Sermon Summary (5/10/20) “The Problem of Discerning and Walking in God’s Will (Gen 12:1-3; John 1:35-39)
I attended South Dakota School of Mines, a Land Grant College, so ROTC was mandatory the first two years. To take Advanced ROTC leading to a commission, you had to sign up in the spring of your sophomore year. When I returned home, I told my Dad that I was skipping ROTC. Just before I returned in August, Dad invited a few friends over to the house to talk to me. It was a set up. They were all of the greatest generation who served, who were all patriots and all felt it was my duty to serve and that ROTC was the best way of doing that. I signed up.
Was it God’s will that I be a soldier?
My Mom told me when I got orders to Vietnam that she had raised me to be a doctor. My grandma would have said she raised me to be a preacher. Was it God’s will that I take 55 years to get there? Probably, God had lot’s of work to do.
My life has had lot’s of forks in the road. Every one of them changed my life completely. The first being that talk with my Dad’s friends.
What is God’s will for your lives? How long did it take for you to find out? Was God responsible for all the turns in your lives? This week on Facebook, a woman said that her grandfather had died. One good intentioned person told her that God was completely in control. Was God responsible for her Grandfather’s death? Does he take us all according to a predetermined plan? Was he responsible for Jeff’s accident and Rosemary’s cancer? Is God responsible for all the evil in the world as well as the good?
That doesn’t make sense to me. But if God is not in complete control, then what? Another option is that God has a perfect plan for me, but he’s not telling. I have to figure it out. Maybe my path is a squiggly line that crosses back and forth over God’s perfect plan. That my squiggly path is God’s permissible plan. That God is willing to revise the plan each time I make a permissible decision. But it seems to me that God would have to revise all the world’s plans with each of my permissible decisions. If I meet and marry the person you were supposed to meet and marry, everyone’s plan changes.
So what then? The Bible’s stories give us an idea. Abraham listened to God’s perfect plan and went from his country to the land that God had shown him (Gen 12), but when I got there, he went off track. He ended up in Egypt and told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. Not cool. Not even permissible. Jacob’s sons decided to kill Joseph (Gen 37). Not permissible. Nor were the situations that Joseph found himself in Egypt. Yet because Joseph listened to God, he turned the non-permissible actions of the Egyptians into God’s perfect plan.
How is it we discern the will of God? I reject the notion that the book has all been written and that we only play the part. And the notion that God revises our books with every line we walk doesn’t make sense either. I lean heavily on Adam Hamilton for this. I believe that God is the co-author of our stories.
We begin with God the co-author with a blank page. And if we are going to write together, we need to pay attention. We need to listen. Unfortunately, when I look at my book, I realize that I wrote many chapters alone. They’re not the chapters I like to recite in family company or any company. The good news is that God let’s us start again and change our future chapters.
I’ve been told a good writer can write eight pages a day. And if you read a good book, you know how much life a good author can put into eight pages. How much life do we put into our days? Why would we want our lives to be anything but a good story? Of course, as we write our stories, we will have old characters that disappoint us. New characters that appear. Breakdowns. Here’s the deal: with God as our co-author, our stories can lead us where we want to go. We just need to pay attention, listen.
Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that you may be able to include in your stories: First, life is better when you worship. Rosemary and I learned that and the last 30 years of our lives were the best. Worship changes us.
Two, I’ve come to believe in the “Platinum Rule,” “Be kind to others as you want them to be kind to you.” Kindness is circular, the kinder we are the more kindness we receive, the more we come to like the people in our stories. CS Lewis says that affection is nine-tenths of happiness. You want a little happiness in your stories, try a little kindness, add a little affection.
Three, it’s people that count. We fill our stories with things: cars, boats, planes, dogs, cats, horses. I mean who doesn’t like a good dog story? But it’s people who count.
Lastly, the story is always better when you listen, when you read your bible asking what does this tell me about God? What does this tell me about me? What does this tell me about the story we are going to write today? Good authors read other’s stories, “Upper Room,” “Guideposts,” classic writings that can be incorporated into our stories. We listen, the Holy Spirit is always present to help us put pen to paper; and we use our brain, the creative gift that God has given to make our stories better.
It’s Mother’s Day. The mothers in my life have all made my stories better. My Grandmother, Emma, put faith in my story. My Mother, Gertie, gave me love. She and Dad had a great love story, chapters too short. But it goes on now with every chapter being better that the last. And Rosemary, the mother of my Children, my partner for 60 years, who taught me the wisdom of humility and put chapters of kindness and affection and happiness into our story.
Now, go write your stories. That’s how you discern and live within the will of God.
Sermon Summary (5/03/20) “The Problem of Unanswered Prayer” (Mt 6:9-13; Mk 14:36)
The first time I gave a sermon on prayer was 15 years ago in July. I was shopping for this fountain pen in a stationery store downtown. On the way, I worried about a parking spot. “I’m giving a sermon on prayer, should I pray for a parking spot?” What the heck. And there right in front of the store, it couldn’t have been closer, was as parking spot. I ordered the pen. Next week, returning to pick it up, the same. I prayed for a parking spot and there it was. It couldn’t have been closer. I haven’t prayed for a parking spot since.
Does God answer prayers for parking spots? How much can I manipulate God? Should we be able to pray that bad things never happen to good people or that bad things always happen to bad people? Or that my test scores will always be right? Or that Johnny or Jamie’s knee will never be scrapped or they will never experience a broken heart?
What do you think prayer is for? Jesus said if we pray with faith that you can say to this mountain “move and be cast into the sea” that it will be so. What? Jesus spoke in hyperbole, exaggeration to the point of impossibility to make a point. Faith and prayer are important. Vital.
So what about miracles? Adam Hamilton has told the story more than once of broadsiding a car going at 40 mph when he was 16 and with no seatbelt. Everything stuffed under that dash yet he felt the arms of God around him pressings him back into the seat. God must have something left for him to do. He wears his seatbelt today because what God intended may be behind him.
Does God suspend the natural laws or the free will of others? What if God created the world so that some things required our prayer? God wants cooperation with us his creatures. He depends on us. Miracles of the heart happen too. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we provide footing for the Holy Spirit to make others more loving, more generous, more gentle, to exercise self-control and miracles happen.
Yet some of our most fervent prayers are not answered. Jesus in the Garden: “Abba, Father, let this cup pass from me. Yet not my will but thine be done.” (Mk 14:36) Paul asked that a debilitating thorn be removed from his side (some think approaching blindness), and God told him, “my grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Cor 12:7-8) And Mary. Can you imagine the prayers of Mary? Do you think the cross was a satisfactory answer?
I would suggest if we want to understand prayer that we go directly to the prayer that Jesus taught us, the one we so often pray in rote without thought or meaning. Our understanding is there:
“Our Father.” While the OT God of the disciples was one of fear and judgment, at the most trying time of Jesus’ life, he addressed God as “Abba,” a term of endearment like Daddy, Poppa. Like crawling into the lap of your Daddy to tell him your most intimate troubles and to listen to what he is to tell us.
“Who Art in Heaven.” To the ends of the universe or as close as the air we breathe. Where God is and where he embraces those we love the most and the place where he will take us to himself.
“Hallowed by thy name.” A God worthy of adoration, “Worship the Lord with gladness, come into his presence with singing.” We need a phrase or verse of the Psalms on our lips.
“Thy Kingdom Come.” The heart of the prayer. God wants Eden restored. He wants our prayerful participation and our hands, heart, and feet in making it happen.
“Thy will be done.” The subject of next week’s sermon except to say that if we are to know God’s will, we need to listen. Part of our prayers, our devotions, are daily walk requires that we listen to God and soak in his guidance for us.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Our personal petition. One person said God gives us our needs not our wants. Our needs today so that we don’t get wrapped up is the greed and grasping, the inordinate desire of tomorrow.
“Forgive us our trespasses.” Essential to our relationship with one another and with God.
“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Let nothing attack our faith.
Here’s what I notice about the prayer that Jesus taught us. Nowhere does it ask for miracles. Nowhere does it ask for the suspension of the natural laws. Nowhere does it ask to violate the free will of others. Nowhere does it ask for God to align his will to ours. But it seems to me that it does ask us to align our will with God’s.
Ten years ago in his book Why?, Adam Hamilton closed the chapter on unanswered prayer with this quote from Admiral Chester Nimitz: “I asked God for strength that I might achieve. I was made weak that I might learn to obey. I asked for health that I might do greater things. I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy. I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of men. I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life. I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am, among all men, most richly blessed.”
Prayer changes us. It does not ask God to align his will to ours, but asks instead that we align our will to his. May it be so with us.
Sermon Summary (4/26/20) “The Problem of Evil” (Ge 2:15-16; 3:6-7; 4:2b-7; Ro 12:9-21)
I love the stories of WWII and the people who sacrificed to save the world. Through them we see the very best in people, but of course through the war, we also see the worst. Evil exists from the Rape of Nanking to the Holocaust, 75 million people lost their lives. Evil was at the heart of the slaughter. Today, evil still exists, with St. Louis murders at an equivalent rate to Venezuela, 60 murders per 100k population. Life is cheap, even in America where we have so much to live for. We take lives with guns and destroy souls with drugs. We diminish others with hate and retribution.
The dictionary defines evil as “behavior profoundly immoral or wicked.” We are talking about behavior, the actions of people. Sure, we can think of cancer or viruses, but it’s the behavior of people that is evil. It is part of the human species. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn made it plain: “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Evil, that “behavior of human beings that is profoundly immoral or wicked.”
John Steinbeck says we only have one story and it is a net the net of good and evil. And all of our stories from Cain and Abel to Sleeping Beauty bear that out. We have all been impacted either in person or heritage by it. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled and The People of the Lie) describes evil as not just the murder of the body but also the murder of the spirit, “that which deprives us of life or livelihood.” Evil kills not only life, but the vitality of life. And Scott Peck says we cannot talk about evil without talking about good, the opposite of evil. Jesus came that our lives have vitality, “that you may have life and it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
I therefore commend to your study Romans 12, Paul’s chapter on overcoming evil with good: 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.
Not only that, be passionate about doing good: 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
(You need to read and embrace it all.) But he caps it off with: 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In our relationships with one another we have a choice. We can embrace life, we can lift the spirit of others. We can let love be genuine. We can cling to good. We can hate what is evil. Or, or we can be overcome by evil. Paul is telling us to embrace life, lift the spirit of others; and that the only way to overcome evil in this world is to lift the spirit, give life to others and be passionate about it.
As United Methodists, our baptismal vows call us “will you resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” And the answer is “I do.” We are called to be proactive, intentional in confronting evil. Martin Luther King Jr said, “For evil to succeed., all is required is for good men to do nothing.
Maybe the greatest story of story of good and evil in our time is The Lord of the Rings in which an ordinary hobbit, Frodo, and his fellowship of travelers passionately take on evil. The author, JRR Tolkien tells us in “Return of the King, “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
We can’t do it all (master the tides), but we can clean the fields where we are in the time we have so that those who come after will have clean soil to till. I believe we do that when we “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Do not be overcome by evil. But overcome evil with good.”
We are called to clean the soil where we are—with good. That’s how we address the problem of evil. Amen.
Sermon Summary (4/19/20) “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” (Job (selected); Ro 8:28; Mt 7:24-27) )
It’s not a good time to be a pastor. It’s not a good time to be a lot of things. A mother for one; a spouse for another. I know of those whose children or spouses and in hospice and they cannot be there to hold their hands or to tell them over and over again that they love them. As a pastor, I have people whose hands I want to hold and assurance I was to give. And everyday life goes on. I need to be in living rooms or hospital rooms instead of preaching to a blank wall.
What do think? Why do bad things happen to good people? Millions will be hurt by the coronavirus, if not by the disease, then economically, people we know and love. And life goes on. Cancer that steals life and joy. Accidents that take life and limb. Stroke, heart attack.
And here’s what I bet: you know people who believe that if you are faithful, you will be immune from such pain. You can just pray and the problems will go away. And you know people who have chucked their faith because bad things happen to good people. If God is not going to take care of all my concerns, what is religion for? What’s in it for me?
Let’s make some things clear. God is not our wind up toy. He is not our genie in a bottle to give us untold wishes. God is not our servant. In fact, the opposite is true. We are to serve God. We are to do God’s will, not the other way around.
We’re beginning a new series. Adam Hamilton believes every church needs to hear every year a sermon of series dealing with the problem of pain. The issues of pain, of evil, of unanswered prayer, of discerning the will of God and following him are issues we continually deal with. Today, “The problem of Pain: Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Where do we start with pain? The book of Job. At the same time the writers of Deuteronomy were telling us that God rewards good choices and punishes bad, the writers of Job were just as adamant that injustice exists in the world, that bad things do happen to good people.
The story of Job is a simple one even though it runs for 42 chapters. Job is a good man and God has rewarded him with children, wealth, herds, houses. He loves his family, cares for widows and orphans. He even has made a covenant with his eyes that he will not look at women as objects. Job is a good man.
But then Satan takes it all away. His children are killed, his cattle stolen, his houses destroyed, his health ruined. Even in the midst of this injustice, he remains faithful.
His friends come by. “Job, you have sinned. Admit it, repent, and God will restore your health.” “Job, you may not know it, but you have sinned. Repent.” “Job, your children must have sinned. Pray, repent for them. God will restore you.”
Job is adamant. He has been unjustly accused. If only he could find God and present his case, he would be acquitted. (23:1-7) Finally, God answers Job out of the whirlwind, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding.” With great verbosity, God belittles Job but never answers the question. “Job, you just don’t understand the responsibilities of the Creator of the universe.” (38:1ff)
Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance, in words spoken by Aaron Jastrow says God is at fault. That the only hero of the Hebrew Bible is the poor Jew on the ash heap, Job, who remained faithful in suffering. That there is a missing piece to the story of justice in the universe and that missing piece is with God. God is at fault.
As Christians, we know the missing piece, and it did not show up for another 1500 years. Justice would be restored through the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ. Salvation for those who remain faithful in suffering is the missing piece.
We live in a world that is good. Almost perfect. But floods and earthquakes happen and people are hurt. Our bodies are wonderfully good. Almost perfect. But disease happens, and when we confront animals and machines we are harmed. Why do bad things happen? In part, that is the world we live in.
When we lost our son Jeff at the age of 18, Rosemary was angry with God for the next 10 years. But that means that she believed in a God to be angry with. Good people suffer. But Jesus promises to walk through the suffering with us. “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” (Romans 8:28 NIV) God does not cause evil, and Is anguished in the face of evil. But God promises to walk through it with us.
God did not want or cause Jeff to be killed. But he walked through the pain with us. We are here today because of that walk. In that walk we experienced mercy and blessing and grace. He changed our lives completely.
God’s response is to walk with us and to use us. Jesus healed, Jesus fed, Jesus faced down evil. Today God’s response is us. When floods and earthquakes occur, he sends us. When people are hungry, he sends us. When people are victims of cancer or disease, he sends doctors and scientists and asks us to support them. We are God’s response to injustice in the world. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” God sends us.
Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with the story of the houses built on the rock and on the sand. They are the stories of our spiritual houses. God can best walk with us through the storms of life if we have built our spiritual houses on a rock. So may it be with all of us. Amen.
Sermon Summary (4/12/20) “What We Believe About Easter Matters” (Is 25:6-10; 1 Th 4:13-17; John 20:1-18)
I’ve picked out the best day ever, a day of heaven on earth. I believe Rosemary would have said, or would say, it was the best day of her life. I believe she was there. You see, I believe in the communion of saints. It was last year, it was a great feast, as Isaiah would have put it or Jesus when he spoke of the heavenly banquet, it was the day of Toni and Jackson’s wedding. It was perfect. It would have been her idea of heaven. I’m sure she was there. I believe in the communion of saints.
It may be that Holy Communion is the best picture of the communion of saints with Christ as the host and all of his followers at the heavenly banquet and all, past, present and future, connected through the body of Christ at the heavenly banquet. I believe in the communion of saints.
It’s Easter and we are in the final sermon of our series on the Apostle’s Creed: I believe in the communion of saints, in the resurrection of the body, and in the life everlasting. Those are the promises of Easter, and what you believe about Easter matters.
What you believe about Easter will shape who you are, how you will behave, how you treat others, who and how you love. All that is important to you is formed by what you believe about Easter. I matters because your everlasting life matters, your resurrection matters, your communion with those you will love for all of everlasting life matters.
And the resurrection of your body matters. The very first letter that Paul wrote, the earliest text we have in the bible, even before the gospels, Paul wrote to a group that believed they had missed the resurrection. Paul wrote to assure them “so that you may not grieve as others do that have no hope.” And then he ends with “encourage one another with these words.” (See 1 Thess 4:13-17)
What made people believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Two things: the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen Lord. Each were necessary but not sufficient. Together with the personal appearances made the first witnesses so resolute in their beliefs that they were willing to give their lives to tell the world of Jesus and his love.
When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, he called her by name, “Mary.” She replied, “Rabbouni!” a term of endearment for a teacher. For her, the encounter with the Risen Lord was personal. There could be no mistake.
Later in this chapter, doubting Thomas will encounter the Jesus that he insisted he would not believe had risen until he could put his fingers in the nail marks and his hand in his side. Jesus spoke directly to him, inviting him to do so. Thomas said, “My Lord and my God.” It was personal. There could be no mistake.
Peter, who had denied Jesus, encounters him on the shore of the Seal of Galilee. Jesus calls him by name: “Simon do you love me more than these?” Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. Even a third time Jesus asks and Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” It was personal. There could be no mistake.
We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we believe in the resurrection of the body? Which body? In First Corinthians, Paul tells us “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body…? What is sown is perishable. What is raised in imperishable….It is sown with a physical body; it is raised with a spiritual body.” Jesus resurrection body could be seen, could walk through walls, could disappear in a blink of an eye, most importantly could be recognized. We will know one another.
And we believe in the life everlasting. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (Jn 3:16 KJV) One of Rosemary’s favorite childhood hymns was “Whosoever surely meaneth me.” “Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
Easter is about the promises of God. I believe in the communion of saints. I believe in the resurrection of the body. I believe in the life everlasting. These are the promises of God, and they all come true at Easter. What you believe about Easter matters. Amen.