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THAT’S NOT FAIR!

These are my speaking notes from Sunday’s sermon (9/3/2017).

[Matthew 20:1-16] (New Living Translation)

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

“At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

===============

     When I was growing up in Potter County near a little town called Shinglehouse, we lived up a little valley where the ridge of a couple of the Allegheny Mountains came together called Blauvelt Hollow. It was a small dirt road where you had to pretty much get off the road if you met another car. And there was a pretty steep hill and a curve in the first quarter mile of that road. And I had a job as a kid… called SCHOOL WORK. My job was being a student.

In the winter time, the plows had priority roads that they cleared first and our road wasn’t always the priority, but even if it did get plowed, there were times that the school bus couldn’t get up the hollow to pick us kids up. And so it didn’t. School went on, but we were excused, because the bus couldn’t get to us to take us to do our school work. Sometimes it just got there later and we would get to school late, and weren’t penalized for having missed the beginning of the day’s school work.

[Unfortunately, my grandfather (who lived across the road from us) became township supervisor and road master within a few years and he always made sure that bus could make it up to get us.]

Now, why do I tell you that?

Because, like the later workers in the parable from Matthew 20 that we’ve just heard, my brother John Paul and I, even if we were late or missed school on those days, got credit for being there and doing the classwork just the same. But we hadn’t had to endure the same workload. And trust me, we were the envy of those others around us who had been there the whole day.

Except Jesus isn’t talking about school work, but harvest work. Specifically harvesting the grapes in the vineyard. And Jesus chooses to tell the story from the perspective of those workers who got there first doesn’t he?

At the very beginning of the day, 6:00 am I’m told is what the time would have been when the farmer first went out to hire some workers, he hires some workers. They clearly understand that they have to work all day and they clearly know what to expect for their paycheck. A day’s wage. They’ll agree to nothing less. And the farmer agrees to their price. So they start working.

Now, there were many others who were around but were not workers. They weren’t around when the farmer went early in the morning to hire workers. The farmer knows there are more that will be in town now, so he goes back and hires them too. And later, he goes back to hire those that weren’t there before to be hired. And the farmer keeps going back out for more workers. Not willing to give up. He needs workers and is willing to do what is needed to get the job done.

And when all is said and done, and the job’s completed, he gives them all their pay for the job. He can be generous with those that he hired throughout the day because they agreed to work without thought of how much they would make.

With those that came to work for a specific sum of money, he is faithful and pays them what they wanted and expected.

No problem right? Well, yes there is. You see, the farmer was so generous that he paid the newer workers the same thing as the first workers. And the first workers remembered how long and how hard they had worked, more than the newer workers had. And they cried out: “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”

And Jesus explains that the farmer had been faithful to what was agreed upon and had chosen to be generous to those who had thought nothing of the pay to be earned, and still worked.

Now there’s probably a whole lot that you can learn about God, and specifically Jesus, from this story and about how to be a Christian and lots of good stuff. But for right now, I just want to focus on a couple of things that I think can speak to us today, here in OUR situations.

Let’s suppose, shall we, that Jesus is the farmer and that WE are the workers (or the would be workers at least).

What if the call to work is when Christ calls us into his kingdom? Calls us to be a follower of Jesus, or worker in the kingdom of God? Just by the fact that we are not all the same age, would suggest that we all can’t come to know and expereince Jesus inviting us into relationship with him at the same time. We can’t all come to be a worker for the King at the same time because when the first ones were called, some of us weren’t around. We hadn’t even been born yet!

That happens doesn’t it? There are some in this congregation who accepted Jesus as Savior sixty and seventy years ago. And those dear saints have served their Lord, working in the kingdom of God, for decades before some of the rest of us were even born, let alone old enough to work for the kingdom.

Thank God, that he, like the farmer in the parable, keeps going back out to get more workers.

Some of us, have heard Christ call us to be his workers, yet have missed him, we’ve not responded when he called, or were busy doing something else and didn’t hear him. And Jesus still comes back time and again to call us to join his workforce.

There are some here today, who have heard Jesus calling you to relationship with him, to be one of his followers, his workers, and you have tried to turn a deaf ear in the past. You’ve not wanted to be a follower, not wanted to be a worker. Friends, Jesus is still looking for you, desiring you to come to him. And will. Will you answer today? Will you allow him to be your Lord, your Savior, your Master, your King? Say yes today. Invite him to become lord of your life and allow him to guide you and heal you and set you free.

If you do so, your reward is the same as those who’ve been Christians for decades. You’ll spend eternity with Christ, as a follower, a disciple, a friend of Jesus.

The parable has at least one other meaning to it though. You see, if you look in the chapter right before this one, you see the context of what was going on when Jesus decided to tell the parable. Peter has, in his own bumbling, foot in the mouth kind of way, he has just pointed out to Jesus how he and the other eleven had given up everything in order to follow Jesus. And Peter asks, in Matthew 19:27, “See, we have left all and followed you. Therefore what shall we have?”  He’s asking ‘What’s our reward?’ or as we would say today, ‘What’s in it for me?’

And then Jesus responds with this parable.

How many times do we, like those first hired workers, not agree to go and do the task until we know what’s in it for us first? We may hear God calling us to do something, but we see no personal advantage so we are unwilling to answer the call.

Why should I be a Christian?

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I help out with the evangelism team?

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I give my money to that mission trip, since I’m not going to get to go with them?

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I spend my time as a chaperone with that rowdy youth group or teach that Sunday School class, I don’t have kids,

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I give up my security and safety and comfortable job in order to go into ministry?

          What’s in it for me?

Folks, I believe that a very large message for us in this parable is that approaching Christ with a list of expectations and an attitude of ‘What’s in it for me?’ is NOT a good thing.

The farmer explains, almost angrily it sounds like to me, that he has been just, “Friend, I have done you no wrong” and that he has been faithful, “Did you not agree to work for that amount?”

My question today is two fold: depending on who you are…

  • If you are not yet a follower, a worker for Jesus, will you answer the call? Today?
  • If you have already accepted Christ and are one of his workers, are you a worker that will obey his callings to do whatever needs to be done, as he decides? Or will you be hesitating with the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’

The danger here is not for those who answer later, but for those who want to deny the master farmer Jesus, the chance to be generous to others.

Those times the bus had gotten me to school late (or even the next day) and yet I didn’t lose credit for missing the work, those kids who had been there the whole time were even more responsible for what had been covered in those classes. SO too with us as we join the work field for Christ. We’re responsible, not for what the master does with someone else, but for his callings and requests of us…. And we can trust him to be fair and just and faithful.

This past week, in the aftermath of all the raining and all the flooding in the Houston area, Twitter and Facebook were all abuzz with what a megachurch pastor in the Houston did or did not do. And I saw Christians posting their own opinions (and forwarding other people’s opinions & posts) about how wrong Joel Osteen was and what he should have done.

Then I saw a sign that simply said…

I just talked with God and he didn’t ask me anything about Joel Osteen…

He asked me about what I had done and what I was doing.

Just like those workers in the farmer’s field, we are workers for God in HIS fields… And We’re responsible, not for what the master does with someone else, or how they respond to the Master, but rather we are responsible for his callings and requests of us… and OUR response to Him!!! And we can ALWAYS trust him to be fair and just and faithful.

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Can I help you?

As a pastor for the past 21 years, I would LOVE to be able to see exactly what my listeners in the congregation are thinking… and where they are in their faith journey to help steer my praying (my private praying mostly, but also the public prayers) and to guide my sermons to help where people really are. HOWEVER, we can’t see these thought bubbles in real life! We only have two resources in this: people sharing directly with the pastor about concerns, questions, and struggles, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 
Because of the Holy Spirit, we do “get it right” quite often as we follow the Spirit’s leading and “nudging.” But what JOY when people talk directly with us and we can work directly with the Spirit to meet needs, offer clarification, provide comfort, extend a listening and caring ear, and pray personally with someone. 

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REPOST: Teach Us To Number Our Days

I like the story of a man who accidentally calls a wrong 1-800 number and gets GOD. After being apologetic about wasting God’s time with a wrong number, God says that’s OK, what we humans think is a long time is really almost nothing to him. So the man says: “Let me get this right: 1000 of our years are like nothing more than a minute to you?” And God says “yes.”

“So what money?” says the man. He continues: “Is it true that you really own the cattle on a thousand hills and that everything we could possibly ever own is really yours?” Again, God responds with a “yes.”

Feeling a bit braver, he pushes on. He says, “So a million dollars to you is like nothing more than a penny, huh?” God says “That’s right.”
The man then asks “Hey God, I got a favor to ask. Can I have a penny?”
To which God responds: “In a minute.”

 

PSALM 90:10 says: “Seventy years are given to us! Some even live to eighty.”

The most we can hope for, as far as our age goes, is about 70 years; maybe 80 or so if we’re exceptionally strong in health… more or less. And back in verse 4 of Psalm 90 we read “For you, a thousand years are as a passing day, as brief as a few night hours.”

Our full-life, in God’s reckoning of eternity, is like the morning fog: it’s gone pretty quickly without a trace. But what does 70 years give us… what value does it have?

Depends on what we put into it.

chalkboard-hours

There are 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year, which means we each have 8,760 hours in a year. If you multiply that number of hours in a year by a life span of, let’s go ahead and say 70, you get 613,200 hours in a 70 year lifespan.

BY THE WAY, by following the math out, a 70 year lifespan would have 36,792,000 minutes (36 MILLION…) OR 2,207,520,000 seconds (2 BILLION, 207 MILLION…)

So, since our time is our most precious commodity, we ALL could be considered to be MILLIONARES! (or even BILLIONAIRES). So how do we spend our time? Into what purposes and activities do we invest our time?

To start with, the average American person, in a 70 year lifespan, will have spent an average of 178,360 hours just sleeping. (7 hours/day x 7 days/ week x 52 wk/yr x 70 yr = 178,360 hours of sleep in your lifetime. To make it easier to process, you can take that number of sleeping hours (178,360) and divide it by the number of hours in a year (8760) and that means you sleep about 20 years of a 70 year lifespan.

That same person will have spent 104,000 hours of their life working, which turns out to be almost 16 years spent working out of 70.

That person will also spend an average of 76,440 hours of their life eating! (Assuming an hour for every meal (that’ll count your snacks) X 3 meals a day X 7 days a week X 52 weeks X 70 years = 76,440 hours of eating. That’s almost 9 years of eating!

Time spent watching television is also insightful: 3 hours of TV each day = another 9 years spent just watching T.V. !

Now, when it comes to church, there’s a bit of a problem because the AVERAGE American simply does NOT go to church! So for the average American it boils down to ZERO hours a year.

But, for OUR benefit, we’ll assume the Average American Church going Christian will have spent 6/10 of a year worshipping God.(Assuming an hour and a half each week, giving you time to get in here and get out plus the normal hour and fifteen minutes we usually set aside for the worship service.)

NOW, some reading this are going to challenge me in this. They might say: “That’s not fair, preacher! I go to church more often than that, I’m a really committed Christian!’”

Assuming that’s true, we’ll take you Sunday morning worship time PLUS EVERY Sunday School Class you’ve ever attended, PLUS EVERY Prayer Meeting scheduled, or Youth group meeting, or Women’s group, PLUS EVERY Bible Study that takes place, and we can bump your weekly Church worship time up to 5 hours in a week. What’s that give us? (5 hours per week X 52 weeks X 70 years = 18,200 hours in worship in your lifetime = about 2 years and a couple of months spent worshipping God.

Add to those numbers the results of a Survey of 6000 people polled in 1988, reported by U.S. News and World Report:

In a lifetime the average American will spend:

chalkboard years.pngSix months sitting at stoplights

Eight months opening junk mail

One year looking for misplaced objects

2 years unsuccessfully returning phone calls

4 years doing housework

5 years waiting in line

Reader’s Digest takes this even further and says that the Average American will spend 6 years looking for misplaced stuff.

OH GOD… Teach us to number our days……..

As we look back over this list of time spent, we can see how our little uses of time add up to YEARS throughout the course of a lifetime, so we need to ask God to help us number our days… to make the most of our time.

Who is our God? Our God is the one to whom we give our time and attention.

OH GOD… “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

-Psalm 90:12

(This originally started as a newsletter article years ago based on a message I had heard once at Cherry Run Camp. Then it became a blog post in January 2011. Now, it is ‘resurrected’ today here and served as the foundation for my Sunday morning sermon at Carmichaels: First United Methodist Church.)

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Big Jim Is Coming!

Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12 (Good News Translation)

1 At that time John the Baptist came to the desert of Judea and started preaching. “Turn away from your sins,” he said, “because the Kingdom of heaven is near!” John was the man the prophet Isaiah was talking about when he said,

“Someone is shouting in the desert,
    ‘Prepare a road for the Lord;
    make a straight path for him to travel!’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair; he wore a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. People came to him from Jerusalem, from the whole province of Judea, and from all over the country near the Jordan River. They confessed their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan.

When John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him to be baptized, he said to them, “You snakes—who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. And don’t think you can escape punishment by saying that Abraham is your ancestor. I tell you that God can take these rocks and make descendants for Abraham!10 The ax is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire. 11 I baptize you with water to show that you have repented, but the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals. 12 He has his winnowing shovel with him to thresh out all the grain. He will gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out.”

 = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Imagine, if you will, the Old West of America’s past. There is this rider coming into town as fast as his horse will carry him shouting: “BIG JIM IS COMING! BIG JIM IS COMING!”

People scurry about and run away, and within minutes the town is basically empty. It’s a ghost town, except for the barkeeper over at the saloon.

At the exact stroke of 1:00, there is this huge, mean-looking man who walks through the door of saloon. As he gets to the bar, he looks at the barkeeper and gruffly says: “Give me a whiskey!”

The poor barkeeper is scared almost out of his senses, but he grabs a bottle of whiskey and hands the whole bottle to the guy. The man bites off the top of the bottle and  downs the entire contents in one swallow.

The barkeeper ventures over and timidly asks: “You want another, mister?”

The guy looks up in astonishment and replies: “Are you kidding? I gotta get outta here! Haven’t you heard, BIG JIM IS COMING!”
You know, John the Baptist was looked at the same way as the man at the bar in that story.  People thought HE must be the Messiah that they had been waiting for centuries. But he was just the precursor… a forerunner. Sort of like seeing the previews before the feature presentation at the movies… you can get a glimpse of what the future movie will be about, but you cannot see the whole thing right yet. THAT was who John the Baptist was. Prophetic scripture says John’s purpose was to PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD!

In 2004, when the Olympics came to Georgia, the whole city got a facelift. Bridges were repaired. Blocks of dilapidated buildings were razed and new structures were built. Roads were repaved. Entire buildings were repainted.

WHY?

Because “company was coming.”

We do that too when really important company is coming to our homes right?

Well, that’s what John the Baptist was doing. He came to help the people of God of the first century get ready for company. God Almighty was coming in human form: Jesus.

He called them to prepare by repenting; reexamining their spiritual walks, their spiritual lives.

Their ancestors had been set free from slavery to Egypt back in the days of Moses and brought into the promised land through the Jordan River by Joshua. But since that time, they had turned their hearts and become enslaved to sin. John offered them the chance to renounce sin as their master and re-enter the Jordan as a symbol of re-entering the promised land. Once again, to leave their enslavement in the waters of the Jordan.

Now, I realize, that many are wondering why I’m preaching about John the Baptist before Christmas. Because it’s ADVENT, the time of waiting, the time of preparation. And also because, even though Christians the world over are spending almost a month pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born yet, the truth is that he was born over 2000 years ago and grew up and John the Baptist prepared the people for his coming to the Israelites of his day. And then Jesus ministered to them and died for them and was raised to life for them to be their Savior, their Lord, their Master.

He died for US and was raised to life for US to be OUR Savior, OUR Lord, OUR Master.

That’s the real message of Christmas isn’t it? That’s the real message of HOPE! Not that Jesus is a powerless little baby that WAS a long time ago. NO, but rather Christmas is about how that helpless baby grew up, showed us how to live, and then died for us, was raised to life by God, ascended into Heaven and IS STILL ALIVE EVEN NOW! AND HE IS THE LORD!! He’s no longer helpless and all we have to do is feel the joy of new life and new birth. Rather, we are called into relationship with the grown up, crucified, resurrected, and ascended LORD!

And the time of waiting, for US, isn’t to see Him come as a baby in a country 10,000 miles away in an insignificant little town in a third world country. The truth is that we wait for HIS RETURN to the earth, not as a baby, but as Lord, as the Coming Conqueror who will put an end to sin and death, fear and suffering and pain. We wait for His coming.

The question for us is the same question John the Baptist was asking: Are you prepared for the soon coming of the Lord??

But more too… Are those around us prepared? It wasn’t enough for John to be prepared, for he surely was. He wanted to see his fellow countrymen and women prepared as well. How about us?

Are we prepared for Christ’s return? Are we ready to see Him, either in His second coming or by going to Him through death?

How about our families? Our friends? Our co-workers? Are they prepared? The Bible doesn’t have much of a pretty picture for those who are not. This is important stuff… ETERNALLY!

Before Christ came into his ministry as deliverer and savior, God sent John to prepare the way. Before Christ comes again, before our fellow workers, friends, and families met Christ, God has sent you and me as the modern-day John who warns others: “Are you ready?”

 – – – First preached at Spartansburg & Parade Street UMCs Dec. 6, 1998 – – –

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Good Grief!

I love being an American. The freedoms, the pride, the heritage, the beauty of this land. They stir my heart.

But when it comes to this area of dealing with death and grief… our American culture fails pretty badly.

To start with we are a death-denying culture… Until a big crisis or disaster, we don’t talk about death. We act immortal, like nothing we ever do will hurt us and we can live forever.

And IF something happens that DOES capture our attention in this area, and death hits our own families or perhaps a famous person like Dale Earnhardt or Robin Williams or Princess Di, we couch our feelings and emotions in our own little mythologies… Trying to comfort each other with phrases about how God needed another angel so that must be why that particular person had to die. And our attempts at helping the one struggling with grief usually boils down to well-meaning, yet useless phrases like, “Be strong for your kids,” or telling parents who’ve lost a child: “Well, you can have more” or telling a young boy who’s lost a dad that he’s got to be the man now… and “men don’t cry.”

Most of the time, when we’re dispensing our own brand of seeming wisdom, we’re more likely to simply avoid anyone that we know is dealing with grief.

They feel the pain of loss, and we feel badly for them, we want them to feel better, so we either want to say “the right words” that’ll make them feel better and make their grief go away or we don’t want to be around them because we’re afraid we’ll say something that will make them feel worse… and then we’ll feel worse. So we don’t talk about it.

I’m reminded of a poem I once heard that talked about this uneasiness we feel, especially in America, and how hurtful it is for people to respond that way…

“The Elephant in the Room”

There’s an elephant in the room.
It is large and squatting,
so it is hard to get around it.
Yet we squeeze by with “How are you?”
and “I’m fine” …
And a thousand other forms of trivial chatter.
We talk about the weather.
We talk about work.
We talk about everything else –
except the elephant in the room.

There’s an elephant in the room.
We all know it is there.
We are thinking about the elephant as we talk together.
It is constantly on our minds.
For, you see, it is a very big elephant.
It has hurt us all.
But we do not talk about the elephant in the room.
Oh, please say her name.
Oh, please say “Barbara” again.

Oh, please, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
For if we talk about her death,
Perhaps we can talk about her life.
Can I say “Barbara” to you and not have you look away?
For if I cannot, then you are leaving me
Alone …
In a room …
With an elephant.

Paul, in First Thessalonians, chapter 4, writes that he doesn’t want the Christians there to be “ignorant” about those who “have fallen asleep”… those who have died… But his reason is more than to just give knowledge or to be theologically clear… He says that he wants to clear up the confusion surrounding the death of Christians so that the Christians there who are still alive won’t “grieve as others do who have no hope.”

Essentially, Paul is filling us in that there is a Christian way of grieving… there can be “Good Grief.”

If grieving is the process of coming to terms with the feelings of loss… and then finding the comfort we so desperately need so that we can move on with the rest of our life… then part of the question is where do we find that kind of comfort… or as Paul said it… that kind of HOPE… that kind of help.

As Christians, instinctively, we turn to the Scriptures… and the Scriptures declare:

“My help comes from the Lord”

The first way God can help us in times of grief or trouble, is through the Scriptures. We read in the Bible what it has to say about death, about dying, about what follows this life, about what happens to those who die in the Lord… to those who die as believers in Jesus Christ.

In the Bible we find that those believers who have already died are called a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1)… and the Bible describes those dead believers as ones who are watching us here like spectators in the grandstands, rooting and cheering for us as we complete our part of the relay race of faithful living.

In the Bible, we find comforting words like Isaiah 57:1 where it says that “The righteous man perishes, & no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity.” And in Revelation 14 we read:

“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” –Rev. 14:13

In the Bible we read that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (II Cor. 5:8)… and that when we find ourselves in that resurrection of the dead when we find ourselves before our Lord, we shall be like him as he is… And we know what that will be like because the Bible says that Jesus’ resurrection was the “firstfruits” the downpayment and example of what our resurrection will be like… You want to know what it’ll be like in that final resurrection… you look at what Jesus was like after his resurrection…

Notice, he knew the people around him and they were able to recognize him… and he wasn’t relegated to some lower status as an angel… one who simply serves God and His creatures… No, to die and be resurrected is to step into the inheritance of the kingdom… not become mere lowly angel…

Not only does the Bible help us understand what happens after death for the believer… but it points us to how to find the comfort and help we need in times of our own grief and loss.

We read words like these:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

 [2 Corinthians 12:9a; KJV]

“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also… I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you… Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”   [John 14:1-3, 18, 27; KJV]

 

“Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”                                                         [Isaiah 43:1b-2; KJV]

Well, if the first part of “Good grief” is the truths of Scripture, the second component would have to be prayer.

The Bible tells us that if we seek God, we WILL find Him… When we look for God in prayer, He WILL be found by us. (Jeremiah 29:13-14)

In another place, we are told that God says of us: “He shall call upon me and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him. (Ps. 91)

And again we read: “If you abide in me and I in you, you shall ask what you will and it shall be done unto you.” (John 15:7)

If we want to know His help, his comfort, we have only to ask…. and God will be with us… In fact, at Christmas time we hear how one of the names of Jesus is “Emmanuel”… which means God Is With Us. (Matthew 1:23)

Part of the “good” experience of grief we can have as Christians is through our seeking God in prayer.

The third component of this “Good Grief” I want to share with you this morning comes from the body of Christ itself… through the people of God, the believers.

In the book of Romans we read that as children of God, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are expected to “rejoice with those that rejoice & weep with those that weep…”

God, through his people, weeps with us, even as we stand in line to pay our respects, or bring food to the family so they don’t have to cook or buy groceries in the midst of those crucial first days when they are just coming to grips with the enormous loss in their lives.

God is with us, in a baby’s laughter, which is so contagious… so wonderful, so releasing… And we hear God reminding us that life and love go on.  I can’t tell you the number of times when God has used the children and the babies as a healing touch from Himself during the days leading up to the final goodbye to a parent, grandparent, brother or sister.

But God is especially with us, through his people, when we sit around and remember the good things of our life together with the one we’ve lost. We share the stories… We share the memories… even the heartbreaks.

That’s why it’s such a ministry for churches to offer funeral dinners, not as a fundraiser, but as a ministry… because after the final goodbye… it’s time for the people of God to help those who’ve lost a loved one to remember the ways that God touched their lives and the life of the deceased… That way, no one ever gets left in a room alone with an elephant.

God is with us when we, the brother or sister in Christ, takes time out to just listen… not to give the right answers… but to be the right listener… Even though the grieving person may sometimes not make sense or may repeat themselves. Sometimes, it’s just hanging out with someone… and sharing silence… together.

Part of our healing comes as we sepnd time together with the rest of the body of Christ… that’s why it’s so important to remember to include those who’ve faced loss in our plans…

And just one more word about grief and loss, particularly as Christians, before we wind this up…

It’s not just the death of a loved one that leads us into grief is it?

There are all kinds of deaths and losses in our lives… even as Christians.

Death of a marriage, estrangement of a son or daughter… or parents… loss of health… loss of a job… and more…

These all lead us into grief… and, as Christians, there is a “Good Grief” available as we turn to the truths of Scriptures, turn to God in prayer, and turn to our brothers and sisters in Christ and let them help us walk through the pain of grief and loss.

This morning, I want to especially invite anyone who is especially feeling the sting of grief, the effects of loss, whether because of death or some other loss… I want to invite you to pray with me… Please feel free to come to the altar rail and I’ll pray for you here and now… Maybe that prayer is right there where you are in your pew… and maybe you want to just jot me a note that says “Pastor, I’m facing that kind of pain, the pain of grief, in this situation… or that…” or maybe you just want to let me know you’d like to talk later…

Perhaps, you realize that you’re in the throes of grief and loss, but have never accepted Jesus as your Lord, your Savior, and so you don’t feel His comfort… you’re missing out on His help. Remember, God Himself said He’d be found if you just started looking for Him… Ask Jesus to come into your life and heart and make you one of His children.

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FLASH BACK: Half-Full or Half-Empty

On this Halloween 2016, a FLASH BACK to one of my classic posts: “Half-Full or Half-Empty from October 2006… and the essence of last week’s Sunday morning sermon…

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waterFor this week’s sermon, I started with an object in hand: Half a glass of water. My question to the congregation was simply, “Is it half-full or half-empty?”

The answer of course, depends on your perspective… the way you choose to view the glass.

Are you an optimist? Then it looks half-full to you, doesn’t it?

Are you a pessimist? Then it looks half-empty, doesn’t it?

It all depends on your perspective!

There is only one glass, only one quantity of water, yet there are two different views you could have regarding that glass and that water. You could believe it to be half-full or you could believe it to be half-empty. And both answers seem to be acceptable answers and both seem to be right. It all depends on your perspective.

During this next couple of weeks, everyone around us will be focusing on the fun and festivities of Halloween, and many of us here in this sanctuary right now have already made plans for what our family will be doing that evening.

Halloween can be a lot of fun. If you are allowing your children to go trick or treating or to a Halloween party or whatever, I hope it is a fun event. It ought to be.

Throughout my adult life I have run the gammet on what I believe with Halloween as a Christian. When I worked at the Olean General Hospital as an orderly, I guess I still didn’t think about it too much. Somehow I would always end up working on October 31st, and the tradition was to dress up as a character of some sort. The only one I remember was that I spent one Halloween night (3:00 to 11:00) dressed as a modern prince. You know, three piece suit, cape, sash, crown, rings, dress shoes. Trying to do my job in that get up was a royal pain, to say the least. Especially when a patient died and, as the orderly, I had to take her to the morgue… dressed up in a suit… on Halloween night… and there was a full moon to boot.

Other years, as I’ve come to understand some of the realities of what all happens on Halloween night, like the razor blades, the drugs, the occult practices, I’ve refused to participate in the day at all. I had more of a fear of all the occultic stuff I guess.

Bit by bit, though, I have come to understand that it’s my perspective that makes the difference. Just like that glass of water… half-full or half-empty… it depends on your perspective.

I COULD look at Halloween as an evil holiday, originally instituted as a druid festival with heavy emphasis on the occult. I COULD focus on the druid “Lord Of Death” that supposedly sent evil spirits out on the night before ALL HALLOW’S DAY to roam the earth in search of food which, if not given, would cast an evil spell on the person who would not help. I COULD focus on the masks and costumes the Celts wore to try and convince the Lord of Death that they were just one of his spirits, so he should leave them alone.

And all of those things are true. They are the reason behind our “give us a treat or we’ll play a trick on you” attitude of trick or treat and our dressing up in costumes. But I think that just might be the wrong perspective. That’s fear speaking.

We have been taught as Christians that we are in the world but not of it. We have to be a part of the world. We’ve been called to be in the world… rubbing shoulders with the everyday people, with sinners, with mean people, and yes, even with those who don’t understand us or our Lord. We, as Christians, will continue to encounter those people every day, because we are IN the world. But we don’t have to be LIKE the world. Because we’re the ones who know the HOPE that there is through Jesus Christ.

Jesus said in his sermon on the mount, that we are to be salt. (Matthew 5:13) Salt is never very good on its own, but it always changes the taste of the food it is put on. And the salt itself never gets to really choose what food it will affect…it has the same effect on every piece of food it touches… it makes it more salty. It gives it a new taste.

I guess that’s where I am now with my understanding of my responsibility as a Christian when it comes to Halloween. I must be salt and help change its flavor. I need to help redeem this holiday like Christians in the past helped to redeem midwinter pagan rituals and gave rise to our current birthday celebration for Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

What does that mean, in practical terms, for me as a Christian then? I have discovered two practical ways that I can help redeem this holiday as a salty Christian. I’ll take the good of this holiday and focus on that and draw people’s attention to the truth.

First of all, I can emphasize the good things, while taking a stand against the evil. As our children have grown, we have deliberately allowed them to dress up for the Halloween parties at school, and let them go to select neighbors’ houses for trick or treat… but never were they allowed to hide their faces behind a Freddy mask or dress as a goblin, a witch, or a vampire. We reject that part of the ancient traditions of Halloween of trying to convince the evil one that we are just another demon spirit so that hopefully he’ll leave us alone. The Bible says that Jesus Christ is greater than any other spirit. And followers of Christ have nothing to fear.

So we could allow our girls to play dressup, and still take a stand against the false belief that we must fear the evil spirit lord. In fact, for this next weekend’s costume party out at the church camp, thrown by the youth group for ALL of the church, my kids will have the option to be dressed up if they want, without a mask, without the evil disguises. And without the fear.

One year one of the girls decided to be an angel and the other was Sleeping Beauty. One time Michele was Pocahontas and Sarah was a skunk. They dressed up and had fun. And they can again this year as well.

And yes, if kids come to our door this year for trick or treating, we’ll have a treat for them… not because we’re scared of the repercussions if we don’t, but because my Bible speaks of generosity, and “suffering the little children.”

The other aspect of what I need to be doing as a Christian when it comes to Halloween is to recognize the underlying spiritual message of this holiday.

The message of today’s modern Halloween is still spiritual, and I don’t just mean the occultic influences…. it is a pre-occupation with death… and what comes after we die. Just take a look at the decorations in the stores, on homes, and on the TV… We have ghosts and skeletons and gravestones and the un-dead (whatever that’s supposed to be). We hear of evil spirits and witches and “bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble.” And Hollywood always seems to have a new thriller/horror movie out that packs the movie theatres.

Halloween, and the time leading up to it, is the one time of year that our society says it’s OK to deal with death. And seemingly everyone becomes fascinated with it. My responsibility as a Christian, trying to be salt and redeem some of this holiday, is to recognize the spiritual hunger that I see during this Halloween season.

Because we all hunger for a reality in the spiritual world. We long for there to be forces at work on our behalf in the spiritual dimension. We have a society that literally cries out in abandon at Halloween for there to be an answer to death… to spiritual life. And they fall back on “ancient wisdoms”. They try to control the spirit world on demand, they try to conjur and channel and image. They look for spiritual truth.

And so often, we Christians deny there’s any spiritual dimension to the day (or we go the other extreme and refuse to even acknowledge it). I believe we have a responsibility to acknowledge the spiritual hunger… because we are the ones who have the bread of life… Jesus Christ as our Lord and our Savior.

And we are the ones who know the most about death… because Jesus came back from there and said,

 

I am the resurrection and I am life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, and I hold the keys of hell and death.
Because I live, you shall live also.

We have nothing to fear from death, because Jesus defeated death. All death has left, is fear.

Knowing that we would have trouble understanding this, Jesus, just before he went to Calvary, took the disciples aside and spent some time with them explaining what was on the other side of death and how to face it on this side during our lives. He didn’t say we had to wear evil disguises and hide our faces. No treats or offerings to demon spirits were needed. He simply said that we shouldn’t be afraid… and then went on to tell us about the other side of death, for those who allow Jesus to be both their Lord and their Savior. He simply said:

 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
Because I live, you also will live.
Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

When Jesus spoke of us as salt, he never expected us Christians to just act like Christians when we are at church. He spoke of us as salt so that we would get a clear picture of our role in this world. We help even the bad stuff seem better. Not by sugar coating evil nor by compromising our standards, but by recognizing spiritual hunger and offering spiritual bread… a life with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Because, when all is said and done, and the final analysis is in, it is JESUS that this Halloween minded society is looking for. The questions concerning spiritual forces are answered when Jesus proclaims I AM THE WAY. And in all our uncertainty, Jesus answers even our unspoken, unuttered questions, by declaring I AM THE TRUTH. And our questions concerning death and the afterlife are answered when Jesus reveals: I AM THE LIFE.

I have a mission this Halloween… to redeem what I can of the good, take a stand against that which is evil, and to lift up the truth of Jesus Christ.

Because you see… the glass really is… half-full.

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Blessed To Be A Blessing

This morning’s Scripture Text, Genesis 12:1-7, along with the rest of the passages that talk about Abraham and his relationship with God, may very well be the “key” to understanding the Old Testament, and the New Testament as well.

Our understanding of how God relates to his chosen people, the children of Israel, and later, by spiritual adoption, to the church, can all be traced back to Abraham and his relationship with God.

A basic understanding of the dynamics and tensions in our current world situation, as shown nightly on the evening news, can be traced as well to this point in the Holy Scriptures; for the Christian, Jewish, and even Muslim religions trace their history back to Abraham.

Several themes that we see throughout Scripture, have their birth here.

  • A chosen people,
  • Abraham’ “seed,”
  • Separating ourselves from the evil in the world,
  • following God’s leading…even when we don’t understand where He’s taking us,
  • the need for sacrifice if we are to truly worship God. It starts here.

What is it that is so important? What happens that opens up the mystery of the scriptures?

Just this: God Almighty, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, makes a promise to his friend Abraham.

A promise. Actually a covenant.

While I don’t intend to delve into all of the depths of the Abrahamic Covenant this morning, I do want to zero in on a couple parts of Abraham’s story.

First, how God calls him, and then on one portion of that covenant between God and Abraham. We don’t know a lot about Abraham before he was 75 years old. We know his name was originally “ABRAM” which means high father, but that God later honors him with a new name: “ABRAHAM” which means father of multitudes.

Chapter 11 of Genesis tells us his family tree and that the family originally came from a city called “UR” down near the Persian Gulf. We are told in Gen. 11:31 that Abraham’s father “TERAH took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to [the town of] Haran, they settled there.”

I suspect that Terah and his family already knew this God personally. For them to hear God tell them to leave their home, and then for them to actually get up and get moving, suggests that they might actually have known Him somehow. I wonder if some of the family stories about a loving, caring God who wanted relationship with His created people had been handed down generation to generation from Adam and Eve all the way to Noah had continued to be told and remembered after the ark by his descendants, all the way to Terah.

And the call of God comes to Terah’s family while they in UR to go to Canaan, but they got about halfway and settled down.  How many times are we like that? We hear God calling us to do something or we know that he wants us to do something, and we get started, but somewhere along the way get distracted and get comfortable and never quite finish the job.

I can understand that. I am told that I was like that with my parents when I was growing up. I was always the obedient son, you know, but on occasion, very rarely I’m sure, but on occasion, I would be asked to do something (like clean my room) and I would start, like a good obedient child should, but I’d get distracted by the missing comic book I had been looking for and had just found, or by a newly refound missing toy, or a book, or a ball, or whatever. (Actually, it didn’t take much at all to get me distracted.) But the end result was, I never finished the job…on my own.

And no matter how good our intentions, no matter how obedient our beginnings, it only counts in the final tally if we finish the task. The family stops in Haran and Terah dies there.

But God reissues the call, like a loving patient parent reminds us to get back to our assigned task, God speaks to Abraham to GO and offers him this covenant. And Abraham obeys.

Look again with me, if you will, to our first exposure to that covenant: Genesis 12:1-3.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;  I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth  will be blessed through you.”

The key is right there in verse 2: “I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

“I will bless you… and you will be a blessing.”

Ever since Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden, sin had played havoc on all living creatures. The curse of sin allowed sickness, disease, stubborness, jealousy, perversion, arrogance, meanness to become daily partners with the very people that God had intended to have a constant, daily friendship with.

And when He found a man who was hungry for that kind of relationship with God, He began opening up the gates of Heaven.

All of the basic foundational principles of the Bible are here. God wants to have a daily friendship relationship with his people. He wants to bless them…he wants to have a daily friendship relationship with US. He wants to bless us.  But sin continues to separate us from God and, basically, ties God’s hands. He provides the way for us to have relationship with him, but we must choose to accept that. Abraham had to continue on with sacrifices of animals as temporary sacrifices. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is our sacrifice and we need only accept Jesus as our Lord and savior.

But the fact remains, God wants to pour out blessings on us. But catch the reason why… “I will bless you… and you will be a blessing.”

It’s not JUST that He loves us and wants to bless us…He loves ALL.

What does John 3:16 say again? For God so loved who?  Not just the Jews. Not just the Christians. The world. The WHOLE world! Because he loved the world, he sent his son Jesus Christ to die in our place.

But he chooses us, the people of God, in the same way that he chose Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites. He chooses us to bless SO THAT WE CAN BE A BLESSING TO OTHERS. We were never meant to just be blessed. WE are blessed so that we can bless others… so that God, through us, can change lives that are still bound by sin.

I love the way the Apostle Paul words it in the New Testament…

Galatians 3:13-14 (NIV) Christ redeemed us… in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

How about you? Have you been blessed by God? Salvation? Physical blessings? Relationship blessings? Financial blessings? Blessings of physical strength or special skills?

If you HAVE been blessed, then God has deliberately chosen you to be His way of blessing others. Not that you have to give away everything and live in a cave in the desert, but rather you and I DO have a responsibility to share the blessings we have received with those others in need when we become aware of their need.

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