Share the GREATEST News!! – John 3:16-17

Well we are now at the final sermon in this series of introducing myself to you. I have told you about my imperfect nature and the importance of forgiveness. I have shared with you my love for rocks like geodes and how God and Jesus are our rock. And last week I talked to you about teamwork and how much good the Church could do if it worked together more. So on this last Sunday of this sermon series I am ending with something that is especially close to my heart and my calling to work in God’s ministry. Today we are going to talk about…the “E” word…yep, that’s right – EVANGELISM!

Now I know that the word evangelism has not exactly been the most shining example of God’s love throughout time. One only need look at the devastation of the Crusades to see some of the evidence. Thousands of lives were lost and many other atrocities were committed in the name of God. Evangelism has been used as a form of manipulation in some countries where missionaries promised food and medicine if people would only give up their current ways of life and commit to living the so-called “Christian Life”. And not just with adults, but with children as well. Coercion and manipulation are not reflective of God’s love. And yet, humanity has used them in God’s name time and time again.

Evangelism can also be a scary word for the people who are asked to do it, or are trying to begin doing it. When we think of evangelism we tend to imagine knocking on the doors of strangers, or maybe someone standing on a street corner with a megaphone condemning those who pass by. It can also be scary because when we share our faith we are sharing a core part of ourselves, and when someone rejects what we are sharing, our faith, we feel as though we too are being rejected.

But we will come back to the “E” word in a few minutes. Right now I would like you to think about the last time you received some good news. Maybe it was medical diagnosis that you were healed from an illness. Maybe it was a phone call from a loved one who you had not seen in a while and them telling you they were coming to visit. Maybe you picked up the sports section of the newspaper and saw that the Tigers had won another game and increased their lead in the standings. Maybe you found out you were getting a raise at work. Maybe your child came home with a higher test score that you were expecting in a subject they had struggled in.

These are all things that we would count as “Good News”. Good news is information that makes us smile, makes us happy, and it brings us a feeling of joy. So when we look at our Scripture reading for today from the Gospel of John, isn’t this declaration of salvation and forgiveness also “Good News”? God loved the world SO much, that he sent his ONLY son into the world to die for the sins of the world and save it for all eternity. That sounds like “Good News” right?

NO! This is not “Good News”. “Good News” makes us smile. It is something we share intentionally with people we know and love. So no, these words of the Gospel of John are not in fact “Good News”. Right about now you are all probably thinking I have completely lost my mind and am speaking blasphemy. How can he say that? These are the most quoted and published Scripture verses in the Bible! How can he say this isn’t “Good News”? They tell us about Jesus’ dying to save us. How can this not be the “Good News”?

Well before you all go running off to call the District Superintendent or the Bishop, allow me a few more minutes to explain. As I said, “Good News” is something that makes us smile and that we share intentionally with people we know and love. This message of love and salvation in these verses just does not fit that profile, I’m sorry.

No, I would classify the immortal words “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” as not “Good News”, but “THE GREATEST NEWS”!!!!!!

Think about it. What could possibly be better news that this? God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to die for our sins and wipe the slate clean. God loves us so much that he was willing to sacrifice his son, part of the triune God, so that we would not suffer for our sins and be apart from him. God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to the world not to condemn it, but to SAVE IT! Folks it doesn’t get any better than that!

God could have easily left us to our own devices and let us fall into a tailspin of suffering and death. But he didn’t because he loves us. I’ll be honest, I have tried for almost all of my life to find a fair comparison of God’s love for us and I just don’t think there is one. God has been compared to a father or mother loving their children, and I will admit that’s pretty close. But it still does not fully explain just how powerful God’s love is and how deep it goes.

This is the GREATEST NEWS EVER! It’s not the “Good News” or the “Okay News” or the “Pretty Neat News”. No, this is the GREATEST NEWS – period. It cannot get better than this and it never will get better than this because God already sent Jesus to die and resurrect to save us. The battle is over and done. God won, end of story.

Well…sort of end of story. Yes, God’s victory is already completed and secure. But sharing and spreading that God’s love is a never ending work that we have been called to do. Remember when I said that “Good News” is something you intentionally share with people you know and love? While that is also true of the “Greatest News”, this is more. When it comes to the “Greatest News” of God’s love and Jesus’ saving acts, we do not ONLY share it intentionally with those we know and love.

See God’s love is so strong, so powerful, that whether we realize it or not, we are sharing it every second of every day. When we live out our faith authentically, God’s love shines through us by what we say, what we do, everything in our lives. But what does that mean, living out our faith authentically?

Well, I understand it to mean being open and honest about myself and my relationship with God, being open and honest with myself and with God. Think about that. If we truly believe in an all-powerful God, then God already knows everything about us anyways right? But when we pair that with being honest with ourselves about our faith and relationship with God, that, that is when we begin to find authenticity.
Folks we are each a living witnesses to God’s love by everything we do in our lives. We are. When we live out our faith authentically it is reflected in our lives. People will see you and notice something special in your life. They may not fully understand what they see, but they will see something when they are with you and when they observe you. There is an attraction and a peace that people will experience as you live out your faith authentically in your life.

So is that it? We just need to live out our faith authentically and the rest takes care of itself? Not quite. While I believe very strongly that evangelism is not just the act of proclamation, we should also not be inactive either. Let me be very clear. I am not saying we should sit quietly until we experience some great revelation or we hear some voice off in the distance outlining what we should do. Not at all. Rather I am saying we should engage with people and trust that the Holy Spirit is with us in those moments and will guide our words, even when we feel unsure or scared.

American theologian Leonard Sweet wrote in his book titled Nudge that the Holy Spirit is like basketball star Michael Jordan during his playing days with the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls coach Phil Jackson at the end of games would tell the other players to just give Michael the ball and get out of his way. Sweet suggests that when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit, we too need to get out of the way. This did not sit well with me I’ll be honest, but as I read on Sweet continues to say that it is not that we have nothing to do. Rather he impresses that we not do anything to hinder the Holy Spirit in its work. That sounds a lot better right?

So how do we not hinder the Holy Spirit? I think part of it at least goes back to what I just mentioned about trusting in the Holy Spirit that we are not alone in these moments of witness. And I know the idea of trusting is hard for a lot of people, especially trusting in something we cannot directly see or even directly hear. But when we are able to trust, we will find the right words and we will be a shining example of God’s love for the world.

So what now? We have established that the message found in our Scripture reading is not just good news, but the “Greatest News” ever! Awesome! What do we do now? How do we take this and do something with it? How do we go out and share the “Greatest News” ever with the world? How do we bring this ultimate joy to other people without making them angry, feel upset, or maybe even cause an argument?

Well we know that manipulation, oppression, and forcefulness are not good techniques to employ. And I have talked about trusting the Holy Spirit and living out our faith authentically. But there is more we can do. When we read about how Jesus lived and loved people, we can go and emulate that. We can care for one another and really help each other. We can do things like working with the Food Pantry. We can take time to be with people who are lonely or facing difficult times. We can share the blessings we have received from God with those in need.

And I know many of you here today are already doing these types of things. I know because some of you have shared with me some of the outreach that you and others have done both through this church, as well as on your own. But even before you might have shared that with me, I already knew. I already knew because the first time I saw you I could see something in you and in your life. I could see God’s love and I could see the Holy Spirit at work.

But we cannot stop now! No, because there is so much more to do. There are still so many people who do not know God or do not know God’s love the way that you already do. The Pew Research Center reported recently that over 78% of Americans identify as Christian. But how many people do you know who identify as Christian but do not seem to know God’s love? How many of them no longer attend church because they have been hurt or even chased out? How many have an emptiness in their lives they cannot seem to fill?

We need to continue to witness every second of every day by living out our faith authentically and loving each other the way that God and Jesus have loved us. We need to trust that the Holy Spirit is always with us and guiding our hearts and our words. We need to emulate the life of Jesus and be Jesus to the world, through love and everything we do.

And when I think about these things we need to do, I always every single time come back to the same starting point: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Not “Good News”, but the “Greatest News”. When you leave here today go out and not just share the “Greatest News”, but live the “Greatest News”. Amen.

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Will the Church Make the Playoffs? – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

The last two weeks I have shared some things about myself with you including admitting I am not perfect, as well as my love for rocks and my hobby of lapidary work. So what’s on the docket for today? What else can I share with you about who I am and about my faith, while tying it into some verses from Scripture? Well this week – it’s all about sports and teamwork.

Now I know as someone from Illinois we may have some differences of opinion on some things. Tigers versus White Sox. Lions versus Bears. Pistons versus Bulls. And of course, Red Wings versus Blackhawks. Notice I did not mention the Cubs, because, let’s be honest – there hasn’t been much of an argument there for over a hundred years.

Now I would like to remind everyone about my sermon topic two weeks ago on forgiveness. Let’s not forget that one okay? Especially once the NHL seasons starts. As you may have noticed AJ is sporting his Blackhawks onesie, but don’t worry, he has a few Red Wings ones as well. So don’t worry, he will be raised as a fan of the game. And as long as the Wings and Hawks are not playing against each other, he will be cheering for the Wings all the way.

But what do sports and teamwork have to do with the Bible? I mean I know there are a LOT of extra prayers said on Sunday mornings during the NFL season and other sports’ playoff races and series…but what other connection is there? Does God really care if the Patriots win the Super Bowl? Was Jesus really helping Tim Tebow when he played for the Broncos?

My guess is probably not, but I also do not assume to know all of God’s plans and work in the world. But I would like to think that he is more concerned with how we treat one another, how we show our love to one another, and how we are modeling our own lives after the life and teachings of Jesus.

In our reading today from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, we hear about the value of a friend. Two are better than one because they will accomplish more in the same amount of time by working together. Two are better than one because if one falls, the other can help them up. Two are better than one because they can bring each other companionship. Two are better than one because they can help protect each other. Friends can be all of these things, or do all of these things for each another. But do they always?

In April of 1972, American singer-songwriter Bill Withers released his one and only number one single “Lean on Me”. The song has gone on to be used in countless charity events and covered by just as many musical artists and groups during the last forty years.

The refrain reads, “Lean on me when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on for it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.” Sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it? I’m not saying Mr. Withers found inspiration in Scripture, but I find it enlightening to hear the same message I find in Scripture in popular music. And Mr. Withers is not the only musician to share this message of friendship or teamwork or companionship. In 2013, Swedish DJ and producer Avicii debuted the song, “Hey Brother” with a very similar message.

In this song, the refrain reads “Ah, what if I’m far from home? Oh, brother, I will hear you call. What if I lose it all? Oh, sister, I will help you out! Oh, if the sky comes falling down for you, there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do.” Again, we find a message about helping and supporting one another like a friend or loved one might do.

Both Withers and Avicii echo the ideas in Ecclesiastes about helping one another back up after a fall and helping provide protection to the other. And I am sure if you took the time, you would find several other references or similar messages in other songs, movies, books, poems, and more. So if our popular culture seems to honor these ideas and raise them up in words and lyrics, it must then also attempt to embody those same ideas right? I mean, people must be rushing out into the streets to lend a helping hand to everyone they encounter right?

Well at the very least, as children of God and following the teachings of Jesus, Christians must be going out in droves to help people? I have to stop here and make it clear that I do not ask these questions to shame anyone or upset anyone. I ask them because they are in fact very serious questions. If we think about the Church, and I do not mean just this building or this group of people sitting here this morning, but rather the larger Church around the world of all believers in the saving acts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

If the Church were a sports team, would it make the playoffs? When we look at the winning teams of the major sports in this country, whether baseball, football, basketball, or hockey, the vast majority of those who went on to win their respective season championships were those who truly embodied a culture of teamwork. What if the Church did the same thing?

What if as Christians, we all made it a goal to every single day lend a helping hand to another person? And it does not even have to be something over-the-top or costing a great deal of money. Things as simple as holding a door open for someone, allowing someone to change lanes during a busy traffic time, going and visiting someone who has been ill, there are literally countless things that one could do. Can you picture it?

Can you imagine a world where people’s first reaction would be to help someone in need? And it is not that we are so far away from this ideal. Not at all. A lot of people do a great many things both locally and across the world. When natural disasters have struck both here and abroad, there has been an outpouring of assistance including financial and medical help. After the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, aid was sent from all over the world. And when hurricane Katrina crashed into the shores of New Orleans in 2005, or hurricane Sandy that destroyed so much of the east coast, again – aid came flooding in.

As a group humanity does have a track record of working together and helping one another. But I wonder how much more we could do, especially working together. For example, let us look at the efforts of the Imagine No Malaria campaign of our own United Methodist Church denomination. We are not just working towards, but within a reasonable distance of completely wiping out a disease that takes the lives of over 700,000 people every year. 700,000. According to the data of a 2010 census, that would be four times times the population of Saginaw County. Every year.

So we can see already where there are some amazing examples of what we can accomplish when we work together, like teammates or companions, both at a small and large scale. We can see how two, or in the case of the United Methodist Church some seven million, we can help and protect and care about each other.
But think about how much we might be able to do with more than just our one denomination! What if all Christians got together around the world. Could we wipe out the spread of AIDS? Homelessness? Hunger? Maybe. Maybe not. But we will never know either if we do not at least try, right?

Our denomination was built on the teachings and theology of John Wesley and the people called Methodists. And it was these people who were involved in social justice movements including prison reform, human rights, labor justice, healthcare, and slavery. They were the driving force behind Prohibition in the country and worked tirelessly for the welfare of laborers. As United Methodists we have this history and continue it today.

So again, I do not raise the questions of how much good work is being done to shame or upset anyone. Rather I raise them as a challenge to not only continue the work, but also to grow it and strengthen it. Two are better than one because they will accomplish more in the same amount of time by working together. Two are better than one because if one falls, the other can help them up. Two are better than one because they can bring each other companionship. Two are better than one because they can help protect each other.

These actions to me sound like actions of love. And not necessarily just the love between a married couple or between two friends. No, to me I am reading about actions of love that Jesus did for others and has taught us to do as well. A love for another human being as a human being. It does not have to be a romantic love or a family-bound love. Rather the most powerful love that Jesus taught us, the love for one another as brothers and sisters in him and in God.

So once again, I close my message with a challenge to each and every one of you. When you leave here today, and every day going forward, remember the words of Mr. Withers and Avicii, and most importantly of Ecclesiastes. And do not just remember them, but live them. See everyone you meet as a child of God and love and support each other. Jesus gave us the two greatest commandments. First, to love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And second, to love your neighbor as yourself. So go out, love your neighbors, and maybe, just maybe the Church will not only make the playoffs this year, but maybe it will win the whole thing.

Amen.

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What About the 78th Time? – Matthew 18:21-22

Well here we are. The first Sunday with a new pastor. I know some of you may be feeling excited. What new things are going to happen? I also know some of you may be feeling worried or scared about what new things are going to happen. Let’s face it, change can be a scary thing. As humans we very often tend to resist the changes in life that come about. We can see this in the changes that occur in our immediate community and the larger world.

Every four years our country holds an election for the office of the President. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been elected with 100% of the vote. And when we look at the immediate aftermath, there are always those who are not pleased with the new change. Even a change as small as moving a piece of furniture in your home to a new spot can cause unrest, and if you are not careful stubbed toes or banged knees.

What is it about change that we seem to fear so much? Is it really just the inconvenience or the stubbed toes? Well in the case of a new pastor I think it is much more than that. New pastors add or remove things from the service. They pick weird songs that no one knows. They move things around. They are just kind of…different.

And all of these things, all of these differences, mean that sometimes, the important things to us in our churches and worship services are lost or changed. These are things that are part of our identity, of who we are. And when they are changed, our identity is changed. Our history is changed. We are changed. And that can be scary.

But I am not here today to talk to you about change. And I do not bring this all up to prepare you for some great change that I am planning to drop on you. I was paying close attention in seminary the day we were taught about making changes in congregations and I have seen what happens in churches when changes are made too quickly or without taking the congregation’s needs into account. Change for change’s sake is not a good practice in churches.

Rather I come to you today to talk about forgiveness. In our Scripture reading today from the Gospel of Matthew we heard about forgiveness as Jesus spoke with Peter and the other disciples. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who has sinned against him. And he even offers a suggestion of seven times. SEVEN!

I want you to think about someone in your life, someone you love very much like a spouse or a child or a parent. And think about how many times just this past week that you forgave them, whether out loud to their face or quietly in your heart. Chances are that if we followed Peter’s suggestion of seven times we would soon run out of people in our life who would be forgivable. Our lives would be empty of loved ones and I think as a whole the world would become a miserable and lonely place in ways we can only imagine.

And what about our world today? Where do we see the message of forgiveness portrayed? Not too much in popular culture that’s for sure. One only needs to turn on the TV to one of the live competition shows like Big Brother or other reality shows like the Real Housewives of New Jersey to find a much different message than forgiveness. From my experience one of the primary messages in those shows is revenge and retaliation, and definitely not forgiveness.

It seems any time anyone feels wronged in any way by another, the first thoughts are revenge or retribution. Now I am not saying that you should not watch these types of shows or you should not seek justice. Not at all. It just seems to me that forgiveness has gotten a little lost in our world today. Peter talked about only forgiving someone seven times. It sounds to me like the world Peter lived in is not that different from our own today in some respects…

But when we look back at what Jesus responds to Peter with, we find not only hope, but an important lesson. Jesus says to Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Or some translations say seventy times seven which would be almost 500 times! We are going to start having to carry around big note books or binders full of paper to keep track of that many times forgiving, right? No, no – that is not what Jesus meant. His point was that we should always forgive each other and not keep track or stop forgiving one another.

The words forgive, forgiveness, forgiven, and forgiving appear almost 150 times in the Bible. Seems to be a reoccurring theme. Jesus even includes it in the Lord’s Prayer he teaches to the disciples in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, using the words “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.”

And he makes an important distinction in that statement. Forgive us as we forgive others. We are asking God to forgive us for the things we have done wrong, just as we forgive others who have done things wrong to us. So if we do not forgive others, how can we ask God to forgive us? If we are not willing to forgive the sins of others that they commit against us, we are not only not following the teachings of Jesus, but we are not then trying to live our lives as Jesus lived.

So I stand before you this morning as your new pastor. And even though people sometimes have the idea that because you are a pastor you are somehow perfect or do not make mistakes, I am here to tell you that is not true. Just like you, I am human and I sin. I make mistakes. I have said things I don’t really mean and wish I could take back. I have sworn when I cut myself trying to do home improvement work. I have hurt people and caused pain to people. And I regret those actions every day, praying for forgiveness not only from God, but from the people I have sinned against.

And there will come a time, I promise you, that I will say or do something that will upset or hurt each and every one of you. I will forgot your name or fail to recognize a contribution you have made to the church or community. I will sin against you at some point, because I am human and I am flawed. These sins will not be done with malice or evil intent. But they will happen and I hope in those moments, you will be able to forgive me.

I also know that there will be moments that each and every one of you will sin against me as well. Because just like me, you too are human and have not yet moved on into perfection. And I also believe that these sins will not be done with malice or evil intent. But they will happen and I promise you today that in those moments, I will forgive you. Because that is what Jesus has taught us and called us to do.

Throughout the New Testament in the teachings of Jesus, he challenges and calls his disciples, as well as us, to be different than the dominate culture of the day. He calls us to care for each other, to forgive each other…to love each other. Jesus calls us to change the world in which we live through our own actions and how we live our lives. Think about how this world could be better if we all forgave and loved each other like Jesus forgives us and loves us.

So as you leave this place today I give you this one challenge, this one request. Forgive. Forgive one another, and forgive yourself. Follow the words of Jesus and always let forgiveness lead your heart. As humans we are flawed and we commit sins against each other. Let us live like Jesus did and forgive one another.

Amen.

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But What Should I Say? – Acts 2:1-21

Someone once said, and I stress the “someone” because I spent some time looking into this quote and believe me, there seems to be no clear agreement on who said, when they said, or what the occasion was. But I digress, someone once said “It is better to remain silent and be thought a Fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” When it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, we can find ourselves in a scary or unsure place, without any faith in the words we might use for fear of angering or hurting someone.

I want you to try to imagine the setting of our gospel reading today. The day of Pentecost was the “Fiftieth Day” after the Sabbath of the Passover week. It was one of the three great annual feasts of Israel, preceded by Passover and followed later by the Feast of Booths. Pentecost was also known as the “Feast of Harvest,” because the first fruits of the harvest were collected during this time.

So we enter the story in the midst of celebration and revelry. And as one of only three major annual feasts, you can imagine it being on par with one of the major holidays we celebrate today, like the fourth of July or New Year’s Eve. People were probably dancing and drinking, loud music was playing, and a general good time was being had.

While this is going on, the apostles and some hundred more followers are all together in a private residence, also celebrating the feast. When all of a sudden they hear a loud sound that is described as a violent wind blowing. Imagine a gust of wind from a tornado or hurricane that whipped around the building and then came rushing through. Jesus’ disciples have been waiting for something to happen, some sign to come to them, and even with that anticipation of some great thing occurring, even they were caught off guard and amazed by this.

Can you imagine yourself sitting there and witnessing this? Here sat the followers of Jesus, tasked with spreading the good news, and all of a sudden doors and windows are blown open and the entire space is filled with this great wind. What was going on? Let’s look at our world today for a moment now, and we will return to our gospel lesson in a bit.

Growing up I never really knew what evangelism was. During my visits to Chicago as a child, and later as a college student, I often witnessed people standing on street corners with bullhorns as they yelled out that we were all going to hell. A few of them would follow that with “unless you repent” or “if you don’t change your ways,” but I noticed that was not always stated. Sometimes it was simply, “you are all going to hell.” What a great expression of Christian love right?

I mean if you want to get people to do something what better tactic than fear and threats. I often wondered why people would use this method to try and bring someone to believe in a God that was supposed to be about love and grace. What was inspiring these messages of anger, of hatred? Were these the divine words of the God who sent his Son to die to save the world? Not the way I understood God and not the way I understood how we were called to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

So what do we do? How do we share the good news? Where do we find the words and strength to share with strangers, or with those we know and love, the good news of Jesus Christ? How do we overcome our shyness? In a world so focused on political correctness and personal rights, what words can we use that won’t cause harm to someone and yet still convene this crucial and important message? What are we as Christians to do? We’ll come back to that in a moment, but right now let’s get back to our Gospel story and see how things played out.

So when we left the disciples and other believers, a loud and violent wind was rushing through the house they were sitting in while celebrating a harvest feast. And just when things were probably looking their worst, something truly amazing happened. Tongues of fire appeared in the room and rested just above each person’s head. Now I don’t know about you, but I think I would have been more freaked out about a fire burning above my head than a powerful wind gust. I’ve seen enough Bugs Bunny and Looney Tune cartoons to know to be wary of that little flame.

But those present did not experience that fear. Partially I assume because Bugs Bunny would not debut for a few thousand years later, but more likely because as these flames came to rest above them they were filled the Holy Spirit. Think about that for a second. They were filled with the Holy Spirit! The very spirit of God entered into these people and filled them with God’s love and being.

But that was not all! No because then the people began speaking to each other and could understand one another. People who did not know Greek were able to speak to those who did not know Arabic and they could understand one another. The Holy Spirit was basically doing the work of all of the translators at the United Nations, but all at once and instantly. How awesome is that?

People who did not have a way to truly communicate with each other were now all of a sudden able to talk and share their faith with each other. Not only did the Holy Spirit open the way for communication, but also aided in the communication. The believers trusted God and the Holy Spirit gave them they words and the way to communicate with each other in a way that they could have never imagined. No worries over how something translates between languages or if something would be misunderstood. Just simple, clear communication between believers. How beautiful is that?

So back to today now. How does this story apply for us today? What is the takeaway we can find? Well, there is definitely the message of trusting in God. That goes without saying. We see what happens in the story when people put their trust in God. But there is another important message here that relates directly to the first. And that is to put our trust in the Holy Spirit, especially when it comes to evangelism and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

I know, I know – the “E” word is a scary thing. Talking to strangers…or worse, people you know…about God…and Jesus… And I get it, I really do. I mean faith is at our core. Our faith is such a central part of who we are. And to openly share that with someone else means also sharing ourselves. Becoming vulnerable. Much like telling another person you love them, sharing your faith can be a very scary thing. What if they reject you? What if they run away? Sharing your faith can be a leap of faith in and of itself.

But that is where we need to be trusting the Holy Spirit the most. We need to trust that the Holy Spirit will show us the way and give us the words. I am not saying we should sit quietly until we experience some great revelation or hear some distant voice. Not at all. Rather I am saying we should engage with people and trust that the Holy Spirit is with us in those moments and will guide our words, even when we feel unsure or scared.

And evangelism is not just the act of proclamation. No! We are evangelizing others in everything we say and do, each and every day. Evangelism is living out our faith authentically, in all we say and do. When we live out our faith authentically it is reflected in our lives. People will see you and notice. They may not fully understand what they see, but they will see something in your life when they are with you and when they see you. There is an attraction that people will experience as you live out your faith authentically in your life.

But what do I mean by authentically? I keep saying that word. Authentically. Well I understand it to mean being open and honest about myself and my relationship with God. Now I am not saying to go post a bunch of personal, private information to Facebook and Twitter. There are enough people doing that already I think. Rather, being open and honest with yourself and with God. Think about it. If we believe in an all powerful God, God already knows everything about us anyways. But when we pair that with being honest with ourselves about our faith and relationship with God, that is when we begin to find authenticity.

So today my friends I leave you with this challenge. Go out from this place today and live out your faith authentically. Evangelize to the world through what you say and do. Like the hymn says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Let the world see that love and when the opportunity arises, and believe it will, to share with someone about your faith – remember, the Holy Spirit is with you in that moment and always.

Amen.

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Just Pebbles and Sand – Matthew 7:24-27

For as long as I can remember I have loved and collected rocks. All kinds of rocks. Small ones, big ones…pretty much anything I could fit in my pockets usually. I especially loved hunting for rocks near beaches because there I would find some truly beautiful ones that had become smooth after years of being tumbled in the waves and the sand.

Around the time I turned 12 my mother enrolled me in a class through our local park district that taught one how to cut and polish stones. And I LOVED IT! I got to work with some truly amazing stones like onyx, agate, tiger’s eye, and one of my all-time favorites – obsidian. Needless to say my love of rocks has only grown and I keep them close to my heart. Literally. The cross I am wearing holds a piece of agate I cut many years ago.

So when I think of the many analogies that we assign to God I am sure you can guess which one might be my favorite…God is our rock!

In our Scripture reading today from the Gospel of Matthew where we find Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus as he is teaching the crowds that have gathered along the hillside. And just like many of the lessons that Jesus taught, there is good news and bad news that he offers. In this case, the bad news is for those who do not obey the words and lessons he offers.

Jesus compares that person’s situation to that of someone who has built his house on sand. Now something really important to know in this situation is that even though storms in the area of Palestine were the people were listen to Jesus were infrequent, when they did occur they could be exceptionally violent.

Have you ever made a sand castle at the beach? Ever made it a little too close to the water? And then a big wave comes by…yeah, you get the picture. Now image building a house on the beach. In Florida. During hurricane season. Not exactly the best idea right? That structure would be done in just a few minutes when a storm hits. If you have ever seen the videos on the news or online of some of the storms they get down there you know exactly what I am talking about. Not very safe or sound. Kind of a scary visualization right?

But was Jesus just talking about sand in the literal sense? In truth, the sand is a metaphor for the teachings and practices of humanity. The sand is when we worry more about things like how perfect our holiday table looks than enjoying the time with our family and friends, and the blessings we have been given. The sand is when we focus more on obtaining the luxuries of this world for ourselves than on helping those who cannot even put enough food on the table or find suitable shelter.

The more I think about it, this sand that Jesus speaks of is not just a poor foundation for building a shelter. It almost sounds more to me like a pool of quicksand that drags us down and suffocates us. It is the trappings of a world that does not lead with love as Jesus did, but instead is inwardly focused and centers its attention on gaining only for the individual.

But all is not lost or doom and glow. Prior to this terrifying warning of losing stability and being washed away in the storms of life, Jesus offers us the good news – the hope – that he brings. He tells that crowd, “So then, anyone who hears these words of mine and obeys them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain poured down, the rivers flooded over, and the wind blew hard against that house. But it did not fall, because it was built on rock.”

And he is not just talking about any old rock here. No, he is talking about himself, about God. He is talking about the solid foundation for faith and love that can only be found through his saving death and resurrection. He is talking about always being a place of safety and strength for us, no matter how bad the storms we encounter in our life. Even in those darkest, most frightening moments, Jesus is our rock and he always will be.

He is the rock that stands tall above the sand. The teachings and love of Jesus is the foundation that we should build our lives upon, our love upon, and our faith upon. Jesus is the surface that does not crack, does not wash away, does not shatter, no matter how bad or violent the storm may be. He is everlasting to everlasting and will always our strong foundation.

It is interesting that Jesus would choose to end his sermon, or teachings, in this way. He could have simply said that people need to follow his teachings because that was what God wanted. But rather he uses this powerful metaphor about foundations of homes and storms. He knew in that time and place that using that metaphor would connect with that group of people. They would not only understand him, but would be able to understand his words within their own context. Speaking in this way Jesus shows his authority in what he says and how he says it.

If you look in your bulletin you will see the title for the children’s message today was “What kind of rock would Jesus be?” I thought about this question for some time a few years ago and went through the many options in my mind. Would Jesus be a diamond, one of the most beautiful stones known to mankind? I could make that argument when we consider that diamonds are also used in tools and other technologies, not just jewelry. Diamonds help play many roles in our world, and unfortunately, just like the Christian faith, have been at the center of a great deal of bloodshed and fighting. No, I don’t think a diamond is the best comparison.

Maybe emerald, or ruby, or topaz? What about opal, or amethyst, or even sapphire? No, I think while those too are all potential candidates, there is instead one rock that fits as a perfect metaphor for Jesus. And that rock is a geode.

Let’s examine this a bit closer. On the outside, a geode can look just like any old rock – nothing special or anything to get excited about. Very often you can walk right by them and not even realize it. Experienced geode hunters know certain signs to look for, but most people just see a rock siting in the dirt or off in a field.

But when you open it up, you are exposed to some of the most beautiful crystal formations and colors ever seen! The bands of colors, the different layers that formed, and the thousands upon thousands of crystals that sparkle so wonderfully when the light hits them just right.

So just how does Jesus match up to a geode? Let’s start with the ordinary outside. On the outside of a geode, you tend to have just a plain old looking rock. On the outside of Jesus showed his humanity. To many people he probably just looked like any other person of the day. But then on the inside of a geode we find those beautiful crystals. And on the inside of Jesus, we find his divinity and his love and power. When Jesus opened his mouth and spoke, he shared what was inside him – a beautiful and unconditional love for humanity and all of the world.

But there is more! If we remember that we are made in God’s image, then are we too like a geode? I would say yes, but in a little bit different way than Jesus is. While we on the outside might just seem like ordinary humans just like Jesus may have appeared to some, we too hold something special inside. But while Jesus held within him his divinity and that he was part of the triune God, we hold something else inside. And that something is God’s love.

We are God’s children, we are loved by God and through the power of the Holy Spirit we come to know God and God’s love. And when that happens we also hold God’s love inside of us to share with the all the world. When we live as Jesus lived, and love each other like Jesus loves all of us, it is then that our beautiful insides sparkle and shine for all of the world to see God’s love.

As I close the message this morning I would like to share a story with you. It is one that I have heard many times, with subtle variations, throughout my life. It is one that holds a great deal of meaning for me and I even have a small poster of it I keep at home. It is my hope that in this story you too will find some meaning and take away something for your own life.

A professor of philosophy stood before his class with some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a large empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks about two inches in diameter. He then asked the students if the jar was full.

They agreed that it was.

So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly and watched as the pebbles rolled into the open areas between the rocks. The professor then asked the students again if the jar was full.

They chuckled and agreed that it was indeed full this time.

The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. The sand filled the remaining open areas of the jar. “Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this jar signifies your life. The rocks are the truly important things, such as God and faith, family and friends, health and relationships. If all else was lost and only the rocks remained, your life would still be meaningful. The pebbles are the other things that matter in your life, such as work or school. The sand signifies the remaining “small stuff” and material possessions.

If you put sand into the jar first, there is no room for the rocks or the pebbles. The same can be applied to your lives. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are truly important.

Pay attention to the things in life that are critical to your happiness and well-being. Take time to get medical check-ups, play with your children. Go for a run. Write your grandmother a letter. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, or fix the disposal. Take care of the rocks first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just pebbles and sand.

Let us never build upon the sand, but always and everywhere upon the eternal rock, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT!!

I am overjoyed to finally announce that I have been appointed to serve Hemlock United Methodist Church and Nelson United Methodist Church of the Saginaw Bay District of the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Both congregations are in the town of Hemlock, Michigan where my wife and I, along with our one month old son AJ, will be moving to. I cannot wait to begin working with both of these congregations and see where God leads us!

Blessings,

Pastor Michael

 

P.S. – I will also soon be publishing my most recent sermon from June 8th (yeah Pentecost!!) that I preached at First United Methodist Church of Lockport, Illinois. Keep a look out for that update soon!

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A Day of Celebration

Today is the last day of work for my father, William J. Vollmer. After more than three decades of working as the locksmith of the famed Palmer House Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago, he is now moving on to another stage in his life. The hotel is celebrating his career there today, and I look forward to joining them this afternoon in celebration. My father has always worked hard and never hesitated to help his fellow employees. I have had occasion over the years to witness this first hand, and I have learned a great deal about working with others.

My father has always lived his life through his faith, and in doing so, taught me about God and faith. He has always been willing to share his faith with others, and his method of evangelizing to others through living out his own faith authentically has been the inspiration for my own understanding of and passion for evangelism. I owe a great deal of my faith journey to the faith of my parents that they have shared and lived out.

So please join me in celebrating my father’s retirement! It is well deserved after many years of hard work and dedication to his family and employer. I cannot wait to see what this next stage of his life will bring, but I know that his faith will continue to lead in through it. God’s blessings on you this day and everyday Dad!

 

- Pastor Michael

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Another New Set of Prayer Beads

Hey All!

Just wanted to share some pictures of another new set of prayer beads that I made last night.

2014-03-23 21.39.47 2014-03-23 21.39.17

The large beads are 20mm crackle quartz stone beads. The small beads are 12mm blue rainbow druzy agate stone beads. The cross is an 23x34mm multi-colored hematite cross.

This set of prayer beads is the largest set of prayer beads I have made, just slightly larger than the Crackle Quartz and Tiger Eye Prayer Beads set I made recently. As with the other set, I am not sure if I will keep them, add them to my web store, or give them as a gift. I am also still considering using them in a private prayer room setup at some point.

Blessings,

Pastor Michael

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