worship; after I grade them, I will tell you the results.  No, no grading!  But, there may indeed be learning from each other, and our individual senses of what the kingdom of God is like for each of us.  I did this exercise a few years ago with my Study Group in Lewistown, and here’s what they put down:

The laughter of children
A rainbow after a powerful storm
Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, “Starry Night”
A river flowing a jagged course
The stars in the sky on a moonless night
Ears listening to tears of sorrow
Sitting with someone who feels lost
Sharing a cup of coffee and a bagel with a friend on a cold morning
Praying “thy will be done.”
Hammer and nails used in a Habitat for Humanity house
Handel’s “Messiah”
Working in the Community Garden
A well-timed smile
Someone telling me that they’re glad I’m here.
Working in hospice
Hiking in the woods
Connecting with a long-lost friend
Reading a good book before bed
A world of justice and peace

Would you be willing to explore what the kingdom of heaven is like in your experience?  This is the invitation of Jesus today.


7-20-14 -- Spiritual Weed Control

Scripture:  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” 31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 34Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” 36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Theme:  Many times, good and evil coexist.  Though it is important to fight against evil, there are many times when such a fight causes more destruction than it is worth.

          Many years ago, my wife and I were blessed to live in a brand-new house built by the church I was serving.  It was very nice, but was still being completed as we moved in around Christmas time.  One of the tasks Terri and I volunteered to work on was putting in a lawn in the spring.  Our intention was to spread grass seed and fertilizer, and keep up with watering.  Well, when spring finally arrived, we noticed that grass was already growing – all over the yard, blades of grass were sprouting up.  We were delighted that nature would see to this.   The next few days I could be found downtown buying all sorts of watering equipment -- hoses, sprinklers, sprays, valves.  I even bought a timer thing-a-ma-jig which you attach to the faucet and set for a certain time limit.  I think I even used it once.  Anyway, from those first signs of grass, I decided that that lawn would be my quest.  We fertilized, we watered, we mowed, we aerated, we raked.  I dreamed that by mid-summer we would have lush grass so thick it had to be mown every day.
          Part of my dream came true.  The lawn did become green, and it was thick, and for awhile it felt like I mowed it every day.  But for the most part, my dream was destroyed.  What nature had provided was not grass, but a close look alike, at least in the beginning.  What I had been watering, mowing, fertilizing, and otherwise nurturing for months was a devilish plant called sand-burrs.  Sand-burrs look like grass in the early stages of its growth, but after awhile, they produce these nasty porcupine devil seed things that hurt like mad if you step on them.  The seeds look like inverted pin-cushions, and every needle is coated with an aggravant, so that when you step on one with your bare foot, the pain is excruciating, and lasts for quite awhile.  I even had a few go through the rubber soles on my shoes. 
          This wasn’t the type of grass I wanted.  It hurt.  It was full of stickers.  It was the thickest lawn in town made almost completely of sand-burrs.  Needless to say, I stopped watering that lawn.
          Terri and I tried to dig up those sand-burrs; when we looked back upon the area which we had cleared, it looked like a war zone.  Very little green was left; the ground was pock-marked and desolate.  We were almost sorry we had dug up all those weeds.
          How did we finally solve our lawn problem?  One word – ROUNDUP.  Gallons and gallons of Roundup.
          In this experience, I learned just how wrong I could be about what is grass, and what is weed.  And in that wrongness, I pretty much destroyed our lawn.
          Today, we hear Christ’s teaching through the parable of the weeds sown among the wheat.  It brings up the point that I learned in my experience with my lawn – weeds are nasty things.  They are nasty because they are hard to identify, hard to work with, hard to destroy.  In fact, sometimes trying to get rid of them is more damaging than allowing them to grow.
          Now, the gospel lesson is not speaking about yard maintenance, but about evil.  Evil that has been sown among the good.  Evil that was not intended nor desired.  Evil that is growing alongside the good.  Evil that may seem to be threatening to choke out the good.
          And the lesson is this – sometimes – let me emphasize, SOMETIMES – it is better to allow the evil and the good to coexist.  If getting rid of the evil causes great destruction, it might be better to let things lie, in the knowledge that God will take care of things in the end.
          This is all well and good, and I think that the lesson is pretty understandable in the mind, but what does this look like in our real lives, in real time, with real people and situations and relationships?   How might the weeds of evil need to be tolerated in order that better things can grow?  
Let’s look at weeds again, for I think Christ uses the analogy for a good reason.  I looked up weeds recently, and came across the seven most challenging weeds to recognize, control, and eradicate.  They are, counting down:

Scottweed – boy, I had a lot of that growing up.  A terrible weed, always popping up where it didn’t belong, always impossible to work with, ruining the land with its ugliness.  Just when you thought you had gotten rid of it, it would pop up in another place – taunting you, harassing your efforts, never leaving you in peace.  Have you ever experienced Scottweed? 
OK, OK, I need to let you know something here – my little brother’s name is Scott.  Scottweed refers to how I thought of my brother during our childhood years.  My brother was a weed to me.  He had “little brother syndrome,” where I was convinced his main function in life was to make my life miserable.  Boy, could he get under my skin.  He was cuter than I was, smarter than I was, quicker than I was, louder than I was.  The only thing I was was bigger – and I put that advantage to work.  Without going into the gory details, let me just tell you of one memory – when I knocked my brother unconscious with a shovel.  I still remember the sound that shovel made as it hit its target – “TONGGGG” – and how, as my brother lay there on the grass, I thought about going to jail for murder and wondered how prison would be for nine year old?  When he stood up a minute or two later, I realized there was something worse than jail – as my little brother ran to my mother to tell on me.  In fact, I think I am still grounded to this day………
We fought a lot, shouted a lot, scrabbled a lot, made ugly faces at each other a lot.  My brother was such a weed to me in those days.
But not now.  Now, I realize my brother was not a weed at all, but a wonderful life I have been blessed with more times than I can count.  He and I share a bond, a closeness, that is hard to describe.  We can finish each other’s thoughts, understand each other’s points of view even when we disagree with each other, and enjoy tremendously any time that we spend together.  And get this – he likes motorcycles, too!  And, he’s a Methodist minister, like myself.  He’s a great guy (but please, please, never tell him I said that!).  I am incredibly fortunate to have the brother I have.
What once might seem like a weed may be something quite different, especially where it concerns people.  I think we have a piece of the wisdom of Christ coming to light along these lines – we aren’t good judges of weeds in the first place.  Christ says let them grow together; at the harvest God will deal with what’s what, and who’s who.  And we may be very surprised at who turns out not to be a weed at all.
And, it can work the other way, of course.  Those whom we might think of as fruitful grain may be leading us on, or worse, possibly misrepresenting who they are.   This past week, I helped our new District Superintendent, Rev. Kama Hamilton Morton, take the files for the Western Mountains pastors and congregations – eight full file drawers full of letters, forms, reports, and other information about those who call themselves Methodists.  As she drove away with the files, I thought about all the wonderful congregants and pastors and good ministry and wonderful faith represented in most of those files – in most of those files.  Some files contained other information.  More than once, as I worked as a District Superintendent, I would find in a file of a pastor or a church a letter that spoke of weed behavior, in a congregant, in a pastor, in someone who claimed to follow Christ, in someone who pledged to be above such things, but had fallen into misconduct, misrepresentation, deceit, or worse.  Sometimes, that which is presented as fruitful and healthy is later found to be broken and troubled.
What is good?  What is evil?  What’s in a label?  WE MUST BE CAREFUL, because things are not so clear sometimes.  That which we label good or bad might be otherwise.  And how we choose to use our labels can have great consequences, either for the good or for the bad.
I like to think of this scripture passage as one that tells us about spiritual weed control.  Now, spiritual weed control has been practiced throughout the centuries by means of

It is a very great temptation that has us creating two stacks of labels, one stack saying “good” and the other saying “evil.”  The temptation of this type of spiritual weed control would be to go around pasting those labels on everything around us, everyone around us, and feel satisfied that our definitions have clarified life.  But how much good do we throw away in our labeling?  How much possibility do we discount when we stop with a label?  How much less do we work at improving life and faith and hope once we label someone or something “bad”?
          There is a much better form of spiritual weed control outlined in our scripture lesson today. 

This kind of spiritual weed control involves our tolerance, patience, and trust.  It is the kind of weed control, the kind of evil control, that knows the fight against evil cannot be won by ourselves alone, but must remain on the horizon of our lives, looking towards that time when God will make all things right.  It doesn’t have to be our job to fix everything in the world; our job is to live in the light of the gospel, to love God with all of our heart, mind, body, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  And it is when we are doing our job fully that God can do God’s work best, transforming that which was broken, skewed, or destructive into something new, something whole, something creative.  Our job is not to judge the evil and the good, but to live faithfully in the midst of all such things, doing what we can in God’s name, in God’s spirit, and in God’s love.  God will do what we cannot.
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen spoke about the three great surprises he expects to experience when he gets to heaven:

We are so limited in our discernment on this earth, our judgment is suspect.  Better to leave the judgment to God.  Better to concentrate our efforts primarily upon the condition of our own hearts, that they be oriented towards God.  Better to love our neighbor as ourselves, even if our neighbor turns out to be our enemy.  ESPECIALLY if our neighbor is our enemy.
Christ says “grow, people of God!”  Grow in the midst of the weeds of evil in this world.  Grow in a manner that works for the good, but has patience towards the hardships we cannot control.  They may be beyond our ability to remove, but they are not beyond God’s influence.  They shall not choke out the light of God given to us; they shall not keep us from reaching our full potential in Christ.    We are to keep our hearts pure, our intentions true, and our actions relevant to our faith – and look for every chance to transform that which was labeled “evil” into that which is “good.”

7-13-14 Setting our Sights - Scripture:  Romans 8:1-11

8There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

         This past week, I experienced – what shall we call it? – a bad day.  I had a bunch of errands to run, and they weren’t working out too well.  I forgot something back at home; I got cut off in traffic; the heat was getting to me; and, to make things worse, almost breaking the camel’s back – my donut shop did not have my favorite donut that day.  Boy, I was in a bad mood.
         Until I parked my car and got out; I was near a park; I heard a child laughing a bit of a distance away – but I was in such a crabby mood my first reaction was “why isn’t everyone as miserable as me?”  Then, I turned to look where the laughter was coming from – it was a young boy, accompanied by his mother, walking their dog – they were laughing back and forth; but what really caught my eye was that the boy, probably seven or eight years old, was using a motorized wheelchair.  My sight changed my heart in that moment, and I felt ashamed of my crabbiness over things that all of a sudden seemed so shallow, so unimportant.
         Sight changes life.  And I’m not talking about what meets our physical eyes so much as what meets how we see the world through our set of priorities and values and beliefs that we have allowed to shape us – or, more specifically, the priorities, values and beliefs that we have been invited to allow into our lives through Christ.  This could be thought of as setting our sights, spiritually.
         Paul puts this in a particular way in today’s scripture lesson.  He says, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
         A question comes to mind:  How often do we set our minds on the flesh, and begin to slide toward death?
My wife, Terri, and I saw something of this kind of thing yesterday, when we found ourselves at that paragon of value, variety, and volume known as Costco.  Boy, the crowd was thick – people everywhere, energetically seeking out the cost savings and special deals (my favorite is the package of 48 toilet paper rolls for 22 bucks!).  But in the midst of that societal energy, there was a family almost shouting at each other in the middle of the frozen food aisle; angry, frustrated, embarrassed, talking about lists of things to buy and the schedule for the day and what have you……and I heard more than once, one say to the other, “YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY IT LIKE THAT…..”
Have you ever been there?  I know I have.  In the midst of a crowd, in the midst of life, in the midst of circumstances, finding yourself lashing out at another soul, or lashing out at the world, or lashing out at God, for things not going the way they ought to, or at least not going the way we want them to……..our scripture basically asks us HOW MUCH ARE WE SETTING OUR SIGHTS BY OUR CONTEXT RATHER THAN BY OUR CONVICTIONS?  HOW MUCH ARE LETTING THE PRIORITIES OF THE WORLD INTERFERE WITH THE PRIORITIES SET BY OUR BELIEFS? 
Let’s stick with Costco for a moment, for I had another experience in frozen food section that was quite different, that might have been more of the “setting the mind on the Spirit” kind of thing.  Terri and I were moving from one freezer to another, picking out items, when we intersected, and did one of those parallel-movement-to-get out-of-the-way-but-just-stay-in-the-other’s-way kind of things – whereupon (and I don’t know what got into me), I took her hands and started to dance with her……and, much to Terri’s chagrin, several people gave us odd looks, a few even moved away from us somewhat quickly.  But one person smiled at us and said “sometimes it’s good to make our own music, and dance!” 

I felt that this woman had chosen to set her mind on something more than my strange behavior – that, perhaps, she had set her mind on more significant things, more life-affirming things, that gave her a lightness of being that saw the value of spontaneity, and the ability to respond in kind.
It was a very small moment, but it reminded me that, regardless of what surrounds us in this world, of how we intersect with each other, we have tremendous ability to choose our inner alignment, our spiritual orientation, that will influence our outer lives, even in the midst of this busy, distracting world.  God has given us the power to choose our inner attitude, in spite of our outer circumstance – and, indeed, in the choice of our inner attitude, we have the power to shape our outer circumstance tremendously.
Viktor Frankl was a survivor of the death camps in Nazi Germany during World War II.  He watched tremendous suffering in those camps, but came to note the power of the inner self as essential to sanity, if not survival.  In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he says that “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ― Viktor E. FranklMan's Search for Meaning
         I think that’s what I saw in that child driving his wheelchair, laughing.  I think that’s what was missing in that tense interaction between the members of that family in Costco.  I think that’s what was present in the woman who encouraged us to dance.  I also think that’s what I see in people who rise above their circumstances when they had every reason to sink below those circumstances.  I think that’s what I see in those around me when they lift me up from my bad moods and crabby dispositions.  I hope that’s what they see in me when I choose to attempt to share something positive in their negative situation.  I think this is what it means to live according to the spirit, as Paul describes in our lesson.  We are given the choice, daily, hourly, moment by moment, to live either to the world or to the spirit, to choose our attitude given the circumstances surrounding us -– and in that choice is the difference between life and death, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual.
         Which leaves one question:  what does it mean to live according to the spirit?  That is a question worthy of many sermons, in my opinion, but rather than take us to 4:00 this afternoon, I would only say this:  To live according to the Spirit, for me, is to constantly, devotedly, intentionally, and authentically seek alignment with Jesus – who he was, how he lived, what he prioritized, where he went, and what he taught.  A way to think about Jesus (and, there are many ways to think about Jesus) is as an example of one who, as a human being, was aligned with God’s spirit.  I think this is why God became flesh – to show us what an aligned life looked like.  And to invite us to seek that alignment ourselves.
         When I was in undergraduate college, I spent many summers working as a university groundskeeper.  Growing grass, mowing grass, killing grass, spreading grass seed, and doing that cycle over and over again many times.  In my first summer, I was given the task of mowing a huge field next to some dormitories.  My supervisor asked me if I knew how to use a tractor, and I thought I impressed him by firing it right up.  I started mowing, carefully watching my progress, monitoring the tractor, adjusting the speed, turning corners tightly against trees and curbs.  After one very long pass, I saw my supervisor walking out to me; I was expecting a “good job”; instead, I got a “what are you doing?”  I said mowing the lawn; and then he asked me a question – “are you high on something?”  I thought he was joking, but then he motioned toward what I had mowed – and I looked behind me at the long, extremely crooked path I had cut in that huge lawn.  “You’re looking at where you have been too much; you need to concentrate on where you are going.”  He then mentioned the importance of identifying a focal point at the edge of the field, and keep that in sight; the tractor will align itself, following where the eyes lead.
         Likewise, our lives will align themselves if we follow where the heart leads.  If the heart leads in its desire to seek God and its determination to follow Christ, if our being is centered on the Spirit, our lives will be as God desires them to be.  If our being is centered on anything less, our lines will indeed be crooked.
         Set your minds on the Spirit, seek the will of the heart aligned with Christ, look to Jesus – his words, his model, his actions, his prayers, his presence, his relationships – to sense God’s desired future for us personally and in community.  Anything less, is loss.
         I leave you with the words of CS Lewis, who put this entire sermon into two simple statements:  “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

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.

johnRecently, 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.
https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcThvz3F5bt9IDP_J5KiqIDQ-Td3mejihCGxeQ6w-10q4tnfH26g2QFirst and foremost, let’s start with the most worrisome – for one, he is………….a motorcyclist. (picture)  He’d like to think is a Harley-Davidson type, leather chaps and bandana sort of biker, but, in reality, he rides because of the gas mileage and low cost of the machines, which are held together by duct tape and bailing wire.  But still, this is something you ought to know.


johnSecond, you ought to know he is prone to somewhat irrational acts.  Some cases in point – at last year’s Annual Conference, he was asked to be the dunk-tank victim for the cause of eradicating Malaria; this may be thought of as admirable, were it not for the fact that he sat in the dunk tank fully clothed in suit and tie.  And yes, he did get dunked, nine times. 


johnSeveral years ago, he spent ive years building a nineteen-foot boat out of reclaimed materials; when asked why he did such a thing, his best response was “because it was a twenty foot garage.” 

johnA final example involves an outdoor wedding he performed with a couple obsessed with football – and he mistakenly dressed as a clergy basketball player.   These are the kinds of things you ought to know about him.

http://benwilder.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/wrong-shoes.jpgThird, you need to know that this pastor is prone to mistakes – more than once, he got the date wrong for a meeting.  More than once, he mispronounced the word “Melchizidek.”  More than once he called a person by the wrong name (isn’t that right, Kay or Barb?).  But more egregious examples abound.  There was the time when he went to worship one morning, and sensed that something was wrong.  Throughout the service, there were murmurs and whisperings and tension.  At the end of the service, as people left the church shaking this pastor’s hands, he could still tell something was wrong; it was not until the last person came up to him that all was revealed.  This parishioner said “Pastor John, I can’t let you go from here without knowing something – look down.”  Whereupon this pastor discovered he was wearing different shoes on his feet.  These are the kinds of mistakes you ought to know about.

john johnFourth, you ought to know that this pastor tries things outside of the norm, which are, shall we say, sometimes controversial – he has been known to play a hard rock song in worship; he has been known to recite his own poetry; his own poetry has been known to make people ill; he has initiated such things the yuckfest,  where the youth group gathers for an annual event involving shaving cream, alphabet soup, and worm pies; he has helped to start a tissue paper airplane contest, which he won five years ago in a contest that was surely rigged.  You ought to know that he tries things outside of the norm.

struggleWhat you really ought to know about this pastor, however, is the fact that he has confessed to me that he continues to need to grow towards God.  He has told me that sometimes he struggles with his faith – when he faces suffering, injustice, violence, hatred, deception, or animosity, in his own life or in the lives of those in his congregations; he struggles to make sense of why such things exist, and what can be done about them.  And he needs others involved in his life and faith in order to make progress in his journey towards God. 
I lift up these concerns so that you may be more aware of what you are getting into with this pastor; but I share with Paul in our scripture reading today why this pastor was appointed to this congregation.  It is not because he is perfect.  It is not because he is eloquent.  It is not because he is charismatic.  He is really none of those things.  But what he is is committed to Christ even in his johnlimitations; he is devoted to God even while he struggles to understand God; he has found the greatest fulfillment in life to be centered in the authentic relationship of love between human beings based on the principles demonstrated and taught by Jesus, meant for every human being.  And he is determined to do his best to serve God as he serves you, as pastor of this church. 




This pastor did share something with me that I think may give you a sense of his priorities.  These are what he calls his personal faith priorities:

  1. Agree to disagree for the sake of the greater love
  2. Prioritize the vulnerable
  3. Check your ego at the doorways leading to other’s lives
  4. Ask the questions no one else is asking
  5. Pray before and after all things; seek to make prayer as regular as breath
  6. Work to make forgiveness assumed and automatic, never optional
  7. Embrace doubts as pathways to deeper truth
  8. Aim for the right question rather than a convenient answer
  9. Treat self-righteousness the same as lethal radiation
  10. Replace correct doctrine with faithful, loving action
  11. Seek profound substance rather than personal satisfaction
  12. Always seek to add value to the lives of others
  13. Never settle for happiness before meaning or truth
  14. Always do the right and good thing, especially when no one will find out
  15. Remember, in all things, it’s between you and God

johnAs Paul states in our scripture for today, “do not cease praying for him, and pray that he may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may all lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.”  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.  And may you and your new pastor grow together as you grow towards God.  Amen


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