Knock, Knock! Who’s There? – Matthew 7:7-11

First off I promise no more knock-knock jokes…at least for this week anyways… I do enjoy a good joke and growing up, like most children, I liked knock-knock jokes. They are usually easy to remember and can be silly and fun. And I knew tons of them. Whenever I would see my cousins at family parties and events we would share them with one another. It was always exciting to hear the new ones someone had learned and laugh about our old favorites.

Looking back what was really kind of funny is that I don’t think most of us appreciated the knocking part. For as long as I can remember my parents had a doorbell on their house and people always used that when they visited. Once in a while someone might knock, but it was rare. When I got older and worked in a setting where I had an office with a door I became more accustomed to people knocking, but by then I was not often thinking of knock-knock jokes.

In our Scripture reading this morning we read that if we knock, the door will be opened to us. If we ask, we will receive. If we go looking, we will find something. That’s a pretty strong message. Taken at face value it sounds like whatever we want, God will give us. And that’s a little problematic…it makes God sound like a vending machine. Just push the button that matches what you want and God will give it to you. Is that how God really works?

Well first of all we need to acknowledge that vending machines don’t always work that way. How many times have you had your money taken and nothing returned? Or the candy or item you want is out, no more left? Or the worst…when your treat gets stuck on the way down and you end up with nothing? No, vending machines are far from perfect.

But that is not the same for God. God and God alone is perfect. And yet, God is not our prayer vending machine. It’s true that sometimes God’s answer to our prayers and requests is “No.” or “Not yet.” or “Not right now.” But does that mean that God is somehow broken like those aggravating vending machines? Or is God mad at us? Are we being punished? Does God not care?

When someone passes away we often struggle to understand God’s plan. When someone is suffering greatly from illness or oppression we again struggle to understand what God’s plan may be. Why does our loving God allow bad things to happen? That may be the most dreaded questions that pastors get asked. And I say that for two reasons. One, we don’t know God’s plan any more than anyone does. But two, because we see the hurt and anguish that people go through, and we ourselves go through, and wish we had a simple answer that would make everything better.

So was Jesus lying when he said these words? Was he just leading people on? Was he just trying to make people like him and like God more?

Well as I said before, this is a strong message. It starts with ask and you will receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened. As I have said before I don’t usually like getting caught up in semantics, but did you notice something? Jesus did not say what we would receive. Jesus did not say what we would find. Jesus did not say which door would be opened. I don’t mean to split hairs here, but that’s the truth.

Have you ever wanted something so bad, prayed so hard, but it never happened? I think most of us have. And sometimes, it has actually worked out better in the end that we didn’t get what we asked for. Other times, we were still left with that need or mourning a loss. Just because we ask God for something does not mean we will get it. And that is not what this passage is saying. It says ask and you shall receive. The point here is that God hears us and responds to us, even if it is not with what we may have wanted.

Seek and you shall find. Have you ever been trying to find something in your life, and not just a lost article, but something deeper, some purpose or meaning? And maybe it took a long time to find it? Or maybe you never did find what YOU were looking for. But along the way you probably discovered some other things. I remember praying for a new job when things were getting bad where I was working when I worked with computers full time. I prayed for a technology job where I would make a really good salary, be appreciated, and come home happy at the end of the day. And I did A LOT of seeking. But I never found what I was looking for. Instead, I found the path to follow God’s calling to me to go and work in his ministry.

Sometimes we feel as though we never find what we are looking for though. Healing. Rest. Love. But we have to remember that Jesus did not promise we would find what WE wanted, just that we would find something. It again goes back to God acknowledging us and hearing us and responding to us.

Knock and the door shall be opened. Life is full of doors. Both figurative and real. And many are locked to different people for different reasons and at different times. And not everyone gets the keys to the doors they think they should have. But Jesus tells us that we should knock and the door will be opened.

Now there are two ways I look at this idea of knocking on doors, but both come back to the same point. First, it can follow the same logic and ideas as the asking and receiving and seeking and finding. That being that we can knock on the door we want to enter, but God may open a different door that he wants us to enter instead. So it goes back to God acknowledging us and responding to us, even if it is not what we might have wanted.

But the other way I think about it is not knocking on a door in a huge hallway full of these figurative doors in life, but maybe instead knocking on God’s door. And the good news that Jesus was telling us was that if we knock on God’s door, he will open it to us. God wants us to knock and wants to invite us in to his love and grace. And it shows that God acknowledges us and responds to us.

Our God is a God of love and opens his door to his entire creation. God wants us to be in relationship with him and loves us with a love unlike any other. Some times that love means not granting us exactly what we have asked for because God has a plan for each and every one us. God wants the best for us, and sometimes we don’t always ask for what is best for us. Remember, we are human and we have free will. We are not perfect and we make mistakes. But God loves us anyways and cares for us.

For those of you who are parents or grandparents, think about your children and grandchildren. Don’t they sometimes ask for things that you know may not be the best for them? Too much candy. A snack to close to mealtime. A toy that is too old for them. To do something that might put their health and wellbeing at risk. Sometimes we have to say “No.” or “Not yet.” or “Not right now.” Just like God does with us.

Remember, God calls us his children. Even the oldest person in this room right now is still a child in the eyes of God. God has always existed, and that’s REALLY OLD. God has had no beginning and will have no end. God has and will always be. So we are like infants, if even that old really, when we think about it. But God loves us and calls us his children. If we tried to play the knock-knock joke pattern out with God it would not work because once we knocked, God would never ask us who was there. He already knows! He knows us better than we know ourselves!!

And just like our children and grandchildren have gotten mad at some of our response, we do the same with God. Children throw temper tantrums and cry and say things like “I hate you!” when they don’t get what they want. And sometimes, we do the same thing to God. We curse God. We stop going to church. We stop praying. We get mad that God did not give us what we wanted and prayed for.

But we are human. We say things to each other and to God that we later regret. And God knows that and God forgives us. Even if we try to run away, just like some of our children may have threatened, God always welcomes us back with open arms because he loves us. He opens doors along our way and helps us to find the things in life he know we need. God has a plan. And it includes each and every one of us, and all creation.

What we need to remember though, is that God is not a vending machine. God does not always give us exactly what we ask for. God does not always lead us to what we are trying to find. God does not always open the specific door we are knocking on. But God does give to us when we ask. God does lead us when we are seeking. God does open a door when we knock.

And God call us to do the same for others. We might see someone begging for money who is hungry, and instead of just giving them money we might instead for buy them food and give it to them. It was not exactly what they asked for, but it is what they really needed. And we might not have given them money because we were concerned that it would be spent on something that could cause them harm.

We might have a friend who struggles with alcohol who is seeking to indulge that craving, but we instead lead them away to a place where alcohol is not served but they can still enjoy themselves with friends or family. It is not what they were seeking, but it is what they needed.

A child may be knocking on the door of a neighborhood gang hoping to fit in. But maybe instead we open the door to the church or a community center and give them a safe place where they can find their identity and a sense of belonging. Maybe we even teach them about God. Maybe we show them how to sew or do woodwork. Again, it was not the door they were knocking on, but it might be the one they really need.

And none of this is to say that we should be making judgments on the lives and desires of others. But rather we can be Jesus to others and help them in responsible ways when they are reaching out and asking for our help. We can give when people ask. We can help them seek. We can open doors. We can acknowledge people and respond to them. Just as God does for us, let us also go and do likewise for each other and all the world. Amen.

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Finding Shelter In The Storm – Psalm 46

Boom! Crash! No, these are not sounds of an impending rain storm like we have seen so much recently. No these are the sounds of the continued storms we are continually thrust into every time we open the newspaper or turn on our local news. The world is in turmoil and the storms are raging both close to home and across the world.

The actual rain storms we have seen over the few weeks have caused flooding of major highways and homes. The city of Detroit and its surrounding areas saw over eight inches of rainfall in a matter of just a few hours. Several counties were declared disaster areas and many more cities have declared states of emergencies.

There were four traffic fatalities in less than a week recently in the Saginaw area, with others in the surrounding counties as well. Last Sunday night there were four people shot within an hour of each other in Flint. And all of that is happening just miles from where we are now. What do we find when we cast a wider net? What other storms have been brewing?

I am sure most of you have heard by now of the rioting and violence in Fergusson, Missouri. Lives have been lost, people have been hurt, and businesses have been looted and robbed. What about even close to us in the city of Chicago, not far from where my family and I once lived? There have already been at least ten murders there so far this month, and over two hundred for the year.

And all of this is just within the borders of our own country. When we go beyond our own borders we find devastation in Gaza, fighting and killing in the Ukraine, and deadly floods in India. It seems everywhere we turn there are horrible storms, both literal and figurative, devastating our world. Where are we to go for shelter? Where can we be safe from these storms? Is there no hope for us and for our world?

Well in fact, there is hope and it is the best hope we could have. As we just heard from our Scripture reading, “God is our refuge and strength!” God is our protection from the storms in our lives. God provides us a safe place. But God is no just our refuge in these storms. Remember, the line said refuge AND STRENGTH!

So what does that mean? Is it just that God is our strength to outlast these storms and survive the fallout that often comes with them? The lines that follow do read, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.” God is all-powerful and can bring peace to the world. Verse nine even reads, “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.”

But there is even more if we go to the very end of the psalm. The last verse reads, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” The Lord is WITH us. To me, that says that we are somehow meant to be active in what is happening to push back against these storms. We are meant to be active in the recovery of the devastation of these storms. God may be leading the charge, but God is WITH us, so we must be right on his heals on that charge in right?

See what is great about this psalm is that it reminds us that no matter how bad things may seem in our world, both close to home and abroad, God is our refuge. But God is also our strength. And not just our strength to survive the storms, but our strength to push back against them and in the recovery efforts after they have subsided. God is calling us to be active with Him, not just huddle under his cloak.

Now that is not to say there will not be moments for each of us where we need to do just that. There will of course be times where we need to huddle close to God and take refuge in the safety offered there. Even though God provides us strength, it is not easy to always be rushing in right behind God in the midst of those awful storms. Sometimes we need time to rest. Sometimes we need time to mourn. Sometimes we need time to cry.

And all of that is okay. Because we know that God will be strong for us when we need it. God is our refuge and our strength. We see that in the first three verses of the psalm, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

Because we know that God will keep us safe and strong, we don’t have to be afraid. We know things will happen, that earth will change whether physically or politically or in whatever way may come. But we know that God is there with us. Even in in the midst of natural disasters that cause “the mountains to shake in the heart of the sea,” God is there with us.

And I think sometimes we forget that God is not just the God of us, of humanity. God is also the God of ALL CREATION. ALL CREATION! That includes those mountains shaking and those seas and oceans that foam and roar. God is the creator of EVERYTHING! So there is never any need to question God’s power over creation because God is who made creation! Everything we see around us is the result of God’s hand touching the earth and breathing life into this planet and all that exists here.

According to many scholars, this psalm was written as a hymn that celebrated the awesome power of God, God as the almighty defender of His people. How awesome and inspiring is that? The people who sang this psalm are reminded of God’s power and desire to protect and strengthen them. Sounds a lot like some of the hymns we sing in worship sometimes huh? “Almighty Fortress Is Our God” that we started our worship service with is a perfect example.

In the first verse we sang, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” Sounds an awful lot like the first three verse of our psalm doesn’t it? God as our refuge, God is a fortress. Our helper amid the flood, we won’t fear even though its waters roar and foam. So just like the ancient people who sang Psalm 46 as a triumph that celebrates the power and faithfulness of God, so too do we have similar songs that we sing today that celebrates those same things even in our modern world.

Now there are other scholars that have said that this is actually a psalm of consolation. They claim that this was used during a time that Israel was in danger or great peril. So they sang this to remind themselves of God’s power and protection, and God’s ability to destroy all of Israel’s enemies who may be trying to rise up against them and destroy them. It was to make them feel better during darker times when their victory did not seem as secure over their enemies and attackers.

So can relate to that perspective too? Do we have songs we sing even today that remind us of the same things about God? Even though we may not be facing a literal enemy army trying to take our lives, do we have hymns that offer the same consolation as the psalm offers the ancient people? Well how about the last song we just sang, “Be Still, My Soul”? Does that one apply?

When we look at the lyrics of the very first verse we find, “Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; leave to your God to order and provide; in every change God faithful will remain. Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.” The Lord is on our side, the Lord of hosts is with us. Leave to your God to order and provide, he makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. Sounds very similar in many ways right?

So again, even if taken from a perspective of consolation, we today still raise our voices in song in remembrance of God’s power and protection. So regardless of if we read this psalm as a celebratory hymn or a song of consolation for these ancient people, we still today follow their same tradition through our worship and singing. Even if we face different enemies or storms than they used to face back then, we are still connected to them through our trust and faith in God.

And back in their time were there instances where they needed to shield themselves with God and find refuge? Of course! But there were also times when they were strengthened by God and pushed back against their enemies and the storms of their times. They were active and charging in right behind God to try and bring about change in their world.

And the risks then were just a great as they are now. Let’s be honest here people, they put their lives out on the line and many lost them. To bring about some positive change in our own world today many are putting their lives on the line and many have lost them. How many lives have been lost just in the Ukraine, Gaza, and other parts of the Middle East just this past year? How many people have fallen while trying to make the world a little bit better? Even here at home, how many people have lost their lives trying to take back their neighborhoods from drugs and violence?

So even though the storms may be different now than what they were then, the truth is there will always be storms in our world. But so also will God always be a refuge and point of strength for us. God will always be there to shield and protect us when we need it, but also there to energize us for the work he calls us to in pushing back against those storms and devastation. Do not be afraid to seek refuge in God, but also have faith to be strengthened by God and do the work he calls us to do.

Amen.

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Blessed Or Happy? Which Is It? – Matthew 5:3-10

In 1937 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in the film Shall We Dance. At one point in the film while they are roller skating, Astaire and Rogers sing a duet called “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, that many of you may be familiar with. One of the most well-known parts of the song is the line “You like po-tay-toes, and I like po-tah-toes, You like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes” and so on. It’s a cute little number with a catch tune and fun verses.

The song focuses on the different annunciations of words and that their worlds are just so different, asking if they should just give up on their relationship. And when I stop to think about this song my first reaction is “REALLY?” You are going to let something as simple as how a word is said split you up?

Now I know that there is much more to their story in the film, but there is some unfortunate truth to this reality. How often do we let something as simple as the annunciation of a word cause an argument? And how often is the issue really much deeper than that? I would guess much more often than we would care to admit.

In addition to annunciations, there are other stumbling blocks to our language that have been problematic at various times in our history. Semantics for instance have been responsible for all kinds of trouble, and not just in English but throughout the history of the world. Semantics is the part of logic and linguistics that is concerned with meaning. And it’s really important. How else could we communicate if we could not understand what someone was really saying or getting at? That’s semantics.

But the real trouble with semantics is that both parties have to share the same understanding and meaning of words. And this is often where we run into problems. We assume that everyone shares the same base of understanding and meaning of words and that is not often the case. One of the most common examples is about a glass of water. Some see the glass as half empty and others see it as half full. Or how about this one, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure?”

So what does all this discussion of semantics have to do with our Scripture reading for this morning? Well…we have an issue of semantics… You see in many translations of the Bible this passage begins and reads as “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But that is not the only translation for this passage. In other translations of the Bible it instead reads as “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!” Blessed. Happy. Interesting.

Now I am one that does not normally like to get caught up in semantics unless I am concerned that someone is misunderstanding my intention, and then I may attempt to clarify what I am trying to say. I personally find it frustrating when people argue over some of the smaller details in the Bible and end up missing the big picture message that God is trying to tell us. That is not to say we shouldn’t discuss the differences or challenges, I just don’t want people while in that process to miss the big picture meaning of the stories and recounted histories in the Bible.

But even as I try not to get caught up in semantics and worry about some of the small differences…Well I just could not help myself this week when I started looking at this reading from the fifth chapter of Matthew. Blessed? Or happy? Which is it? Does one make more sense? And what happened here that we ended up with two fairly different words? Was the Greek that hard to read when they were translating? Did someone spill their mead or wine on the originals?

I mean think about it. Blessed. Webster’s Dictionary says it means “having a sacred nature”, “being connected with God”, or “very welcome, pleasant, or appreciated.” Sounds about right. What about happy? Well for happy, Webster’s says it means “feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.” Again, sounds good right? And if you go far enough into the entries of these words you may begin to find some loose overlap. But from these common definitions it sounds more to me like you might be HAPPY because you feel BLESSED. And I am not sure you can very easily reverse those around to say you are BLESSED because you feel HAPPY. I mean I guess you could, but that raises all kinds of questions about theology and beliefs that we don’t have time to get into this morning.

But so what happened? How could we end up with such different translations? And does it change what the passage is telling us? Well the translation from the Greek to the word “Happy” is considered by many scholars to be a proper or accepted translation. But did you know that the word “happy” did not exist until over a thousand years after the Gospels had been written?

From what I can find, the problem arose with some Latin dictionaries that offer two or more words for happy, one of which is derived from the same root or beginning as the word for bless or blessing. So while it might be correct in a technical sense to use happy in place of blessing, it also can change our understanding of what is being said. For instance, when you think about what it means to be happy, what kinds of things to do you think of?

Maybe you are happy because you are having a good day. Maybe you are happy because you enjoyed a favorite meal. Maybe you are happy because your team is in first place or having a good season. Happiness is a funny thing. Some people try to buy happiness with money. Some people even try to force happiness on others. How many products or services that we see advertised on TV are focused on making us happy?

But see the thing is, happiness is not a constant thing. I like to think I am a pretty positive person, but I am not happy all of the time. Sometimes I am sad, sometimes I get angry, and sometimes I’m a little gloomy. And that’s true for all of us. We all have good days and bad days. We all have losses and gains in our lives that carry a greater impact on our attitudes and feelings.

But there’s another thing to consider with happiness. Happiness can often be very “me” focused. It can often be about, “Am I happy?”, or “Am I enjoying myself?” Now that is not to say that happiness cannot come from our interactions with others. Happiness can very much be the result of other things that we might refer to as blessings. For instance, for all of you parents and grandparents out there today, I’d be willing to guess that you have at some point referred to your children or grandchildren as blessings in your life. But if asked, I’d also guess that you would say that they make you happy, at least most of the time right?

See this is where being blessed and being happy are two different things. You can actively do something to make yourself happy. But you cannot bless yourself. Blessings come from other people and from God. To be blessed is not an active event, but a passive one. You can accept or reject a blessing it is true, but you can’t really cause a blessing to be bestowed upon yourself. Blessings are something we receive, not something we can earn.

And blessing does not mean the same thing as happiness in other ways. While happiness is an emotion that comes and goes, blessings may be short or last a lifetime. Blessings don’t really change from day-to-day like happiness can. Blessings are usually things that we cherish in the depths of our very beings, in our souls and in our hearts.

And you can be sad or depressed, but still acknowledge the blessings in your life. If you have ever lost a loved one, whether a parent or a child or a friend or other relative, chances are at some point you felt sad and were mourning them. But if asked, and some of you may have even thought about this during that time on your own, but if asked, I would guess that you would still be able to name and think about some of the blessings in your life.

That’s one of the biggest, if not biggest, differences between being blessed and being happy. We can go through some of the worst and darkest experiences of our lives, and still know that we have been blessed. Early in the time Sarah and I began dating, between the two of us we experienced the loss of about fourteen family members or very close friends over the course of around twelve months. During that time it included the loss of my paternal grandmother just a few weeks before our wedding, and then the loss of my maternal grandfather just a few days after the celebration.

And it was tough. These were people that we were close to and had in some way or another had a major impact on our lives. I can look back at that time in my life and say with no question that it was sad, depressing, even gut wrenching at times. But I can also look back and see that smack dab in the middle of it all was a wonderful blessing, our wedding. And yes, the wedding day was a happy day. But I do not look at that day or even the years that have followed as just happy times. Just like any married couple Sarah and I have argued or hurt each other’s feelings at some point in our marriage. But I have never for even a single second thought of sharing our lives together as anything other than one of the greatest blessings in my life.

So is “blessed” the more correct or better translation than the word “happy”? Maybe, maybe not. I think for my own understand of this passage “blessed” not only makes more sense to me, but forces me to think about it in a different way. I read this passage and I think to myself whether I am poor in spirit, or mourning, or one of the meek, or hungry and thirsty for righteousness, or merciful, or pure in heart, or a peacemakers, or someone who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake, I would rather be blessed than happy.

Because as I pointed out before, happiness is not always a constant thing. But blessings we receive as gifts and can hold with us for a very, very long time. If I tired, I could probably not tell you about every single time I felt happy this past week. I’d probably remember a few of the bigger or more significant moments, but not anywhere near every single one. But if you asked me about the blessings in my life…well most of those are easy. I’m sure I have forgotten about some over time, or think about others less than I used to as my life has changed.

But I can easily list many blessings that I have received in my life, whether from God or from someone else. Family, friends, health, love, salvation, the list goes on and on. And each item on the list could be broken down into another list all its own. Blessings outlast happiness by leaps and bounds in our lives.

So as you leave here today, I ask that you think about the blessings in your lives. Remember as many as you can, whether from God or from someone else in your life. And remember that you can find happiness in the blessings in your life, but that the blessings are what we much hold onto in the depths of our souls and our hearts, our very beings. For it is in the blessings of our lives that we will experience the love of God and the love of others.

Amen.

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Just How Good Of A ‘Good Neighbor’ Do I Have To Be? – Luke 10:25-37

Well here we are. Another week has gone by and we are again sharing this time of worship together. Seven days seems to fly by sometimes. We are continuing with our sermon series “Getting to Know You” where I will preach on some of your favorite bible verses that you have shared with me.

And I have to say I have been really impressed with some of your choices. There are some really good ones in there coming up, and I very much enjoyed last week’s selection of Psalm 23. Yep, you all have made some great selections…except this week…

Now don’t get me wrong, the story of the Good Samaritan is a fantastic parable that delivers a very important message. We enter the scene where a lawyer, or teacher of the law of their faith, challenges Jesus about what the greatest commandments are. Jesus of course tells him love God and love your neighbor. But this lawyer then asks him just who his neighbor is. And Jesus breaks into the parable of the Good Samaritan which we just read and many of you probably know almost by heart.

After the parable Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three people were a neighbor to the beaten man and the lawyer of course says the person who stopped and showed mercy to the man. Jesus then tells him to go and do likewise. It’s a nice interaction that gives Jesus the space to encourage the people to be good neighbors to each other and show each other mercy. So what’s not to like right?

Well from a preaching standpoint, this passage has been referred to in many preaching circles as “The Preacher’s Nightmare”! But why? Why would this passage with such a positive and awesome message be a nightmare for those trying to preach the word of God? Well here are a few challenges that I myself ran into this week as I prepared this message.

First, almost everyone knows this story. And it’s not just that it is familiar to people, but it is practically over-familiar. This passage has been used so many times that it feels almost worn out. I know that sounds terrible to say, but think about it. If I had not read the Scripture just before I started preaching and instead just told you it was the story of the Good Samaritan wouldn’t most of you know the contents already? Not taking away the value of hearing God’s word read aloud, but how many people would not even really listen to it read because they know it so well?

The second challenge I ran into is the meaning that most people take away from this story. Be a good neighbor. Treat each other with mercy. Pretty straight forward right? And I spent a great deal of time this week in my head trying to come at this from different angles and perspectives. Needless to say I did not get much sleep this week as I wrestled with this piece of Scripture.

And it’s not because I could not craft a message about being a good neighbor. To be honest, that’s pretty easy. But the problem for me was I didn’t feel like it would be meaningful to any of you here listening today. Do I need to remind you for the umpteenth time to be a good neighbor? Is this idea new to any of you? Probably not. And the problem that lies there is that by staying the course with that message it comes off kind of…preachy…ironic I know…

But what I mean is, I do not want to stand up here talking about being a good neighbor and have you all sitting there thinking, “Well no kidding buddy! What do you think we are doing out here?” I know about the mission work you do. I know about the food pantry. I know about the money you raise for those in need. I know about a lot of what you are doing to be good neighbors. And I also know that there is much more you are already doing that I do not know about but that you are doing and being good neighbors to others through.

For me to stand up here and tell you that you all need to be a good neighbor is really rather redundant. Could we all do more to be good neighbors to others? Sure, there is almost always more we could do. But I am not going to stand up here and beat you over your head with this message. When preachers do that, people are often offended or hurt and stop listening, or worse stop doing the good works they have been doing because they feel like no one cares so why bother? So I am not going to do that.

But I am also not just going to stand up here and pat you all on the back either. That is not to say I am not proud of your work or excited about what you do. I am extremely proud of the work of this congregation and overjoyed when I think about how much you are all doing. Yes this is always room to do more, but I am very pleased with what is being done every day here. But you don’t need me to stand up here and commend you or applaud you. You came here to hear a message, to hopefully learn something more about this passage in the Bible while we worship our loving God together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

So what to do, what to do? Well after several days of wracking my brain, praying for guidance and enlightenment, and reading and re-reading this passage I think I have something that is worth telling you about. So here goes, cross your fingers and let’s see what we have shall we?

As I read the Scripture lesson for what must have been the twenty or thirtieth time, I started thinking about something. What was the original question the lawyer asked Jesus? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Hmm…and in the end Jesus tells him to have mercy on his neighbors, who, according to the parable, is anyone whom we come across in our lives. Well folks I have good news and bad news…let’s start with the bad news shall we?

This lawyer is asking about how he can get eternal life. And Jesus tells him. But there is a hitch here. See the problem with this answer is that it assumes that to gain eternal life, there is something that we ourselves can do. That alone is problematic, but the story that Jesus tells makes it worse because of what it demands. The parable does not suggest that we only help out some people, but we must be good neighbors to everyone, including our enemies. The requirement is perfection. Perfection in love of all others. Nothing less than that will be enough.

Now I have already told you all awhile back that I am by no means perfect. And let’s be real, is there anyone here who can truly say that they are perfect? No. And neither could the people listen to Jesus tell the parable that day. They were probably all sitting there thinking, “Great! We’re not perfect. What do we do now? We cannot save ourselves and gain eternal life is we need to be perfect to do so.” Heck perfection went out the door a long, long time ago for us folks. So are we doomed then?

Well the good news is no, all hope is not lost! Sorry it took a bit to get to the good news, but I did promise we would get to it and we are now there. The good news is that we do not have to be perfect! And we don’t have to be perfect to gain eternal life because Jesus took care of that already! Jesus already secured for us eternal life by dying for our sins and rising again after defeating death. Party time right?

Yes and no. We should of course always rejoice in the salvation that has been secured for us. But that also doesn’t mean we should sit around and do nothing for our fellow man. And as I said before, I know that you are already up and working to help out your families, your friends, your congregation, your church, your community, and your world. And that’s great! We just have to keep at it! No time to slack off now, there is a lot of good work to be done and a lot of neighbors who need that good work of our hands.

See that is the freeing part of this Scripture lesson that is not printed directly in the text itself, but that we know because we have come to know God and Jesus. By Jesus securing our salvation and eternal life, we can focus our efforts of being good neighbors in a different way. We do not have to sit and count our good deeds or try to weigh their value versus other good deeds to decide what to do or what to do first. Because Jesus has already taken care of the eternal life thing for us, we can instead just focus on loving our neighbors and caring for them and showing mercy to them. We can focus on the stuff at ground level because Jesus took care of all the “red tape” and “paperwork”.

See if we try to trust in the value of our own “good works,” that will not get us anywhere close to eternal life and God’s kingdom. Forget being in the ballpark, that we are not even in the same stratosphere with that tactic. But if we trust and believe in Jesus, and his good works and saving ways, that will be what brings us to eternal life and to be with God in paradise.

So as I look out at each of you, my fellow “Good Neighbors”, I again do not want to be a broken record up here about how to love each other. You know that and you are each living that already. The key is not to stop and instead keep up the work. It is also important to never fall prey to the idea that you yourself can somehow guarantee yourself eternal life. You are not perfect. I’m not perfect. None of us are perfect. Perfection is found in God and God alone.

But that is still good news. So as you leave here today, do not worry about striving for perfection. Do not stop trying to be a better person each day and do not stop being a good neighbor to everyone you encounter. Those are still important and worthy causes. But remember that even though you cannot achieve the perfection of Jesus, you can still be Jesus to the world through your good works and good ways. You can be a good neighbor and make a difference for the world. Always remember what Jesus said to the lawyer after he answered that the person who showed the beaten man mercy was the one who was a neighbor to him: “Go and do likewise.”

Amen.

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Sheep? More Like Stubborn Mules… – Psalm 23

Several years ago I took a trip to Ireland just after Christmas. While I was there I was able to visit many different parts of the country and see many different things. And I remember as I was driving the tiny car I had rented down a rather “country road” if you will, seeing flocks of sheep on either side of me. And when I tell you this road was not paved and mostly gravel I think it makes some of our roads out here seem as smooth as glass.

The stone fences on either side barely left enough room to fit two cars on the road and the locals were flying down it like it was the Audubon. So I was not watching the sheep as closely as I was the road and oncoming traffic.

Now normally seeing livestock would not be that big of a deal. I did not grow up in a farming area, but I had seen sheep at fairs and petting zoos growing up so it wasn’t like I had not seen one before. They always seemed like gentle, calm creatures who were just happy to be hanging around with their friends.

But as I was driving and trying to watch both the road and the countryside I slowed down when something caught my attention. It seems that some of the sheep were sporting some very bright neon colored spots. At first I thought maybe someone had played a prank and spray painted the poor animals. I saw orange and yellow and green and even some purple. And it just struck me as really strange.

When I finally got the bed and breakfast I was going to be staying at I asked the owner about these color spots on the sheep. She explained to me that it was most likely a way of marking the sheep for ownership. They still had to have tags on them for legal reasons, but the color spots helped to quickly notice a stray hanging out with your sheep that actually belongs to your neighbor. It can also have something to do with when the sheep are breeding, but based on the colors I described she seemed sure it was a mark of ownership.

And I asked her why that was necessary with all of the stone fences separating the land. She told me that often the neighbors would share space for the flocks to graze and despite the fences, there were always one or two who would get lost somehow and end up in the neighbor’s space. But she did say that the fences did help keep the sheep from walking off of the cliffs in the area and falling into the ocean or into a deep ravine.

I thought to myself really? They would just walk right off a cliff to their deaths? Is that true or maybe it’s just an old wives’ tale or urban legend. Or in this case, rural legend. But in fact it seems that this can, and does happen with sheep. Back in 2005, some Turkish shepherds were out with their flocks when one of the sheep went over the edge of a nearby cliff to where they were feeding. Before they knew what was going on hundreds of the other sheep began to follow each other over the edge of the cliff. Fifteen hundred sheep ended up going over the edge that day, with more than 400 of them dying from the drop. Sheep are not sounding like the brightest of God’s creatures right now are they?

And that idea that sheep must be dumb kind of makes me laugh a little bit when I think about our scripture reading this morning from the Book of Psalms. The very first line says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Does that make us the sheep? Is the author of this psalm calling people stupid? I mean I know that sheep were not the only animals running around back then, but I think most people when their hear the word shepherd almost immediately think of sheep. And like I said, this kind of makes me laugh. Did the Bible just call me stupid?

Well I do not think that was the intention of the author of this psalm, although maybe they were having a bad day and it was. In all seriousness though, I really think what they were trying to get at was God’s role in our relationship with him more so than our own. Let’s take a quick look at what each line says.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” God cares for our wellbeing, just like a shepherd for their flock. “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” God brings us peace and re-energizes us. “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” God guides us to live morally right lives in his name. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” God is always with us and protects us. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” God blesses us greatly, whether in material things or spiritual things. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” God’s grace is always present and God will always love and care for us.

You gotta admit, that sounds pretty good. But what about our role in this relationship between God and us? Are we really the clueless sheep who keep wandering off and getting lost? Maybe. But I think just as much as can be called sheep, think there is another animal that might fit almost just as well. A stubborn mule.
Now I am not directly calling each and every one of you here today a stubborn mule. Although I am sure some of us can be from time-to-time, myself included. But think about this for a minute. Aren’t we as Christians sometimes stubborn mules? How often do we do what we want to do instead of doing what God asks us to do?

Isn’t it easier to just turn a blind eye to the world’s problems rather than work to fix them? Isn’t it easier to walk past the homeless person on the street trying to get enough money to get something to than to stop and talk with them and get to know why they are in this unfortunate situation? We talked about evangelism last week remember? Isn’t easier to just keep our faith to ourselves rather than sharing it with other people?

And I am not saying that everyone in this room has done or is doing these things. But I want you to think about times when you were a stubborn mule towards God and what he wanted you to do. I know I have had several of those moments myself, including a rather big one that involves me standing before you today.

Growing up I had thought about becoming a pastor as young as probably ten years old. But I never heard anyone talking about how you become a pastor, or what it would be like to be a pastor for the rest of my life. I also never asked, so that didn’t help the situation. And as I got older and got ready to graduate high school, I was more focused on going to college to graduate and get a good paying job. Money became more important than following this nagging feeling about going into ministry.

Like many young people I wanted to earn a lot of money, have a nice house and a nice car, and eventually start a family and provide for them everything they could ever want. And there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with wanting to do well and care for your loved ones. But in my case, I kept trying to ignore that nagging feeling. Even after I graduated college and began working with computers and the Internet, I still would find that nagging feeling about going into ministry.

And I always had a good excuse, at least in my opinion, of why I couldn’t. I have too much student loan debt that I need to pay off. I just started this career, I can’t start all over now. I just moved out of my parents’ house and am on my own, how would get by? Yep, I was definitely being a stubborn mule.

But a funny thing happened. I took a job at a chiropractic school doing their computer work and I met an amazing person. I knew the moment I saw her that I wanted to know her and spend time with her. I am a hopeless romantic folks, I was head over heels. And in time, Sarah and I began dating and got married. And I changed jobs again where I ended up working for a state institution in Chicago. Well one day I came home after a very, very bad day at work. The state owed the school over $400 million dollars, staff and faculty were being asked to take unpaid vacation time that resulted in losing several weeks of pay.

So I get home and kind of plop down on the couch looking fairly defeated and Sarah asks me what’s wrong. And I told her about my day and I ended it by saying, “You know its days like this that I’d like to quit this job and go become a pastor.” And she looked at me, not even skipping a beat or with any hesitation, and says, “So why don’t you?” Needless to say I was not expecting that response and just kind of sat there with my mouth hanging open.

In the end, we talked it over and figured out what it would mean to pursue this. And a few months later I started my seminary education and three years later here I am with all of you! Thankfully, God as my shepherd did not give up on this stubborn mule. God continued to watch over me and shepherd me like the lost sheep that I was, all the while dealing with the stubborn mule I was being.

And that is one of the most important parts of this psalm! God always cares for our wellbeing. God always brings us peace and re-energizes us. God is always guiding us to live our lives with love. God is always with us and protects us. God is always blessing us. And God’s grace is always present and God will always love and care for us. No matter how stubborn we may be, God like a good shepherd does not give up on us. Ever.

We can become those stubborn mules and push against God and keep trying to go OUR way and do things OUR way. And again, God still watches over us like a shepherd. He still goes after us when we stray. He still protects us from the things we do not even know are threatening our safety and wellbeing. And he does it because he loves us. It’s that GREATEST NEWS that I talked about last week. God loves us so much that no matter how stubborn we get, he still cares for us like the lost sheep we that often are.

God’s love has been compared to many different things in Scripture and in other writings and sayings. Some have compared God’s love to the love of a father or mother for their child. Some have compared God’s love to a judge seeking justice for the oppressed. But here, God’s love is shown to be like the care that a caregiver for animals bestows upon them. Here we see God’s love being explained in a way that would be very familiar to the people of the time when this psalm was written. And it paints a very pleasant picture of love and care.

But what would our lives be like if we were all a little less like “stubborn mules”, and a little more like the flock of sheep the shepherd watches over? What if we focused just a little less on our independence from God and the free will we have been granted, and instead put more effort into doing the things that God has called us to do?

Well I can tell you what has happened in my own life when I have done that. The night that Sarah and I talked through everything about me becoming a pastor and decided together to begin pursuing this path I slept better than I had in over a year. In fact the next morning I practically skipped down the hallway to my office, which was at six in the morning so thankfully no one else was around to see that.

And I felt like a great weight had been lifted from me. I found myself happy much more of the time than I had been. I began to notice things in life I had previously missed. I began to see God and the work of his hands in places I never had before. It was such an amazing feeling, and it is still with me every day.

Now I am not saying that what I experienced is what everyone else will. God touches our lives in different ways and at different times. I do not pretend to know all of God’s ways or God’s plans. But what I can tell you is that something will begin to change in your life. Something wonderful will happen.

And I do not say all of this so as to assume that all of you are constantly defying God’s will every day of your life. Not at all. But rather I know that because we are human, and because we are imperfect, we do not always listen to what God is trying to tell us. We do not always worked towards what God wants us to work towards. We are all at some point or another stubborn mules to the loving shepherd that is our God. But he still loves us and never gives up on us.

As you leave this place today and begin your week I ask that you try something for me. If you have that little nagging feeling somewhere in your heart or your mind, something that you have put off time and again or pushed away. Bring it back out and look at it again. Open your eyes to what it is and see if it is God trying to be your shepherd. Give God the space and time to be your shepherd and you might be surprised where he may lead you. I know I never expected to be standing in front of all of you three years ago. But I am very happy today that I am.

Amen.

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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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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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