Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Spiritual Rebirth

Jesus answered, "I'm telling you the truth. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

 We departed for the summer and maybe for longer, it seems to be going well, from the lectionary that I'm accustomed to preaching on, to preach on spiritual landmarks that are actually just landmarks for my spiritual life, some of the landmark passages that have guided me and have meant a lot to many through the years. This, of course, is one for me, as it is probably for just about everyone. 

Transcript of the [audio for this sermon] preached extemporaneously
at Briensburg UMC on August 18, 2019.

One of the most famous passages in the world, where it tells about Nicodemus meeting with Jesus at night, and Jesus explaining to him that you must be born again, which in turn has become a phrase that's been interpreted many different ways through the centuries, sometimes in ways that are helpful and sometimes in ways that are hurtful.

But it's still there for us to grapple with, to try to understand and to live into, as are all the passages in the Bible. The idea of being born again is one of a new beginning, a new start, and so even with a lot of different theologies taking that in a lot of different directions, it still comes down to something that we experience, something that we decide, something that we're a part of, something that is a change taking place in our personal lives. And not only in our personal lives but our lives of our family and our friends, our relationships, our congregation, and our world.

Jesus reminds us in the description of the judgment picture that he paints, where he separates the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25, that we're not just being looked at as individuals. In that passage he calls it the judgment of the nations. We're looked at collectively. And so the promise of rebirth and renewal and regeneration and refreshing are for us as individuals and collectively. God is doing new things all the time, making new adjustments and new changes in our lives to bring us to the fullness and the completeness of all the glory that he had for us, as expressed in Charles Wesley's hymn Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, where it says, "Crowned and changed from glory unto glory til in heaven we take our place, til we cast our crowns before him, lost in wonder, love, and praise."

And so the concept of spiritual rebirth is a concept of constant change and renewal and new beginnings, day by day, even hour by hour, moment by moment, situation by situation. John, in his letter that he wrote later, one of his letters he wrote later, described more about what it means to be born again, born of the Spirit. When he wrote my favorite Bible verses, I don't know if he meant them to be my favorite Bible verses, but they are. 1 John 4:7 and 8, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Those who do not love do not know God, for God is love."

Our scriptures are filled with all kinds of verses that are quoted for all kinds of things. Our hymns are filled with refreshing stanzas and poetry that applies in so many different ways. But the way that Jesus applied it every time was through the lens of love, and so if anything we understand in the Bible seems out of kilter with the command that God gives us to love one another, then something needs to be changed, but not that. That means that our understanding might be messed up. Something may be wrong with something else. But the law of love stands above all others, and Jesus gave it even as Moses gave it, the great command, and said, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." He gave us a basis for interpreting everything in scripture. If we don't understand something in that light, then we need to learn a little more about it.

One of our great hymns of our church, number 57 in the hymnal, like a theme song for Methodists all along, O for a Thousand Tongues To Sing, ends with a last stanza saying, "Anticipate your heaven below and own that love is heaven." And Charles Wesley, his hymns reflect that same, in many of the hymns that we sing, that we're called to love. And St. John here says that's what it means to be born again. To be a born-again Christian means now you look at everything through the lens of love. Now Christ's command, "Love one another as I have loved you," is paramount for you and for your life and for your soul and for anything else that you're in charge of, that you will love as Christ has loved.

Romans 12:2 kind of says this in the message, "God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." We may be more familiar with the King James translation that says, "Be ye not conformed to the world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind." We're called to be renewed in our minds, in our spirit, in our heart, to look at things in a new way and to discover new deeper meanings and ways and to dig a little deeper in wells, look and see what things really mean, look and see what God is really saying to us in the scripture, in the fellowship of the church, in the Bible, in the hymns, in nature, in our relationships and conversations. And let ourselves be renewed, constantly refreshed, constantly growing.

It's an invitation to constant change. It's an invitation to constant discovery and wonderment at all that God has given to us and made us to be. We're created in the image of God, the Bible tells us. In some theological traditions, that has all been tossed out as being just too bad to even consider. But in our theological heritage, the image of God is stamped in the development of the soul of every person. And so the way we look at things is that God is in everybody. Everybody reflects a piece of who God is, something of God. The more we see that, then the more we really see each other as we really are and look past some of the things that are difficult sometimes to look past, in ourselves and in other people, and see the image of God. Permanent, a part of the creation of humanity, in each and every person, regardless of what else may be swirling around and what other thoughts and feelings and beliefs and practices and ideas, for the better, for the worse. Each of us.

The person that stands out to me as really demonstrating that in her life and ministry is Mother Teresa in our generation, because she said that's what she did. She went, and no matter how high and mighty and haughty or how low and poor and impoverished, and everything in between, she said she saw Jesus. Each and every person. What a transforming way to think. Is that a transformation of our minds? Would that be a transformation of your mind if you saw Jesus in every person? You must be born again in that Word for that to even start happening. That's what it means.

So Christ helped us to that, and to where that kind of an attitude where we see each other the way Christ sees us, where we love each other the way Christ loves us, where we see God in each other, that transformation and renewal of our minds. And then when Peter went to see Cornelius, there is a whole story about that with the sheet that came down and the vision and all this, but when Peter went to see Cornelius, and he was talking to them about all these things, about the Gospel, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, he recognized they had the same spirit in them that he had in him and that his friends back home had in them. And he said, "These people have received the same Spirit, just as we also have."

I think that helps us to see that whatever differences we might see in each other or the people around us, around any issue, it's the same Spirit at work within us. What he was driving at was that that same Spirit working within us and demonstrating the power of the Gospel was the proof of the pudding. That's what made it apparent that these were of the same Spirit, when they were ministering the same kinds of gifts, doing the same kinds of things, loving as they were called to love.

And we have all these spiritual gifts that come with our faith, that come with our spiritual rebirth and renewal and growth, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As we minister those to each other and the community around us, then that kind of overcomes any kind of a verbal argument that we could make. You know, a picture paints a thousand words and things like that. Our actions speak louder than our words. If you have in you the same Spirit that Christ has in him, then the same things will follow in your way. There will be people who are touched with love, people whose lives are being healed. There will be people who are being blessed. There will be people who are being nurtured in the faith.

And so let us minister those spiritual gifts if that's what's in us. If we're really born again of the Spirit, if we're walking after the Spirit and we're growing in the Spirit, then let's minister those spiritual gifts. Jesus went on in this passage, beyond this first part of this conversation, to tell Nicodemus an example from the Exodus. Nicodemus was familiar with that, but there are those who decided to take that story of the Exodus out of the Bible, along with the Revelation and with some other passages of scripture, in their ministry to the slaves in the 1900s, in order to remove hope from their faith.

Jesus went on then to tell about John 3:16. Let's say that together. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

That's a promise and an invitation for everyone. We can't be letting that be twisted and abused for oppressive purposes, but we have to stand up for it, the things that are right, and stand against the things that are wrong, stand against the things that are abusive and discriminatory and exclusive and cause suffering and division and pain.

Because then Jesus went right on in the next verse and said that God did not send him to condemn anyone, but to save everyone. And he went on to explain that none of what he was doing was condemning anybody. If there is any condemnation, it's the self-condemnation of those who see the light and choose the darkness. So the conversation with Nicodemus is quite a landmark there. It gives us a lot of food for thought, doesn't it? 

For our spiritual growth for ourselves and for our church and the community, you must be born again.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule is our way of resisting evil in all it's forms, even now when racism, discrimination and exploitation are so popular. 

"Do for others what you want them to do for you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and of the teaching of the prophets."  Matthew 7:12 (GNT) 

 Jesus taught the Golden Rule and commented on it in this verse in a way that puts it on par with the great commandment of Moses. When He was asked what is the greatest of all commandments, Jesus said, "The greatest is this, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength and soul. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love your neighbor as yourself." And then He commented on that commandment almost the same words He says here, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets also." Matthew 22:36-40.

Transcript of the [audio for this sermon] preached extemporaneously
at Briensburg UMC on July 21, 2019.

The Golden Rule doesn't just pop out as some random verse in the Sermon on the Mount. The Golden Rule is the apex of the Sermon on the Mount. The few verses remaining in the Sermon on the Mount after this is given are Jesus landing the plane by telling us how important it is to implement all these teachings that He's been talking about in this Sermon on the Mount. And by telling us the importance of building our lives on a solid foundation like a wise builder would build their house on a rock and not on the sand. Everything preceding just built up to this point. It begins with the Beatitudes. He talks about prayer. He talks about love and forgiveness, alms giving, all these spiritual things that He talks about. And as He approaches the Golden Rule, He talked about not judging other people and then He puts a little pillow there to lay the Golden Rule on when He talks about ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door will be opened unto you.

Even anybody as bad as sometimes we are, as messed up sometimes as we get, still if a child asked us for a loaf of bread, we wouldn't give them a stone. Or if they asked us for an egg, we wouldn't give them a scorpion. And He said even more think about how your heavenly Father wants to give good things, right on top of all this about the providence of God which He's already pointed out is for everybody. "He makes it to rain on the just and the unjust." Now He places this Golden Rule.

Which Norman Rockwell has depicted here as our landmark that we want to use today, the painting by that name where right in the middle of the painting he wrote "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Golden Rule is universal. It's for us to apply in every situation in our lives. This is the ethos of our faith. It's a call to empathy at it's most complete levels. In every situation, in every relationship, you want to be helpful to people and not hurtful. And that applies to every person that you know. Even Jesus was talking about that's why it's so important to connect that with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount because he said even to your worst enemy, "Do good to those that revile you. Pray for those that persecute you."

This is our way of resisting the evil around us by doing good. This is our way of pushing back against the people that are pushing from the other way. We push back by loving them as Christ has loved us. We push back by standing firm in our faith and belief in the teachings of Jesus and implementing them in each situation. So it's universal in that sense, but it's universal in the sense that it's for everybody to do. It's for everybody in every situation. It's for all the other people for us to encourage that in others too regardless of what their beliefs or practice may be regarding religion or spirituality. This is for us to teach everyone, encouraging everyone.

When you look at that picture, you can see people dressed in all different outfits from all around the world, from all different faith traditions. And if you look real close, the different people are carrying different emblems of their faiths, different religions from around the world, different cultures. The people of all different kinds and races and cultures and beliefs and everything, you can tell by the expression, by what they're wearing, by the tokens of faith that they're carrying.

This is a picture of a piece of paper that Norman Rockwell typed up as part of his preparation for painting this picture. One thing was to take a piece of paper and type up on there and do a little bit of research and find out what all these different other religions said in the core of their teachings that was similar to this. It's really the Golden Rule phrased differently by these other different religions. It's a universal teaching. The whole faith community comes together around this apex of all of our teachings. And however we may understand anything else that we talk about or sing about or pray about or argue about anything else, in whatever religion we have this is the goal of spirituality. This is the high point of spirituality.

The Golden Rule is a universal rule for all humanity regardless of what else we think or do or believe about anything. The Golden Rule is collectively applied as well as individually, implementing the teachings of Christ. It's to be implemented even in our groups. And many times when we think about the judgment of Christ and think of the great white throne judgment and we all picture there like we're all standing in line waiting our turn, the books are open, each one of us individually judged according to the things that are written in that book. But in Matthew 25 when Jesus talks about dividing the sheep from the goats, He speaks of that as the judgment of the nations. That's pretty inclusive of everybody as a group. What we do as that two or three when we gather together, what we decide, the Golden Rule still applies.

What we do as a congregation, as a community, as government entities, as state and national organizations, worldwide. Everything that we do no matter who we're doing it with it still stands under this judgment of almighty God. And we have our place in that. So we have our responsibility to that. What we may be able to do might not be very big. Might be like the people that were given little investments by the guy that went on a journey in the Bible. And the one guy didn't have very much so he thought he would just bury his talent while the other two invested theirs. And when the master came back, found out that wasn't the right way to do it.

We may only be able to pray. We may be only to say a word here or there or do something, we may not be able to do much. Remember back when they restored the Statue of Liberty, they did that with pennies. And now the politicians, who are they going after? Saw this on the news or on your email? Those little one dollar, five dollar donations because a whole bunch of small things adds up to a whole lot more than a few big things. We're called to apply the Golden Rule collectively as well as individually.

And then in our church we have this general rule, "Three General Rules," that date back to before the Methodists were called Methodists. When they were just kind of meeting and talking about and they had these rules about how to implement the teachings of Christ systematically, methodically in our personal lives, in our group lives, how we can group together, in our church life or in our political life. 

And rule number one, "Do no harm." Think about that in relation to the Golden Rule. If you don't want anybody harming you, don't harm other people. And number two then, "Do good." Do the kind of good to others that you hope others will do to you. And "Stay in love with God." Use the means of grace and make them available to each other, emphasize them, see Christ in each other. Do the best we can for each other. Share the sacraments of the church with the community.

Make everybody a part of the prayer life. Connect with each other in prayer. Lift up each other in prayer. Study the Scriptures from the viewpoint of Jesus and His love. We apply the Golden Rule to the way we practice our religion and our faith then it transforms our religion and our faith in our personal and corporate spirituality.

So the Golden Rule is not like orders from headquarters or just something to debate and discuss as an interesting idea or a philosophy to consider. The Golden Rule is an invitation. An invitation to join Jesus and the other spiritual masters of faith through the ages. To do as Paul said, "sit in the heavenly places with Christ."  The Golden Rule is our pathway to the heavenly places, to the ultimate goals that we feel in our hearts and minds about what spirituality is for. As we practice and implement the Golden Rule, we go up a few notches. And when we don't, we go down a few notches in our faith journey, in our own spiritual lives. And we take everybody around us with us either way.

Christ brings us this great invitation, this great opportunity to practice and to implement and to share and to call others to join us. In doing unto others as we would have others do unto us. 

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Good Samaritan

And the teacher of the law answered, "The one who was kind to him." And Jesus replied, "You go then, you do the same." Or as other versions say, "The one who showed mercy." 

Today we are continuing with our landmark series of spiritual landmarks, personal landmarks for me in my spiritual journey. We have been departing from the lectionary to do this this summer, but today this is also the lectionary reading.

It converges also with the day when the new orders have gone out to round up immigrants across the United States. There seems to be a little bit of a contrast there. The picture that I have here is of the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. It's right there next to the Supreme Court building. It houses our United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the Council of Bishops, United Methodist Women Headquarters and has offices for a few other denominations that have similar social views as we do on social justice. And the sign out there on the front says, "For the love of God, protect immigrants."

Transcript of the [audio for this sermon] preached extemporaneously
at Briensburg UMC on July 17, 2019.

This landmark represents a way that we can speak as one voice across our denomination, speak truth to power. We don't mean this to be political, I don't, and people I know don't. But there are people who do make these things political, and it makes it difficult sometimes and awkward, especially in places where there's a smaller group like ours, that is trying to stand for some issues of justice in a community where there is a lot of religious interest in making religion more about politics than about social justice and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Yet, that's the time when it's most important that we stand together. And we don't stand alone on this as we don't on other issues. We just might stand a little off to the side in our community, we might not be the same as everybody else, but there are a lot of other people across the country who do stand for the mercy that Jesus is talking about in this parable. It's important that we find our voice, that we step into the directions the Lord leads us, even if we don't really know how or what to do or what to say. But take it a step at a time and do what we can to move in the direction that the Lord invites us and leads us and sends us.

This is one of those cases. We have a responsibility to preach on the Good Samaritan, to preach on mercy, when mercy is being withheld so blatantly. God is merciful. Psalm 136 is a psalm that is like a responsive reading and that Jesus certainly had used and we have it in our hymnal as well as in the Bible as a responsive reading. It has these 26 verses and they have an attribute of God and they celebrate his creation and then they celebrate his deliverance of the children of Israel from the bondage of slavery and then they challenge us to continue to express the mercies of God in our relationships with each other. And the first verse says, "Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for his mercy endureth forever." And then each one of those verses has another attribute like that, and says, "For His mercy endures forever," and everybody repeats that.

And that's what God is, God is merciful. God is merciful. And this is affirmed by our religion and by other religions. The mercy of God is forever. And it knows no bounds. We should be thankful for that, because it's His mercy that provides for us. It's His mercy that enabled us to be here together today. It's by His mercy that we can accomplish anything with our lives. It's by His mercy that He sent Jesus to be our Savior. He loves us and that mercy is a tremendously important part of that love. And that's why the Good Samaritan story is tied together as an explanation in this passage in Luke of what a neighbor is when God says, "Love your neighbor."
That's what he means. He means to have mercy, like the Samaritan had mercy on the one who was suffering, the traveler who was suffering. 

One of the attributes of mercy is clemency. "For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment." That's from the letter St. James wrote. God invites us to join him in extending clemency to the people around us. That idea of the judgment, of merciful judgment, that's what we all hope to find in God. That's what we have found in God. Has He not forgiven us for our sins? Do we not praise Him because He doesn't hold everything against us so rigidly, that He could? Aren't we just glad and thankful that He cuts us a little slack and gives us a little latitude in what we do and what we say and how we treat the people around us? Or even more how we fail to treat the people around us in the things we say or do, in thought, word and deed. God is merciful and gives us clemency and that, that's part of what He says when Jesus said, "You go and do the same." This is our religious duty. This is our faith speaking, this is our God speaking to us, telling us to have mercy on people. Telling us to extend that mercy to everyone. And through this parable of the Good Samaritan, to extend that mercy to those who are running for their lives, from all kinds of other oppression.

Kindness. "Be therefore merciful as your Father is merciful." That comes from Luke 6:36. Jesus said that when He was talking about being generous and kind -- just as the way God is generous and kind. When we have a need, we go to the Lord and we pray for God to help us with that, and God does. He tells us to do the same thing. To be kind to people around us. To be kind and generous. And we may not know how. And we may not have the resources. But we can pray about it and then we can find our way, we can offer words of encouragement and support if nothing else. And a lot of times, as we do that, we discover that actually we do have resources we can plug into. Actually there is a little more that we can do. We don't want to just send good thoughts and prayers, but we do want to send good thoughts and prayers. We don't just want to. But out of that, we want to also send our good works and our good deeds that support those good thoughts and prayers, that flow from that.

When we pray for our kindness for those around us, for travelers, for immigrants, we pray that God will show us something else that we might be able to do to help support that. It might be just something small. Really for most of us it probably will be something small. But we pray that God will put that on our hearts and then we pray that we'll know our hearts and follow our hearts and do what God leads us to do. And be kind as our Heavenly Father is kind. 

Compassionate. "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need." It's from Hebrews, chapter four. The Bible is inviting us and encouraging us that we can take anything to the Lord and find His compassion to help, whatever our need may be. It's a little bit like what we said about kindness and praying for people and then finding what we can do to help them. This is us bringing our need and our concern and our issues to the Lord and praying on the other side of that coin that the Lord will show us what to do, will help us, will answer our prayers. This is the mercy seat. This is bringing things to the place of mercy. It's the throne of God.

As Charles Wesley wrote in his hymn, "Bold I approach the eternal throne." We have that invitation to boldly approach the throne of God, to lift up the concerns that we have, to pour our hearts out before Him, to receive the grace that we need for ourselves and that others need as well, and to ask God for that and to continue walking in that way. So today as we think about the events that are heavy on our hearts, heavy on the hearts of all whose religion stands opposed to the suffering of the children that is occurring at the border and whose religion, like ours, stands against many of these policies, let's think about this Good Samaritan and ask some of those tough questions of ourselves.

Who's suffering? Who's passing by on the other side? Can we pass by on the other side maybe because we have some policy that we want to support? Can we pass by on the other side because we have a politician that we want to support? Or does God invite us and challenge us to be like the Good Samaritan, who regardless of any differences that we may have with the persons that are suffering, we lend our resources, we lend our hand, to do what we can. And then we plug into other resources of those that can take it a little further than we were able to.

And then we come back by and we visit to make sure if there's anything else that we can do. That's all the Good Samaritan did. That's all God expects of us. Psalm 136 ends with a verse similar to that with which it began. "Oh give thanks unto the God of Heaven for His mercy endureth forever." Amen.

Photo by Lara Andrews, Feb. 5, 2018, Grace UMC: United Methodist Building on Capital Hill next to the Supreme Court Building. Sign reads, "For the love of God, protect immigrants."

Monday, April 29, 2019

Life in Jesus' Name

You have the authority to be a forgiving person. If you're not, who will be? If you decide not to be a forgiving person, you hurt the people who need it the most, and you hurt yourself.

But these have been written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you may have life. (John 20:31 GNT)

Transcript of the [audio for this sermon] preached extemporaneously 
at Briensburg UMC on April 28, 2019.

This passage of scripture begins to take place on the evening of the resurrection when Jesus appeared to ten of His disciples behind closed doors, then it continues the next Sunday when eleven were there, when Thomas was there. 

And Thomas always gets kind of the brunt on this. I guess they picked on him about this through the years, because he didn't believe everybody's story. But really a lot of other people have that problem too, including the other people that were poking fun at him about not believing.

Sometimes it's hard to wrap our minds around things and to believe things. There were a lot of things Jesus did, too much to be able to write down. But these were written so that you could have some things that you could get a hold of that you could believe, and that by believing, you could have life in His name.

One of the important things Jesus did these first days of his witness was to breathe the Holy Spirit on His disciples and give them the authority to forgive sin. He had already been breathing life into them. He had already been breathing the Word of God to them, and He had already been giving this authority in His teachings.

His authority was challenged by many of the religious leaders when He would say to people, "Your sins are forgiven," and they would say, "Well who are you to forgive sins?" A lot of times He would heal people as a sign, not only of His love for them and His caring about their condition, but as a sign that their sins were forgiven.

That's an important part of our whole faith, the heart of the gospel message. The forgiveness of sins. That we don't hold things against each other, that we have tolerance for one another. If you think of a machine, sometimes call that forgiving, whether it be a vehicle or some kind of equipment or something, you say, "This is forgiving."

You don't mean that you confess your sins to it and it forgave you of those sins. You mean in a broader sense, it doesn't hold anything against you and it gives you a lot more flexibility and a lot more leeway in what you're doing before you would get hurt by it or hurt something else by it.

And that's the kind of people God invites us to be, people who are forgiving, who are not so rigid that everything we touch and everybody we come against gets hurt by us. But instead, we're like God, we're like Christ in the sense that we don't hold the things against people, but instead we open our lives to each other, embrace each other and love one another as Christ has loved us.

And so when He breathes into us the Holy Spirit, He breathes it with that proclamation. Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven. Those whose sins you do not forgive are not forgiven. You can go either way with this. You have the authority to forgive sins. You have the authority to be a forgiving person. If you're not, you will be.

And if you decide not to use that authority and to not forgive and not be a forgiving person, who do you hurt? You hurt the people who need it the most and you hurt yourself because Jesus still said at the end of the Lord's Prayer, "If you do not forgive the sins of other people, then neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you your sins."

And he still has those parables that demonstrate if you hold other people's sins against them, even those sins that you feel are forgiven can be brought back up against you of your own sins.

The way that you decide how you're gonna hold something against other people is the way God will decide how things will be held against you. That's treading on thin ice when you are not a forgiving person.
The power of the Holy Spirit is the power to love as Christ has loved. In the book of Mark in the 16th chapter when he sent everybody out, he sent them out with all these signs, similar to what Christ had done in His commissions to us and the various ways they're presented in the Bible.

He tells us we're empowered to continue the same work that he did, to love, to heal, to forgive, to bring joy and comfort and encouragement to the people around us. In this process, we come alive ourselves and we extend that life to the people around us.

These things that have been written here in the Bible are just a few of the things Jesus did. There's not room to record everything that God has done for us. There's not room for all the things that God has done for me or for you or for our families. But these are written in order that we might believe.

In our prayer times, we're always having the time of unspoken concerns and I ask how many have unspoken concerns. Everybody in this room has things that we don't talk about and name with each other for prayers, but we know that we have those things on our hearts, don't we?

We have things that we're going through or our families or our friends or people that we care about are going through. We need to believe. We need to be able to believe the promises of God, the things that are written. That He wants us to have life. We need to be able to encourage each other to believe those promises and to trust Christ with our lives and souls.

And we know that our family and friends that are not here in this room are included in that same number, those that we'll see when we leave this room and go to other tables and other rooms throughout the week.

And so we need to greet each person that we meet along the way with the same love and forgiveness that Christ greets us with and extend the same love to them that we receive from Christ, and the faith and confidence and the hope that we have in Christ, we need to share that as fully and freely as we share it here in this room with one another.

The world needs Christ. That's what this Bible is all about, pointing us to Christ. Helping us to point each other to the one who loves us, the one that we can trust and follow, one who cares about us, one who empowers us and breathes into us the Holy Spirit.

In the name of Jesus,

Transcript of the [audio for this sermon] preached extemporaneously 
at Briensburg UMC on April 28, 2019.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Love Conquers All

He is not here; he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was in Galilee.(Luke 24:6 GNT)

We celebrate the resurrection today. It's really the high point of the Christian calendar. We celebrate that Christ rose from the dead because it's such a wonderful victory. It's a victory over the greatest threat that we face. It's a victory in not just our physical existence, but in our spiritual existence as well. It shows that because he is alive, we are alive. Because he is alive forever, we have also that eternal life in us, and because of him and through him and with him, a life of heaven.

And so that is a big celebration right there. The Bible accounts describe many different ways in which Jesus appeared to friends of his over the next forty days before he ascended into heaven, sometimes even in different forms. Sometimes in ways that they wouldn't have recognized him until a certain, maybe he said something in one place or broke the bread in another.

But it's also that celebration of his victory of his way of thinking, of his approach to life and to the commandments and to religion and spirituality. It's a victory for his teachings. Because it affirms the things that he said as being true, and especially the most important commandment that he gave, that we should love one another as Christ has loved us and that we should not judge. This is how he lived his life, all the way through and even on the cross he said, "Father, forgive them." When it looked like it was the end, it was really just the beginning. And so that's a good message for us to celebrate in our lives.

Even his apocalyptic preaching that he did, he would say, "When all these terrible things that are going to happen before the end, they're going to happen, but it's still not the end." The Apostle Peter wrote that when we lay aside this earthly tabernacle, we have another, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. What a wonderful piece of news to hang on to, what a wonderful Gospel to hang on to. As long as we're following Christ, we're not going to come to an ending. But only to new beginnings.

Things do change. Everything in life changes, but we don't think of that as the end when we live by faith. We think of it as the beginning, another new beginning. A transformation, a metamorphosis like what we see in the spring when the flowers start blooming and the trees bud and the grass turns green again, that's a message about us and about eternal life that Christ invites us to be a part of.

When Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry met with Nicodemus, he talked with him about Heaven and about being born again, about this newness of life. When Jesus was talking to Nicodemus, he said that we must be born again. And he spoke about that change that we need to go through, which becomes, as we've discovered, especially as we walk along this heavenly highway, it is not just a one time thing, but it's something that happens day by day as we continue to be transformed. One of our hymns says, 
"Changed from glory into glory,
till in the heaven we take our place."
It's a whole pathway that Christ has opened for us. A life of love and change, forgiving the past and embracing the future. And we're all invited to be a part of that. And not only us, but everyone else, too. We extend that invitation to everyone around us and it's our blessing and privilege to find ways to do that. Usually not with words, oftentimes just with our own friendliness and our own handshake and acceptance and a smile on our face and the look in our eye when we genuinely love the people around us and love them into the kingdom into which we have been loved.

So in this same conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus went on to say how the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness back in the days of the Exodus, so must the Son of man be lifted up so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life. And he was foretelling what would be happening down the road in his own crucifixion where again he continued to love and forgive the people, even the people who were torturing him to death on the cross.

It looked like that was it, seemed like that to all his family and his friends and his enemies, everybody. It seemed like that was the end of things on the cross, but it was only the beginning of the resurrection and the eternal life that we all are invited to participate in. 
"For God so loved the world
that he gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)
And then he goes on to the next verse and Jesus said, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved." Jesus didn't come to condemn anybody, but to save everybody. Now, some people might say, "Well, that's a new way of looking at things." Well, it's not very new because it's in the Bible and it's 2,000 years ago and it's the first thing Jesus said when he was talking to Nicodemus. That he did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. To give us that life, to bring us into life.

Peter wrote that it's not God's will that any should perish, but that every one should come to repentance. That every one should become alive in the Spirit. The Apostles wrote about the gifts of the Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit, and a whole life in the Spirit. About how we should know each other after the Spirit. Jesus talked about forgiveness, not just on the cross, but his whole ministry. He said, "Don't judge. Do not judge, but instead love, even your enemy."

And whenever he was asked about, "Well, how many times do I need to forgive somebody? About seven times?" And he said, "No, seventy times seven." Just continue, that's a whole lifestyle, that's a whole bearing and attitude that we have in life. It's an attitude where we don't judge anybody, but we love everybody. As followers of Jesus, our job is to love everybody. That's his commandment. "By this, everybody will know that you're my disciple, if you love one another as I have loved you." That's our calling, that's our vocation, that's our job, that's our privilege in life to get rid of the whole burden and love everybody, even our enemies.

There is no condemnation, Paul wrote, for those that are in Christ. There's just no condemnation. We don't accept condemnation, and we don't give out condemnation. This is the way that one of our founders, Charles Wesley, put it, 
And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Savior's blood?
Died he for me, who caused His pain?
 For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living head,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ my own.
We're invited to Heaven. We're invited to that spiritual place where love is perfect. Where there is no hurt, no sin, no sorrow, no death, no pain, no suffering. Only peace, only love, only everybody caring about each other and encouraging and supporting each other.

In terms of the physical location, it's everywhere. Paul told the philosophers on Mars Hill, "God is not far from any of us. For in him we live and move and have our being." Wherever God is, heaven is there. And wherever we are, God is there with us. And heaven and all that is in Christ, that's why we're invited to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh. He's right there in our hearts, he's as close to us as our own breath. He's right here in this very place.

As the Psalmist said, you go to the top of the mountain, down to the lowest depths of the earth, go out into outer space, wherever you might go, God is right there. And all we have to do is turn to him when we think of him and we're in communion with him. Then that extends then to everybody else in Christ, each other in this realm, when we come together or whether we go apart, whether we're here on earth or whether we're there in heaven, we're all together in the Spirit.

Every year we celebrate the Transfiguration when Peter, James, and John went with Jesus up into the mountain to pray and there Elijah and Moses, who had both lived hundreds of years before at different times themselves, and the voice of God spoke to them. And there they all were, all together in one place. And here we are all together in one place.

We're invited to join Christ in the spiritual dimensions of heaven and it may seem like it's a long way off, but it's only a long way off in our thoughts and in our feelings. And if we need to be on that journey because every day that we are following Christ a little more closely is a day that we're a little closer to heaven. Christ wants us all to enjoy heaven as fully as we can on earth and in its fullness and completion and glory.

We have a song about that too that I'd like to close with this morning, another song by Charles Wesley and think about it as we celebrate the sacrament, think about the closeness of our God and our Savior, Jesus, who is alive and our family and friends that are alive in him that have gone on before us. And others that we love around the world, wherever they may be. As we reflect on the words of this hymn.
The Church triumphant in thy love,
their mighty joys we know;
they sing the Lamb in hymns above,
and we in hymns below.

Thee in thy glorious realm they praise,
and bow before thy throne;
we in the kingdom of thy grace:
the kingdoms are but one.

The holy to the holiest leads,
from hence our spirits rise,
and he that in thy statutes treads
shall meet thee in the skies.
Transcript of the audio for the sermon preached extemporaneously 
at Briensburg UMC on April 21, 2019.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Different Perspectives

See the Bible through the eyes of others, especially from the healing perspective of Jesus. John 12:1-8

Then Mary took a whole pint of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard, poured it on Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The sweet smell of the perfume filled the whole house. (John 12:3 GNT)

The image of this event in the life of Christ is rich just in itself. There was a room full of people gathered together to have dinner together, and to celebrate Jesus being there. And Mary anointed his feet with a sweet fragrance that filled the house. Mary and Lazarus and Martha were all there; it was their house in Bethany, Just a few miles outside of Jerusalem where Jesus would be going the next day for the triumphal entry. Presumably some of these other people were there with him, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, because she was there at the cross a few days later. Mary Magdalene, maybe some of the other people mentioned in the Bible and in church tradition also were there in Jerusalem that week.

Remember when he was twelve they traveled by caravan, and they would have different places where they stayed over. Maybe this was one of them, because this wasn't the first time Jesus stopped to stay there with Mary and Martha and all these other people that might have been with them.

Then Jesus said what he was going to be seeing. What everybody else didn't understand and realize. I started thinking this week about through our lens of being loved and not judged. And looking at our scripture that way. Loved, not judged. And it scooted things around again for me. Usually when I preach on this passage, I preach on the part where it says, "The poor you will always have with you." And that is part of it and that will come up.

But it also kind of scooted the lens around a little bit to emphasize for me this idea of the different perspectives people have, and the perspectives we bring from wherever we've been in life so far. Some are hereditary. Some things that are just hardwired to genetics and all. Some are sociological heritage where we've been brought up and where our ancestors were brought up. Some are the things that we just come up with ourselves by our thinking and our study and our experiences, all of it could be changed in this moment. Because in addition to all of those perspectives that we brought in the door with us this morning, it's what we walk out the door with that is renewed, and the division and the perspective we have on life and love and church and spirituality and eternity, and all that we do and think is shaped in each moment by the decisions that we make.

Some of those decisions cancel out things that are a part of us from the past. And others bring them more highlighted and bring them to life. And others are new and fresh, that we discover in the moment.
Mary and Martha stood out to me first in this passage because this isn't the first time this has come up in the Bible. It says, "And they were getting their meals all prepared. And Martha was helping." First I thought "they" who? Because in our other time in the Bible when this comes up, Martha was doing all the work, and they were all in there listening to Jesus. I'm getting the idea this is not the only two times that ever happened. The two times that made it in the Bible because a lot of things people do never make it into the Bible, but this made it in there twice that Martha was doing all the work while the others were enjoying the company.
But all that has its place, but it does change your perspective on things when you look at it through their eyes. Looking at this event through the eyes of "they" whoever they are. All these other people in the caravan, I guess all the people might be present there traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover. And Martha in particular whom we already have been introduced to several times.

And one of the other places was at the graveside of Lazarus when Martha said, "If you were here you could have done something". Then Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life." And he called for Lazarus to come forth, and Lazarus came forth and was raised from the dead. And now seated at the table here at the house, at his house where Jesus was being anointed.

So we just kind of take and look at this event through those different people's eyes. We're going to come up with some different ideas, different perspectives, different views of what actually took place, and what it was about. You then just think about the different perspectives that these people brought to this particular event, the anointing of Jesus.

And Mary in particular was the one who did the anointing. What was she thinking? And Judas was asking what was she thinking. And he was named in there; it was in his perspective.

It's interesting to me I thought that, it says 300 pieces of silver and this could have been used to trade in for. And when just a few days later he would betray Jesus for only one tenth of that amount, 30 pieces of silver. And you can see from the way he was described in the passage, the perspective some of the others had about Judas too that he was one of the most highly thought of.

And it says it could have been sold, and the money could have been used to help the poor. You know, one of the things that I've noticed in the ministry for all these decades is that one of the biggest excuses that people have for not funding the mission of the church is that that money couldn't be used to help the poor. But then one of the great ironies of that is, that it never is. And then when it's time to help the poor, everybody pulls out this very same verse and says, oh, but it says, "The poor will always be with you." And they use that for an excuse why we should not help the poor, because they're always going to be there anyways. That view point.
It's a catch 22 isn't it? We shouldn't do the mission of the church because we need to help the poor, but we can't help the poor because they'll always be with us.

It's kind of like I guess what they were trying to bring out with Judas' perspective there. So there is that perspective there, that probably more than the man himself is viewing the idea that we need to shuffle around a little bit in our minds and get some new perspective for ourselves. The funding of the mission of the church and the helping of the poor.

The mission of the church, Jesus had laid out in his own home church at the beginning of his ministry and reading from Isaiah about all the six things that he wanted to accomplish. In the challenges that he continues to give us through the new testament, and through our personal callings and gifts and graces to do all the works that God has called us to do. None of that takes anything away from helping the poor, but it adds to it. Part of the mission of our church is to minister the gifts and graces that God gives us to help the people around us.

So then we look at the event through the eyes of Jesus whose feet were being anointed, and who said to the others, "Let her alone, let her do this. This is for my burial." Now over and over throughout his ministry, he had been telling people that he was coming to this point. And now it was here, but everybody still didn't see it. But he saw it and he expressed it once again here. "She's anointing me for my burial." It's not even a week away. And the week away he would have been already in the tomb for two days. And the next day would be raised from the dead.

He was looking at that now he was entering this holy week that we'll be celebrating next week. And he was always looking at everything in terms of our healing. Now he was wounded for our transgressions, Isaiah said. Bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of us all was laid upon him. And by his stripes, we are healed.
When we think about salvation, I think it would be helpful to think about it through the eyes of Jesus, the Savior. We profess that Jesus came to be our savior, and to save us from sin, and to save us for heaven. And these are the valid things, that's what the Bible teaches and that's what we believe. But sometimes our perception of what that is a little off. And I think when we look at it through this event and through the eyes of Jesus at this event, it really brings out the healing aspect for that.

And if we use the word interchangeably, which it can be, it's translated interchangeably in the Bible, we're healed by him. Our sins are healed, that our hearts are healed, that our lives are healed. We're healed for heaven. If we just think about salvation a little more in terms of healing, then it clarifies for us really what salvation is. And if we think about it less in terms of healing, it sort of mystifies it into something that we can't quite figure out what it's talking about almost. Absent of healing, it loses its meaning. Salvation loses its meaning absent of the healing properties of salvation. That was the work that Jesus did.

As he went around doing good, his ministry was a ministry of healing, of body and mind, of soul, of relationships, of conditions that people were in, many were very personal and some were the whole family, and some were the whole community. But wherever the hurt is, that's where were sent to provide the healing, that's what salvation is; that's salvation. This, the healing, salvation of the Lord.

And the perspective that we bring to any passage of scripture is going to shade our understanding. If we bring this perspective looking through all these different eyes, what we're doing, and then what the Bible is saying, and what we're talking about it with one another. And especially we want to try to see through the eyes of Christ. What was Christ trying to say? What's Christ trying to do in our hearts and minds.

And we bring that I think then to the table this morning as we gather around the table of the lord, break the bread and share the wine. And as those who wish to receive an anointing, go to be prayed over for healing, how does this look through the eyes of Jesus? When he broke the bread, when he gave the wine. What was he thinking when he knelt down and washed his disciples' feet? And when he got up and went from there to Calvary, what was he thinking that all this should mean and for us today in this hour?

Transcript of the audio for the sermon preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on April 7, 2019.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Extravagant Reconciliation

The prodigal’s extravagantly wasteful living was completely overshadowed by the parent’s extravagant forgiveness and love and acceptance.
 Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.

“We had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, and now he's alive. He was lost, and now he has been found.” (Luke 15:32 GNT).

 We're looking at our scriptures throughout this Lenten season through the theme of being loved, not judged. There is so much when we look at it through that lens stands out about how open, and free, and complete the father's celebration, and happiness, and joy was in having this relationship restored.

The son came prepared to confess all his sins, but the father just went right past that and said, "Grab a ring and robe. Restore this son of mine to his former position." As fast as he saw the son, the forgiveness was as complete as it could ever be. Our sins are cast from us as far as the east is from the west, buried in the deepest water, never to be brought up again.[i] That's so evident in this passage, when you look at it from the standpoint of the father and his running out to greet the child and bring him fully back into the fellowship of his family.

There are two other parables right before this that have a similar theme. One is the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus finds the sheep that is lost and rejoices and celebrates because the sheep that was lost is now found. The other one is the parable of the lost coin. The woman has lost this coin and turned the house upside down looking for it. When she finds it, she rejoices because she has found that one coin that was lost. Now, in that context, this person who was lost is found and restored, and the celebration becomes tremendous. Without judgment, but only with love.

Now, there was judgment on some people's part. His brother wasn't too happy, but the father straightened him out, because the brother was wrong in the judgments he was making and the viewpoint that he was carrying. It was just wrong, and the father had to correct him. It wasn't because the brother was wrong about everything, or that he was mean as a person or anything. He was looking at it from another point of view, and he needed to have his vision adjusted a little bit. He needed to be straightened out on that one point.

As extravagant as the prodigal's spending had been, as wild and thoughtless as he had lived his life, it was all overcome completely by the extravagance of his father in forgiveness, and reconciliation, and celebration, and rejoicing, to the extent that the rest just washed out. It was just gone. There was nothing there left but love, and rejoicing, and happiness. That's what God invites us to and calls us to is that kind of love for each other and for the world around us, that our love for one another, including everyone around us when we leave this room reflects the love we have in this room, of full, and free, nonjudgmental, receiving the people around us with joy.

When our paths cross with somebody, we should recognize that God is in that crossing. God brings us into connection with each other. We need to receive each other and the people around us in holiness and in love, knowing that everybody we cross paths with is another person God loves, that Christ gave his life for, that God loves extravagantly.

We need to realize that about ourselves, too. The love that God has for us is not metered out and measured. He just pours it all out on us. Any one of us can think that at any time, and feel that, and recognize that God loves me. God loves you. God loves all the people that we meet, in such a way that he even would give his own son to be our savior. That's extravagant love. He cares about us in those ways. That's what Christ was up to on Calvary, reconciling all things to himself at whatever cost it might be.

The messages are all about welcoming. They're all about reconciliation. They're all about breaking down the barriers between us, being in love and charity with one another, with each other, and with everybody else around us. We're finding ways to not only be breaking down the barriers but building the bridges that need to be built from heart to heart and mind to mind, and even the celebration. It all comes to rejoicing, and celebrating, and being so glad.

When that connection is restored, it's an invitation to everybody to come home. Come home, and you will be welcomed and received graciously, and with joy, and with happiness. That's the kind of people that we want to be. That's the kind of people that we want to be around, the people that are glad to have us around, and we're glad to be with them, and they're glad to be with us.

Through all of this, God restores us to what God created us to be in the first place. His companions, his children, his family, and restores our sense of family, and unity, and joy that we were made to have from the beginning.

Now, the thing that blocks that the most is when we judge instead of love, when we decide that we need to make some kind of distinctions as to who we're going to love, and who we're not, and who is welcome, and who isn't. When we do that, we don't just hurt other people, but we heart ourselves, as well. We lose something of ourselves, as well. The invitation is, come home, and bring everybody with you. Bring the whole family together.

[i] Psalm 103:12; Micah 7:19; Hebrews 8:12.

Transcript of the sermon preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on March 31, 2019.