Monday, September 11, 2017

THE CERTAINTY OF HOPE!


Sermon Summary 9/3/17) “The Certainty of Hope” (Luke 23:44-46; 24:13-14; John 20:1-7)

When we walk away from Jesus, we walk away from hope.  We may not know it, but we walk away from hope.  But even then, Jesus comes along side us to prod us, to nudge us (prevenient grace).  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus had lost hope (“we had hoped he would be the one to save his people.” Lk24:24a)  Had hoped, they had lost hope.  Jesus came along side to nudge them.  “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he to interpreted them the things about himself in all of scriptures.” He nudged them. “Were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road?” All we need is say “Yes.

This is Luke’s story of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his church.  The tomb was empty.  We can be certain.  He appeared to his disciples.  We can be certain.  We can be certain of the resurrection. We can be certain of our resurrection.  We can be people of hope.

Tim Keller has become on of my favorite author’s.  Sometimes known as the CS Lewis of the 21st century, he knocks down reason after reason that skeptics have for not believing.  They demand ironclad proof. He points out that there is no proof, and no proof either for their assertion that there is no God or our faith that he exists.  But what Keller provides are clues, clue after clue, dozens of clues to the existence of God.  It takes far more faith not to believe than to believe. 

Clues like the “Big Bang.” (then beginning with Moses, the creation story), the empty tomb and resurrection appearances, the immediate understanding by the disciples in the divinity of Jesus (Hymns in Colossians and Philippians, and John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”)  Something happened to make them believe!  Then most of all, the response of the disciples to build the church even in the face of death.   Folks, nobody is willing to die for what they know to be a lie.  You can be certain of the resurrection.  You can be certain in your resurrection.  You can be people of hope.  And that changes everything.

The clues are overwhelming.  It takes far more faith not to believe than to believe.  The certainty of hope gives you reason for being.  It gives you purpose, to be a follower of Jesus.  It gives you guidelines for livings, placing the interests of others above self.  Hope changes everything.

If we pick up the Easter story after Peter and John have left the garden (John 20:7), we find Mary Magdalene in the garden alone.  Mary is without hope until Jesus nudges her.  “Mary.” Can you imagine the sweetness in his voice?  She runs and tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”  Mary, like us, became a person of hope, certain about the resurrection.  Certain about her resurrection.  Hope.  That changes everything.  We can live as people of hope.  Amen.


PAIN OF LIFE


Sermon Summary (8/27/17) “The Pain of Life” (Romans 8:28; 35; 37-39; Rev 21:1-5)

I receive a call this week from a friend.  He said that a sermon had changed his life.  Good Baptist sermon, “Everything happens for a reason.”  No!  I don’t believe that for a minute.  We do too many evil things to one another to believe that.  The sermon had been on the Raising of Lazarus.  The preacher had said that God caused the death of Lazarus so that Jesus could glorify God.  A better reading would be that Lazarus died, and Jesus took advantage of the circumstance to glorify God and to demonstrate that God’s ultimate will cannot be defeated.

My friend’s wife had passed away.  It had been evident that God had been working in his life to change him, and he concluded after hearing the sermon that his wife had died for a reason: sothat he would be changed, dramatically changed. No!  No!  It had always been God’s intention that his wife life a long and wonderful life.  But when she died, God took advantage of the circumstances to enter into my friend’s life and change him.  There is a huge difference in the reading.

Rosemary and I are very different people than before our son Jeff died.  God took advantage of the circumstance to walk beside us. 

We have been using Leslie Weatherhead’s little book, “The Will of God” in this sermon series.  He breaks God’s will down into three segments: God’s Intentional Will; God’s Circumstantial Will; and God’s Ultimate Will.

It is God’s intentional will for all of us to life good lives.  But evil exists, catastrophe's happen, disease is part of life.  God takes advantage of the circumstances to walk beside us.  He changes lives and we can see the glimpse of his mighty acts and come to understand that his ultimate will will never be defeated.  And that gives us hope!

We live in an almost, not yet perfect world.  Bad things happen.  Disease happens.  We know that.  But God’s intentional will cannot be defeated.  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:37-39)  Nothing!

Life does involve pain.  God certainly never intended that Jesus would have to die.  It was his intention that we follow him.  But under the evil circumstances, Jesus’ sacrifice was the only answer.  Three days later, the resurrection demonstrated that God’s ultimate will cannot be thwarted.  “God causes everything to work together for good for those who love him.”  (Romans 8:28a)

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Nothing!  Amen.


THE PAIN OF EVIL


Sermon Summary (8/20/17) “The Pain of Evil” (Acts 17:24-27; Gal 2:28)

We visited a family in Ohio when I was 13; their son, Johnny was 10 or 12.  Big sis drove us to the Dairy Queen for ice cream.  There were a few black kids there who wanted ice cream, too.  Johnny screamed at them, “Get out of here Niggers.  You don’t belong here.  Go find your own place.”  As I recalled this despicable act, I remembered that his dad had come to South Dakota three or four years earlier to hunt pheasants.  He brought his hunting dogs that he’d trained on quail.  When they flushed to pheasants far out of shooting range, he beat them with a shovel.  Those poor dogs had no idea what they’d done wrong.  He beat them with a shovel.  I never saw that family again after age 13.  I don’t know what happened to Johnny.  He could have been a skin-head at Charlottesville.  He sure was given a good start.

Two of my favorite moral teachers say we need to stop and talk about racism in America.  Not make political points, “See, identity politics is wrong,” or “it proves conservatism is always racist.”  Stop!  Have the conversation we have never, ever had.

Personally, I’d like to believe it is overblown; it will go away if we ignore it.  But, but, it seems it is the human condition, the desire to be superior, to demean, to dehumanize, to hate, to act hatefully has always be with us. Folks, the church is the hope of the world.  If not us, who?  

As long as we keep our morality straight.  When Christianity moved from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe, it encountered an honor-based morality.  Everything to protect the honor of the family or the individual.  Integrated with Christianity, it sent the Crusades off to the Holy Land to protect the honor of the church.  Christianity is “Other” based.  And it must remain so.  Anytime we see morality based on self or honor, we must challenge it.  Christianity is based on the “Other.”

So the question we must ask is “Does God want us divided or as one?”  God believes in the equal and infinite worth of all human beings (Ge 9:6).  God tells us we all come from the same stock (Ge 1 and 2; Acts 17:26).  Paul tells us unequivocally, “There is no longer Greek or Jew, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 2:28)

Even the Old Testament has one whole book about breaking down barriers.  I’ll bet you thought Jonah was a fish story.  God sends Jonah to Nineveh to call them to repentance.  Jonah hates them.  After being gobbled up and spit out, he goes to Nineveh.  Much to his dismay, they repent.  He wants to die.  God tells him “Shouldn’t I be concerned about them too?”  We are called to resist evil and breakdown barriers. (Baptismal vows).  Christianity of all the world’s religions, bridges cultures.  The Church is the hope of the world!  Be the Church. Resist evil.


THE PROBLEM OF PAIN


Sermon Summary (8/13/17) “The Problem of Pain” (Lam 3: 21-24; Matthew 27:45-46)

The Central Temple, London’s major Methodist Church was destroyed in the Blitz in 1940.  The war was up close and personal to the people of Great Britain and they sought answers, “Was this the will of God?”  A few months later, Rev. Leslie Weatherhead gave a series of sermons, “The Will of God,” which remains in publication today.

When our son, Jeff, died, now 37 years ago to day, we suffered for years.  I think 6 years later, we sat with a pastor and his wife who had just tragically lost a son.  A few days later, he mailed us a copy of the Weatherhead’s book.

We often say with best of intentions, harmful things to those grieving.  “Everything happens for a reason.’  “It was part of God’s plan.” “It must have been the will of God.”

Weatherhead hits these dead on.  A doctor valiantly strives for months to save his wife who passes away. “It must have been the will of God.” Does that mean all of his efforts were counter to the will of God?

A man loses a son over Berlin.  “I must come to grips with the inscrutable will of God.“ It may have been Hitler’s will, certainly not God’s.

A woman loses a baby and says, “It must have been the will of God,” but quickly adds “If the doctor had made it here on time, he could have saved my child.”  Does that mean if the doctor had arrived that he would have been working against God’s will?

Adam Hamilton tells of a couple would struggled to conceive.  After years they did, but with weeks the child died.  “I believed that if I was good and if I prayed, God would reward me”  The woman could not cope with this and rejected a God who would take her child.  She happened to be a Methodist pastor.

Too often we think the bible describes a Pollyanna world for those who believe.  Instead, it is a stark reality of the problem of pain (Ge 3:16-19; Ps 22; Lamentations; Job; Mt 27).  “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”  One man may have said it best: “The biblical narrative is best described as a whole lot of things happening that God doesn’t like and God coming along behind to clean up the mess.” 

If we believe that God is coming along behind to clean up the mess, that may be the ultimate reason for hope.  We believe in eternal life, not as a consolation but the God turning the problem of pain into glory.  CS Lewis says “Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn [every] agony into glory.”  He will give us the life we always wanted.

And we get glimpse of that glory today.  The couple above adopted three little girls.  They received the life they always wanted; and the girls received a life they couldn’t have imagined.  “Therefore I have hope.”


Saturday, August 19, 2017

OUTFLOW OF GRACE


Sermon Summary (8/6/17) “How God Changes Us: Ouflow of Grace” (Matthew 25:31-40)

We’re in our final session of “Connecting to Grace: How God Changes Us,” today, serving, the outflow of grace.  Are there dates on your calendar that you can point to, that day changed my life?  It was a Sunday in the fall of 1986.  A Methodist lay person from the next town came to talk to the Men and Boys breakfast about Habitat for Humanity.  I went home and told Rosemary that I think we’ve found something that we can sink our teeth into.  For the next 15 years, Habitat became a calling, as a volunteer, a board member, fund raiser, building chair and a leader of blitz builds in both Connecticut and Columbia.  We led church groups every summer giving up half our vacation.  It was a calling.

I think if you asked Steve Malinckrodt, even though it’s his job, he would tell you that Serve, Inc. was a calling, too.  Steve is another United Methodist lay person.  Other United Methodist lay persons I’d like to tell you of are Keith and Karen Jaspers.  Keith is a businessman from Springfield who founded Rainbow Network (www.rainbownetwork.org), a ministry to Nicaragua.  Keith believes that Matthew 25 is a commandment.  We are required to serve the least of these among us.  From 1995 to 2002, Keith and Karen founded and funded Rainbow Network.  Since then it was grown to serve 120 rural villages, 50,000 villagers, the poorest of the poor, using a holistic approach of health, education, housing and economic development. 

“I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.”  Every village has a well proving safe water, a life-saving change over 20 years.

“I was hungry..” In Rainbow’s 22 years they have served 50,000,000 meals, a dime a meal for children, mothers, malnourished adults.

“I was a stranger..” Serving the poorest of the poor.

“I was naked…” Mel West, an early Board Member has organized 40 containers that go to Nicaragua and elsewhere.  He urged my to have my church hold a “panty party” for the women of the village saying “And Rick, remember you don’t treat the poor poorly.”

“I was sick and you cared for me.” They employ 10 doctors who have made 700,000 visits charging 50 cents to a dollar.  They’ve built 1000 homes with $13 mortgages that go to build more.

“I was in prison..” There are no prisons.

In addition they have made 95,000 microloans averaging $280 for six months to capitalize cottage industries.  There is a school in every village and 50,000 have learned to read and write and 1800 have graduated from high school, many returning to lead the next generation. 

Grace flows to us and through us, and transforms the world.  Amen.


Friday, August 11, 2017

WE ARE BETTER IN CIRCLES THAN IN ROWS


Sermon Summary (7/30/17) “How God Changes Us: We Are Better in Circles than in Rows” (Acts 2:42; 46-47)


In 1992, I joined a Disciple Bible Study, my first real small group.  Life happened.  I once heard a Rabbi say of Bible Study, “When we gather we make this text sacred, but we share not just the words of the narrative, we share our very lives together.”  We are better in circles that we are in rows.

And that has always been true.  Jesus gathered his disciples in circles.  The first century church gathered in homes around the table.  In subsequent centuries, the church of small groups transformed Western Civilization.  William Wilberforce took advantage of Wesleyan Small groups in England to change the manners, the civility, the morals of a Nation.  John Wesley used small groups to “reform the nation, especially the church, and to spread scriptural holiness across the land.”  By the way, in the Methodist Episcopal Church, small group membership was mandatory.  To be Methodist was to be part of a small group.  We were better in rows.

Any student of Methodism will tell you that small groups were the heart and soul of the movement.  By 1850, 34 percent of all Americans were Methodists.  What happened?  By 1850, Sunday Schools became prevalent and Class Meetings, as small groups were called, were no longer mandatory.  Our amazing growth slowed and by 1950 we were declining.  Today, we loose the equivalent of all the Methodists in Kansas every year.  We need to be in rows again.  We are better in rows.  If we want to make a difference in our society, we need to be in rows again.

John Wesley believed that “Christian Conference,” what happened in small groups was a means of grace.  That when we gathered and asked of one another “How is your relationship with God?” When we witnessed the example of others and voluntarily submitted to be held accountable, amazing transformation was possible.  Discipleship is best learned in circles, a means of grace, a means by which God can change us.

Wesley so believed in his Class Meetings that he chose not “to strike one stroke unless he could follow the blow.”  He thought that preaching without providing the opportunity to gather into small groups was “begetting them for the murderer.”  And he would later see evidence of that.  He feared if we left our core practices that “we would become a dead sect having the form of  religion with none of the power.”  We are better in rows.

Tom Albin, Dean of the Upper Room, was featured at School of Lay Ministry.  There he talked about transformation which he insisted required three things, understanding, experience, and community.  He said the best transforming institution is not the church but Alcoholics Anonymous.  The 12 step program is great but not sufficient.  Participants also need the experience of a sponsor who has walked the path.  But without the meetings, without the community to love them even when they falter, they would fail.  We are better in rows.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

WHEN YOU FAST


Sermon Summary (7/23/17) “How God Changes Us: When You Fast” (Mt 6:16-18; 16:24)

“If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves.”  Deny themselves, submission, not on of my favorite topics.  Every Monday morning I take a “stupid pill,” stupid because I have to wait 30 minutes after it for my first cup of coffee.  I can’t even fast for 30 minutes!  We define a fast in my house as a nap!

But years ago, it was different.  During Lent I fasted on Fridays, maybe the most spiritual thing I’ve ever done.  With every hunger pang, with every false reach of my hand for a phantom cup of coffee, I knew I was doing for God. I knew my dependence on God. I was continually reminded to pray.

The early church fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays.  John Wesley fasted on Fridays and expected in pastors to do so. (I hope the DS doesn’t ask!)  We fast, we practice disciplines of abstinence to make room for God.  “In the early morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  (Mk 1:35) Jesus practiced solitude (italics note disciplines) to make room for prayer. 

We need silence to hear God.  I once opened up a house on Cape Cod alone.  The electricity was off, there wasn’t even a 60 cycle hum in the house.  t was silence like I’d never experienced. We need that to hear God.

We practice fasting to make us aware of our dependence on God.  When we experience physical dependence, we also find our need for spiritual dependence.

We practice frugality, controlling our abundance, and sacrifice, giving from our need, to place our treasure in perspective.  (See the widow’s mite, Mk 12:42-44)  We need to be free from our things.  What if every now and then we just gave a day’s wage?  Divide our gross income on our tax return by 365 and just give it away.  Free from any entanglements, free from the need to plan how to spend it.  Jesus told the rich young ruler, “One more thing, give away all you have and come and follow me.”  It wasn’t the money, it was the attachment!

Remember, Jesus said “For those who want to save their live will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it prophet them if their gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Of what will the give in return for their life? (Mt 16:25-26) Mark Twain said “It’s no the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me, but the parts that I do.”  I hope Jesus was using a little hyperbole here but he’s made his point.  I find myself wanting.

The last of the disciples of abstinence in secrecy, not letting the right hand know what the left is doing.  Secrecy makes room for humility, setting aside pride and bringing us closer to the imitation of Christ. 

One more Wesley story about fasting.  This is a combination of what we talked of last week and this week.  Last week we said that John Wesley began preparing for The Lord’s Supper on Thursday night, preparing beginning Thursday to meet the Risen Lord at the Lord’s Table on Sunday morning.

He patterned his preparation on the Passion of Christ. 

He began his fast after supper on Thursday.  Jesus said he would not eat or drink of the fruit of the vine until he feasted at the heavenly banquet.  Following the beginning of his fast, Wesley patterned his Thursday evening devotion after Jesus in Gethsemane. 

On Friday morning in his devotion, Wesley was before the Sanhedrin and then in Pilate’s palace as Jesus had been.  Where Jesus had been scourged and then made the long, painful walk to Golgotha.  Where Jesus was crucified.

Then, on Friday afternoon at 3:00 , as Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” Wesley broke his fast.  Jesus’ earthly fast was over.

Devotions Friday and Saturday contemplated the sacrifice of Christ for us and for our salvation.

And then, and then on Sunday morning, in his devotions, Wesley went to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, with Peter and with John to encounter the resurrected Lord. 

And that’s who he met at the Communion Table, at the Table of the Lord on Sunday morning.

Wesley’s weekly devotions, including the fast focused on the Passion of Christ.  It was the fast that was the channel of grace by which Wesley began his weekly preparations.  By which God changed Wesley, transformed Wesley, sanctified Wesley week after week.  It was through the fast, through his prayers, through the Table of the Lord that Wesley moved on to perfection throughout his entire life.  May we too experience this transformation as we make room for God and connect to grace.  Amen.